Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

8 Jun 2020

Who is an Evangelical?: A Review

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Thomas Kidd, a professor of Church History at Baylor University, is personally invested in the answer to the question posed in the title of his book. He is invested, because he calls himself an evangelical, and he fits in the historical stream of those who have borne that title.

The title is apt, for the book directly addresses the question of what defines an evangelical. To get there, however, Kidd walks through the history of the movement. This historical view is different from any I have read before, for Kidd looks at the question through a political lens.

Why the political lens? It is because in the national consciousness “evangelical” has come to mean something like “white, religious, republican.” Since this has become the almost default idea when the title is used, Kidd wants to trace how that conception came about. Thus, he accomplishes two things through the historical overview: 1) he shows how evangelicalism was transplanted from Europe and sprouted in American soil and 2) he shows how political involvement crept in through various channels and how evangelicals came to find hope in politics.

The chapter titles may help explain the trajectory of the book:

1: The Rise of Evangelicals
2: Evangelicals Ascendant and the Coming Civil War
3: Fundamentalist and Evangelical Controversy
4: Neo-Evangelical and Graham
5: 2-Track Evangelicals and the New Christian Right
6: Evangelicals from Reagan to Obama
Coda: Donald Trump and the Crisis of Evangelicalism

I won’t try to summarize the whole book here. Instead, I will highlight just a few things of note, whether things I learned, found interesting, or things that are central to the book:

  • Kidd defines evangelicals according to their beliefs: “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” Elsewhere he summarizes this as conversion, Bible, and Divine presence. While we may desire to refine this definition, Kidd has chosen it for its generality, which allows it to encompass an intentionally broad group.
  • He excludes prosperity theology (e.g., Joel Osteen) from his consideration, but he includes Pentecostals, for they agree with his tripartite description.
  • Kidd shows that the term evangelical began to become politicized around 1976 and that its use in polls has had a negative effect on the utility of the term.
  • The author highlights that the term has lost its theological moorings, for many people claim to be evangelical in polls (usually white republican voters), but when those same people are asked about their religion, they either do not attend church or they hold to unorthodox beliefs (often both).
  • On the other hand, because of the way many people of color have felt that evangelicals have failed to address racial issues, many people of color who are doctrinally evangelical will not use the name. Anecdotally, one of my friends who is a pastor in a church with many African-Americans noted that none of those congregants would use the title evangelical, though doctrinally they are.
  • Kidd gives a prominent place to the Scopes trial in his historical overview: “The Scopes Trial illustrated the temptations of media access, establishmentarian politics, and celebrity politicians in evangelical history. That combination of power politics and media imagery accounts for much of the crisis evangelicals are facing today.”
  • Billy Graham is also a central mover, for his access to presidents from Eisenhower to G. W. Bush led to the view that evangelicals should have some access to the halls of political power. Kidd notes that “by 1972, Graham had effectively become a Republican consultant.”
  • Kidd highlights a turning point with Eisenhower, for “The alliance of Graham and Eisenhower signaled a crucial trend among white evangelicals, one that would accelerate during the 1980s. Many evangelicals conflated political power and access to Republican leaders with the advancement of God’s Kingdom.”
  • Jerry Falwell, along with the movement he helped spark (The Moral Majority), takes the historical progression one step further. Falwell suggested the movement arose because of a number of cultural issues: “school prayer, the ERA, homosexual rights, gambling, pornography, abortion, and other concerns. They also wanted to protect Christian schools from the Internal Revenue Service.” The Moral Majority allied with political power, even when that political power was not in any way Christian.
  • One of the more telling quotes offers a glimpse of Falwell and the result of his political pursuits: “Falwell [said] that they needed to get people ‘saved, baptized, and registered’ to vote. The agenda of the Republican evangelical insiders was born.”
  • Kidd is a “nevertrumper” (he notes this explicitly in the introduction) and that perspective is reconfirmed in the conclusion to the book: “Perhaps I am naïve to hope that there remains a core of practicing, orthodox evangelicals who really do care more about salvation and spiritual matters than access to Republican power.”
  • I would have liked Kidd to have examined more fully why some evangelicals support Trump despite recognizing his moral failings. He does mention the significance of supreme court justices at one point, and at another point, he highlights that evangelicals have sought politicians who would “stop further attacks.” In sum, I am not convinced that those who voted for Trump did so because they wanted “access to Republican power.” That seems far too cynical a conclusion.
  • Though Kidd never pointed it out, the fact that two of the most recent Republican Vice-President selections have been evangelical Christians who otherwise have little substantial credentials (Sarah Palin and Mike Pence) suggests the movement’s political sway is still alive and well.

In conclusion, I think Kidd has shown that the term evangelical has lost much of its doctrinal meaning (though I think it can still be meaningful in some places). And though he does not make this explicit, I think he has shown that the movement has done its best when it has focused on doing what it has been called to do (evangelize, emphasize personal lives of holiness) rather than when it has sought political power. On the other hand, I think the book lacks nuance between those who vote for what they believe are righteous ends and those who seek “political power.” It seems possible that the direction of society has forced all who hold to a biblical ethic into one of the parties and that their voting is not for political power, but for the sake of conscience. There are some loud voices within the movement who are desirous of political power, but that does not mean that the average evangelical is desirous of that power.

3 Responses

  1. The best discussion of what “evangelical” means, that I’ve seen, is by Roger Olson in his “Westminster Handbook to Evangelical Theology” (2004). I have Kidd’s book, but haven’t yet read it. Thanks for the review!