The Evangelical Identity Crisis

A lot of pieces have been appearing recently — especially in the past year since the election of Donald Trump with the support of many evangelicals — discussing the crisis currently besetting evangelicalism. They usually reference American evangelicalism, but since there are 10 times as many people in the USA than in Canada and 5 times as many as in Britain, and since the largest denomination in the USA is the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, what happens in American evangelicalism has a knock-on effect on the rest of anglophone evangelicalism, even when we know there are definite differences amongst our different cultures and church traditions.

One problem is that people who aren’t evangelicals have no clue what an evangelical is to begin with. This is not necessarily a terrible thing; most people probably can’t tell the Greek Orthodox from the Coptic Orthodox, and some people can’t even tell Greek Orthodox priests from Muslims (true story). But as evangelicals in the USA have been making themselves a visible and felt presence in the public sphere for a while now, it’s a bit surprising that people still can’t tell them from other kinds of Christians.

For example, a somewhat amusing but ultimately false and absurd post at Salon says this:

Millions of evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists believe that the Bible was dictated by God to men who acted essentially as human transcriptionists.

First of all, one of the defining features of American evangelicals is the fact that they are explicitly not fundamentalists. That’s part of the point of the evangelical movement in the USA since at least the 1970s — to be a countercultural, conservative, Protestant voice committed to Scripture, Gospel, and evangelism that is an alternative to the fundamentalists. Second, this is not how most evangelicals actually understand inspiration. Some do, I admit. But I don’t think most do. This is how Muslims think about the Qur’an, sure. But Christians aren’t Muslims.

One prominent scholar of Late Antiquity once referred in 2010 to people who believe in Intelligent Design as fundamentalists, which demonstrates a failure to understand either Intelligent Design (a movement that says science and theism are compatible, with an openness to evolution) or fundamentalism (a movement that requires the sort of biblical literalism that says that rejecting a literal six-day creation means rejecting the authority of Scripture).

So, part of the evangelical identity crisis lies in the fact that, well before Trumpism, people couldn’t actually tell who evangelicals were. As a result, anyone who thinks of his’erself as ‘evangelical’ and who pays attention to the misrepresentations of evangelicals on the Internet became a bit uncomfortable with the word. I remember, back in 2001, talking to a Canadian who was surprised when I talked about evangelical Anglicans, because he associated evangelicalism with certain varieties of (American) neo-conservative politics.

I’d say that American politics are probably the main source of contemporary evangelical angst, but before I get there, I’d like to say that we’ve been having an identity crisis longer than that. This is partly because evangelicalism, in whatever nation and whatever form, is a cross-denominational movement and often involves para-church organisations and inter-denominational events.

In his little book, The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Carl Trueman argues that the real problem facing evangelicals is that there is no such thing as an evangelical. He, a Presbyterian of confessional cast, recalls being seated at the ‘evangelical’ table at a conference and found that he had very little with the others at his table, who included an Open Theist. He looked to another table and realised he had more in common with the Dominican Roman Catholics in the room than his fellow evangelicals.

Indeed, the concept of the evangelical is so loose that in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, Bradley Nassif is able to argue that the two are compatible due to using the common definition of evangelical as having four components:

  • 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

But, of course, for most Orthodox, to cite the title of a different book, Evangelical Is not Enough.

So, not only do evangelicals get confused with other groups that they are not, they also can’t even agree amongst themselves what they are. But whatever they are, it originally was rooted in particular Christian beliefs and a certain view of the Christian life rooted in Scripture and the Cross.

But politics has muddied the waters. Surveys now show that a lot of people who, if you quizzed them on their beliefs, would qualify as evangelical, do not use the word. As well, there are people who would use the word of themselves if it had no political baggage. Others wouldn’t. That, I think, was a recent Pew survey? Another survey revealed that amongst self-identified evangelicals, regular churchgoers were less likely to vote for Trump than non-churchgoing evangelicals.

Wait a second.

Evangelicals who don’t go to church?

In my mind, evangelicals are a committed brand of conservative Protestant, part of whose personal piety is regular church attendance, along with daily prayer and Bible reading. Indeed, not just weekly church attendance on Sunday, but a mid-week Bible study is a typically evangelical event.

So, not only do we have an inability on the part of non-evangelicals to tell them apart from others, an inability amongst so-called ‘evangelicals’ to define what they are, we also have people who identify as ‘evangelical’ who are not even active Christians.

