#ItsNotUs: Being Evangelical Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

The defenders of “respectable” evangelicalism were out in force in 2017. In newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio programs, they delivered a consistent message. That group of Trump-loving, Roy-Moore-supporting evangelicals? “It’s not us.”

As a historian of evangelicalism, I find it troubling that a group of media-savvy evangelicals is poised to dictate the terms of our national conversation. Insiders, not scholars, now determine who “counts” as an evangelical. But their proffered definition reflects a religious agenda rather than a careful analysis.

Respectable evangelicals have been defining away their embarrassing spiritual kin for a century, at least.

When working-class evangelicals began speaking in tongues in the 1900s, respectable evangelicals declared the movement a delusion of Satan. It’s not us, they insisted.

When the Scopes Monkey Trial made William Jennings Bryan a laughingstock, respectable evangelicals disclaimed leadership in the fundamentalist movement they helped create. It’s not us.

In the 1940s and 50s, respectable evangelicals perfected the “not us” technique. Abandoning the fundamentalist label (though holding nearly identical beliefs), they created a “neo-evangelical” identity to distance themselves from the red-baiters and conspiratorialists. Ever since, the toxic byproducts of their movement have been shunted outside the evangelical camp. Whether tele-evangelist scandals, or hurricanes-are-God’s-judgment-jeremiads, or homophobic protests at military funerals: it’s not us.

In a recent Vox editorial, historian Thomas Kidd, a never-Trump evangelical, continues the refrain. The statistic that 80% of white evangelicals supported Trump is wrong, he argues, because it’s based on self-identification. They are evangelicals in name only; it’s not us.

When separating the evangelical sheep from the nominal goats, nearly all respectable evangelicals today appeal to historian David Bebbington’s “evangelical quadrilateral” as their standard. As summarized by Kidd, evangelicals are those who believe in:

  1. Conversion, or the need to be born again.
  2. Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible.
  3. The theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners.
  4. Activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

When proposed thirty years ago, Bebbington’s definition was a valuable steppingstone. It pushed historians to ask new questions and research new groups. But the findings of that research also revealed the definition’s flaws. Its characteristics simply do not translate into identifiable patterns of belief and practice. (If they did, why isn’t evangelical Wheaton College’s statement of faith exactly four points?) It’s not a definition, but a prospectus for a theological agenda.

Consider the definition at work. To be evangelical, we are told, is to believe in “conversion.” But is conversion a uniquely evangelical idea? It’s not even uniquely Christian; Muslims convert too. Rather, they are appealing to a particular experience of conversion. And how is an evangelical conversion measured? That’s the rub. It’s been the cause of evangelical consternation for two centuries.

But conversion’s unmeasurable quality is what makes it useful for insiders. It allows them to state (or strongly infer) that only unconverted, ‘nominal,’ evangelicals supported Trump. Apparently, a vote for Trump is evidence enough? Meanwhile, evangelical Trump voters declare that by withholding support, never-Trump evangelicals have demonstrated their faithlessness. Liberal evangelicals also have a calculus of conversion that excludes their conservative rivals. “Conversion” acts as a theological weapon that muddies the definitional waters; it’s not an analytical category.

“Biblicism” functions similarly. Imagine a political scientist defining Republicans as “those who take the Constitution seriously.” Who would accept this transparently partisan statement? And yet many people today accept that evangelicals are “biblical,” while everyone else…isn’t? This is how former megachurch pastor Rob Bell and popular author Rachel Held Evans ceased to be evangelical: not because they quit the Bible, but because they came up with “wrong,” (thus “unbiblical”) answers about hell and being gay. “Biblicism” is evangelical gerrymandering.

Like using water to define Kool-Aid, Bebbington’s definition confuses common, ill-defined, features of Protestantism or Western Christianity for evangelical particularities. Evangelicals love it because they can do theology—make theological claims—under the guise of analysis.

Why, then, do so many scholars of evangelicalism keep using it? Perhaps it’s because many are evangelical themselves. Or perhaps they don’t realize what they’re doing. Whatever the cause, the definition needs to be retired.

Historians have started talking about evangelicals in new ways. But until the dust clears, it is especially important to interrogate all definitions, new and old, to distinguish the scholarly from the partisan.

Scholarly definitions differentiate people without prejudice. If evangelicals, by definition, believe in “acting on the mandates of one’s faith,” what does that infer about non-evangelicals? That they’re lazy? Nominal? Insincere?

All definitions impose boundaries, but scholarly definitions avoid the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Which is to say: a definition must function independent of public relations. If an abusive priest is still Catholic, then J. Dennis Hastert must remain an evangelical despite his sordid past.

A definition should connect to a movement’s most salient features (what sets it apart), and help us understand how they developed. Does “the theological priority of the cross” capture something uniquely evangelical? (It doesn’t.) Does it explain why white evangelicals tend to harbor a deep suspicion of the federal government and embrace free-market capitalism? Why policing sex and sexuality is such a priority (except when it isn’t)? Does it connect the dots?

The Bebbington Quadrilateral does none of these things; rather it offers theological slogans that make respectable evangelicals feel better about themselves. Rather than spur self-reflection, it lets evangelicals ignore hard questions, while the movement they helped conjure burns down the country.

Few conservative white evangelicals will question their overheated rhetoric about healthcare and wedding cakes and “religious liberty.” Few liberal white evangelicals will question how their cherished theological categories might contribute to the systemic racism and patriarchy they claim to oppose. Moore supporters will not consider whether there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.

Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry.

Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”