Just How Evangelical Is My “Public”?

John FeaIn this morning’s post, I quoted historian John Fea, who wrote at his blog that while he struggled with his own identification with evangelicalism, he would probably continue to use “evangelical” to describe himself. In part that was because he had decided “that to quit evangelicalism is to abandon a significant part of my responsibility and calling as a public scholar.”

That prompted a bit of discussion on Facebook, where my Anxious Bench colleague Kristin Kobes Du Mez (a history professor at Calvin College) didn’t “see a reason to associate with [the evangelical] brand,” nor that “refusing to do so means one can no longer serve as a public scholar.” John replied that it depended on the nature of the “public”: (I’m quoting both with their permission)

In the religious world I live in–a world defined by my congregation and the congregations that send students to my college where I teach–to say that I am no longer an “evangelical” means that I lose some credibility and authority. On the other hand, it may get me more street cred among non-evangelical Christians and secular friends.

Kristin Kobes Du MezIn response, Kristin asked:

Can one not identify as a Christian scholar instead? Would open-minded evangelicals tune out anyone identifying as such but not buying into the evangelical brand? I still see my “public” as a Christian one. I have street cred among secular friends, but not so much a truly secular public, but that’s not really the public I am drawn to speak to.

At least for me, this isn’t just about branding. While I’m vastly more comfortable with “Pietist” than “evangelical,” I hold theological convictions that largely fit with the prevailing definition of “evangelical” used by historians. And like former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty, also quoted this morning, “When it comes to the Bible and Jesus and evangelism and service, the 81 percent [who voted for Donald Trump] and I share the same DNA.” So even if I decided to stop using “evangelical” to describe myself, those convictions and that “DNA” aren’t going away, and someone who reads what I write might reasonably categorize me as “evangelical.”

But for scholars who have made much of the importance of historians working harder to reach out to “the public,” it’s no small matter that the label itself may cause people either to pay attention, or to dismiss you.

I’ve long assumed that most members of my “public” either identify as “evangelical” or once did so. If not, I’m not sure why almost every post I write about evangelicalism gets such high readership… But perhaps I’m wrong.

So as I continue to wrestle with these questions, I’d appreciate your help:

Whether you’re a regular reader of this blog (or of my writing at The Anxious Bench), a friend/follower in social media, a colleague or former student, a fellow church member, a relative, or any other member of my “public,” please take a moment to complete this one-question poll:

Vote early, but please don’t vote often; this won’t be scientific, but I’d love to get a reasonably accurate snapshot. And knowing that you might struggle to pick one of the broad categories provided, please feel free to elaborate on your answer in the comments section.

14 thoughts on “Just How Evangelical Is My “Public”?

  1. to say that I am no longer an “evangelical” means that I lose some credibility and authority. On the other hand, it may get me more street cred among non-evangelical Christians and secular friends.

    Your cred with the deplorable 81% should figure in somewhere. If they accept you as an evangelical, then I suppose you are.

  2. I’ve wrestled with this for some time. Given my liturgical leanings and my own sense of witness in the public space of secular higher education, I decided that in honesty to myself and my faith I needed to abandon this label. I still worship in an evangelical congregation, am part of an evangelical denomination, but increasingly find myself uncomfortable in this milieu. Where will promptings of the Spirit lead me? I don’t know. Family, marriage, tradition all conspire to keep me in the Pietist fold while being pulled toward an historic, catholic Church. We live in interesting times….

  3. My Mennonite Anabaptist background has always been in tension with the label Evangelical so I have always wrestled with it. Particularly any leaning towards a nationalistic faith is one that I am wary of considering that to follow Jesus is to have allegiance to God’s kingdom and not the state, and caring for those on the margins. The recent 80% voting bloc of evangelicals makes it all the more difficult to want ot have anything to do with this identity. However, those who care about a faith-empowered social justice and follow the perspectives of Sojourners keep me in a place of tension with Evangelical identity rather than outright rejection of it.

