Defining “Evangelicalism” Down

Defining “Evangelicalism” Down

Written by Andrew T. Walker |
Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The confusion over the word “evangelicalism” and the ensuing plasticity of the label is truly tragic and leads to unhelpful categorization, theological malpractice, and no small amount of internal strife within evangelical Christianity.


With increasing frequency throughout many sectors of American culture, use of “evangelical” in social discourse is now an epithet. It is no longer just a foreign term to some, but a derisive label to many. Not only is its invocation used by those who wish to reject evangelical belief outright, but by those who claim the label of evangelical yet insist upon evangelicalism’s failure to embody Jesus’s teaching. For one group, evangelicalism is a smokescreen for hateful fundamentalism; for the other, a veneer for political aggrandizement.

Rarely, however, is the term defined with any theological precision. The way the conversation proceeds online assumes a common working definition of evangelical but rarely is it tendered or dwelt upon with any degree of nuance or caution. Broad denunciation is the order of the day. Sure, overtures to David Bebbington’s famous “Bebbington Quadrilateral” often abound in more evangelical outlets, but that has more or less receded into the background, especially as one zeroes out of immediately evangelical contexts. Instead, “evangelical” or “white evangelical” is used as an ethnographic political label. In other words, it is a tribal shibboleth where theology may matter on the margins of the term, but no longer at its center.

The confusion over the word “evangelicalism” and the ensuing plasticity of the label is truly tragic and leads to unhelpful categorization, theological malpractice, and no small amount of internal strife within evangelical Christianity.

Enter a recent column by political science Professor Ryan Burge in The New York Times. Burge’s column is fascinating on the one hand, maddening on the other, but ultimately serves to reinforce the problematic ways that social science has led to the diminishment of evangelicalism as a theological project. To be clear, my criticism is not aimed at Burge per se insofar as he’s speaking to statistical realities on their own terms, but the broader ecosystem that allows conversation around evangelicalism to persist as it does without greater introspection.

Drawing on recent findings from Pew, Burge’s column argues that rather than waning, evangelicalism’s numbers grew under the Trump presidency because of the ability for disparate factions to more broadly coalesce around evangelicalism as a politically integrated worldview. The growth, according to Burge, is because “evangelicalism” has become synonymous with Republican politics. Burge states in his own words, “What is drawing more people to embrace the evangelical label on surveys is more likely that evangelicalism has been bound to the Republican Party. Instead of theological affinity for Jesus Christ, millions of Americans are being drawn to the evangelical label because of its association with the G.O.P.”

He admits that “evangelical” is by no means synonymous with church attendance, so one can claim to be evangelical without membership in an actual church. That’s an important tell, one I will come back to later.

Burge goes on: “The second factor bolstering evangelicalism on surveys is that more people are embracing the label who have no attachment to Protestant Christianity. For example, the share of Catholics who also identified as evangelicals (or born again) rose to 15 percent in 2018 from 9 percent in 2008. That same pattern appears with Muslims. In fact, there’s evidence that the share of Orthodox Christians, Hindus and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who identify as evangelical is larger today than it was just a decade ago.”

If that sentence does not stand out, it should. According to polling data, not only are Mormons evangelical, but so are…Muslims and Hindus?

Burge then goes on to state: “Yet these non-Protestants are embracing the evangelical label for slightly different reasons. Protestants and non-Protestants have a strong affinity for the Republican Party and the policies of Donald Trump, but non-Protestant evangelicals are much more religiously devout. For instance, half of Muslims who attend services at a mosque more than once a week and align with the G.O.P. self-identify as evangelical. (Just 20 percent of Republican Muslims attend mosque once a year.) In essence, many Americans are coming to the understanding that to be very religiously engaged and very politically conservative means that they are evangelical, even if they don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ.”

Again, pay attention: Burge tells us that one can reject the divinity of Jesus Christ and be evangelical. This, coupled with the admission that Muslims and Hindus can be evangelical as well, ought to raise suspicion about both the term itself and the contents that go into defining the term. In fact, let me state this in the plainest of terms: Any demographic research that allows the use of “evangelical” to be applied to those who consider themselves Muslim, Hindu, or reject the divinity of Jesus Christ exhibits profound theological malpractice. If “evangelical” is, at root, a mere constellation of political affinity groups wherein Jesus Christ’s kingship is dispensed, we should ask the question: How did this come about? Is it because evangelical became a catch-call term to mean people who consider themselves Christians and who are broadly conservative in their outlook, or because the ubiquity of its usage throughout American culture necessarily led to its redefinition?

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