Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. W. David Buschart
Kidd, Thomas S. Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. 191pp. Hardcover, $26.00. ISBN 978-0300241419.
Within the American Academy of Religion there is a section devoted to the study of evangelical Christianity. During the annual meeting of this section a few minutes are usually given to the discussion of potential themes of study for the forthcoming years. During such a discussion at one of the meetings in the mid-1990s someone suggested “the definition of ‘evangelical.’” In response, one of the conveners, who had co-edited a book about evangelicalism a few years earlier, threw his hands up in the air, gasped, and blurted-out, “Oh, please, no!” I have a clear memory of this energetic reply because I was the one who offered the suggestion.
I soon became even more aware of how much attention had been given in recent years, at that time, to the attempt to answer the question posed by the title of the book under review here, “Who is an evangelical?” And, that round of definitional deliberations in the 1980s was not the first time the matter had been contested. Thus, the current season of debates among scholars as to what “evangelical” means is not the first time that this matter has been discussed. That said, to a greater degree than previous such seasons, this one also includes more people, both scholars and laity, who are seriously questioning the viability of continuing to use the term, some of whom have concluded that it is not viable and have decided to no longer use the term for self-description.
There is a fairly widespread two-part consensus among scholars—including historians, sociologists, and theologians—regarding evangelicalism. First, evangelicalism is difficult to define. It is so difficult that some scholars (e.g., D. G. Hart, Donald Dayton) suggest that, at least for purposes of scholarly research, it is a useless category. Second, the majority of scholars nonetheless are quite firm in asserting that “there IS something there.” However varied and diffuse it may be, there is a discernable and significant religious and sub-cultural stream that flows through modern history, not least in the United States. Thus, in the space of a few sentences in A Short History of Global Evangelicalism (p. 18), Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe acknowledge that evangelicalism is “a fluid and diverse phenomenon, with boundaries that cannot be rigidly defined,” and then “emphatically affirm its existence as a meaningful concept, representing a recognizable, self-aware distinct style of Protestantism undergirded by shared convictions and assumptions.”
Into this sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing stream of analysis (including self-analysis among evangelicals themselves) steps Thomas Kidd. Kidd is an accomplished historian of American religion at Baylor University, and, germane to the book under review here, a self-identified evangelical, of Baptist persuasion. I respect Kidd’s work, and so knew that I wanted to read this book as soon as I learned of it.
As noted, Kidd is an historian and this is, in terms of word-count, a book of history. Thus, the question posed in the title, “Who is an evangelical?,” is answered not sociologically or demographically or primarily theologically. All of these dimensions and others are discussed from time to time, but the majority of the book is a walk through the history of evangelicalism. Chapter 1 recounts “The Rise of Evangelicals” in the 18th century, marked by a “distinctive belief . . . that the key moment in an individual’s salvation is the ‘new birth’” (p. 12), as preached by, among others, George Whitefield. Chapter 2 describes how evangelicals were “ascendant” in the United States, seeking to secure and significantly shape the separation of church and state, riding the spiritual waves of two “Great Awakenings,” vigorously pursuing evangelism and missions, creating educational institutions, and “spearhead[ing] moral reform causes such as crusades against poverty and alcohol abuse” (p. 46). And, on the long road to the United States’ Civil War, during the antebellum period “no issue was more divisive for evangelicals than slavery” (p. 47). Yet, while a largely North/South divide was clear, there was also profound “silence” and “passivity” among evangelicals.
Particularly in the United States, a significant portion of the story of evangelical Christianity in the latter-half of the 19th century and well into the 20th century centers around evangelicals’ responses to various expressions of “liberal” Christianity, and Chapter 3 considers “The ‘Fundamentalists’ and Evangelical Controversy.” In this context Kidd observes that evangelicals’ “wars against theological liberalism” did not have theological and ecclesiastical implications only, but that the battle with theological liberalism “would change evangelicals’ primary cultural stance” (p. 52, emphasis added) and lead them deeper into struggles in the arenas of, for example, politics, law and education (p. 53). Amidst these battles there was nonetheless a flourishing of evangelical parachurch ministry and overseas missions. And, in the United States there was the continuing story of race, with “[e]quivocation about lynching” being “standard for white evangelicals, especially in the south” (p. 64).
Chapter 4 reports on the post-Fundamentalist rise of “neo-evangelicalism” in the 1940s and 1950s. This is the era of the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (1942) and the National Black Evangelical Association (1963), InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA (1941) and Campus Crusade for Christ (1951), World Vision (1950) and Compassion International (1952). This is the era during which Billy Graham (1918-2018) was ushered onto the national stage—not just the national evangelical stage, but the national societal stage. Kidd observes that “Graham’s influence in Washington, D.C., gave white evangelicals a taste of political power . . . .” to such a degree that “Sometimes it was not clear whether individual conversion or national political influence was their real priority” (p. 91). Indeed, Kidd suggests that the current evangelical “quest for influence” in national political affairs began not with the Moral Majority (next chapter) but with evangelical support for the candidacy and presidency (1953-1961) of Dwight Eisenhower (pp. 142; also 90, 92-93).