Of course, what matters is not what labels we use. I still think of myself as an evangelical — not just those four distinctives but also a belief in robust preaching and rich theological reflection being part of my vision of evangelicalism. But it is clear that, because of developments in the culture of the USA, the term’s usefulness is running out.

What matters, then, is the commitment of Christians of any denomination — Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox — to the Gospel of Christ Crucified and Risen, to Scripture, to the encounter with God, to making more disciples, to living holy lives, to seeing a world transformed by the fire of the Holy Spirit. This can happen, and we don’t need the word evangelical to do it.

Should people like me give up on it, then?

The F Word

ie. Fundamentalism

I once heard Peter Kreeft give a lecture, and he said that when the newspapers refer to “fundamentalist Muslims”, all they are really doing is using the F word.  We should be careful of our words and how we use them.  Newman Theological College has been accused of being fundamentalist.  But what is a fundamentalist?  Are Roman Catholics fundamentalist?  Can they be?  Was John Henry Newman?  Are you?  Am I?

Historically, fundamentalist Christians were people, apparently Baptists and (of all things) Presbyterians, who reacted against the developments in modernist theology and biblical studies.  They got together in 1909-12 and produced the following five fundamentals, whence comes their name:

-the Virgin birth
-the physical resurrection of Jesus
-the inerrancy of the Scriptures
-the substitutional atonement
-the physical second coming of Christ

Of course, not everyone who believed or believes these doctrines is a fundamentalist.  Any orthodox Christian, mainline Protestant, evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, would subscribe to all of these except the inerrancy of Scripture over which there is still some debate, and the Eastern Orthodox would argue with you about the meaning of the atonement.

What marks the modern fundamentalist is not simply a belief in these five fundamentals as per 1912.  Since they first reacted in 1909, Christian fundamentalists have had a century to continue reacting to the world around.  They are typified both by what they believe but also, very importantly, how they believe these things.

Before I list any of the things you might find a fundamentalist believing, I must note the matter of how.  Numerous Christians will believe in various things that fundamentalists believe.  A major difference between the fundamentalist and the average theological conservative is the fact that the fundamentalist will say that his belief in x, y, or z is among the fundamentals.  If you do not agree with him, then you are not a true Christian and probably a heretic.  Thus, the fundamentalist Calvinist will declare forcefully that everyone who does not believe in his hyper-Calvinistic double predestinarain views is fit for nothing but eternal damnation and is probably also a moron (this is probably an exaggeration, but you get the point).

Amongst the issues that most Christians would consider secondary but are primary for fundamentalists, we find a few interesting creatures.

First, if you doubt the complete, literal inerrancy of Holy Scripture, then you are a heretic and, worse, a liberal who has succumbed to the modernising tendencies of the secular world.  The Bible is not only correct on matters of life and doctrine, but also on matters of history and cosmology.

Therefore, the universe is 6000 years old.  You must believe in a historical Adam and Eve in order to be a true, saved Christian with a living relationship with God.

Do not dance, drink, smoke, play cards, listen to rock music, get a tattoo, body piercing, or go to most Hollywood movies.  Not even Christian rock is okay, since rock music is fleshly and will likely lead you to dancing, which is but one step away from fornication.

Some do not allow women to wear trousers or make up.

Do not spend too much time with people who aren’t Christians.  This is a bad idea; they will corrupt the purityof your faith.

Since most fundamentalists are Protestants, be warned that Roman Catholics and most mainline Christians are not really Christians and are heretics destined for hell.  The Eastern Orthodox probably are too; they can’t tell you much about them, but they look kind of like Papists, so damnation is likely for them as well.

Some fundamentalists I found doubt the faithfulness of CS Lewis due to his interest in Taoism.

Many, if not most, believe that the Authorised Version, or King James Version, of the Bible from 1611 is the only authoritative translation of the Bible.  They do not trust textual critics and decry modern scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament, some of them even warning you that the Pope endorses these editions.

Of the above, some people go so far as to say that Jesus spoke in King James English.  This is because all science is man-made, including historiography, textual criticism, and historical linguistics.  Therefore, the Greek texts cannot be trusted, soiled as they are by the human sciences involved.  The only version in any language that we can trust is the 1611 Authorised Version.

