Evangelicalism: ethos, movement, or both?

At its core, evangelicalism has always been a system of spiritual/theological beliefs. The Bebbington Quadrilateral has been considered the go-to guide to the evangelical ethos. The quartet can be abstracted as: conversionism – the need for sinful man to experience spiritual rebirth; biblicism – to have a high (e.g., inerrant) view of Biblical authority, and to know and follow Scripture; crucicentrism – the centrality of Christ’s sacrificial atonement for sin; and activism – to proclaim salvation and produce its fruits by compassion, mercy and justice.[i] The précis was devised some decades ago by a theologian living in Britain, and grows ever-more remote as American evangelicals continually find themselves redefined. Although Bebbington’s is often called a typology, it is less a taxonomy of evangelicalism than a profile of the lowest doctrinal common-denominators that all evangelicals would be expected to share. The Bebbington baseline reflects a spiritual/theological ethos, but evangelicalism is better expressed in practice than on paper. The definition of evangelical encompasses much more than the gown and mortarboard set give on. To be an evangelical is a way of life connected to, and sometimes confusedly at odds with its faith precepts.

There is a doctrinal base, but also a lived experience loaded with subcultural periphenalia, perhaps best distilled by Kristin Du Mez, who coined the term “Hobby Lobby Evangelicalism”.[ii] She describes  the retailer sells more than just decorative baubles; it aligns them to the hopes, longings, and imaginings of the American Christian consumer, implanting subliminal seeds of homespun sentimentality and churchy wholesomeness. As Du Mez puts it, marketing “products offering the illusion of the country, all the charm with none of the manure.” Evangelicals express themselves not just through what they buy, but in how they converse. A random shopper at Hobby Lobby may likely encounter the tribal idiom, evangelicalese. Evangelical-speak is a religious vernacular infused with biblical allusion, replete with its own esoteric vocabulary.

Evangelicalism is at the same a theological statement and a cultural project. Protestant groups were drawn into its network as a tactical alliance for biblically-based, culturally-relevant evangelistic and social outreach. The blessing and bane of “common ground criss-crossed by many fences” meant throwing a bit of one’s religious identity into a neutral territory.[iii] Despite mis-givings, many traditions had to become tolerant enough to accommodate some measure of cross-denominational inconsistency. For example, Presbyterian ministers had to suffer “asking Jesus to come into your heart”, along with “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” strummed in youth group singalongs. At non-denominational Christian schools, summer camps and youth rallies, Calvinists had a Hobson’s choice to study, play and worship alongside revivalists with their house-on-fire brand of transactional evangelism. And in a Billy Graham Crusade, Southern churches had to tolerate interracial seating.[iv] As a movement, evangelicalism is more than just the aggregate of its constituents. One doesn’t speak of pan-evangelicalism; by nature it is a receptive ecumenism based on a bare-bones theology, formed among those sharing a family resemblance because the gene pool is intermingled with second cousins and shirt-tail relatives. Defining evangelicalism based solely on theology is next to impossible, because most evangelicals can’t define their own theology. It’s like a religious Golden Corral, as Pat Robertson is quoted:

As far as the majesty of worship, I'm an Episcopalian; as far as a belief
in the sovereignty of God, I'm Presbyterian; in terms of holiness, I'm a
Methodist . . . in terms of the priesthood of believers and baptism, I'm a
Baptist; in terms of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, I'm a Pentecostal.[v]

[i] Keith C. Sewell, The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions, Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publ., 2016, P. 5.

[ii] Kristin Du Mez, “Hobby Lobby Evangelicalism”, Patheos, September 6, 2018. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2018/09/hobby-lobby-evangelicalism/ (accessed January 10, 2019).

[iii] Carl F. H. Henry, “Somehow, Let’s Get Together”, Christianity Today, June 9, 1957, P. 24.

[iv] Steven P. Miller, Billy Graham And The Rise Of The Republican South, Philadelphia: Univ. Of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, P. 31.

[v] David Edwin Harrell, Pat Robertson: A Personal, Religious, And Political Portrait, New York: Harper & Row, 1987, P. 102.

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