Who Is an Evangelical?:
The History of a Movement in Crisis
by thomas s. kidd
yale, 200 pages, $26
Many years ago I was sitting in the basement of my Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, when a friend asked: “Do you think it’s a sin to vote for John Kerry?” This was 2004, and conversation was littered with talk of the upcoming contest between Kerry and President George W. Bush. I thought for a minute, then said no, I didn’t necessarily believe that. But it never occurred to me to think of the question as strange. The congruence between believing in Jesus Christ and voting Republican was as natural in my mind as the inspiration of Scripture. Only much later would I realize just how novel that kind of thinking truly is among we who call ourselves evangelicals.
More than a decade after talking Bush-Kerry in the youth group room, I was hired by an agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, and watched as our agency’s president—a lifelong Southern Baptist, an ordained pastor and former seminary dean—was attacked by fellow Baptist leaders over his (fair, in my view) criticism of then-candidate Donald Trump. It became clear to me that many evangelicals felt a deeper and more consequential sense of unity around the GOP platform than around even the doctrinal and ethical articles of the faith.
There is an emerging identity crisis within evangelicalism. Those disillusioned with evangelical culture ask: What even is an evangelical? Does the word simply mean “white, Republican Protestant”? If so, would it be better to abandon the term to the sociopolitical abyss and use a new word to describe Bible-believing, euangelion-preaching, new birth-experiencing Protestants? Confusion, anxiety, schism, and even anger within evangelicalism contribute to this lingering doubt.
So it’s good that Professor Thomas Kidd brings the conversation back to history in Who Is an Evangelical?, a learned, patient survey of the spiritual, ecclesiological, and political character of evangelicalism. Above all, Kidd insists that the historic meaning of evangelicalism describes its religious distinctives rather than its partisan entanglements. His thesis is compelling and supported by an impressive breadth of research. It is a scholarly rebuke to a generation of journalists and pollsters who abuse the term “evangelical” in service of tidy ideological narratives.
Those journalists and pollsters will likely be tempted to pick up Who Is an Evangelical? and flip immediately to the final one-third of the book, which summarizes the formation of the Religious Right. But doing so would result in crippling ignorance. As Kidd notes, the nucleus of evangelical identity is more clearly seen in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In the wake of the Reformation and Europe’s modernization emerged a movement of Protestant piety that emphasized internal transformation by the grace of God. The original evangelicals were deeply concerned about what kind of person Christ’s salvation created, an issue summarized in the biblical (and for evangelicals, foundational) doctrine of the new birth.
Kidd’s historical analysis helps show why understanding the centrality of the new birth is crucial to understanding evangelicalism. For evangelicals such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield—obscure names for most contemporary commentators on evangelical politics—the necessity of being born again gave the evangelicals’ gospel a unique responsiveness to the needs of the world. Evangelical Christianity historically has expected more than intellectual assent to doctrine or membership in the church. It demands personal transformation. As Kidd notes, the Great Awakening was a watershed moment for both evangelicalism and the United States, an intersection of religious revival and social conscientiousness that had a lasting impact on America’s history. Evangelicalism’s social imprint is directly traceable to its new birth theology.
This explains why evangelicalism has historically been a politically engaged worldview, with evangelicals at the helm of movements like the abolition of the slave trade, temperance, and education. Indeed, evangelicalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was remarkably socially conscious, one vivid example being the opposition of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to Andrew Jackson’s dehumanizing policies regarding Native American tribes. As Kidd demonstrates, evangelicals have always seen continuity between the gospel of Christ crucified and the causes of justice, morality, and human flourishing.
The ethnic diversity within evangelical Christianity is further evidence that its DNA is spiritual and theological. Kidd meticulously documents nonwhite evangelical moments, throwing into serious doubt fashionable language about conservative Christianity as a “slaveholder” religion. For those pundits for whom “evangelical” is basically a synonym for “white male Republican,” Kidd’s research offers quite an education.
It’s in the late nineteenth century, however, when the difference between socially relevant and politically partisan begins to blur for evangelicals. Here Kidd wades into more charted waters, and not all readers will agree with his analysis. For example, Kidd comes down hard on evangelicals for the Scopes trial: “Promoting anti-evolution laws was one of the most misguided evangelical ventures ever,” he writes, “because it focused so much energy on mandating a particular Christian view of science in public schools.” Yet as Kidd’s own work makes clear, evangelicals have always been deeply concerned with the moral formation of the public square. And the danger they sensed in Darwinism has been more than justified by the near total ethical dilapidation of the American public school system.
This is emblematic of the great evangelical weakness. Its pietism and emphasis on religious experience make evangelicalism a powerful agent in culture, yet can also lead to a kind of cultural captivity. If unmoored from the foundation of biblical truth, evangelical “enthusiasm” can easily mutate into corresponding left-wing and right-wing heresies: the liberal social gospel on the one hand, or a partisan “God and country” civil religion on the other. Thus we arrive in Kidd’s narrative at the fundamentalist movement in the early and mid-twentieth century that bottomed out in Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (speaking of total ethical dilapidation).
One revealing anecdote concerns Billy Graham’s support for Eisenhower’s presidential candidacy. Kidd points out that while Eisenhower was respectful and appreciative of religion, he was staunchly uncommitted in his worldview, declaring, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Kidd correctly identifies this sentiment as one of American civil religion, “the combining of spirituality and patriotism.” While the benefits of civil religion are debatable, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the pitiful patchwork of prosperity theology and white nationalism currently ascendant owes its rise—at least in part—to an evangelical willingness to relinquish doctrinal commitments for the sake of cultural solidarity.
Kidd’s book answers the query of its title: An evangelical is a Protestant Christian committed to Reformation orthodoxy, a high view of Scripture, and an emphasis on a personal yet social response to Christ. The current crisis is an evangelicalism ensnared by a myopic vision of cultural influence—in its purest form tending to pursue social transformation without keeping doctrine in the center, and in its most mercenary form acquiring political power through the pretense of kingdom work.
Kidd uses painstaking historical research and attention to context to put together an eye-opening story of evangelicalism’s rise and stumble. It is impossible to read his work and come away confident that current tribal alignments authentically reflect the deepest priorities of historic evangelical Christianity.
Nevertheless, Who Is an Evangelical? is a hopeful book, demonstrating that the word “evangelical” is rooted not in our present culture wars but in our past gospel commitments. The solution is to look backward, to break the tyranny of the now and remind ourselves of a way more ancient, more holy, more biblical, and more evangelical.