Four kinds of evangelicals, four very different results

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(RNS10-jan15) Flag and Bible in front of a home impacted by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, NY. Recovery work is being done by Volunteers in Mission through the New York Annual Conference, United Methodist Church. For use with RNS-UMC-SANDY, transmitted on January 15, 2013, RNS photo by Arthur McClanahan/Iowa Annual United Methodist Conference.

(RNS10-jan15) Flag and Bible in front of a home impacted by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, NY. Recovery work is being done by Volunteers in Mission through the New York Annual Conference, United Methodist Church. For use with RNS-UMC-SANDY, transmitted on January 15, 2013, RNS photo by Arthur McClanahan/Iowa Annual United Methodist Conference.

(RNS10-jan15) Flag and Bible in front of a home impacted by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, NY. Recovery work is being done by Volunteers in Mission through the New York Annual Conference, United Methodist Church. For use with RNS-UMC-SANDY, transmitted on January 15, 2013, RNS photo by Arthur McClanahan/Iowa Annual United Methodist Conference.

(RNS10-jan15) Flag and Bible in front of a home impacted by Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, NY. Recovery work is being done by Volunteers in Mission through the New York Annual Conference, United Methodist Church. For use with RNS-UMC-SANDY, transmitted on January 15, 2013, RNS photo by Arthur McClanahan/Iowa Annual United Methodist Conference.

Many people are mystified by “evangelicals.” It’s a word the average non-religious person doesn’t often hear in the US — except for when it is time to nominate another GOP presidential candidate. Then we hear about who those millions of “evangelicals” are supporting, always under the assumption that all evangelicals are into politics and all will support a Republican.

As an evangelical myself, this is just one of the many misunderstandings of evangelicals that drives me up the wall. It’s a problem I’ve tried to address in several of my books, most recently Evangelical Ethics (Westminster John Knox Press).

Let me take another brief crack at it here. I want to propose that there are four different kinds of evangelicals, or evangelicalism, yielding four very different results.

Let’s call doctrinal evangelicals those who focus on believing, protecting, and proclaiming some version of traditional, orthodox Protestant Christianity. They tend to be most concerned about theological truth as they understand it. The great enemies of doctrinal evangelicals are those who compromise traditional Christian beliefs, such as belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the Virgin Birth, and the bodily resurrection. The main product of doctrinal evangelicals is theological declarations and the defense of evangelical theological boundaries.

Let’s call missionary evangelicals those who focus on spreading the Christian message by word and deed. Some go around the world preaching and serving, but a broader missionary spirit is visible among many evangelicals who never leave their home country. They want people to know about Jesus Christ and to believe in him. They want to serve the world in Jesus’ name. The main worry of missionary evangelicals is that people might die never having heard or experienced the Good News of Jesus. The main product of missionary evangelicals is preaching and serving, leading sometimes to conversions and social uplift.

Let’s call lifestyle evangelicals those who focus on living out the Christian way of life as they understand it. They are very serious about (some version of) Christian living. At times this has looked like a stern abstention from the world’s vices. But lifestyle evangelicals at their best are outward-focused, generous-spirited people who will do just about anything to demonstrate God’s loving care for people. The main worry of these evangelicals is that they might fail to be who God wants to them to be. The main product of this version of evangelicalism is morally serious, loving people.

Finally, political evangelicals are those who focus on advancing (their understanding of) Christian values in the public arena. They do political organizing, lobbying, and electioneering. In the US, the majority of visible, politically engaged white evangelicals are very conservative Republicans. This is who we hear about every four years. But there are progressive white evangelicals, and political visions are much different among non-white evangelicals and certainly among evangelicals around the world. The main worry of political evangelicals is public policy and election results, and the main product is political activism.

These categories are not mutually exclusive. But they do represent very different flavors, or tendencies, among evangelicals. Their core commitments take them in very different directions. If you meet an evangelical, never assume what they most care about or what their faith means to them. And never assume that the political activists gathering under the evangelical label represent all evangelicals. That is simply not true.

