Once again, in a column published here, a political pundit predicted something about “evangelicals” that treats all of us as political conservatives. According to Philip Bump [“Religion, politics awkward mix,” Nov. 12] “evangelicals” will rally to support arch-conservative Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in spite of accusations of sexual misconduct.
Repeatedly in recent years sociologists, political commentators and pollsters have treated American evangelicals as the Republican Party at prayer. While it is true that many Americans who identify as evangelical support politically conservative policies, platforms and politicians, it is most certainly not true that “evangelical Christianity” is itself tied to any particular ideology.
I recently contributed to a book and then participated on a panel about “The Future of Evangelicalism in America” (Columbia University Press, 2017). During the panel and following discussion at the annual meeting of the Society of Church Historians (Denver, January 2017) I discovered many American sociologists and those influenced by them (journalists, commentators and poll-takers) automatically exclude African Americans from being evangelicals.
As a theologian and church historian I consider this a travesty. “Evangelical” is a spiritual-theological category, not a political one. By excluding African Americans and by tying it inextricably to a passing political fad sociologists and the media have distorted it.
David Bebbington, distinguished visiting professor of history at Baylor University, is nearly universally recognized as a world class historian of the evangelical movement — going back to the Great Awakenings of the early 17th century. Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” of evangelical hallmarks is widely recognized and frequently used by scholars to identify the evangelical ethos.
According to Bebbington, the evangelical brand of Christianity crosses denominational boundaries and is marked by biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism and activism. The Bible is considered by all evangelical Christians to be God’s inspired Word written. All evangelicals have always believed authentic Christian existence necessarily includes a personal decision of faith called conversion. The cross of Jesus Christ is believed by evangelicals to be humanity’s only basis and hope for salvation. And all evangelicals support evangelism, world missions and social action to change the world for the better.
Throughout evangelicalism’s history, however, evangelical Christians have never all adopted a particular social, political or economic ideology. And evangelicalism is a global movement, with the vast majority of evangelicals living and worshiping outside the United States. Most have no connection with U.S. political ideologies or parties.
African-American Protestant Christians have often shied away from using the label “evangelical” because “evangelicalism” has been considered a white spiritual movement. Recently, well-known, influential African-American rap artist Lecrae “resigned” from “white evangelicalism” because of the pushback he received from white conservative evangelical leaders (whom I would probably consider more fundamentalist than truly evangelical) after he sided with the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement against police shootings of unarmed African Americans.
A few years ago I was asked by an African-American seminary professor (at a mostly white Baptist seminary) if I considered black American Protestants “evangelicals.” I said yes, I do, and I still stand by that. Spiritually and theologically most African-American Protestants believe, worship and live as disciples of Jesus Christ in complete accord with the historical evangelical ethos. While they may not use the label “evangelical” for themselves, once I explain its true meaning as a spiritual and theological ethos, most African-American Protestant students and ministers respond affirmatively — that they fit that mold.
My most recent research project involved revising the Handbook of Denominations in the United States for its 14th edition. (The Handbook is a widely used and respected reference book published by the United Methodist Publishing House/Abingdon Press.) I scrutinized the web sites of all major and many newer, smaller, predominantly African-American denominations and found their statements of beliefs and practices to be perfectly in line with historic evangelicalism even if not with the current American “religious right.”
I am calling out sociologists, journalists, and commentators who exclude African-American Christians, most of whom claim to have a “born again experience” (the main test often used for determining whether someone is evangelical), from being considered evangelical. Evangelical Christianity, properly understood, is not exclusively white, American or politically conservative, even if some individuals and churches are.