There was a time when the term evangelical was a badge of honor, not a cause for embarrassment. In 1976, Newsweek magazine proclaimed “the year of the evangelical,” heralding the new prominence of theologically conservative Protestants with the cover story “Born Again!” At the time, evangelical churches were expanding rapidly, and the movement, which was still politically and theologically diverse, seemed well positioned not only for continued influence but also for a positive effect on the nation’s morals. With a newly elected evangelical Democrat ready to enter the White House—and with evangelicals of both parties embracing racial diversity, antipoverty programs, and a host of intellectual and artistic endeavors—evangelicalism hadn’t yet acquired its pejorative connotations.
Four decades later, this state of affairs is difficult to imagine. The political behavior, sexual peccadilloes, flamboyant posturing, and harsh rhetoric from some of America’s most prominent evangelicals have tarnished the movement’s reputation. For some, the nadir occurred in 2016, when 81 percent of white evangelical voters cast ballots for Donald Trump, with some Christians attempting to excuse his racially charged and sexually crude behavior.
Now that much of the public equates the term evangelical with the Republican Party and conservative politics, is rehabilitation possible? Perhaps, as Thomas Kidd suggests in Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, it helps to step back and enlarge our field of vision. Seen only from the perspective of the 2016 election, alongside the internal disputes and stagnating membership numbers that have accompanied its increasingly negative reputation, evangelicalism may appear to have entered a crisis period. But Kidd reminds us that when we think this way, we forget the real meaning of the word evangelical and its history.
Unity and Division
Evangelicals, Kidd argues, cannot be defined by their race, political party, or even their ecclesiastical history or religious culture. Rather, an evangelical is someone who has been “born again,” follows Jesus Christ, acknowledges the authority of an “infallible” Bible, and claims a personal relationship with God. What set the first generation of evangelicals apart from other 18th-century Protestants were beliefs in a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit and the necessity of a conversion experience, and these remain central tenets of evangelical faith today. According to Kidd, any person holding these beliefs qualifies as an evangelical. Large numbers of black Christians, along with growing numbers of Hispanic Pentecostals, have always shared important theological convictions with white conservative Protestants.
Instead of focusing on the white pastors who dominate other histories of evangelicalism—men such as Jonathan Edwards, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham—Kidd gives equal coverage to black Baptists and Methodists, Hispanic Pentecostals, and other non-white Christians who were excluded, in many cases, from white evangelical institutions. The early-19th-century Native American Methodist evangelist William Apess, a Pequot who advocated for Indian rights at a time when the federal government was taking them away, shares Kidd’s pages with white Methodist circuit riders during the Second Great Awakening. Faith-healing Mexican immigrant evangelist Francisco Olazábal is paired with white Pentecostal leaders of the early 20th century, such as Aimee Semple McPherson. Black Christians, from the early-19th-century Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman to the late-20th-century evangelist Tom Skinner, also receive ample attention. And Haitian immigrant churches and Puerto Rican evangelists appear in conjunction with more familiar white leaders like Billy Graham and Rick Warren, which shines a rather different light on recent evangelical history.
Yet as Kidd makes clear, bringing black and Hispanic Protestants into the evangelical historical narrative shouldn’t seduce us into thinking of evangelicalism as more racially inclusive than it really was. Although the evangelical gospel may have appealed to both blacks and whites, the two groups rarely worked together for very long. White evangelical revivalists of the 18th century caused a sensation by welcoming people of all races to their revivals and encouraging slave owners to present the gospel to their slaves. But at the same time, a few leading lights, most notably George Whitefield, defended slavery and campaigned for its expansion, even as other evangelicals (both black and white) opposed it. Evangelical theology, Kidd argues, included both a radical spiritual egalitarianism that inspired some to question the slave trade and an “individual, eternal emphasis” that led many to “turn a blind eye to manifest injustices around them.”