Kidd discusses evangelicalism in the 1960s and 1970s in a chapter titled “Two-Track Evangelicals and the New Christian Right” (Chapter 5). He uses the language of “two-track” to denote the attention given by “many white evangelical leaders” to “two main tracks: politics and evangelism” (p. 103). Beginning with the Moral Majority, under the leadership of Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., Kidd describes how, by the 1980s, “the people I call ‘Republican insider evangelicals’ had become a fixture on the partisan landscape” (p. 94). The process leading to this began, as Kidd recounts in earlier chapters, before the 1960s, but it accelerated and became far more prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. “In a sense,” he suggests, “the tension between the spiritual and political goals of evangelicals has existed since the 1740s” (p. 155).
The final numbered chapter in the book (Chapter 6), concluding Kidd’s historical account, chronicles “Evangelicalism from Reagan to Obama.” “The year 1980,” Kidd says, “inaugurated four decades of Republicans affirming white evangelicals’ priorities.” “But,” he continues, “evangelical insiders often felt there was little follow-through by the GOP” (p. 121). Kidd describes the ways in which developments within various streams of evangelicalism—such as the Southern Baptists, Calvinist/Reformed theology, Pentecostal churches, and Hispanic evangelicals—intersected, or not, with Republican-insider evangelicalism. And, having surveyed the path of evangelicalism during this period he observes that by 2016 “white evangelicals who quixotically sought power in the GOP had come to represent evangelicalism itself for much of the American public” (p. 142).
Through the books they write, good historians, like Kidd, seek to craft narratives which are true-to-the-case, which tell the stories of what has actually been thought, actually taken place. And, as most good historians will also acknowledge, they don’t merely report, they don’t just “tell stories.” They seek, thankfully, to “say something,” to make a point. They seek to provide insightful analysis of and perspective on contemporary thought and life, mined from the riches of history.
Who Is an Evangelical? concludes not with a numbered chapter but with a 13-page “Coda”: “Donald Trump and the Crisis of Evangelicalism.” If it were not yet evident, here is the spur, the animating circumstance which prompted Kidd to write this book. (And Kidd is not alone in this kind of targeted historical study. See, for example, Jon Meacham’s 2018 history of presidential responses to national crises of fear and division, The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels [Random House, 2018].) It may be (Kidd does not say) that casting this final chapter as a coda is a way for him to feel the freedom to shift from writing “history” to more explicitly writing contemporary analysis and commentary.
“Something,” writes Kidd, “had apparently broken down in the white evangelical movement” (p. 145). “From Eisenhower to Romney,” he observes, “white evangelical voters had supported Republican candidates who seemed to model personal dignity and respect for religion, even if they did not have evangelical bona fides. . . . But 2016 found white evangelicals in a different mode” (p. 146). Many factors contributed to this “different mode.” One of them was noted at the outset of this review, in the difficulty of defining evangelicalism. “[U]ncertainty about identity,” Kidd says here, “is an essential component in today’s evangelical crisis” (p. 150).
Yet, Kidd does not end on a negative or despairing note, or at least not only on such a note. He calls out “the major gap between what much of evangelicalism entails in everyday practice and what evangelicalism appears to be in media coverage” (p. 154). “Clearly,” he states, “evangelicals remain active in charitable ministry, giving, and service, even though this work rarely gets covered in the news” (p. 153). And, “. . . evangelicalism in practice remains an ethnically and politically diverse movement focused on the new birth in Christ” (p. 154). With both the contemporary context and history in view, he commends “an older version of evangelicalism—one in continuity with the history of the movement—that still exists in America and around the world” (p. 155). In this version, “conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible, and God’s discernible presence are what make an evangelical an evangelical” (156, the final words of the book).
Quite apart from what one thinks of Donald Trump’s election and presidency, there is no question that the periods leading up to and following the 2016 election saw a new season of identity-analysis among evangelicals themselves, as well as a fresh occasion for attention from mainstream media and cultural analysts. Currently, both this identity-analysis and the media attention have dissipated, but they have not disappeared. It remains to be seen what the 2020 election will bring from and to evangelicals.
Whenever a book, either scholarly or popular, is clearly prompted by and responds to a specific event or cultural moment—which this book clearly does—the “shelf-life” of the book tends to correspond to the chronology of that event or cultural moment. When that event or moment passes, so does the greatest value of the book. (An exception, of course, is when at a subsequent time one conducts historical research back into that period in time.) Given the moment that we are in, Kidd’s book provides a service by providing both historical perspective and his perspective.
If a reader is looking for an introductory survey of the history of evangelicalism, this book is not the best choice. (Depending on the scope of one’s interest, see, for example, Douglas A. Sweeney, The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement [Baker Academic, 2005] and, referred to earlier, Mark Hutchinson and John Wolffe, A Short History of Global Evangelicalism [Cambridge, 2012].) However, if one is interested in some historical perspective on how evangelicalism in the United States arrived at its present cultural-political, and spiritual, moment, Who Is an Evangelical? provides a very accessible introduction.
W. David Buschart, PhD
Professor of Theology and Historical Studies