Political pundits have for the better part of the last forty years pointed to a voting block they called evangelicals to identify social conservatives. Those same people had begun more than twenty years before that to use the term to identify themselves in contradistinction from those who used the term fundamentalist. The separation between the two was narrow but hinged on the idea that evangelicals saw opportunity by linking groups with similar ideas together for broader networks. Fundamentalists have always been suspicious of any larger organizing beyond local congregations unless they affiliated through fundamentalist schools.
At the same moment that the name evangelical became attached to organizing groups of similar disposition, the ecumenical movement had developed elaborate networks of communication across not only Christian lines but by the 1960s extending into non-Christian groups. Evangelicals could say with clarity they were not open to discussion with non-believers, and any group that was had already identified itself as willing to engage in biblical criticism and heretical views about the Bible, Jesus, and God. Political pundits and academics called the latter group mainline, so as to distinguish the two. We have thought, written, and made political and religious projections with these two categories in mind since the election of Jimmy Carter to the presidency in 1976.
The demise of evangelicalism is codified in the recent release of Still Evangelical? by InterVarsity Press (2018) where a group of “evangelical” writers explore how they are still evangelical even as that word appears to have lost all meaning. Rev. Robert Jeffress’s and Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s continued full-throated endorsement of President Trump in the face of growing claims of sexual misconduct appears to be the likely target of the book’s authors. Most publicly is Shane Claiborne’s self-styled evangelical liberal position. His position on a woman’s right to choose, however, suggests that “liberal” might be just as contested. He openly challenges Falwell, Jr. Who then is the evangelical? Claiborne and the other authors of Still Evangelical? or Jeffress and Falwell? Both sides and none is the answer.
As Martin Marty pointed out today, folks who identify in polling as evangelical by belief (the set doctrine of the faith) is lower than the self-identified evangelicals. This point means that what the pollster and the interviewee understand as an evangelical are different. We should not be surprised because this has been the case from the beginning. And since everyone acts as a gatekeeper to the true definition of evangelical, the term is meaningless. The “crisis” occurs because one side needs the other to stop existing, which defines American Christianity well. Evangelicals in the 1940s and 1950s realized their association with fundamentalists turned a larger segment of society off to the gospel, so they defined themselves in opposition to something. But, and this matters greatly, they needed to work beyond existing denominational structures. Their ecumenical outreach meant they rejected fundamentalism but eschewed the larger networks of denominational ecumenism. They built seminaries and colleges that recruited folks from those traditions that had begun to mistrust the denominations that worked with non-Christians and Catholics, until they themselves in the 1990s began to work with non-Christians and Catholics on social issues that resembled their outlook. Shane Claiborne took that work seriously and kept moving the lines on social issues, until he was deemed outside the fold. He, however, saw himself squarely inside the work begun in the early 2000s to “expand the evangelical tent.” Both those who reject his work and Claiborne claim evangelical as the identifier, which means it means nothing.
Within the academic world, this crisis has led to much ink spilled in trying to find ways to either clarify the term or reject it outright. Tim Gloege has done a yeoman’s task at this kind of work. Clarifying looks good and does good work because it lets pollsters, political pundits, and scholars use a single word to group lots of folks together. To let the term go all together might be more important because it will allow us to follow the actual networks people engage in their work to show how they advance their concerns and win over allies. Michael J. Altman has been an advocate of this position on Twitter and Facebook posts. I would suggests we return to denominational labels. Believe me, I see the shortfall here, but the use of denominations, or at the very least affiliations, gets us closer the language of practitioners rather than pollster or pundits. Southern Baptists endured a split over who to network with, but members of local Baptist churches in the South who give money to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship might still call themselves Southern Baptists (and if you follow those members giving you might find they give to Southern Baptist causes even as they attend CBF churches). More to the point, Shane Claiborne’s network is larger than any tent evangelicals ever tried to build, but he remains committed to a pro-life stance in all phases of life. His networks follow along denominational channels but he remains ecumenical in his engagement with those networks. I am not suggesting we return to denominational histories of the golden era of denominational building. There is, however, work to be done in explaining how people associate themselves for religious and political reasons. And that kind of work remains important.