Evangelicalism: Whence? Whither?

Finding the Theological Truth in the Cultural Chaff

Are you an evangelical? For some folks, this is pretty easy to answer: “No!” For others, it’s a bit more complicated.

Even though it’s used with great regularity and greater confidence by a great many people, figuring out just what it means remains a great mystery. Mind you, it’s not that the folks using the term don’t know what they’re trying to say, nor is it that they’re necessarily wrong when saying it. It’s that there’s more than one definition being bandied about, and not everyone is careful about which they intend.

A few decades ago, saying you were an evangelical would mean something. Others might not like that you were, but at least they knew what you were. Now? Not so much. What began as a description of theological beliefs and practices flowing from a long history has (de)evolved into a sociological term pertaining to a specific era in a specific culture.

It is this cultural aspect that is most often known to the popular mind, particularly as election cycles careen our way. By and large, journalists tend to ascribe the title “evangelical” to anyone who is Anglo-American, broadly Christian, and somehow conservative, at least in the minds of the pundits. So, everyone from the Wesboro Baptist crowd to Nadia Bolz-Weber gets christened an evangelical in the popular imagination. If such radically different folks are part of the same group, then something’s askew.

We also have to wonder why it is that African Americans are rarely called evangelicals in the press or academia, even when their beliefs about God and man are identical to their white brethren. Or again, media accounts refer to evangelical Christians in other parts of the world. But, if an evangelical is a white, American Protestant, then how are there evangelical politicians in Latin America, evangelical churches in China, and evangelical missionaries coming out of Africa?

Now, we may say that the ethnic and national components differ, but the social and theological conservatism remains. In some cases, that’s true. Generally speaking, evangelicals tend to support traditional family roles, to be suspicious of anything resembling collectivism, and, generally speaking, to support the State of Israel.

The problem is that even this expanded definition isn’t enough. Certainly, a great many self-described evangelicals share many of these characteristics, but significant numbers do not. It wouldn’t be unusual to find two evangelicals whose views on central issues were mutually exclusive down the line. What is the point of a category to which no one can be sure who is in and who is out?

A little history may be in order. The term itself is straight out of the Bible. The Greek word for “Gospel” or “Good News” is transliterated into English as “Evangel,” and is often used by biblical writers as shorthand for the core message of the Scriptures. While all Christians would emphasize the centrality of this Evangel, evangelicals have made this a part of their self-definition to distinguish themselves from others.

However, the phrase wasn’t applied to a single group until relatively recently, and by “relatively,” I mean the last half-millennium. Before being known as Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists (oh my!), Protestants were sometimes known as “evangelicals,” and in German this is often still the case. The origins of evangelicalism go back beyond that, however.

Like any Christian group, they trace their source not to any historical moment but to the divine plan of God. Evangelicalism roots itself in the testimony of the Bible and, even though its adherents don’t talk about it all that much, to the creeds and confessions of the Early Church.

This is something to keep in mind. Evangelicalism isn’t just a recent thing, or even an American thing. Its path winds further back than our immediate context. Like other branches of Christianity, evangelicalism is an attempt to live out the teachings of the Bible, but its particular journey moved along such landmarks as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, the Moravians and the Reformers, Puritanism and Pietism.

By the middle of the 1700s, each of these elements came together in the Great Awakening. Moravian Christians influenced preachers like George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, who, in turn, initiated a transatlantic revival. They differed on some important issues, but they agreed on the core message of the Evangel – God saved souls in Christ and was now working through His church to restore His world. It was here that the first meaningful connection to our use of “evangelical” became apparent: doctrinal fidelity, personal piety, and social activism.

As the 1800s ended, divisions began to emerge, as they always do. Some evangelicals wanted to look to the wisdom of then-contemporary philosophy and science to bring Christianity into the modern world. Others saw the future in holding to the fundamentals of the faith. Where Modernists tended to emphasize the social activism of evangelicalism, Fundamentalists leaned toward piety and doctrine. By the 1920s, it was clear that the Modernists had won, at least for a time.

By the 1940s, the term “evangelical” had notably fallen out of use, only to be picked up by the Neo-Evangelicals. Theologians like Harold J. Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry began to use the term as a way to reinvigorate the somewhat isolated Fundamentalists and, perhaps, draw some from the doctrinally drifting Modernist camp. Like their fellow conservatives, they saw the centrality of holding to the doctrines of the Ancient Faith, but they challenged them engage the world. Being the church meant being both confrontational and winsome at the same time.

