Though one can argue that evangelical religion has been in crisis from the beginning, starting in November 2016 and the election of Donald Trump, it exploded afresh. Not only did the nation wake up to discover a chasm dividing in the country, so did evangelicals—especially when it became clear that white evangelicals voted for and then supported the new president, depending on the poll, in the range of 75 to 81 percent. The evangelical left was shocked and horrified by this, and the evangelical right was mystified by their outrage. Many black, Asian, and Hispanic evangelicals—if they still identified with the term at all—looked at white evangelicals left and right and just shook their heads, wondering if either side really got it.
We now have a cacophony of voices shouting at one another, and much of the shouting is about two questions: “So, what is an evangelical Christian anyway?” And more to the point, “Does it even matter?”
To help explore those questions, we invited Thomas Kidd, the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, to speak with us. He is the author of many important history books, including The Great Awakening: The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father and most recently, Who Is an Evangelical? A History of a Movement in Crisis.
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Highlights from Quick to Listen - Episode #178
So who or what is an Evangelical anyway, and more to the point does it even matter if evangelicalism flourishes or dies?
Thomas S. Kidd: The term has certainly become a fixture of American political discourse over the past four decades in a way that it never was before. And the way that the term evangelical is often used in the media is often problematic and confusing, or at least vague.
I’ll try to boil it down as much as I can and say that evangelical means "the religion of the born-again." The most obvious way that Evangelicals have stood out historically from the rest of the Christian movement is putting a great deal of emphasis the experience of conversion, and Christ's teachings in John 3 in particular about being born again.
Evangelicals have put a distinctive and unique emphasis on the need for all people to experience the transformation of the new birth. That was what was new in The Great Awakening of the 1740s when the modern Evangelical movement is born.
To elaborate a little further, Evangelicals also have a defense to the authority of the Bible—that became even more prominent in the fundamentalist modernist controversy in the late 19th and early 20th century. Evangelicals also tend to be the most comfortable among Christians to talk about a personal relationship with God. Some groups talk more about the Holy Spirit, some of talking more about having a personal relationship with Jesus, but it's that felt presence of God in your life, and the leading of God in your life, that follows after the conversion experience
Could you get into a little bit of detail about where you believe evangelicalism officially began and why you choose that spot as the start?
Thomas S. Kidd: Of course, evangelicals are going to tend to think that their movement started with Jesus, but I do fall into the camp that sees the modern evangelical movement beginning in the 1730s and 40s. It's an outgrowth of the Reformation and it follows on some emphases on the priesthood of all believers and the primacy of scripture.
I do think something changed in the 1730s and 40s, especially through the ministry of George Whitefield, who is the most important evangelists of the Great Awakening. And I don't think you see his laser focus on the experience of conversion as clearly among the Reformers. They typically did have an idea of conversion, but they were also in a medieval mindset where they had a more of a communitarian view of faith. For example, virtually all of the Reformers put a lot of emphasis on infant baptism.
So there's something new in emphasis with Whitfield and other evangelical preachers, about putting that emphasis on being born again, especially with people like John Wesley saying that you not only need to be converted, but you can know when you experience the new birth, and you can have great assurance that you are saved, that you are converted.
People like the Puritans in 1600s Massachusetts, or even back in England, would not have put nearly as much emphasis on the experience of the new birth. Even though theologically they knew the new birth was important, they didn't believe that you could so clearly discern that moment of the new birth and have the assurance that you have been saved.
So that individual focus on conversion that might happen in an instant, and you can know it, and you can have the assurance that you've gone through it, that to me is enough of a turning point in the 1740s to see it as the beginning of this modern evangelical movement.
The subtitle of your book is "The History of a Movement in Crisis." What is the ongoing crisis, or many crises have been part of evangelical life?
Thomas S. Kidd: I do think that Evangelicals have often thrived on this crisis identity. And I don't mean that in a disingenuous or insincere way. I think that even at the beginning Evangelicals were often persecuted, especially the more radical movements that began to show up as a result of the Great Awakening.
