John Schmalzbauer answers, "What is an Evangelical?" | Sojourners

John Schmalzbauer answers, "What is an Evangelical?"

Missouri State University Sociologist John Schmalzbauer
Missouri State University Sociologist John Schmalzbauer

I’ve been obsessed with evangelicalism for most of my life.

The grandson of a Moral Majority donor, I witnessed the rise of the New Christian Right from the living room of a Norwegian-American septuagenarian. In grandma’s photo album, pictures of Jerry and Macel Falwell, Pat and Dede Robertson, and Billy and Ruth Graham appeared alongside snapshots of my sister and me. Saved during a Billy Graham telecast, I grew up memorizing Bible verses and witnessing to my grade school peers. Surrounded by Minnesota Lutherans and Catholics, I always felt different.

During high school I didn’t know whether I was a fundamentalist or an evangelical. A few months at an evangelical college changed all that.

Rejecting the F word, its president denied it had ever been a fundamentalist school. While this was hard to square with his predecessor’s role in the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, it reflected the college’s embrace of the evangelical brand. Since then schools such as Bob Jones University also have distanced themselves from fundamentalism. In some ways, we’re all evangelicals now.

Such historical amnesia is not uncommon. In a movement that’s been called a “12 ring circus," it’s hard to tell who’s in and who’s out.

Some of the largest acts are relative newcomers to the big top. A recent search of the Southern Baptist Convention webpage kicked up 4.8 million hits for the word “evangelical.” Yet as recently as 1983, a trio of insiders could ask, “Are Southern Baptists ‘Evangelicals’?” As SBC executive E. Foy Valentine informed Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward, “We are not evangelicals. That's a Yankee word.

Three decades later, Southern Baptists make up the largest single denomination in most surveys of evangelicals.

At the same time, many Southern Baptists have yet to embrace the evangelical label. During my time in the Missouri Ozarks, I’ve met Baptists and Pentecostals who have never thought of themselves as evangelicals. They are not alone. According to a 2006 survey, only a third of people in evangelical churches have adopted the term.

As historian D.G. Hart reminds us, the E word has meant different things in different eras. In the 19th century, scholars like Robert Baird classified most of American Protestantism under the evangelical umbrella — including Episcopalians, Quakers, Lutherans, and Congregationalists. No distinction was made between liberal and conservative churches.  Though it’s hard to imagine liberals such as Horace Bushnell and Julia Ward Howe hanging out at the National Association of Evangelicals, they have found a place in evangelical history. Few think to mention Howe’s Unitarianism. As late as the 1920s, modernists such as Shailer Mathews identified with evangelical Christianity. Hart is one of the few scholars to point this out.

Like many words in American religion, evangelical is a biblical term, a folk concept and a “creation of the scholar’s study.” Despite its roots in the Greek word evangelion, it did not spring uncorrupted from the pages of scripture. As Hart notes in Deconstructing Evangelicalism, figures such as Carl F.H. Henry and Harold J. Ockenga were searching for a more moderate alternative to fundamentalism. Appropriating the older label of evangelical, they “wanted to reform conservative Protestantism and smooth its rougher edges.”

In the process, they redefined a word that had once included both liberal and conservative Protestants. This is important to remember when considering the boundaries of contemporary evangelicalism.

Every so often, evangelicals get the urge to ex-communicate. Feminists, open theists, and universalists have all drawn the ire of their co-religionists. In the absence of a central religious authority, such efforts are doomed to fail.

According to most scholars, evangelicalism is more of a network than a unified church. Magazines, publishing houses, colleges, and parachurch groups play a bigger role than ecclesial bodies. While condemned from many pulpits, the emerging church continues to publish with Zondervan and Baker. Owned by the same company as Zondervan and Fox News (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), HarperOne has provided a home for Rob Bell and his Love Wins.

Though it hasn’t been easy, Bell has remained a part of American evangelicalism.

Fried by their battles with fellow believers, some have decided to ex-communicate themselves. Even then it is hard to cut the tie. As in the case of cultural Catholicism, religious terminology may haunt a post-evangelical’s speech. Commenting on this phenomenon, Tony Jones wonders whether evangelicalism is the “new Jewish" — more cultural than confessional.

Despite the flux and fluidity in American evangelicalism, there are limits to what we can say about an empirical phenomenon. Asked to define “evangelical,” many Sojourners’ contributors conflate what should be with what is. Though public opinion surveys reveal considerable diversity, they remind us that most evangelicals are not Sojourners progressives.

In defining evangelicalism, we should not ignore the contributions of the number crunchers. Known for his plaid pants and irreverent humor, retired political scientist Lyman Kellstedt has spent hours poring over computer printouts. Challenging colleagues to move beyond simplistic questions about religion, he recognizes the multifaceted character of evangelicalism. Beliefs, practices, and identities are all part of the picture. In his judgment, “there is no single way to define the term.

This does not mean we can redefine evangelicalism in our own image. While dreaming of what evangelicals might become, we must take a hard look at who they are. To do otherwise, would be to ignore the voices of millions of co-religionists.

Sociologist John Schmalzbauer teaches in the Religious Studies Department at Missouri State University, where he holds the Blanche Gorman Strong Chair in Protestant Studies. He is the author of People of Faith: Religious Conviction in American Journalism and Higher Education.