Defining “Evangelicalism” Down

Published November 3, 2021

American Reformer

Towards a New Theological Consensus

With increasing frequency throughout many sectors of American culture, use of “evangelical” in social discourse is now an epithet. It is no longer just a foreign term to some, but a derisive label to many. Not only is its invocation used by those who wish to reject evangelical belief outright, but by those who claim the label of evangelical yet insist upon evangelicalism’s failure to embody Jesus’s teaching. For one group, evangelicalism is a smokescreen for hateful fundamentalism; for the other, a veneer for political aggrandizement.

Rarely, however, is the term defined with any theological precision. The way the conversation proceeds online assumes a common working definition of evangelical but rarely is it tendered or dwelt upon with any degree of nuance or caution. Broad denunciation is the order of the day. Sure, overtures to David Bebbington’s famous “Bebbington Quadrilateral” often abound in more evangelical outlets, but that has more or less receded into the background, especially as one zeroes out of immediately evangelical contexts. Instead, “evangelical” or “white evangelical” is used as an ethnographic political label. In other words, it is a tribal shibboleth where theology may matter on the margins of the term, but no longer at its center.

The confusion over the word “evangelicalism” and the ensuing plasticity of the label is truly tragic and leads to unhelpful categorization, theological malpractice, and no small amount of internal strife within evangelical Christianity.

Enter a recent column by political science Professor Ryan Burge in The New York Times. Burge’s column is fascinating on the one hand, maddening on the other, but ultimately serves to reinforce the problematic ways that social science has led to the diminishment of evangelicalism as a theological project. To be clear, my criticism is not aimed at Burge per se insofar as he’s speaking to statistical realities on their own terms, but the broader ecosystem that allows conversation around evangelicalism to persist as it does without greater introspection.

Drawing on recent findings from Pew, Burge’s column argues that rather than waning, evangelicalism’s numbers grew under the Trump presidency because of the ability for disparate factions to more broadly coalesce around evangelicalism as a politically integrated worldview. The growth, according to Burge, is because “evangelicalism” has become synonymous with Republican politics. Burge states in his own words, “What is drawing more people to embrace the evangelical label on surveys is more likely that evangelicalism has been bound to the Republican Party. Instead of theological affinity for Jesus Christ, millions of Americans are being drawn to the evangelical label because of its association with the G.O.P.”

He admits that “evangelical” is by no means synonymous with church attendance, so one can claim to be evangelical without membership in an actual church. That’s an important tell, one I will come back to later.

Burge goes on: “The second factor bolstering evangelicalism on surveys is that more people are embracing the label who have no attachment to Protestant Christianity. For example, the share of Catholics who also identified as evangelicals (or born again) rose to 15 percent in 2018 from 9 percent in 2008. That same pattern appears with Muslims. In fact, there’s evidence that the share of Orthodox Christians, Hindus and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who identify as evangelical is larger today than it was just a decade ago.”

If that sentence does not stand out, it should. According to polling data, not only are Mormons evangelical, but so are…Muslims and Hindus?

Burge then goes on to state: “Yet these non-Protestants are embracing the evangelical label for slightly different reasons. Protestants and non-Protestants have a strong affinity for the Republican Party and the policies of Donald Trump, but non-Protestant evangelicals are much more religiously devout. For instance, half of Muslims who attend services at a mosque more than once a week and align with the G.O.P. self-identify as evangelical. (Just 20 percent of Republican Muslims attend mosque once a year.) In essence, many Americans are coming to the understanding that to be very religiously engaged and very politically conservative means that they are evangelical, even if they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.”

Again, pay attention: Burge tells us that one can reject the divinity of Jesus Christ and be evangelical. This, coupled with the admission that Muslims and Hindus can be evangelical as well, ought to raise suspicion about both the term itself and the contents that go into defining the term. In fact, let me state this in the plainest of terms: Any demographic research that allows the use of “evangelical” to be applied to those who consider themselves Muslim, Hindu, or reject the divinity of Jesus Christ exhibits profound theological malpractice. If “evangelical” is, at root, a mere constellation of political affinity groups wherein Jesus Christ’s kingship is dispensed, we should ask the question: How did this come about? Is it because evangelical became a catch-call term to mean people who consider themselves Christians and who are broadly conservative in their outlook, or because the ubiquity of its usage throughout American culture necessarily led to its redefinition?

