Who’s an Evangelical?

So I was all ready to take up the questions that closed my last post — Who’s an evangelical? and What shapes their response to issues like the refugee crisis? — when the National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research announced their own answer to the first question. As reported by Bob Smietana of Christianity Today:

Leith Anderson“Evangelicals are people of faith and should be defined by their beliefs, not by their politics or race,” said NAE president Leith Anderson….

The new report identifies four key statements that define evangelical beliefs, creating what may be the first research-driven creed.

Those statements are:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Only those who strongly agree with each of those statements should be considered “evangelical by belief,” according to the NAE.

Two key themes to emphasize here:

  1. Anderson’s concern that evangelicals not be defined by “politics or race.” Yes and amen! Evangelicals are not synonymous with “the Republican Party at prayer,” and surveys tend not to treat people of color who hold beliefs like the four listed as evangelicals. But to be fair, the second issue reflects self-identification, among other factors. In its research LifeWay found that “Only 25 percent of African Americans who hold evangelical beliefs consider themselves evangelical Christians, compared to 62 percent of whites and 79 percent of Hispanics.”
  2. This defines evangelicals by belief, rather than church/denominational affiliation or religious behavior. “Affiliation and behavior can be measured in addition to evangelical beliefs,” acknowledged LifeWay executive director Ed Stetzer, “but this is a tool for researchers measuring the beliefs that evangelicals—as determined by the NAE—believe best define the movement.”

I’m not sure this will actually make much difference in shaping perceptions of who counts as — or speaks for — evangelicals.

LifeWay logo

First, research firms like those I’ve cited this week (Pew Research Center, Public Religion Research Institute) don’t categorize respondents based on religious belief. While Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey did ask Christian respondents whether they would identify themselves as “evangelical or born-again” (35% said yes while about 30% of Americans fit the NAE/LifeWay definition), it actually categorized them based primarily on denominational affiliation. When that affiliation was less than clear (e.g., someone just said “Methodist”), Pew categorized black and other respondents differently. Greg Smith of Pew told CT last year that “If you don’t separate out black and white evangelicals, you will miss the link between race, religion, and politics. On many important social and political issues, these are just very different groups.”

Second, I’m not entirely sure that the proposed categorization is all that useful, since LifeWay found that only 59% of self-identified evangelicals “strongly agree” with all four beliefs. (21% of those not identifying as evangelical strongly agree with the four beliefs.)

#3 would be problematic, for example, for many in my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church. The ECC describes itself — entirely plausibly, from a historian’s point of view — as evangelical but does not treat any particular view of the atonement as normative. (For that matter, the NAE’s own statement of faith seems to allow for more leeway here, since it simply attests to Jesus’ “vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood,” without using a word like “penalty.”)

Here’s how the Covenant Affirmations booklet defines evangelicalism:

Evangelical Covenant Church logoEvangelicals historically have been characterized by a number of significant emphases: a strong insistence on biblical authority; the absolute necessity of new birth; Christ’s mandate to evangelize the world; the continuing need for education and formation in a Christian context; and responsibility for benevolence and the advancement of social justice.

Not surprisingly, I like this a whole lot better than what the NAE and LifeWay propose, for three reasons:

  1. It actually emphasizes new birth. While Smietana claims that the NAE/LifeWay proposal echoes David Bebbington’s famous evangelical “quadrilateral,” it doesn’t explicitly name conversion as a distinctive. I can’t imagine how you can be an evangelical if you don’t experience conversion, broadly defined by Covenant Affirmations as “the act by which a person turns with repentance and faith from sin to God. Conversion involves a conscious rejection of the life of sin and involves a commitment of faith.”
  2. That fundamental turn then leads to action, not just belief: evangelism, continuing formation, and “benevolence and the advancement of social justice.” Only the first is emphasized in the NAE/LifeWay set of beliefs, which seems like a rather thin version of Bebbington’s “activism” — and one that’s completely out of step with the drift of a movement whose youngest members fully embrace what we Covenanters call the “whole mission of the Church”: “…evangelism and Christian formation, as well as the benevolent ministries of compassion and justice in the face of suffering and oppression.”
  3. That definition, says our Affirmations document, “is a legacy of Pietism.” So is our emphasis on new birth and new life, for that matter. Thanks to my denominational heritage, I’ve generally felt comfortable identifying both with Pietism and evangelicalism. But because of what it does emphasize and what it doesn’t, I’m not sure that the NAE/LifeWay definition maintains a balance between what Donald Dayton called the “Pietist-Pentecostal” and “Puritan-Reformed” paradigms within evangelicalism.

And at the end of the day who’s going to tell me that I’m not an evangelical? Leith Anderson is a great guy (and not just because he endorsed our Pietism/higher ed book), but I don’t feel bound by his definition of evangelicalism. (Or that of Christianity Today, Wheaton College, or other organizations often seen as embodying American evangelicalism.) But on the flip side of that coin, I strongly suspect that a large number of people who can strongly affirm the four points that he announced would equally strongly disagree with the drift of the NAE (and evangelicals like me) on issues like refugee resettlement, immigration reform, capital punishment, and creation care.

So I keep coming back to two of Molly Worthen’s conclusions in Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. First, that  “…American evangelicals’ craving for clear authority is second only to their refusal to let any authority boss them around” (p. 257). As one historian observed on Twitter the other day, evangelicalism seems even more amorphous than other diverse Christian traditions because it has no magisterium:

At the same time, Worthen observes, “the ongoing battle over intellectual authority has been a good thing for American evangelicalism, a movement that ‘flourishes on difference, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat,’ as Christian Smith has written. This strife spurs the diversity and energy that have enabled evangelicals to compete with the Catholic Church in evangelistic outreach…” (p. 262). It makes life hard for journalists and historians struggling to define categories, but perhaps it’s the sheer diversity of self-identified evangelicals (“their mosaic of rival dogmas, styles of piety, and pragmatic innovation”) that gives the greatest hope for the future of evangelicalism.

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