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I recall watching Richard John Neuhaus address the National Association of Evangelicals when still a Lutheran pastor. He intoned in his sonorous voice at the start of his talk, “ We evangelicals . . . ” all the time smiling like a Cheshire cat.

James R. Rogers Neuhaus’ grin came to mind recently when reading American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us , by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. The scholars analyze the results from surveys they created to help them describe and understand American religion. As with any survey, the results of Putnam and Campbell’s polls can be received with confidence only if the sample size of the surveys is large enough to assure the researchers that the results reflect the underlying population. So Putnam and Campbell needed to aggregate members of religious groups in order to get a large enough sample so that they, and their readers, have some confidence in the statistical results they publish. One of the categories they created is the category of “evangelical Protestant.”

Putnam and Campbell include in this group churches as diverse as the Assemblies of God (charismatic), the Christian Reformed Church (Calvinist), Church of the Nazarene (Wesleyan), Four Square Gospel Church (fundamentalist), Southern Baptist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Pentecostal Churches, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and many more. They distinguish this set of churches from Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, and Catholic.

A couple of thoughts on the category.

First, I have no complaint with Putnam and Campbell’s category; they had to come up with some way of defining and grouping evangelical churches. The only alternative to grouping would be to increase the size of the sample they took significantly, which would have increased their costs significantly. So they need to aggregate across denominational lines. Nonetheless, their grouping of churches they include as “evangelical” is arresting. It raises the question both of the description of “evangelical” as well as its use as a category in explaining religious behavior in the U.S.

While the group of evangelical churches identified by Putnam and Campbell generally shares a consensus on a set of basic doctrines”the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, his deity, his virgin birth, his second coming, etc.”there nonetheless is also significant variation in belief and practice among this set of churches. Yet for all the variation, churches in this group do share an underlying commonality in orientation toward reading the scriptures that allows for cross-denominational identity and communication.

For the most part, any member of one of these churches could sit down with a member of another church in the group, open the Bible, and share a lucid conversation (even if not arriving at a common conclusion). I particularly enjoy chatting with members of the Church of Christ (not to be confused with the unrelated United Church of Christ). In my experience, members of that church have the highest average level of Bible literacy of any evangelical church in the U.S.

Some observers criticize these churches for what they call “Biblidolatry.” And yet in my experience the only reason for according the Bible high regard is because it records the revelation of God to humanity. They take the Bible seriously because of their love for God.

For the most part, the evangelical churches on Putnam and Campbell’s list reject infant baptism. They’re either big-b Baptist churches”such as the Southern Baptist Convention”or they are what I call small-b baptist churches, in that they do not identify as big-B Baptist churches, but still reject infant baptism. The Church of Christ and most charismatic and Pentecostal churches fall into this category.

For many members of baptistic churches, the difference between mainline churches and evangelical churches turns on the question of infant baptism. “Believing” churches that also practice infant baptism serve as real puzzles to Baptists (and “baptists”). I have more than once overheard a group of earnest young evangelicals puzzling over Missouri Synod Lutherans, “They worship like Catholics and they baptize babies, but they also seem to believe the Gospel!”

Yet paedobaptism does seem to align with other differences as well. While I know in some parts of the country robust Lutheran, Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian prison ministries exist, in my experience, the bulk of in-prison volunteers come from baptistic churches. To be sure, that could result from the sheer number of Baptists in some areas of the country. But even taking that into consideration, my sense is that volunteers from baptistic churches are overrepresented in the population of prison volunteers relative to their distribution in the religious population.

It could also be the correlation between infant baptism and other attributes. The LCMS, for example, continues to struggle with habits borne of its beginning in the U.S. as a German-speaking immigrant church. Learning to turn outward in mission is still a novelty in some congregations.

Third, but related to the above point, contrary to Matthew Arnold’s argument that “hole and corner” Christian churches dissipate their energies in empty doctrinal disputes, my casual observation suggests that the more sectarian, “hole and cornerish” churches predominate in service as well. Not in absolute terms, but as a proportion of the population in those churches.

I’m entirely open to the possibility that I’m overgeneralizing based on a sample limited to my own experience, but I’ve wondered why it is that the most sacramentally oriented churches (and I’m including the LCMS in this group) seem to be less represented among volunteers in prison and other similarly oriented ministries than “hole and corner” churches. It’s always seemed to me that the opposite should be the case given the sacramental realism in which these churches engage. Some pastors from these traditions suggest that their congregants simply take seriously their own forgiveness. That’s fair enough, but forgiveness is the starting point of the Christian life, not the end. Christ frees us to live new lives in him. As a result of this liberty, service is something that Christians “get” to do rather than something that Christians “got” to do.

Putnam and Campbell’s book is full of results that confirm casual observation as well as challenge it. For all the eclecticism of their “evangelical” category, their empirical results suggests that there is a “there, there,” as they demonstrate a host of both striking differences and striking similarities between evangelical, mainline, Catholic, and Black churches.

James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .

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