Aided greatly by the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham, these New Evangelicals worked to create new organizations, publishing houses, magazines, churches, and ministries which continued the work of those who had gone before them. By the 1970s, evangelicals had gone from the has-beens of American Christianity to becoming a key player in United States socio-political discourse. It was also in this time that this cultural definition of evangelicalism began to emerge.

Part of this was simply a matter of becoming victims of their own success. They’d grown enough that being known as an evangelical didn’t automatically mark you as a benighted outsider but as a begrudgingly respected member of the community. It became easy to be an evangelical.

Innocently or not, more and more people who wouldn’t have bothered to be associated with it before now found it advantageous. In many parts of the nation, not to be an evangelical would’ve put you in a bad position for business or politics. Sadly, with greater numbers came a diffusion of doctrinal integrity. Where the Modernists had downgraded the importance of doctrine in the quest to be successful, many evangelicals simply ignored it now that they were successful.

The movement had also grown enough that factions could emerge, each with enough critical mass to compete with one another. Consequently came the affliction of hyper-hyphenation, as progressive-, feminist-, conservative-, and so on-evangelicals wanted to retain the association with the now-respected movement but also wanted to show that they weren’t like those others. Being aligned with these wider cultural or philosophical factions began to take priority over the actual Evangel.

Accordingly, many began to choose their battles more carefully. There had always been a prophetic element within the movement, and evangelicals were quite willing to speak truth to power, even if, early on, they were too small for the powerful to pay them much heed. What is more, they were fairly equitable in how they proclaimed this truth.

While they were by and large conservative throughout the 20th century, there was no real sense that being an evangelical meant voting for a specific party. President Eisenhower had been a particular favorite of evangelicals, but Johnson was also admired. In 1976, the “year of the evangelical,” Carter was elected as a born-again candidate, only to be abandoned four years later when Reagan came along.

When there were enough evangelicals in voting booths for American elites to take notice, a new question emerged: What truth do we speak to which power? Many held true to their original intentions, but others increasingly began to pick and choose on the basis of cultural concerns, Left or Right. Doctrine as a guiding light dimmed when compared to short-term campaigns.

Pressured by the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and Roe v. Wade, the movement bifurcated along socio-political lines in the 1970s. Where earlier evangelicals would could “walk and chew gum at the same time” by praising those elements across society worthy of honor while also calling attention to its more disreputable aspects, now a great many selected which issues mattered most and which could be safely put on the back-burner.

Some, seeing the tyranny of Communism and doleful implications of the sexual revolution, skated too close to the siren of “God and Country.” Others, seeing the injustice of America’s racial legacy and the pain of those in poverty, danced to the tune of “God against Country.” The former, being the majority, came to be seen by the rest of culture as evangelicals – white, right-wing, and steadfastly Republican. The latter, the decided minority, became as lockstep for the party of Jackson as their counterparts were for the party of Lincoln. Their choices were different, but their error was the same: the concerns of the moment trumped the priority of the Evangel.

Although I often hesitate to use the term, I am an evangelical. And I mean this in both senses of the term. I am what the culture thinks I am – white, Protestant, and conservative. So far as it goes, that’s just fine. There’s neither extra virtue nor inordinate vice in being an Anglo, suburban male.

But, I am also the other kind, someone who, however falteringly, strives to follow not the cultural quirks or political factions of the day but something higher. If ever the cultural definition becomes more important to me than the theological one, then I might as well abandon the pretense because I will have certainly abandoned the Evangel.

This is a concern for us all. If we cannot distinguish between a cultural designation or position – Left-wing, Right-wing, or upside-down-wing – and the truth of the Bible, then it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves. Whatever we are then, we won’t be following the truth.

If our willingness to speak out for truth, to confront sin, to stand up for justice is determined by how much it affects the socio-political balance, if we feel more in common with a political ally in the fray than with our co-heir with Christ, if we cannot distinguish between demands of the Gospel and the exigencies of an election, then we might as well drop the Evangel from our name. We’re just another tribal faction in the zero-sum game of identity politics.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can proclaim that no political party can be assured of our votes based solely on the rhetoric of campaign promises. We can call out evil in this world according to our biblically-centered consciences while not ignoring the moral failings of those on our own “side.” We can recognize that one group may be right about one thing but wrong about another. We can refuse to put our hope solely in any movement, nation, party, or person, but only in the gospel of God.

It’s not about getting a place at the table or throwing our weight around. It’s about centering our lives and our missions on the eternal Word of God and inviting the watching world to join us at His table. If evangelicals are ever to recover the great hope that so many had in the 20th century as they climbed up from obscurity to proclaim the truth to an uninterested world, then they will have to recover the basis of what gave them that hope. All Christians, evangelical and otherwise, must recover the Evangel.


Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.