  • I appreciated this very much. I would consider myself a combination of the missionary and lifestyle evangelical; however, my own foray into politics is decidedly liberal. In that sense, I definitely do not consider myself either a doctrinal or political evangelical. The term has become so polarized that I wonder if we can win it back.

    “Evangelical” has to do with spreading good news. Maybe we can’t win back that term. I am also satisfied with Christ-follower. In fact, the way I describe myself is someone trying to find his identity in God.

  • Stephen Kent Gray

    That explains four aspects or variants of evangelicals, but how does an evangelical differ from a mainline?

    The largest mainline churches are the “Seven Sisters of American Protestantism”.

    With almost 7.7 million members in the United States in 2009, the United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination.

    The second largest mainline denomination is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), with approximately 3.86 million members as of 2013.

    Third in size is the Episcopal Church, with approximately 1.89 million members in the United States in 2012.

    The fourth largest mainline denomination is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), with approximately 1.76 million members in 2013.

    American Baptist Churches USA are fifth in size, with approximately 1.3 million members (2008).

    The United Church of Christ has a little over 998,000 members in 2012.

    The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has a little over 625,000 as of 2012.

  • Stephen Kent Gray

    These are the smaller than the Seven Sisters mainline groups. Also, what differs between a doctrinal mainline, lifestyle mainline, missionary mainline, and political mainline from their evangelical counterparts?

    Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) 350,000 members
    Reformed Church in America 250,938 members (2009)
    International Council of Community Churches 69,276 members (2009)
    National Association of Congregational Christian Churches 65,392 members (2002)
    Moravian Church in America, Southern Province 21,513 members (1991)
    Moravian Church in America, Northern Province 20,983 members (2008)
    Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches 15,666 members (2006)
    Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America 12,000 members (2007)
    Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church
    Congregational Christian Churches, (not part of any national CCC body)
    Moravian Church in America, Alaska Province

  • Observer

    As with anything, we want to keep it simple; but in honoring the history and theology of many denominations there are degrees and not absolutes. Many of the so called Evangelicals as defined by American media are so off the message of the Bible that some other term should be invented.

    The term Evangelical ( proclaims the Gospel) and was first used by Martin Luther and the Reformers of his time to describe the churches in Germany and northern Europe . (Lutheran was a derogatory term like Calvinist or Papist), Church names were later was modified to Evangelical Lutheran by Lutherans who embraced the once derogatory name and Evangelical Reform for the followers of Calvin. In some parts of the world the term Evangelical is used instead of Protestant.

  • I cringe every time I hear about “the evangelical vote.” I don’t understand how any Christ follower could vote for any Republican.

  • Andrew

    I have to contest this characterization Dr Gushee. I feel that while your differing subgroups are real and very much describe some self-proclaimed evangelicals, I’m not convinced that this warrants expanding the term evangelical to theoretically include almost everyone. In Christian Smith’s 1998 study American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, he used self identificaion of his respondents to categorize evangelicals, mainline, liberal, fundamentalist, and catholic chrisians. Smith found that sef-proclaimed evangelicals held more absolute claims about beliefs, scored higher in saliness and robustness of faith commitments, participation rates, recruitment and retention than all of the other groups, inuding fundamentalists. From Smith, it seems that the most useful characterization of evangelicals is in fact a socially and theologically conservative individual with strong religious commitment and particiption who practices engagement with their society as a religious obligation

  • Interesting take on it. The problem with it is that the first type is not really distinct from the others in that they all have the same core theological doctrines in common and those core theological doctrines or some would say dogmas, actually bring about the results of the second and fourth type, though definitely not those results attributed to the third.

    In sum it seems the typology you illustrate more accurately suggests two of a range of results stemming from a commonly held set of theological doctrines/dogmas and one lifestyle founded within the Golden Rule which all true world faiths have in common with each other though not the Evangelical persuasion.

  • Jason

    Baptists are not Protestants. The fact that American Baptists are getting lumped in with them proposes a problem, obviously.

