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Who is an evangelical? A plea for clarity

Andrew T. Walker | Let the evangel define evangelicalism, not politics


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Who is an evangelical? A plea for clarity

It’s fashionable to redefine evangelicalism away from its focus on Jesus Christ and in the direction of labeling the movement as a cultural pariah. Self-designated “exvangelicals” insist that evangelicalism is little more than a right-wing intellectual straitjacket. Some identified as evangelical thought leaders remain incredulous about evangelical support for former President Donald Trump. Supposedly dispassionate academics psychologize, historicize, and pathologize evangelicalism with peer-reviewed sanctimony. But all of them insist that this redefinition is evangelicalism’s own fault, as though it is merely synonymous with Republican politics, hypocrisy, retrograde nostalgia, and a threat to democratic norms.

These attempts to redefine evangelicalism should be seen for what they are: not-so-veiled attempts by cultured despisers to delegitimize conservative Christianity. Evangelicals who want to keep the gospel of Jesus Christ central to evangelical identity and understand that Biblical ethics inform morality and politics should reject these calls for redefining evangelicalism.

As a reminder, evangelical is a theological term derived from the Greek word “euangelion,” which literally means, “the good news.” Evangelicalism is a historical movement with origins in post-Reformation Europe. But the impulse to define it predominantly around political behavior is an intellectual fallacy. If non-evangelicals see it as a political identity, is that because evangelicalism really is a political identity, or have pundits, pollsters, and academics morphed it into that category?

That there are clear patterns in evangelical voting does not mean that political engagement alone defines it. First, there are ethical implications to evangelical theology resulting in political outcomes—as we would expect from Scripture. There is good reason, in other words, why churchgoing evangelicals are so opposed to abortion. Scripture prohibits it and upholds the dignity and sanctity of human life. The second point is connected to the first: Evangelicals believe that non-Christians could, in principle, agree with us on a whole range of political issues. But that does not earn non-evangelicals the label of “evangelical.” As Richard John Neuhaus once said, “There’s nothing necessary in the public realm to answering the question ‘how ought we to order our life together?’ that cannot be debated and considered reasonably on the basis of arguments that are accessible to everybody.” That’s just the natural law at work.

Evangelicals who want to keep the gospel of Jesus Christ central to evangelical identity and understand that Biblical ethics inform morality and politics should reject these calls for redefining evangelicalism.

It is rather dubious that a set of political positions is used, retrospectively, to redefine a theological term. Where does this logic end? It seems we could attach behavior to different historical labels and arrive at a similarly contrived redefinition of terms. For example, the Amish believe in Jesus Christ. But they also value manual labor. Is it correct to say that all people who value manual labor are Amish because they associate valuing manual labor with what it means to be Amish? No. Such a determination completely misses the word’s meaning and seeks to define something by common action instead of common belief. But it is this logic that underscores why defining evangelicalism solely on political grounds is so problematic.

How polls define evangelical can be theologically reckless, not to mention the problems that arise if one can self-identify as evangelical without pollsters clearly defining it. A better way forward is to separate what is evangelical as a doctrinal matter from political convictions that many within evangelicalism might espouse but are not exclusive to evangelical belief. But polls don’t allow for these distinctions.

My understanding of evangelical identity has more in common with a conservative Nigerian Anglican from the Global South than a white factory worker from the Midwest who votes Republican but never goes to church. Sure, we may vote the same way because we are opposed to progressive policies, and my fellow Midwesterner may have a strong affinity for America as a “Christian nation.” Still, his lack of church attendance added to drunkenness and sexual promiscuity are a terrible measure of his credentials as an evangelical. This is true regardless of how he “identifies” for polling purposes. But I would never know this from a poll.

In my view, an evangelical Christian is a historic Protestant who believes in the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as Savior and as the bodily resurrected Son of God. We believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture and the necessity of living for Jesus Christ in every dimension of life. Evangelicals aim to see others converted to the faith, experience the new birth, and under normal circumstances attend church services every Sunday.

I do not consider someone who merely self-identifies as evangelical for a poll as an authentic part of the evangelical movement. We can acknowledge that language adapts and is reappropriated over time, and we should certainly investigate the role of religion in society and criticize any movement that would use religion as a pretext for political gamesmanship—but not at the expense of muddying theological convictions. That intentional blurring of the categories will prove to be more confusing than clarifying. Those who misuse terms may actually end up destroying them.


Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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