Done with “Evangelical”? Maybe You Should Try “Pietist”

YouTube screen cap of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz at a January 2016 debate

There are few terms more debated than “evangelical,” and never more so than during this election cycle, when Donald Trump’s ability to attract a significant share of self-identified evangelicals has caused enormous consternation among evangelical leaders and intellectuals.

I doubt that last night’s primary results will do much to change that dynamic. Florida senator Marco Rubio — the darling of many evangelical elites — suffered a humiliating defeat in his home state and bowed out of the race. I’m sure that some observers will argue that the razor-thin contest in Missouri, where 54% of exit poll respondents identified themselves as born-again or evangelical and slight majorities of regular church attenders favored Ted Cruz, demonstrates the limits of evangelical attachment to Trump. But the businessman claimed nearly 40% of that born-again/evangelical vote and about a third of the regular churchgoing crowd. And Trump won the Republican primary in North Carolina, which has an even greater share of evangelicals, virtually splitting that constituency with Cruz.

“The word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless this year,” admitted Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore on February 29th, “and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.” If a leader of the largest denomination in the National Association of Evangelicals, the author of Christianity Today‘s Book of the Year, can’t call himself an evangelical right now, who can?

Like Moore, I think that “Evangelical is a magnificent word — a word that resonates with the gospel dissent of Martin Luther and the gospel crusades of Billy Graham.” So long as we understand it as a centuries-old ethos within Christianity — one that has inspired personal conversion, ecclesial renewal, and social reform in a variety of eras and societies and need not be yoked to any American political party (or the theocratic impulses that Ted Cruz won’t disavow) — I’m unwilling to give it up permanently.

As Evangelical Covenant writer and educator Karl Olsson once observed, “It is much easier to use an honorable word as a dishonorable handle.” He was referring to another religious label: one that has been as misunderstood as “evangelical,” and one that may now be poised to emerge as  a helpful alternative to it.

That word, of course, is “Pietist.”

Gary Walter
Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church

To paraphrase my denomination’s president, I strongly suspect that many evangelicals are actually Pietists — they just don’t know it.

Now, I don’t pretend that every evangelical is a Pietist, or vice-versa. But the connections are not merely historic, confined to the influence that German Pietists like Phillip Spener, August Francke, and Nicolaus von Zinzendorf had on 18th century evangelicalism (in part via John Wesley). And while I know that “Pietist” carries its own baggage, treated by evangelicals and non-evangelicals as synonymous with everything from “anti-intellectual” to “legalistic” to “world-denying,” it is nonetheless an “honorable handle.”

You can learn more by listening to the current season of The Pietist Schoolman Podcast, in which Mark Pattie and I have been talking through the book on Pietism we’re writing for InterVarsity Press.  In the second episode we defined Pietism as an ethos, one that shows up in many contexts but generally shares four religious instincts:

We know God more through prepositions than propositions

I might lose several of you at this point. There’s a significant number of evangelicals who want their movement to become more creedal or confessional, or otherwise achieve some greater degree of doctrinal precision.

We don’t deny the importance of thinking about the nature of God — nor that Pietists have sometimes fallen into anti-intellectualism when they dismiss the objective content of faith. (A key theme of that second episode is that we named the inherent tensions in Pietism.) But we also believe (quoting here from the draft introduction to our book) that long before we attempt to make theological sense of God and long after intellectual certainty gives way to mystery and paradox, we experience life in, with, through, under, and for him. Christians who forget this, who crave the certainty of fixed intellectual propositions, risk sliding into what Spener et al. called “dead orthodoxy.”

Mostly, I think Pietists would want to remind evangelicals that belief is related to “beloved”: both in the sense that belief centers on the love of a God whose Son is the Word attested to in the written word of Scripture, and that belief is meaningful only as it inspires behavior, faith made active in works of love for neighbor.

We’re better together than apart.

We’ll talk more about the Pietist understanding of the Bible and its authoritative status when the podcast returns next week (like Phillip Spener, our first proposal for a renewal of Christianity is that we return to Scripture), but one thing is undeniable: in all charity, humility, and grace, Christians will inevitably disagree about what the Bible means and how its truths should be lived out in this world. So Pietists have generally tended to avoid needless controversies and angry disputation, preferring to find ways to stay in communion with one another — and where there are necessary denominational or other formal divisions, to work together. (As we Covenanters like to say, we are the friends of all who fear God.)

There’s a practical concern here that should be familiar to most evangelicals at most times: that people committed to evangelism, missions, and social reform will be more effective when sharing those difficult labors with others. But in the midst of a society and polity as polarized as 21st century America, I think evangelicals today might hear in Pietism a more profound argument: that the starting point of Christian witness is Christian unity. (I’ll develop this more tomorrow, but maybe look back to this post to get a head start.)

We always have hope for better times.

I think one reason that so many evangelicals were drawn to Marco Rubio is that he had it within him to articulate a hopeful vision for this country. (Alas, he never articulated it as successfully as he did last night, in withdrawing from the campaign: “…while this may not have been the year for a hopeful and optimistic message about our future, I still remain hopeful and optimistic about America.”) And one reason that many evangelicals are turned off by Donald Trump is that he offers little more than angry nostalgia to a fearful people. As Rubio put it last night, “the easiest thing to have done in this campaign is to jump on all those anxieties I just talked about, to make people angrier, make people more frustrated.”

If nothing else, Pietism is hopeful Christianity, centered on the reality of the Resurrection. I’ll say no more here, but refer you to our most recent podcast episode, which developed these themes (and contrasted them with political facsimiles of “hope”) in considerable detail.

Christianity is both less than we think — and more.

This is the instinct that’s hardest to explain succinctly — and the most salient for this political-cultural moment. Let me sum it up in this way:

First (and again, quoting from our draft introduction), Christianity is less than we tend to think in that Pietists do not place their faith in the same scales the never-satisfied world uses to measure success: status, power, wealth. They know that authentic Christianity cannot be coerced through political might or social pressure, or enticed through cultural relevance or economic incentives.

But second, it’s more than we think. Just when Christians are ready to give in to weariness and cynicism and retreat to the security of their own communities, they’re ready to be reminded that living faith in the resurrected Christ leads to transformation. Of individuals and congregations, but also of a world that is being made new — not necessarily through the acquisition and exercise of power, but through self-effacing, other-embracing acts of service.

If you’ve given up on “evangelical” but resonate with most or all of these instincts, let me suggest — to the limited but not insignificant extent that such labels do matter — that you consider calling yourself a Pietist.

One thought on “Done with “Evangelical”? Maybe You Should Try “Pietist”

  1. Personally, I think it would find it as difficult to explain and defend “Pietist” as “Evangelical.” The former label, which I gladly wear, may not have all the political “baggage” of the latter, but it has its own baggage–in most people’s minds. Most people I know think “holier-than-thou” and/or “other-worldly” when they hear “Pietism” or “Pietist.” That is especially true among Christians. Secular people tend not to have any concept of it. I just can’t think of any religious label that isn’t fraught with problems, that one doesn’t have to explain. Some of my Baptist students, colleagues and friends complain about my calling myself “evangelical” but when I ask them if they think “Baptist” is any less problematic–at least outside of the South–they think again about “evangelical.” When I lived in Minnesota I was constantly defending “Baptist” as NOT equatable with “fundamentalist” and “religious right.” I have given up looking for a label that doesn’t need explanation and defense–at least in some contexts. I appreciate your promotion of Pietism, but I think it will be a long time and take a lot of work to reclaim it. Christian’s and my book was a contribution to that project–as has been your and Bethel’s work in this area.

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