  4. For Christian scholars like me who work in a secular rather than confessional academic context, the tension is acute. I have an evangelical background but am deeply uncomfortable with contemporary evangelicalism. How does the label I embrace affect my credibility or limit my ability to be part of critical conversations within both my secular and evangelical circles?

  5. My (admittedly incomplete and reductionist) explanation of the beginnings and aspirations of the Evangelical (then derogatorily called neo-evangelical) movement is that it was supposed to be a third way between the anti-intellectualism of the Fundamentalists and the abandonment of orthodoxy of the Liberals. If Evangelicalism has moved away from this grounding (and I think it has in a myriad of ways, not the least of it being the following received by theologically ignorant bloggers and prosperity gospel hucksters) perhaps the time is ripe for a new movement to arise. I’m not so sure that such a movement isn’t already afoot, it just hasn’t been fully birthed yet. Just judging from my social media, which is admittedly anecdotal, I would be very, very interested to see the voting date for those who 1) are under the age of 35 (or so), 2) Identify as white Evangelical and 3) attend church at least monthly (to weed out the cultural Evangelicals a bit). I saw very few enthusiastic Trump supporters among those who would fit in this group.

  6. One problem, only hinted at by others, is: Jobs (including publishing opportunities). Many high-visibility, hardcore “evangelicals” get to play gatekeeper for these, and to stop using the label endangers one’s career in several dimensions.

    As someone who is retired, I am not affected in this way…but even as a volunteer worker, the label still is used as a shibboleth by many.

    1. I doubt many evangelicals are fooled by the label: Ron Sider and Jim Wallis may be “evangelicals” but for all practical purposes they’re simply non-Mainline Protestant liberals with little obvious daylight between them and the Mainline. And in academic circles, per O’Sullivan’s Law, they take care of their own.

      As for the secular academic establishment, like CNN “conservatives,” as long as “evangelicals” are criticizing the benighted 81%, the self-designation is an asset.

      1. In some sense, you’re right. But it isn’t that they “are fooled.” It is that many use the term simply as a check-mark item or shibboleth to satisfy their donors/constituents, review boards similar to “inerrancy.”bI know many who fear the loss of the label, or of being accused that they no longer fit the label. It is true in hiring, and in publishing.

      2. many use the term simply as a check-mark item or shibboleth to satisfy their donors/constituents

        I understand. The truth of the matter is nowhere to be found here, subordinated to careerist concerns. I despise these people and their beliefs but I still want a piece of their pie.

        This is my problem with the whole deal. As Michael Teeter admits above with this “Third Way” business, they want the milk but not the cow. [Personally, I don’t think you can stick a cross on a big steaming pile of modernity and call it evangelicalism or even Christianity, a separate albeit perhaps even more important discussion. In the least It seems a deception.]

      3. Sorry for the double comment, but Roger Olson has written much about this on his blog (i.e, “My Evangelical Armenian Musings”)

  7. When a label is used deceptively, then I might agree with you on the mercenary position, Tom.

    But, as many attest, there is historical and theological value in the terminology of “evangel,” “evangelical,”, etc.. So it is not always easy to determine whether one should perhaps retain the terminology for oneself as a way to stand for its value. And then matters are complicated (in hiring and in publishing) by the fact that the meaning or connotations of terms do not change at the same rate across a region, in certain operational circles, or a country or the world. One may well have a functional “foot” in several different “meaning zones.”

    I guess the short story is that I’m not willing to be too harsh with those wrestling with the matter, at this point.

    1. Some theo-political liberals are saying they’re having trouble honestly calling themselves evangelicals. I’m agreeing that perhaps they should have trouble, and I’d say the 81% are having their doubts as well.

      I sympathize with the career conundrum of the non-81%–I’m personally acquainted with conservative postgrads who even have to write under assumed names due to the threat to their academic careers. But the question here is whether the non-81% are consciously subverting evangelical beliefs and institutions, gaining access by dishonestly checking the “evangelical” box. When push came to shove–as it always does–Jim Wallis and Sojourners joined the gay marriage parade.

      So it goes, per O’Sullivan’s Law.

      Thank you for such an open exchange. Honesty is called for here.

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