When my professor said, he did not understand Henry David’s Thoreau’s book, Walden, my shoulders relaxed. Moments earlier, he had criticized my paper on Walden for having failed to grasp the point of Thoreau’s recounting of ants, birds, and rainstorms. The professor of literature then went on to say, he could not help me improve my essay because Thoreau had stumped him as well. According to my literature professor, Thoreau was so unique that he defied categorization.
The same could be said of the term evangelical. Though the word remains tied to the “born again” concept, no one has been able to standardize the content, belief, or practices of those who march under the evangelical banner. According to a 2020 Lifeway study, 26% of evangelicals deny the divinity of Jesus and 42% believe all religions lead to God. Evangelicals possess a wide array of theological, sexual, and political views that often conflict with their evangelical neighbors.
In his book, Who is and Evangelical: The History of A Movement in Crisis, historian and Baylor University professor, Thomas Kidd, steps into this quagmire, seeking to define the seemingly undefinable. He writes, “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 (4).” Sadly even as the ink dries on the pages of this 2019 volume, this definition has already begun to dissolve into ill-defined gray matter. In the before mentioned 2020 Lifeway study, only 32% of self-identified evangelicals believed the Bible was true and only 49% of the respondents affirmed the need for the Holy Spirit to give new birth. The new birth, evangelical language of Whitefield and the pietist which emphasized the importance of the Holy Spirit has not aged well, making the movement which transcends both denominational and sociological definitions that much harder to define.
Who is An Evangelical?
Despite the book’s title, Kidd appears comfortable with the ameba like nature of the evangelical movement. As Kidd tracks the development of evangelicalism which begins with George Whitefield and ends with Donald Trump, he chronicles a movement that has been forever unsettled. Evangelicals embraced African Americans, Hispanics, and female converts while simultaneously advocating for slavery, segregation, and restrictive male headship. According to Kidd, the movement has been shaped by a never-ending onslaught of small and large conflicts.
But in 1951 at the behest of Billy Graham, evangelism entered a new and a defining crisis. That year Graham asked the nominal religious and non-evangelical General Dwight Eisenhower to run for president. By supporting Eisenhower and eventually Nixon, Kidd believes Graham transformed evangelism from a movement of spiritual conversion into an organization that promoted the civil religion of spiritual patriotism. From that point on, Kidd claimed white evangelicals egged on by the secular media would confuse, “political power and access to Republican leaders with the advancement of God’s kingdom (93).” This blending of faith and politics benefited the Republican party far more than it advanced the cause of Christ. But instead of abandoning the party and calling a spade a spade, Kidd reports that 81% of white evangelicals doubled down on their commitment to political power and voted for President Donald Trump. By supporting a man whose life contradicted the values of the gospel, evangelicals revealed that their movement was now more politically than spiritually minded.
At this juncture, Kidd’s thesis becomes clear. He writes not so much to define the indefinable but to call the ameba of evangelism to return to the pond of theology. Kidd laments the notion shared by some, “that political behavior is what makes an evangelical and evangelical (151).” He goes on to write, “Partisan politics have come and gone…But conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible, and God’s discernable presence are what make an evangelical and evangelical (156).” In other words, evangelicals should first and foremost be born again believers instead of political activists.
I concur with Kidd’s overarching analysis, appreciating his ability to deal with hundreds of years of history in the span of 156 pages. But I also think the conciseness of the volume stunted the development of his argument. Though Kidd ties evangelicals to the Holy Spirit, he does not tease out how an evangelical’s understanding of the Holy Spirit shapes that soul’s understanding of scripture which in-turn shapes the evangelical’s understanding cultural engagement. I’m curious to know if Whitefield’s, Graham’s, and A.W Criswell’s accommodation to worldly norms was spawned by a spiritism that allowed them to negate the teaching of the Scriptures. In other words, did these men misstep because they were following their impression of the Word or the Spirit?
Lastly, I wish Kidd had interacted more with the works of his historical mentor George Marsden. Though Kidd locates the downfall of evangelicalism in the 1950’s, he does not intently interact with the patriotism of the World War 1 era that transformed how many conservative churches viewed politics. Since Kidd locates the start of evangelicalism in the 1700’s, he should have allocated more space to the Woodrow Wilson era.
I think at the end of the day, Kidd would agree that no one can finally say who is an evangelical. But he also believes that the message of evangelicalism can be historically defined as a “message of conversion and eternal salvation, not partisan politics (10).” Though I do not agree with all of Kidd’s analysis, I believe his attempt to return the evangelical ameba to the pond of theology is needed. May we all swim in the waters of spiritual reflection.