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American evangelicalism is experiencing an identity crisis

The champion among contenders for a “crisis” of experience and identity these years is American evangelicalism, which was born from the crises of the eighteenth century, and has been part of the Protestant package ever since.

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The champion among contenders for a “crisis” of experience and identity these years is American evangelicalism, which was born from the crises of the eighteenth century, and has been part of the Protestant package ever since. Polls, the press, and folkways have uncovered some current versions of this, onto which any sentient and informed citizen can throw light through empirical research. Start with an authoritative update by Mark Labberton, who is well poised to witness these issues from his post as president of the landmark Fuller Theological Seminary. Labberton edited the new book Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (InterVarsity Press, 2018). In his introduction, he writes: “In its current mode, Evangelicalism contains an amalgam of theological values, partisan political debates, regional power blocks, populist visions, racial biases, and cultural anxieties, all mixed in an ethos of fear. No wonder it can be difficult to know if one is still an evangelical.” Agreed.

In his chapter in Still Evangelical?, entitled “Evangelicalism Must Be Born Again,” Shane Claiborne—a “self-described liberal activist”—points to evangelicalism’s “image crisis”: “When people hear the word evangelical, it conjures up an image of folks who are anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-environment, pro-guns, pro-war, and pro-capital punishment.” He judges: “We often look very unlike our Christ.” Continuing their informal empirical research, curious citizens can check Claiborne’s claims simply by listening to and watching their neighbors down the block.

Adding to confusion over identity and belief is the blurriness and fuzziness that come naturally in a pluralist society. LifeWay Research of Nashville, an evangelical research ministry parented by the Southern Baptist Convention, has investigated and compared different versions of this crisis on the American landscape. Bob Smietana, summarizing the results of the LifeWay survey, reminds readers that what we might call “classic” or “enduring” evangelicalism held to beliefs like “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe” and “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.” These are not as prominent in the politicized and mass-marketed evangelicalism so prevalent in public life today.

One way of dealing with the evangelical blur is to look at the map and data accompanying Smietana’s report. Some quick statistics: Only 23% of citizens in the South are identified as “evangelicals by belief,” while 31% are “self-described evangelicals.” The West includes 10% evangelicals by belief as opposed to 18% self-described. Figures for the Midwest are 15% versus 29%, with 5% versus 13% for the Northeast. Leaders trying to make sense of all this can be seen as—but are not necessarily self-described as—evangelical “elites.” (Many may secretly aspire to belong to such, but who really wants to be typed there?) In his contribution to Labberton’s book, Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, owns up to identification with the evangelical elite. He was on a panel at the Evangelical Press Association discussing recent political choices among self-described evangelicals. Not one of the panelists there identified with the political candidate of “evangelical” choice during the last election. Someone pointed out that “it was odd for a panel of evangelicals to include no one who represented the views of most evangelicals.”

Christian Century editor David Heim, following Galli, also plays with the term “elite” in his review of Still Evangelical?, acknowledging the “class and education gap among [those called] evangelicals.” Identity crises? This exercise calls to mind a line of Emmett Grogan, from the hippie era and lexicon: “Anything anybody can say about America is true.” We could substitute a word: “Anything anybody can say about evangelicalism is true.” Labberton, Galli, Claiborne, the LifeWay people, and the essayists and reviewers who study and quote them, at least try to observe and cite and clarify, and they do the public a service thereby. Perhaps their work can throw light on, and diminish something of, the above-described “ethos of fear.”