With new books rolling off the presses, evangelicals continue to take stock of the age of Trump. Stephen Strang’s God and Donald Trump offers a glimpse into the backing of Trump by some leaders in the evangelical world. Strang’s narrative reveals a new coalition between Southern Baptists and independent Charismatic pastors, many of whom espouse some version of prosperity theology. The collection of essays Mark Labberton has assembled strikes a more somber tone, as each author grapples with the crisis of evangelical identity in the wake of Trumpism.
After the candidacy of Roy Moore, the trickle of those questioning evangelical identity has become a steady stream. It began with Peter Wehner’s concern that the evangelicals now aboard the Trump train have come to embody what once were liberal caricatures. For this reason, Wehner says, he can no longer self-identify as an evangelical, though he admits that his beliefs still fit the movement. Citing Wehner, Tim Keller has suggested that the term has taken a beating due to false perceptions grounded in reporting on nominal forms of evangelicalism. Keller concludes that churches that retain an evangelical confessional identity may need to find a different name. After reading Keller’s piece, David French recommended returning to simply “Christian.”
Anecdotal evidence seems to reinforce the idea that many evangelicals are rethinking the “evangelical” label. I have heard from a number of Pentecostals who reject it. But then, Pentecostals historically have had a difficult time with the label, since they have been viewed with suspicion by many in the confessional wing of the movement. Embedded in the Pentecostal psyche is the perception that evangelicals once considered Pentecostals part of the problem, until they needed their numbers and invited them to join the National Association of Evangelicals. In addition, there is the way Pew splits Pentecostals into “the Black Church” and “white evangelical Protestant”—an artificial division, in my view. Denying that they are evangelical is a way for Pentecostals to resist outside attempts to impose an identity upon them.
Yet the “Pentecostal” label is not exactly free from controversy, especially given the prominence in the movement of prosperity preachers, some of whom have supported Trump. Most Pentecostals know that Charisma, the magazine run by Stephen Strang, came out of Calvary Assembly of God in Orlando. In a recent interview, Strang said that he wrote God and Donald Trump to answer the question, “What happened?” His answer: God intervened by raising up a man no one expected. Most African-American and Latino/a Pentecostals I know—the ones populating the churches in New York that Keller describes as multicultural and growing—would strongly disagree with Strang. Yet they probably would not give up the label “Pentecostal.”
As a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), I have often thought about the usefulness of the term “evangelical.” It really functions as a kind of nickname for Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals, Holiness denominations, non-denominational churches, and other forms of Protestantism. When someone asks me what version of Christianity I embrace, I don’t respond, “I’m an evangelical.” Instead I say, “Pentecostal,” and if probed further I place myself in the tradition of churches that trace their roots to John Wesley. I suspect it is the same for many in the evangelical world. Those in non-denominational churches usually lead with “I attend X,” and if probed further may say, “It’s largely evangelical.” They could just as easily say, “It’s charismatic.” There are even those from denominations with “evangelical” in the name, who might say, “I’m Evangelical Free Church, which is part of evangelicalism.” This kind of talk gets obscured by the questions most pollsters use to identify “evangelicals.”
That said, the moniker still signifies, in that it identifies non-conformist or dissenting Protestantism. Nicknames usually are not chosen by those who have them, and “evangelical” has historically been a political moniker, identifying Protestants who are connected through dissent from state churches or monarchies and intent on facilitating revival among culturally nominal forms of Christianity. The pietism and revivalism so central to evangelicalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and identified by David Bebbington’s quadrilateral (crucicentrism, activism, Biblicism, and conversionism), is always in the service of social renewal through some critique of establishment Christianity. This is true even of evangelicals like John Wesley, who was a monarchist, yet so resisted establishment Anglicanism that he was willing to allow Methodism to dis-establish itself. It is also why Anglicans who identify as evangelical usually have a Puritan bent. Remember that the Puritan legacy includes regicide.
It is true that there are times when the moniker does not fit. Outside of ECT, I have done most of my ecumenical work as a Pentecostal, because evangelicalism is not a church or even a theological tradition. I am also the current president of the Society for Pentecostal Studies, and have had little involvement in the Evangelical Theological Society—mainly because there are times when I just want to speak my native tongue and not have to translate everything into a broader evangelical idiom.
Though I’m not wedded to the label, still I think it’s the best option we have historically. I don’t know another moniker that works against sectarianism, compelling conservative Protestants to see themselves as a family (if a dysfunctional one). Alternatives have been tried, from Neo-Evangelical to Post-Evangelical/Emergent and Postconservative Evangelical. Like many nicknames, “evangelical” has stuck, and we might as well own it. At least then we can shape the label and complicate the stereotypes associated with it.
Besides, “evangelical” will never be the primary name we employ. Most evangelicals recognize this. Another way of complicating the label is simply to lead with your given name. In the growing non-denominational world, this may be a challenge, but it’s one way forward. I know Tim Keller is first and foremost a Presbyterian, and I am a Pentecostal. That’s really who we are—not “evangelicals.”
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.
Photo by Justin Brendel.