This is REAL evangelical
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States has caused considerable turmoil among politicized religious groups fighting for space under their evangelical umbrella. The recent spat between Jonathan Merritt and Daniel Schultz is an understandable outcome.
Much of the furor over the ownership of “evangelical” identity can be explained by the sociological processes involved in creating, contesting, and rejecting identities. And, I want to point out how identifications with more permanent structural entities—organized religious denominations—allow us to understand continuity in the connections between religion, politics, and other social institutions.
For sociologists “evangelical” is an adjective describing movements that proselytize. Evangelical groups seek to grow through grabbing members from other groups or from among the ranks of the unaffiliated, and evangelical individuals consider “witnessing” a part of their personal identities. “Evangelical” was also appropriated by several movements to indicate a willingness to cooperate or merge across ethnic denominations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is not “evangelical” in the sociological sense, but it brought together Lutherans of varied nationalities. A similar connection happened in Calvinist movements, but neither Lutherans nor Calvinists are interested in recruiting. Notably, using the sociological definition, liberal universalistic religious groups can be evangelical, and many conservative exclusivist religious sects are not evangelical.
In the early 1980s, Christian conservative political activists sought an identity that would hold together the tremendous diversity of organized Protestantism. “Fundamentalist” was an identity tainted by the evolution controversies in the early 20th century. “Born Again” didn’t quite fit the bill, largely because it was based on a specific theological belief that was alien to many conservative Protestants. And, the televangelism scandals of the 1980s and Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan spoiled the “born again” moniker. Spoiled identities result in personal and collective conflicts over who you are, what you believe, and who is one of you. We see this for racial and ethnic identities and sexual identities as well. “Negro” and “colored” become tainted, and a struggle ensues to identify as “Afro-American”, “black”, or currently “African American.” Homosexual is replaced by “gay” then “gay and lesbian” then perhaps “queer” or “LGBT.”
Evangelical became the collective identity for many conservative Protestants starting in the early 1980s. This brought together people from a diverse set of Protestant denominations, ranging from Pentecostals to Southern Baptists to Reformed Calvinists. Notably, most members of each of these three groups embracing the “evangelical” identity think that members of the other groups are going to hell (or at least will not see heaven). Glossolalia is essential for salvation for Pentecostals, while Baptists and Calvinists would consider it an indicator of demon possession. While Baptists opine that Calvinists must repent and be born again, Calvinists believe they were born into the covenant—and Baptists were not. The diverse array of exclusivist Protestants in the United States makes holding them together a difficult task.
Yet, Evangelical as an identification became all the rage. Faced with rapid social change on issues like gender roles and sexuality, and a growing secular rejection of religiosity in general, many moderate and even liberal Protestants came to identify as “evangelical.” By the end of the first decade of the 21st century we have stories about “evangelicals” advocating gay rights, “evangelicals” supporting environmental justice, and “evangelicals” protecting undocumented immigrants. This transmogrification of “evangelical” into a catch-all term for “Christian” was bound to result in conflict. The evangelical umbrella simply wasn’t big enough to cover the hordes crowding under it and now some must be pushed out or some must leave—and find a new umbrella.
For constructed collective and personal identities like “evangelical” exit is easy enough, though it may be painful initially, as Russell Moore and Jonathan Merritt may attest There are no membership dues, no paperwork, you don’t have to quit your job, move, or even change which church you go to. Simply stop identifying as an evangelical. There are many identities we shed throughout our lives. People who play sports may consider it a vital part of their identity and the key community to which they belong—but an injury may mean that you are no longer a runner, a cyclist, or an ultimate Frisbee player. Since “evangelical” as an identity is unencumbered by any real attachments, it could be shed relatively easily. You and your people will still be Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, or Calvinists, but “your people” will no longer include those other people.
Because broad collective identities are contested and fluid, they are not well-suited for studying long-term connections between religion and other social institutions like politics. In ten years, few will likely claim “evangelical” as their personal or collective identity. But, people generally do maintain identifications with concrete social movement organizations like political parties and religious denominations. As I have shown in Changing Faith, while some people do switch religious denominations over the life course, most remain attached to their denomination of origin. And, these denominations tend to remain fairly fixed in their theological orientations and how they see that connected to other institutions like family, science, education, and politics. Merritt is correct that Jimmy Carter hasn’t completely untangled himself from the Southern Baptist Convention (his church still lists an affiliation—though they may not being giving the SBC any money). However, the Baptist congregational polity allows them to affiliate with other organizations, and Maranatha Baptist Church of Plains is a member of the more liberal, developing denomination of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Politics, gender, and family issues are splitting the SBC. And, if Carter is still to be identified as an “evangelical” it is in the sociological sense of the term, not as a politicized identity dominated by right-wing politics.
The broad evangelical coalition, which at one time even sought to encompass African American Protestants, is dead. The evangelical umbrella has collapsed and now only covers white, exclusivist Protestants who adhere to white nationalist political values and connections. After Trump, “evangelical” as an identity embraced by individuals and groups may go the way of “fundamentalist.” But, enduring ties to conservative Protestant religious denominations will see them come together again under a different banner—or maybe they’ll keep evangelical and simply purge the liberals and moderates.