WASHINGTON (BP)—A historian, an ethicist and a pastor—all Baptists—disagreed about the usefulness of the term “evangelical” and the state of evangelicalism in a recent conversation at the Museum of the Bible.
Thomas Kidd, history professor at Baylor University and prolific author, discussed the crisis in evangelical Christianity with Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C.
Kidd interacted with Moore and Anyabwile regarding his new book, Who is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.
Historian remains optimistic
In his keynote address, Kidd said he remains optimistic about evangelicalism despite its politicization, especially in recent years. He cited as an example the 2016 poll results that showed 81 percent of self-identified evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.
“Some would say that I am naïve to hope that there remains a core of practicing orthodox evangelicals who really do care more about salvation and spiritual matters than political power,” Kidd told the audience. “It’s true that millions of practicing evangelicals are part of the 81 percent, but we should not define evangelicalism by the 81 percent.
At its root, “being an evangelical entails certain beliefs, practices and spiritual experiences,” he said.
“So, partisan commitments have come and gone, and sometimes it’s true evangelicals have made terrible political mistakes. But conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible and God’s discernible presence—those are the characteristics that make an evangelical an evangelical,” Kidd said.
Non-evangelical Americans, however, may have a variety of impressions about what “evangelical” means, Kidd said. “But one certain association that people make with the word is ‘Republican.’ And the term ‘evangelical’ has become fundamentally political in popular parlance today.”
Another likely association non-evangelicals make with the word is “white,” he said, adding pollsters assume evangelicals are white.
Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.
In his response to Kidd, Moore said he is not ready to surrender the word “evangelical.”
“I think when it comes to evangelical, it’s possible for a word—and it’s possible for a movement—to be born again,” he said.
In a panel discussion that closed the evening, Moore said: “I am a realist when it comes to the gospel but a nominalist when it comes to evangelicalism. And so I don’t have as much invested in evangelical as a word or evangelicalism as a movement except there is no available alternative to it except for adding modifiers.”
Racist tendencies in the movement’s DNA
Anyabwile said he does not share the optimism of Kidd and Moore regarding evangelicalism.
He doesn’t think the “partisan and ethnic definition of evangelicals” is peculiar, he said. “I actually think that is the DNA” of evangelicalism.
“Evangelicalism as a movement has generally and consistently taken what I would refer to as anti-black positions on social and political questions,” Anyabwile told the audience.
“Historically, the movement has been generally pro-slavery, pro-segregation—much of the movement, anti-affirmative action and anti-immigrant. The common denominator has often been the disadvantaging of black and brown people.
“For that reason, evangelicalism should not become more diverse until this dynamic is radically and demonstrably changed,” he said. “To that extent, I would argue that we have not become evangelical enough, that we have not yet become the one people of God…. We have not yet been discipled enough in our Christian identity as our primary identity.
“Until we get there, I’m not certain evangelical is a term worthy of fighting for and a label worth wearing. I think we actually have to become God’s people in a unified way, and then figure out how to label that.”
Current crisis in evangelicalism
During the panel discussion, Kidd said he is “not optimistic about a politicized evangelicalism. I’m optimistic about evangelicalism, because I’m optimistic about the Lord.”
Moore said he remains hopeful “because some of the shaking and shifting taking place in evangelicalism gives the movement the opportunity to embrace marginalization without victimization. Evangelicalism has always been at its best when evangelicalism sees itself as a renewal movement, as a minority movement within the broader world, a minority movement on mission.”
The current crisis in evangelicalism, Kidd said, consists of multiple overlapping aspects, including:
- “Confusion about the term.”
- “An impression that ‘evangelical’ may just mean white Republicans who consider themselves religious.”
- “A sense that political power may be the essential evangelical agenda.”
- “The inability of evangelicals of different ethnicities, especially whites and blacks, to agree on basic political questions.”
Moore said many people who do not attend or belong to a church “will nonetheless define themselves as rigorously evangelical because of the memes they are sharing” on social media. Evangelicals will have to deal with “the decongregationalizing of the movement itself,” he said.
Black pastors shun ‘evangelical’ label
In his talk, Kidd defined evangelicals as “born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.”
Anyabwile told of convening a meeting of fellow black, Reformed pastors at which 60 to 70 percent of them said they no longer want to be identified as evangelical.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people who theologically are in fact evangelicals who are actually comfortable and actually embraced by the term,” he said. “That’s a problem. Ethnic minorities are only able to comfortably exist in evangelicalism to the extent that they don’t ‘get too political.’”
Kidd—who reviewed the history of evangelical Christians in America from the Great Awakening of the 1740s—said the crisis in evangelicalism became increasingly conspicuous after World War II, “grew even more acute during the Moral Majority era of the 1980s, and then it broke wide open with the 2016 election of Donald Trump.”
While Hillary Clinton “hardly seemed like an acceptable alternative” to Trump, Kidd said, the white evangelical vote for him “was a grievous disappointment to many traditional Christians, especially certain women and people of color,” who were offended by his actions regarding females and minorities.
The Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University co-sponsored the event with the Museum of the Bible. Jeffrey Kloha, the museum’s chief curatorial officer, moderated the panel discussion.