The 50 Shades of Evangelicalism

I didn’t know that I was an evangelical until I was 22, though I grew up in a tight-knit charismatic Christian community that any outsider, today, would call evangelical. But, back then, through the 1980s and ’90s we were “Born Again” or “Charismatic.” We evangelized, but never referred to ourselves as evangelical. 

Perhaps this is because it has always been difficult to know what one means by “evangelical.” Is it a theological construct, as some argue, or a social categorization? David Bebbington, a British historian who studied the movement, famously defined evangelicalism as marked by belief in conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism. But, even there, wedged amongst theological propositions, the presence of activism suggests that evangelicalism is in fact a social movement. 

Certainly this conception of evangelicalism as a social movement is what the mainstream media meant when they began to use the word to describe George W. Bush’s most ardent supporters leading up to the 2004 presidential elections. This is when I learned that, despite my individual political leanings, my religious affiliation consigned me to the evangelical voting bloc; it was assumed that a person with my religious beliefs would necessarily vote Republican. 

When it became clear that in the popular mind the word evangelical was more a social and political construct than a theological one, it set off a scramble to accurately self-identify in books, articles, and blog posts among evangelicals of all stripes. There are those who defend the theological roots of the term and wish to reclaim it from social rebranding, and others who recognize their own views in the social and political categorization and thus accept the term as is. Still others reject the label outright, ceasing to identify as evangelical altogether.

The result of all this hand-wringing and word wrangling is that, in 2012, it is more difficult than ever to know what one means by the term. Today, we have what I call shades of evangelicalism. The term is not going away, but the people it is meant to describe are becoming more and more diverse—politically, theologically, and socially. At the same time, the media is using the term with far greater frequency.

With each new issue that incites responses from evangelicals, it is becoming more and more difficult to identify a unified platform. The recent kerfuffle over the anti-gay marriage comments by Chick-fil-A’s president Dan Cathy has inspired divergent views from evangelicals who have flooded my Facebook wall and Twitter stream praising and condemning Cathy in blogs and columns, and yet believers have been portrayed as a unified bloc by the media. Yesterday, as competing groups met at Chick-fil-A restaurants around the country to show support or derision in organized events, the narrative that emerged pitted evangelicals versus marriage equality supporters.

If we don’t take the time to understand the similarities and differences between these shades, if we dismiss this large segment of the population as monolithic and stubbornly fundamentalist, then we can easily discount their religiously informed political perspectives and, perhaps by extension, the political opinions of any religious people who allow their faith to shape their politics. But by understanding that there are shades of evangelicalism—that even fervent Christian belief translates into political conviction in multitudinous ways—we see that political leanings that are informed by closely held religious beliefs deserve legitimate space in the public square.

The Ambiguity

Back in March and again in April, Timothy Noah writing in the New Republic, observed how the mainstream media, and particularly the New York Times, misuse the word “Christian,” using it as a synonym for “Christian Right” or “Christian conservative.” Seventy-eight percent of the American population, he points out, identify as Christians, though far fewer fit into those sub-categories. Roughly one-third of that 78% call themselves evangelicals.

And, while referring to a particular group as evangelical may be more accurate than simply calling them Christian, the increasingly varied shades of evangelicalism make even that term insufficient. For example, are we referring to the ultra-conservative televangelist and one-time Republican presidential hopeful, Pat Robertson? Or, do we see Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and vocal Obama supporter as the quintessential evangelical? In the space between the two are college professors, activists, artists, and clergy that run the gamut of political and social categorizations.

The Issues

Back in May, when President Obama voiced his support for gay marriage, many in the media were quick to categorize the evangelical response to his pronouncement. It seemed clear to many observers that evangelicals would be energized in their support for Mitt Romney against President Obama in November. At the same time, Christianity Today, arguably the leading evangelical publication, ran a story detailing the shift in opinion among certain segments of evangelicals. Not surprisingly, the differences were most stark when viewed through the lens of age.

Evangelicals are similarly lumped together by their seemingly across-the-board rejection of science—as far as origins and evolution go, at least. While it is true that some of evangelicalism’s loudest voices insist that, as Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler put it, “The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” a significant number of evangelicals are working to convince their fellow believers of their compatibility. Their efforts are evident in the increasing number of books, conferences, and organizations—such as Francis Collins’ BioLogos—that have formed around the topic.

Cracks are likewise showing in what once was understood as a unanimous and uncritical evangelical support of Israel as epitomized by a 2006 New York Times headline noting that, “For Evangelicals, Supporting Israel Is ‘God’s Foreign Policy.’” Just last month, Christianity Today featured a review of Caitlin Carenen’s The Fervent Embrace, in which Wheaton College professor Gary Burge took issue with the author’s broad categorization of evangelicalism as unilaterally Zionist, noting that “It is frustrating to see ourselves summarized through the extreme voices of Jerry Falwell or Hal Lindsey—and today, Pat Robertson and John Hagee. Evangelicals are more complex than this.”

The Risk

Though dissenting voices remain in the minority, they have become a significant enough minority that they merit a more nuanced profile of evangelicals in the media. But even more important than mere accuracy is the real risk that the failure to shift from the broad characterization of evangelicals as fundamentalist and resistant to dialogue will lead to a further dismissal, not just of this one group, but of any who attempt to draw a relationship between religious belief and political conviction. In short, we let a monolithic evangelicalism that exists only in the media’s imagination spoil it for everyone.

Those who espouse the view that religion and politics should occupy completely separate spheres often do so as a rejection of what they see as overreaching on the part of that amorphous evangelical voting bloc. Andrew Sullivan, a self-identified Christian who refers to “the fusion of politics and religion for the advancement of political goals,” as “Christianism,” calls for a kind of “libertarian Christianity” in which faith is a private matter and does not come into contact with politics in the public sphere.

David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, authors of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, wrote in a New York Times op-ed last summer that what makes the Tea Party movement so unpopular to a large segment of the population is the conservative impulse to mix religion and politics. Americans, they suggest, oppose the mingling of the two.

And yet Campbell and Putnam’s own data show that the majority of Americans consider themselves religious. Perhaps what many actually oppose is the way certain types of evangelicals mix their religion and politics. R. R. Reno, writing at the blog of conservative Catholic publication First Things, argued in response to Campbell and Putnam’s op-ed that, “In truth, although many mouth the platitude, few actually are opposed to ‘mingling religion and politics.’ They just oppose mingling certain kinds of religion with certain kinds of politics.”

Again, because evangelicals are often portrayed as a unified front by the mainstream media, we assume that any mingling of the two necessarily manifests itself in the image of the most conservative evangelicals. Many who are themselves religious come to believe that they cannot and should not allow their beliefs to influence their politics.

Once we recognize that there are shades of evangelicalism, and that they manifest in a variety of political convictions, perhaps we will come to see that religious beliefs deserve legitimate space in the public square. 

For my part, I found it was easier to simply stop identifying as evangelical rather than to try to convince others of what shade of evangelical I was. But for so many of my friends and family members who hold tightly to both evangelical theology and some variety of evangelical culture, this is too great an acquiescence. For current evangelicals, then, it’s important that the rest of us begin to see and understand the differences between the various shades of evangelicalism as a means of ensuring that their voice, and the voices of religious people of all denominations, does not become marginalized in the public square.