To his credit, Burge is clear that the label reveals less about a person’s theology than it does their politics: “The rapid rise of the nonreligious and non-Protestant evangelical has meant that the tradition did not fade in any significant way over the last decade. But instead, what it means to be evangelical is being radically remade. It used to be that when many people thought about evangelicalism, they conjured up an image of a fiery preacher imploring them to accept Jesus. Now the data indicate that more and more Americans are conflating evangelicalism with Republicanism — and melding two forces to create a movement that is not entirely about politics or religion but power.”

Ostensibly, according to Burge’s extrapolation of the data, political beliefs around “evangelicalism” cluster around the term more so than theology. I see at least two ways to interpret this.

First, problematically, if evangelical as an identifier can be so plastic as to embrace Hindus and Muslims, then evangelicalism as theological concept should be altogether abandoned. The question here is one of polling methodology.

Second, however, we should pause and consider an alternate reality. Just because a cluster of political beliefs feature predominantly within a group united in the same theology does not, on its surface, reveal whether those outside the faith tradition adopting identical political manifestations of a particular theological persuasion are wrong to do so. The first task is to determine what the foundation of those political views are and whether those outside the faith tradition in question could find the political implications of a particular theology compelling. A pro-life Muslim might find common cause with a pro-life Christian, but that should not mean that the pro-life Muslim embraces the moniker of “evangelical.” This is a simple application of how the Christian natural law tradition conceives of the universality of creation order and morality across traditions: Moral convictions held in common among a diverse array of persons and traditions does not entail a neutrality in morality’s foundation. At least from the Christian perspective, someone is borrowing from somewhere. There is no free-floating “morality” that exists apart from God’s eternal law.

Common political belief does not tell us much about the theology in question at first, except that the theology is capable of producing political outputs that other groups of individuals outside the theological tradition could find appealing to organize society around. If a theological system espouses a view of morality that others agree with, that is not evidence of the politicization of faith, but of the inherent non-sectarianism of the faith system in question.

Burge’s column, and the Pew data, does not help us understand these realities. Perhaps they cannot by design; and I have genuinely appreciated the social scientists I’ve seen who are forthright in separating the theological identifier of evangelical from the political identifier of evangelical. At the very least, one can appreciate the intellectual honesty of such a distinction.

At the same time that I want to fault sociology and demography for bastardizing the term, even theologically coherent definitions of evangelicalism are not immune from criticisms of hyper-politicization. The Religious Right had some part to play in getting us to this current moment. Even still, not all manifestations or goals of the Religious Right were or are, today, the same. The Religious Right exists on a spectrum. I grant that some iterations of the Religious Right may have fostered the conditions whereby evangelicalism would invite the redefinition of evangelicalism as less about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ than about shoring up American order. The tension here is delicate: One of the chief needs is to develop a theologically-rooted program for public engagement without falling captive to hyper-partisanship. That the Religious Right may have erred at points, or operated with excess, does not mean that it was wrong to enter the arena in the first place.

The confusion around “evangelicalism” is at least partly responsible for the growing divides within evangelicalism. As those outside the church criticize what they call “evangelicalism,” it leads many inside the church to parrot a caustic disparagement of the term as well. The contestability of the term should lead us to question whether the attacks on evangelicalism are attacks on orthodox Christianity or merely bastardized civil religion.

What strikes me as unhelpful, however, is the continued use of a term robbed of its classic connotation. The abandonment of evangelical as a theological term is to our loss, and I’m not sure what should go in its place. This is not because I think those who might want to label themselves “evangelical” are a Basket of Deplorables or Q-addled Christian Nationalists, but because before I’m interested in political coalitions, I am interested in delineating the boundaries of orthodox belief from those who are adopting the term devoid of theological and biblical literacy.

