Why I Still Call Myself an Evangelical

Why I Still Call Myself an Evangelical

If you have listened to the Kainos Project podcast or read much of what I’ve written on this site, you’ll know that I have my fair share of frustrations with the American evangelical movement—from politics to racial justice to how we should behave toward the LGBTQ+ community and a host of other consequential issues. 

But what you might also notice about me is that I regularly refer to myself as an evangelical. 

That may seem a little dissonant. Why don’t I just leave the movement, or at least call myself something different? 

Well, it’s not really that simple. For all the problems I have with the evangelical movement, when you look at my theological convictions and how I wish to apply those convictions to my faith and practices, there just isn’t any getting around the fact that, even for all my deconstruction, I’m still roundly evangelical. 

In order to better explain why I’m still an evangelical, first I need to outline exactly what I mean by the term. 

What Is an Evangelical?

Defining the term “evangelical” is a complicated and often highly disputed endeavor. The movement is decentralized with no formal authority structure, and it is constantly evolving and changing. It is not contained within one denomination or even one particular theological tradition. Nevertheless, evangelicals have coalesced into a distinct group with a shared identity and history. 

Any good definition includes the historical and sociological elements that have shaped the movement, as well as the politics. However, there are also the convictions around which evangelicals have historically organized themselves. 

When I say that I am an evangelical, this is what I’m referencing.

These convictions have been described any number of ways, but the definition that I have found most helpful is the Bebbington Quadrilateral—named for Christian historian David Bebbington, who coined it. 

In “Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s,” Bebbington argues that evangelicals have tended to organize around four major things. 

  1. Biblicism: a belief that the Bible is the central authority for the life of Christians, both individually and as a collective
  2. Crucicentricism: a belief in the centrality of the message of the Cross
  3. Conversionism: a belief that the Christian life is marked by a personal decision to place one’s faith in Jesus, which results in a transformed life
  4. Activism: a belief that faithfulness to Jesus results in efforts both to evangelize the lost and to address the injustices of society

For me, these are the organizing principles of my own faith and represent the aspects of the theological tradition in which I was raised that I continue to hold most dear. 

Additionally, what I find helpful about the Bebbington Quadrilateral is that it provides a historical and theological framework upon which I can faithfully disagree with my fellow evangelicals on their own terms. My hope is to call them not to a new vision for evangelicalism but a renewed vision for evangelicalism. 

Evangelicals Should Be More Evangelical

Of course, a group of people is more than a statement of faith or a list of aspirational values. And therein lies the tension. 

For certain parts of its history, evangelicalism has lived out all of these values to great effect. In particular, when we speak about activism, evangelicals were the tip of the spear in a number of important societal transformations.

Evangelicals—particularly British evangelicals—were among the most fervent slavery abolitionists. (Evangelicals in America were decidedly much more split on the issue, which historian Mark Noll describes as a theological crisis that was never fully resolved.)

At the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals were on the forefront of issues like poverty, worker’s rights, the regulation of child labor, and the women’s suffrage movement (which was an outworking of the temperance movement).

Unfortunately, in the latter half of the 20th century, evangelical convictions were subsumed by southern racism, and despite the protestations of the more theologically thoughtful evangelicals in the south, the masses of white American evangelicals fought racial integration tooth and nail. 

This failure of evangelicalism to live up to the activist impulse of its own tradition was rooted in the theological crisis of the Civil War, a crisis that continues to wreak havoc on the evangelical movement to this day. But when it comes to issues of racial justice, what was and in many ways continues to be the minority view among evangelicals is actually the view that is more evangelical. 

In similar fashion, evangelicals in the 21st century have all but abandoned many of their activist roots with regard to things like welfare and the protection of women’s rights. Programs that evangelicals once regarded as essential for collective justice are now characterized in popular evangelical media as “government handouts,” and some evangelicals on the fringes have even argued that the 19th Amendment ought to be repealed. 

Worse still, evangelicalism has in recent years been experiencing a reckoning with regard to sexual abuse. The Southern Baptist Convention, the International House of Prayer, The Anglican Church in North America, and Willow Creek Community Church and its associated leadership networks have all been at the center of large scale scandals involving clergy sex abuse. 

And instead of rising to meet this scandal with decisive leadership and an unwavering commitment to protect women and children who are too often victimized by abusers, much of the evangelical response has been to circle the wagons, downplay the severity of the crisis, and even to blame those who are shining a light on abuse for “causing division.” 

To be sure, these developments, in my view, are anti-evangelical. 

As is unbridled support for Donald Trump, whose sexual assault charges and other legal entanglements make Bill Clinton look like Opie Taylor. 

My gripe with evangelicals isn’t their historic convictions on social issues. My gripe is that they have largely abandoned the very distinctives that have made the movement so powerful and, I believe, effective in helping people experience Jesus. 

That the term “evangelical” has been so bastardized in America that it is now used essentially to refer to Trump supporters who oppose welfare, ignore sexual abuse, and question whether women should have the right to vote is a tragedy. 

So, Why Not Just Drop the Name? 

Even if I still hold to evangelical convictions, given the way the term “evangelical” has been misused, abused, co-opted, and ill-defined, wouldn’t it be easier to jettison it entirely? 

Maybe so. But I’m something of a believer in the fact that we don’t get to choose our own names. If I had a choice, my name wouldn’t be Dale. I’ve never liked that name or the associations that come along with it. For instance, throughout my entire childhood, kids constantly told me Nascar jokes and spoke to me in the most obnoxious imitations of a southern regional accent they could muster. 

I’ve never really felt like my name fits my vibe. But it’s the name that was given to me, and so that’s what I go by. 

The same goes with “evangelical.” Yes, the term has some bad associations—associations that don’t fit my theological or moral vibe. But it’s the name of the historic movement of which I am undeniably a part. 

What’s more is that it’s a little myopic to jettison a term used to identify people of a global movement of Christians because of the bad behavior (and even worse politics) of its American iteration. Around the globe, evangelicals are holding fast to their moniker and everything it represents, fighting for justice while also proclaiming Jesus, keeping the cross at the center of their message and leading transformed lives. 

And while we have given ourselves a bad name in America, that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. 

So, despite everything, I will continue to refer to myself as an evangelical. I do so in solidarity with the convictions and values that name historically carries, as well as in the hope that they will become characteristic of the movement in America once again.