Even apart from the issue of race, white evangelicalism was riven with theological divisions, perhaps none more serious than the split between modernists and fundamentalists in the early 20th century. Modernists, who embraced the new science of higher biblical criticism and prioritized the social gospel and the moral example of Jesus above the Atonement and a Holy Spirit-wrought personal conversion, viewed their fundamentalist opponents as reactionaries. The fundamentalists, in turn, viewed the modernists as apostates. After several bitter denominational splits, modernists, who came to be known as mainline or liberal Protestants, gained control of most of the established denominations and colleges in the North, as well as a few in the South. But the fundamentalists gained control of the evangelical label, which by the mid-20th century came to be applied only to Protestants who retained the movement’s historic emphasis on personal conversion and combined it with strong defenses of biblical infallibility or inerrancy.
If fundamentalists retained some of evangelicalism’s theological hallmarks, they also reshaped others, especially in the area of politics. At the beginning of the 19th century, Baptists were the nation’s strongest opponents of established churches and the most ardent supporters of religious liberty. By the 1920s, however, some fundamentalist Baptists joined forces with conservative Presbyterians and members of other denominations to restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools. Kidd views this as a serious misstep that blurred evangelicalism’s historic emphasis on personal freedom. The campaign also tarred conservative evangelicalism with a reputation for anti-intellectualism, one it has never entirely overcome.
As for white evangelicals’ enthusiastic embrace of the Republican Party and their overwhelming support for Donald Trump, Kidd views these trends as unfortunate but—like the Scopes Trial of the 1920s—not necessarily representative of evangelicalism as a whole. If black and Hispanic Protestants, as well as the growing number of Asian American believers, are included in the equation, the percentage of evangelicals embracing Trump or the Republican Party declines substantially. Moreover, subtracting proponents of the prosperity gospel and cultural Christians (who call themselves “evangelical” but have never experienced a born-again conversion) pulls that figure lower still.
A Reminder and a Challenge
Kidd is right to insist that it’s fundamentally flawed to treat a politically and racially diverse religious movement, defined for more than two centuries by a gospel focus, as a mere subset of the Republican Party. Evangelicals contributed to the expansion of religious freedom in the early United States. Many partnered in the quest for African American civil rights in the 20th century (though, of course, many others lamentably took the opposing side). And today, they campaign against human trafficking.
And all the while, those same evangelicals have championed the authority of the Bible, the lordship of Jesus Christ, and the necessity of surrendering one’s life to him for the sake of a crown of righteousness that human effort could never obtain. While conservative individualist philosophies of self-help and liberal humanitarian programs have come and gone, evangelicals have consistently defended a gospel that insists on our need for a Savior.
It might be tempting for evangelicals who share Kidd’s concern about Trump to read this book as a comforting reminder that our movement is racially diverse and defined not by politics but by theological truth and a life-transforming gospel, even if secular media outlets think otherwise. But while that message is important, we shouldn’t ignore the space for self-reflection and critique that Kidd’s narrative also opens up. If black and Hispanic evangelicals are really an equal part of the evangelical movement—if they have really been preaching the same gospel for centuries—then why have so many white evangelicals practiced racial exclusion and supported policies that are detrimental to their spiritual brothers and sisters of color?
Kidd does not directly answer these questions. Indeed, addressing such matters is not his main purpose. Rather, he has crafted an apologetic for a movement experiencing a crisis of self-identity, and in this he succeeds admirably. His book should be required reading for anyone on the verge of quitting evangelicalism because of the last election.
Yet the thought occurs: If evangelical theology transcends racial and political lines in ways that most other religious movements in America can’t match, shouldn’t we see clearer evidence of our racial attitudes and political stances aligning with our theology? If evangelicalism is a “movement in crisis” because of the media’s coverage of white evangelical political choices, who is really at fault: the media or the evangelicals who equated gospel advocacy with a certain type of politics?
Kidd offers a persuasive defense of the historic principles of evangelical faith, and he demonstrates how those principles have transformed lives across the racial divide and the political spectrum. But if we want to rescue the term evangelical from opprobrium, we may need more than a historical survey, important as that is. We may need to rediscover how to live out the full implications of the racially inclusive gospel that seemed so radical and refreshing to the black and white converts who embraced it more than two centuries ago.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (Oxford University Press).
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