A better way forward is for us to be very clear in separating out what is evangelical as a doctrinal matter from political beliefs that many within evangelicalism might espouse, but are not, in themselves, exclusive to evangelical belief. The pro-life Hindu might have significant overlap with evangelicals insofar as evangelicalism is pro-life, but a pro-life Hindu is not adopting an evangelical’s theological basis for their pro-life activism. And thus, the Hindu should not be considered “evangelical” for the purposes of political identification even if he or she agrees with evangelicals.

Perhaps another example might illustrate what I mean.

Do I enjoy there being a large number of so-called conservatives who are tired of cancel culture, gender lunacy, and the wokeocracy? Yes, very much. Commentator Matthew Walther has referred to these types as “Barstool Conservatives.”

Do I enjoy there being large numbers of “evangelicals” who are tired of all the same things I listed above? That depends solely on what the term means. The so-called “Barstool” conservative who agrees on all of the above but denies the inerrancy of Scripture, rarely attends church, endorses social liberalism, smokes pot, and does not blink at their own fornication is not an evangelical (nor, for the matter, do I consider them conservative as much as I do “on the Right”). What is urgent to remember is that we must not allow  evangelical political priorities to be co-opted by functional pagans simply because we share some political objectives. Where that happens, evangelicals should repent.

Am I calling for fewer conservatives? No. Am I calling for there to be a more precise definition of evangelical that may, in fact, dramatically lessen our demographic prevalence? Yes. Because theological confessionalism demands theological integrity.

No one has asked me what my definition of an evangelical is, but I do not think I can write an essay lamenting the evacuation of evangelical as a theological concept without offering my own suggestions. My own definition is as follows: An evangelical Christian is a Christian who believes in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the physically resurrected Son of God, the inerrancy of Scripture, the necessity of living a morally upright life patterned after Jesus, aims to see others converted to the Christian faith, and who under normal circumstances attends church services every Sunday. My definition does not consider someone who traffics in Christian iconography as “evangelical,” despite the temptation for many to do so. By the definition I offered above, evangelicalism’s ranks are going to be very small. So be it.

I have two pleas: To those professional commentators and academics invoking “evangelical,” please stipulate whether that is in fact a theological term. To those evangelicals invoking “evangelical” as a means to nurse grudges and sympathize with secularism’s contempt for things that are so-called expressions of “evangelicalism,” please stop. This does not mean that evangelicals are beyond the possibility of practicing the type of sordid behavior that needs repented of, but we should caution ourselves from believing that we are rescuing Jesus from his church when we may be instead allowing his church to be defined by those who hate it, and who only find value in Jesus when he placates Leftist desire. Polls are not pews; and when commentators draw broad conclusions about what they see as the corrupt state of evangelical congregations, they are mistaken. The license many are taking to bring disrepute upon the body of Christ is truly breathtaking and the cottage industry of think pieces now deployed to further discredit evangelicalism are merely reinforcing the confusion sown by allowing the political to displace the theological. The latter may, at points, overlap, but is not reducible to the former.

Criticize Christian Nationalism. Criticize civil religion. But leave evangelicalism out of it—for in trying to save the evangel, what gets obscured are the clear boundaries of the evangel in the first place. Does this mean that those who are truly evangelicals are without their problems or beyond the need for serious introspection about the heavy cost of hyper-politicization to the evangelical identifier? Of course not. Can there be unhelpful and idolatrous overlap? Of course, but no more than the idolatrous syncretism deployed by those whose project is to reconcile evangelicalism to the dispositions of progressivism and who do so with the comfort and assurances of a secular culture to cradle them when they do.

At the end of the day, I’m not done with evangelicalism. I’m for recovering its classic usage away from its cultured despisers, whether inside the church or outside of it. For evangelicalism did not kill evangelicalism; incoherent polling methodology void of theological literacy did.

*Image Credit: Pexels

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He is also a Fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.

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