How white evangelicals define themselves – and what is missing

Yesterday, I highlighted a sociological argument about who white evangelicals are. Recently, evangelical leaders came together to provide their own definition for evangelicals. This included input from sociologists, theologians, historians, and others. Here is the four part definition:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

This is a theological definition. With a few well-worded survey questions, evangelicals can be separated from other religious and Protestant groups.

From a sociological perspective, what does this definition miss? At least a few things:

  1. Social/cultural context. Theological beliefs alone cannot capture the cultural dimensions of being evangelicals. If we define culture as “patterns of meaning-making” (a definition preferred by sociologists of culture), making sense of those four theological views and putting them into practice is a whole additional ballgame to consider. What is it like to worship in an evangelical setting? How are evangelicals encouraged to live their day-to-day lives? What kinds of media do they consume? What institutions do they celebrate and contribute to? And so on.
    It is not enough to cite a particular religious history for the group that could be dated back to 1600s American Protestants or 1700s-1800s British Protestants. Those theological paths were also significantly influenced by social events including the Enlightenment, evolution and the rise of science, industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of the western democratic state.
    In other words, others can hold similar theological views – particularly black Protestants – but they do not share the same social dimensions with white evangelicals.
  2. Engagement with race. As has been explored in the last two decades, particularly in still-relevant Divided By Faith, American evangelicalism has a sordid history with race. While some evangelicals have fought for the rights of non-whites, many have not. When white evangelicals today are asked about race, they tend to stick to color-blind approaches (“we don’t see race”), argue that talking about race issues makes it worse, and that evangelicals should be united in Christ. The argument in Divided By Faith is that evangelicals have an individualistic approach to all of life – including theology – and can’t see structural issues like racism. If evangelicals do try to address race (or other less popular issues), some evangelicals exercise their individual abilities to join new churches or groups.
  3. Politics. This has probably received the most public attention since the 1970s as evangelicals emerged as a recognizable group, had their first President (a Baptist and Democrat), and formed their own political groups (The Moral Majority, etc.). Evangelicals do tend to vote a certain way – with Republicans – and have coalesced around certain moral issues (like abortion) while saying little about others that are clearly Biblical concerns (like poverty and immigration, as just two examples).
    A recent plenary session at a sociology of religion meeting I was at noted a more recent trend: evangelicals (and other religious groups) as a whole are not really voting with religious convictions in mind. It is all about party identification.
  4. Forming their own institutions. Once the modern-fundamentalist split occurred around the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals created a whole new set of institutions: TV and radio stations, colleges, magazines, parachurch ministries (think Focus on the Family), publishing houses, celebrities (from Billy Graham to Tim Tebow), movies, and more. And perhaps the most notable institutions are non-denominational churches as well as the suburban megachurch.
  5. Limited interaction, engagement, and work with Christians around the world, let alone other Christian groups in the United States. The evangelical tendencies toward drawing boundaries based on theology (as well as cultural characteristics) can make it difficult to work with others.
  6. Where did the fundamentalists go? They were subsumed under the evangelical umbrella after World War II. Few Christian groups choose to use this name given its connotations today but it can sometimes be hard to determine the fundamentalists (who typically advocate more separation with the world) and evangelicals (who typically advocate more engagement with the world). Insiders can tell you clear differences between Bob Jones and Wheaton College but outsiders may not be able to (and may not care to).

All this said, it is not as simple as defining a religious group solely by their theology. To their credit, LifeWay and others acknowledge that this four point scale only gets at evangelical belief. As sociologists of religion often note, religiosity includes belief, belonging, and behavior. Perhaps evangelicals themselves want to primarily emphasize theological positions but this does not fully capture who they are nor is it the way that those outside the group will regard them.

 

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