I started to read Who Is An Evangelical: The History of a Movement in Crisis by Dr. Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University and Associate Director of their Institute for Studies in Religion (he is also an evangelical who attends a conservative Baptist church). He also blogs at The Gospel Coalition (mostly about church history). The book was published by Yale University Press and was released in late September.
Kidd is concerned, as I am, by evangelicals being defined solely by their connection to the Republican Party. In particular, the term “white evangelicals” is typically used as if evangelicalism is a monolithic movement within Christianity. Reporters who evangelicals typically lack any type of nuance or understanding about this movement they relegate as a subgroup of the Republican Party.
I wanted to highlight an excerpt from the introduction of his book:
At their founding moment, then, evangelicals believed in the new birth of salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and they worked and prayed for revival. In accord with the norms of the era, white people tended to lead the evangelical movement. Many of those white people had manifest failings, including owning slaves. But white evangelical leaders also gave unprecedented latitude to the voices of African Americans and Native Americans. Some evangelicals, such as the former slave trader John Newtown (the author of the him “Amazing Grace), did become involved in political causes such as abolitionism. The line separating “spiritual” and “political” was always blurry and contested for evangelicals. But there was no doubt that evangelicalism was, at root, a spiritual movement. The extent and focus of evangelical political engagement have changed over time, and different evangelical ethic groups have prioritized different issues. But historically, the evangelical movement was defined by the message of conversion and eternal salvation, not partisan politics.
So what is an evangelical? Kidd references a helpful definition by historian David Bebbington who offers four primary characteristics of an evangelical:
- Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
- Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
- Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
- Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity
Our first and foremost concern should be the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our identity is in Christ. It’s a shame that when most people think evangelicals they think about the Republican Party instead of the Gospel.
That’s not to say evangelicals can’t belong to a political party, but that is not where our identity belongs and where our priorities should ultimately lie.
The simple fact is what makes us evangelical is not our commitment to a political cause or social trend.
I look forward to reading through this book.