Denominationalism.  Many fundamentalists, over the 100 years of culture wars in which they have been losing ground both within and outside of the church (outside their take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention, although I have read some excellent non-fundamentalist things from Southern Baptists), have declared their denomination the last bastion of true Christianity.  If you are not part of their church, you are probably emperilling your soul.

No doubt there are many more doctrines that fundamentalists believe.  But, again, the big distinguisher is the fact that they will tell you that what they believe is essential to Christianity.  The fundamentalist takes his views on biblical inerrancy and the authority of the church to such extremes that there is no longer room for discussion or opposition to what he and his church say.

Fundamentalism is the conservative religious reaction to the culture around them.  Fundamentalists will pull away and create marks to distinguish the sheep from the goats.  They will say that their interpretation of every portion of Scripture is the correct one.  They will try to freeze their church at one moment in history and get angrier and more frustrated as the world and large portions of the church keep moving along without them.

The worst fundamentalists are those who have ended up on the defensive for so long that everything is a quarrel, and God probably just hates all of you hopeless morons.  Thus Westboro Baptist (from the USA, not associated in any way, shape, or form with the like-named church in Ottawa) which declares that not only does God hate fags but God, in fact, hates the world.  You can watch a video of their choir sing the latter if you wish.

The sort of Classic Christianity which is espouse on this blog cannot include fundamentalism.  Fundamentalism does not allow room for the diversity of the Great Tradition, nor does it allow room for a generous orthodoxy.  Both of these are essential, in my mind, for a healthy view of Christianity.

So, what about Roman Catholics?  Are they/can they be fundamentalists?  Perhaps; however, a Roman Catholic fundamentalism would declare that all Prots are damned heretics and that we all need to turn more and more to the Scriptures and sacred tradition.  Although the Church has no position on this, they would likely be young-earth creationists.  I am not sure if they would believe in the inerrancyof Scripture the same way the Prot fundies do; Rome’s position is that the Bible, as being the revelation of God about God, is only considered inerrant regarding the Godhead and how to live — it might be right about other stuff, but the Church leaves room for discussion.  They would abhor Vatican II and laud Pope Benedict XVI.  They would pray the rosary.  They would worship in Latin, the women covering their heads and wearing long skirts.  Again, though, they would say that everything that they do is necessary for salvation, from the rosary to the statues to the Latin Mass; those who don’t do these things, even fellow Catholics, are endangering their eternal souls.

Now we turn to Newman Theological College.  Is it fundamentalist?  No.  It is neither fundamentalist in my conjectured Roman Catholic sense nor in the Protestant sense by any means.  In their About NTC page, they state several things that demonstrate their lack of a fundamentalist position.  First, they demonstrate a sensitivity to diversity not only within the Catholic tradition but also to other, non-Catholic Christians as well as the need for “knowledge of and dialogue with other world religions.”  Second, they say much about the need for the use of reason while working with Scripture and Tradition.  Third, they are fond of John Henry Newman (unsurprisingly) who was far from “fundamentalist” (although certainly not “liberal”).  Fourth (elsewhere on their website), there is a woman on their staff.  Indeed, if you know what fundamentalism looks like and you look at what the staff specialise in, there can be no reasonable accusation of fundamentalism here.

Therefore, let us be cautious of the words we use and how we use them.  Let us also avoid drawing debates away from where they belong and pitching them in an entirely different light.  If the federal government is giving $4 000 000 to Newman Theological College, it is not well to say they are giving the money to a “fundamentalist ‘school'”.  In fact, since there is no law against the government in Canada assisting religious organisations in need (and Newman is in need, as they are still $11 000 000 short of their requirements to rebuild), then the question is not, “Is it right for the government to fund a religious college?” but, “Is it right for the government to fund this religious college?” or, “Is it right for the government to find private colleges?”

I know I’m going on really long, but if you’re concerned with fundamentalism, you can skip this.  If your concern is how the federal government uses its money, think on the following.  If it is right for the government to give money to private colleges, then religious colleges should not be ruled out.  Religion has been and is a large part of Canadian life and of the lives of many Canadians.  If a private religious college is helping to ensure that Canada has a robust, healthy, religious life, if it has a good reputation, if it is accredited, then it should be eligible for the government’s assistance.  For the government to avoid giving assistance to religious institutions is, in fact, to cast a vote against religion, rather than to cast a vote in favour of no religion in particular.