  • Jason

    http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/Believer's%20Corner/why_baptists_are_not_protestants.htm

    This explains the current trend of religious folks committing cultural suicide because they think their “love” will stop the knife at their throat. The Jewish people voting for left wing candidates is a perfect example of suicidal thought and narcissistic attitudes because it won’t happen to them.

  • Sabelotodo2

    So by extension you’re saying that God thinks completely like Democrats, and vice-versa! How deluded can you get?!

    Most Democrats believe in God but they spell it funny: GOV’T! They trust government to feed the hungry, redistribute all life’s resources to make life “fair;” force us to give up fossil fuels and eat our vegetables and not murder our bovine animal companions to make hamburger! They invest all their faith in the coercive power of government to create for all a heaven right here on earth, where there’s no longer any individualism or separation of any kind–except, of course–that huge chasm between the elites who govern, and the masses they forcibly control for their own good, and the survival of the planet–which they of course, created!

  • Debbo

    Thank you Dr. Gushee. I am not an expert on evangelicals, but my experiences make your categories ring true, in degrees, as others have said. Perhaps if there were 4 circles, one for each group, don’t you think there would be significant overlap?

    American Baptists are the most open of Baptist denominations. They ordain women, welcome LBTG folks, and share a great deal with Mainliners. It makes sense to me that they be included in the Mainline group.

    I see nothing wrong with churches being involved in politics, but I think it’s a big problem when their primary identity is political. Liberty University, for example, is a political school first. Focus on the Family, the Tony Perkins organization, and a few others are political groups too, masquerading as religious.

  • Ben in oakland

    Most Republicans believe in God but they spell it funny: THEOCRACY, or sometimes, MY PARTICULAR, PECULIAR FAITH. They trust government to feed the hungry, because they need money to control other people’s sex lives and Faiths that don’t concern them.

    They wish to redistribute all life’s resources upward to the richest 1%. They don’t care about smog, pollution, and starving children if it means to give up fossil fuels. They invest all their faith in the coercive power of government to create for all a heaven right here on earth, where there’s no longer any individualism or separation of any kind–except, of course–that huge chasm between the elites who govern, and the masses they forcibly control for their own good, and the survival of the planet–which they of course, created!

    And never leave out: BENGHAZI. AND HOMOSEXUALS ARE HERE TO TAKE YOUR GUNS.

  • Debbo

    Well done Ben.

  • ben in oakland

    ;o)

  • Falcon78

    Oh, I don’t know Bill, I’m a Christ-following Roman Catholic and a VERY conservative Republican. Let’s see–I don’t believe in abortion or gay marriage. I believe in being able to express my religion in the public square. I think the country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles and the founders never had any thought to remove God from the public square. I believe in Creation and that this world did not just ‘evolve’ from a bunch of random acts. I do also believe–no, I know–that a brand of radical Islamic fundamentalism is trying to destroy Western Civilization and would still do so regardless of our behavior or treatment of them. Christmas is “Merry” and not “Happy Holidays.” All people are equal and we don’t need liberal Democratic politicians trying to play the politics of division. I’m sure I’ve missed some things. Other than that–I’m a God-fearing, God-believing Roman Catholic who votes for Republicans.

  • Falcon78

    Sure Ben, that’s what we want to do. Redistribute wealth to the 1%. C’mon, think a little deeper, be objective, hold a conversation. I will tell you that I’d like people to take a little more responsibility for their own actions. Choices in life have consequences and if you don’t finish school, break the law, do drugs, etc. etc.–you may very well “choose” to be in the lower quartile of the 99%. Should we responsibly use resources? Of course. Should we not waste resources? You betcha, but we are not going to stop using them. Ben, take your talents and go invent a suitable replacement for the internal combustion and turbine engines, so we don’t have to use fossil fuels. Until we have that, we will need to continue to use petroleum-based products. El comprehende?

  • I appreciate this article and many of the comments. Thank you! I especially like the tone in which it is offered. That in our effort to understand each other we first learn to listen to the other. Hoping in this violent time for ever-increasing respectful discourse across what divides us.
    Mary Rakow, novelist, raised Evangelical (3 of the categories) Catholic convert