The crises of Evangelicals, however, do look different over time and space. They have a lot to do with the Evangelicals' position vis a vis culture and whether they fundamentally see themselves as dissenters in a hostile culture, or whether they see themselves as trying to seize control of the cultural and political establishment. I think Evangelicals since 1980 have tended to be more in that latter type of mode. That's a very different type of crisis mentality from a Baptist preacher in 1770 who was getting thrown in jail for illegal preaching.
Evangelicals in America will talk about persecution today, but they're certainly not facing anything like the Evangelicals in other parts of the world are. So I think that the type of crises that they have gone through, or at least perceive they've gone through, are highly contingent on their cultural stance.
I think that over time, Evangelicals in America have tended to have an increasingly custodial view of their role towards American culture and American politics. The kind of crisis that Evangelicals have been facing over the past 40 or 50 years has been a sense of worry that they're losing control of the culture—whether they really had control the culture is another question.
There's a lot of debate about whether or not evangelicals should be involved with politics, how much so, and which party to align with through the history of evangelicalism. Can you point to other specific periods of time when these similar issues have cropped up?
Thomas S. Kidd: There's always been an understanding for Evangelicals that their faith lived out is going to have some political implications.
I don't think that there's probably ever been a time in American history were Evangelicals, and in particular, white Evangelicals, have had quite so strong an identification with one political party.
Maybe in the 30s and 40s, there as a deep identification with the Whig party, which tended to be the party of moral reform movements, and so they like that—you know anti-alcohol and those kinds of causes. But even then, there were definitely some who were more attached to the Democratic party. And at different times there tended to be regional divisions more than there are today, where people who believe almost exactly the same thing about theology and cultural issues might end up supporting different political parties depending on their region.
But today I think there is such a deep identification among most voting white Evangelicals to the Republican party that seems unprecedented, and I think unhealthy for the reasons that others have absorbed, which is that outsiders certainly get the impression from some evangelical leaders that the evangelical movement is just basically a subset of the Republican party. That that is its basic function: to support Republican nominees, whomever they may be.
What are some of the historical moments in politics that began to establish the trend of Evangelicals identifying with one party over the other?
Thomas S. Kidd: William Jennings Bryan, who became famous as a three-time Democratic nominee for president, was also one of the only presidential candidates who were recognizably evangelical before Jimmy Carter. He would say his economic policies, which were in defense of the poor, were a result of being a Christian.
In the 1910s, Bryan was quite passionate about the evolution issue that was argued in court with the famous Scopes trial. And his involvement really changed the nature of evangelicalism itself, or at least the public image of evangelicalism—which up to that point, had definitely not been tied up with evolution in any kind of exclusive way. But Bryan changes that.
He turned the course of fundamentalist combativeness towards American culture by focusing very narrowly on this question about the teaching of evolution in public school in the 1920s. So that's a turn not only towards evolution, but towards that kind of establishmentarian view, where now we're not just arguing about theological controversies within our own denominations in seminaries, but we're trying to say what shall and shall not be taught in America's public schools.
Bryan overstepped into the debates with Clarence Darrow about the authority of the Bible in the Scope trials, and the whole thing became a circus. And I think a lot of Evangelical leaders of the time had this feeling that's familiar to some of us today—that our movement has sort of been taken over by some people that we haven't been working with for very long and now all of a sudden they're the public face in the movement, and all of a sudden the movement is all about one specific topic.
If the crisis of the 1920s tended to coalesce around the teaching of evolution in schools, what would you say are the core issues in our current crisis of evangelical life?
Thomas S. Kidd: In the same way that the Scopes was shattering for evangelicals in 1925, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 is a parallel. There are the parallels about this feeling of not really being in control of your own movement anymore, and that the public impression of the movement is spun in different directions that a lot of core Evangelicals are at least perplexed by.
But now, I do think that the crisis has to do with the white Evangelical involvement with the Republican party, which really got started in the 1950s. It started with Billy Graham and Dwight Eisenhower. There was the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, the Reagan in 1980 and up to the election of Trump, who had a lot of evangelical and prosperity gospel leaders he consulted with.
Even if he doesn't identify as an evangelical himself, Trump developed a sensitivity to evangelical concerns. But of course, his personal life would seem at many points to contradict evangelical standards for morality and behavior. And at least among self-identifying white evangelical voters, the alliance with the party didn't break in spite of the fact that a really strong formidable group of white traditionalist evangelical leaders expressed grave concern about Trump. But it didn't seem to make much of a difference, and he ultimately racked up similar types of numbers percentage-wise of the previous Republican nominees.
