Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

1 Mar 2016

The End of Evangelicalism As We Know It?


Those of you who know me know that I don’t like to self-identify as an evangelical. The label has some usefulness, of course. Were I to use it, the label would inform people that I hold to inerrancy in some form. It would inform people that I am not a card-carrying devotee of mainstream Protestant denominationalism—at least as my first family. And it likely would still communicate that I am not a Modernist: I still accept the “fundamentals” of the early 20th century as binding, whether or not I regard them as particularly urgent. Using the label might communicate slightly more to evangelical “insiders,” but not a whole lot.

For anyone who is not an evangelical insider, being evangelical has for decades communicated primarily something about one’s view of culture and society. It meant that one is Neo-Kuyperian. To be Neo-Kuyperian (at the risk of offering a woefully simplistic gloss) is to blur the lines of distinction between common grace and special grace, using each with little restraint in the service of the other. Civil/secular society is to be domesticated and manipulated to serve the Church and its many causes; the prospering Church reciprocates by throwing its collective shoulder into redemptive or “faith-based” solutions to the many problems facing civil/secular society—war, poverty, racism, injustice, and concern for cosmic renewal.

For about the last half-century, we could count on evangelicals to vote pretty much as a bloc for candidates who promised to advance Christian concerns. The problem of abortion, especially, spurred evangelicals to vote “pro-life,” and the problem of homosexual marriage, more recently, spurred them to vote “pro-family.” Of course, not all evangelicals were Neo-Kuyperian, and even those who were could be teased away from their assigned voting bloc by “lesser” socio-economic concerns; still, this was the reputation that the evangelicals earned over time.

Donald Trump’s popularity among Republicans generally and among evangelicals specifically defies this pattern. Few know and fewer care about Trump’s views on abortion or homosexuality. Indeed, whether he is conservative in any sense (social, fiscal, foreign policy, etc.) seems totally irrelevant. How do we explain this? If I can hazard a guess, I would say that more and more evangelicals each voting cycle view Neo-Kuyperianism as a lost cause. They’ve not yet reached the tipping point (it still appears as though Rubio and Cruz collectively still have more support than Trump), but the threshold is not far away.

So what are the disenfranchised evangelicals doing? They are becoming fearful, angry, and even belligerent toward the politically correct machine that is creeping inexorably toward them, threatening to destroy all they have built. And Trump not only offers a garish and realistic picture of that threat, but also promises to wreak havoc on the machine. That is his one “virtue,” it seems, and that virtue appeals to a great many.

What I want to do in this post, then, is not to promote any one candidate (and, incidentally, we won’t allow this to happen in any discussion that might follow). But since this is in part a Christian/evangelical phenomenon, it is to that degree a theological phenomenon—whether a conscious or an unconscious one. And it behooves us to become conscious of the theological nature of not only our personal voting proclivities, but also those of the churches we serve.

4 Responses

  1. The historic identity of evangelicalism goes back to the 1730s and the powerful, non-ecclesiastic conversion ministries of Whitefield and Wesley.

    The key component of being an evangelical, historically, was not inerrancy, or even the fundamentals. Those debates came much, much later.

    Rather, the one component that has been consistent from beginning until now is a commitment to conversion practices of one kind or another.

  2. Mark Snoeberger

    Ted, you are right of course that evangelicalism precedes the 20th century. I am trying to establish what the term communicates to hearers today. For insiders it says something about inerrancy and a doctrinal minimum. For outsiders it communicates something about the intersection of the Christian and his culture. It’s the latter that seems to be changing.

    Incidentally, though, I would suggest that from the beginning, evangelicalism has been about more than conversion. As Bebbington points out, evangelicalism has historically embodied four characteristics: conversionism (your point), but also “activism” (mostly socio-political), “Biblicism” (denominational suspicion and a heavy emphasis on the infallible Scriptures as the only valid creed), and “crucicentrism” (gospel minimalism). I’ve found it hard to argue with his observations.

  3. paul

    I think some evangelicals are supporting Trump not because they think Neo-Kuyperianism is a lost cause. Trump has given lip service to his support of evangelical issues enough to apparently satisfy his evangelical supporters that he is on their side. His “make America great again” rhetoric is enticing to many Americans (after 2 terms of Barack Obama and the prospect of maybe 2 more of Hillary Clinton) and the lack of specifics allows people to hear what they want to hear. Much of evangelicalism seems captivated by big personalities as well and Trump certainly stands out among the candidates in that respect.