Who Is an Evangelical?
The History of a Movement in Crisis
by thomas s. kidd
yale, 200 pages, $26
The constant refrain of this book is that American evangelicals are not necessarily either white or Republican. As the author points out, evangelicals are distinguished more by charitable giving than by Republican voting. And their numbers have frequently been drawn from African-American, Native American, Asian, and (especially recently) Latino groups. So, the media image of evangelicals as a political and racial bloc is inaccurate. Thomas Kidd, himself an evangelical, white, and often (though not in 2016) a Republican voter, insists that the movement has been primarily religious rather than political, and multiracial rather than white.
Kidd mounts his case through a survey of the evangelical past, a task for which he is well-qualified as the James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History at Baylor University. He begins by discussing the eighteenth-century Great Awakening, when George Whitefield rekindled the embers of Reformation piety. Though Kidd frankly acknowledges the blemished record of Whitefield on slavery, he points out that there were African-American converts in the movement from its origins. In the era of the early republic, evangelicals were a nation-forming force, urging religious liberty and attacking social abuses, but they were spiritual in their priorities. They gradually developed an “establishmentarian impulse,” wishing to impose their own standards of sabbath observance or abstention from alcohol on the wider society. Although evangelicals had the worthy aims of ensuring a day of rest for laborers and minimizing domestic violence against women, they opened themselves to exploitation by well-meaning or opportunistic political leaders. The evangelical taste for politics was to prove a snare.
In the early years of the twentieth century, evangelicals turned against theological liberalism, denouncing those who abandoned the “fundamentals” of the faith, and in many cases siding with the anti-evolution cause. By the 1940s, a “Neo-Evangelical” movement had emerged, aspiring to direct fundamentalism into more culturally engaged channels and drawing in Pentecostals. Billy Graham became the linchpin of the movement, joining in the torrent of Cold War rhetoric that did much to politicize evangelical churchgoers. Graham’s two tracks of evangelism and politics became normal, with issues such as the pro-life campaign and agencies such as the Moral Majority acting as spurs to mass mobilization. A group that Kidd calls “Republican insider evangelicals” was a fixture by the 1980s and has dominated the public image of the whole movement down to the present day.
Solid evidence favors Kidd’s main theses. The evangelistic spirit displayed, for instance, in the Businessmen’s Revival of 1857–58 demonstrates the commitment of the evangelicals to their conversionist priorities. The issues championed during the nineteenth century were commonly reforming causes such as the relief of the poor, rather than questions of cultural defense like those taken up by the Republican Party in the late twentieth century. Most of all, Kidd shows that figures from different ethnic backgrounds have played prominent parts in the movement. An evangelist of the black-led Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, Rosetta Tharpe, promoted the rapid advance of her denomination in the early years of the twentieth century through musical revivals that made her a star of the gospel idiom. Lightfoot Solomon Michaux was an African-American preacher whose Saturday evening radio shows in 1934 attracted 24 million people and who after the Second World War became the first minister of any ethnicity to have his own television program. In the civil rights era, the black minister John Perkins helped lead the cause in Mississippi, transmitting something of his passion for social justice to white evangelicals. More recently, South Korean denominations have sent missionaries to the United States. And in numbers alone, the Spanish-speaking rank-and-file of the movement has become significant. Latinos, Kidd concludes, “represent the evangelical future.” Perhaps it should not be surprising that a movement that has prided itself on its missionary efforts among the nations should turn out to be diverse.
Kidd defines evangelicalism by three hallmarks: “conversion, Bible, and divine presence.” Evangelicals have been born again. They believe that the Bible is the Word of God. And they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Nobody would deny that these are traits of evangelicals, though the divine presence could be regarded as a corollary of conversion. However, another way of characterizing evangelicalism (one associated with this reviewer) would add activism—vigorous effort in evangelism and often social action—and crucicentrism—a theological prioritizing of the atonement of Christ—to the list. The resulting quadrilateral of conversion, Bible, Cross, and activism, as Kidd notes, has become a widely used way of identifying evangelicals. This characterization does not claim that evangelicals alone have upheld these features, but rather proposes that evangelicals emphasize all four together. It does seem preferable as a way of understanding who has belonged to the movement throughout its history.
By leaving out the Cross, Kidd’s tripartite definition risks neglecting something of great importance: the place in the evangelical imagination of the suffering of the Savior. That Christ shed his blood for humanity has loomed large in evangelical teaching, preaching, and spirituality. Emphasizing it is the difference between (as Luther might have put it) a theologia crucis, a theology of the Cross, and a theologia gloriae, a theology of glory. The focus of Christian doctrine, on this understanding, is not visible triumph but apparent tragedy. That is something African Americans, because of their historical experience, deeply cherish. They have been able to identify with a Man of Sorrows. This is an axiom about which white evangelicals need to be reminded by their black brothers and sisters.
Evangelicalism cannot be reduced to the current stances of the Republican party. It is not a political group, or a racial bloc, but a religious movement. In stressing all this, Kidd is surely right. And he could take another step. In answer to the question “Who is an evangelical?” he might consider adding another factor. Evangelicals have stressed the Cross of Christ as well as conversion, the Bible, and a desire to spread the gospel and to put it into action. As the African-American adherents of the movement Kidd celebrates know well, an old, rugged Cross stands at the center of evangelicalism.
David Bebbington is emeritus professor of history at the University of Stirling.