We have used the term white Evangelical more than once in this podcast, which wasn't a phrase we often used before 2016. Is having race as part of the equation something new?
Thomas S. Kidd: It's not new. But one of my concerns about the way we talk about Evangelicals is that the most common news story about Evangelicals in the past 40 years, and certainly in the era of Trump, is about polling. So often the polls that we're looking at are not talking about Evangelicals in general, but they're talking about white Evangelicals and not just white Evangelicals in general, but white Evangelical voters.
Even in presidential years, there's usually a 40-something percent of white Evangelicals who don't vote, but I don't see any reason to exclude them from the evangelical fold if they hit all the usual theological and experiential metrics. So it turns out that we're talking about a pretty narrow group—who are obviously enormously influential and significant in partisan politics—but in the evangelical movement as a whole, they are a slice that has access to disproportionate financial resources and political power. I don't like the way that the media will say that 81% of evangelicals supported Trump. No, no. That is absolutely not what the statistics say.
There are certainly many Hispanics who identify as Evangelicals, some Asians. Fewer African Americans will use the word evangelical because they don't like the political connotations of it. But larger numbers of African Americans certainly will identify it as born again. A lot of those people voted against Donald Trump, a lot of those people don't participate in politics, just like many white Evangelicals don't put participate in politics. So I think there's a tendency to have white Evangelical voters—who vote Republican—stand-in for the whole American evangelical community. And I think that's a mistake.
When you go back to 2016, I'm really impressed about how many very prominent and quite conservative white Evangelical leaders spoke out against Trump. We're talking about John Piper, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, Marvin Alaskey—a really impressive list of evangelical leaders. And these are not liberals. These are not Jim Wallace.
To have that kind of group of leaders speaking out against the Republican nominee, and it seemed to make almost no difference at all, I don't think it speaks to the lack of effectiveness of their leadership. I don't know what the disjunction is between these people who are saying that they're Evangelicals to pollsters and then those kinds of core evangelical leaders.
Do you think that class might be where the division lies? Maybe not based on economics alone, but also on education?
Thomas S. Kidd: I think that you have to just kind of piece together some different bodies of information we have out there. And one is that apparent schism between established leaders and then the rank and file, and another is that we know that there are millions of people who will identify as Evangelicals who rarely go to church. We also know that people in America who are in the working class and poor classes are less likely than groups above them in the socio-economic spectrum to go to church.
In 2016, the polls showed that non-church-going Evangelicals in the early primaries gravitated to Trump, but then some other polls have shown that after Trump was elected that church-going Evangelicals were Trump's strongest supporters.
But the problem is that we almost never know anything from those polls about what the people mean by saying that their Evangelical.
So I think that this huge amorphous group that we talked about as "Evangelicals"—the tens of millions of people that are identified as or self-identify—there's a lot going on in those numbers. And so I find it difficult to make any kind of firm conclusions based on polls about what that group actually believes.
So as you were doing all of your research on the history of the evangelical movement and looking at where it is now in its current crisis moment, did you start to form any ideas about what advice you might give to pastors, lay church leaders, people with some kind of extensible influence in the church about what to do with this information?
Thomas S. Kidd: I do think it starts with pastors. Especially if you are a pastor who has been in the habit of describing your church as evangelical. I think it wouldn't take very long to explain historically what being evangelical means—that it's about spiritual theological issues related to being born again and the authority of the Bible. And I think making that clear can help detach the association from politics. Some pastors, especially if you haven't been using the term evangelical, may want to steer clear of it entirely.
But nevertheless, I think that pastors should be very very careful about not conveying to people that your church is attached to a political party. Especially because in any normal church situation, you are certainly going to have a spectrum of political views, and I would think inmost larger churches and healthy churches you're going to have even different party commitments.
So pastors have to be very conscious about moving beyond those kinds of political divisions in the context of the church. To say, we're going to have disagreements about politics and that's okay, and in the context of the church, we love each other in Christ and that transcends our political boundaries. I think now is an era where pastors really need to be impressing that point upon their congregations.
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