Timothy Gloege, author of Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism, thinks that we should.
Historian David Bebbington has suggested that evangelicals believe in conversion (being born-again), biblicism (the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible), the theological priority of the cross (Jesus died for sinners), and activism (the need to share one’s faith with others).
When proposed thirty years ago, Bebbington’s definition was a valuable steppingstone. It pushed historians to ask new questions and research new groups. But the findings of that research also revealed the definition’s flaws. Its characteristics simply do not translate into identifiable patterns of belief and practice. (If they did, why isn’t evangelical Wheaton College’s statement of faith exactly four points?) It’s not a definition, but a prospectus for a theological agenda.
Consider the definition at work. To be evangelical, we are told, is to believe in “conversion.” But is conversion a uniquely evangelical idea? It’s not even uniquely Christian; Muslims convert too. Rather, they are appealing to a particular experience of conversion. And how is an evangelical conversion measured? That’s the rub. It’s been the cause of evangelical consternation for two centuries.
But conversion’s unmeasurable quality is what makes it useful for insiders. It allows them to state (or strongly infer) that only unconverted, ‘nominal,’ evangelicals supported Trump. Apparently, a vote for Trump is evidence enough? Meanwhile, evangelical Trump voters declare that by withholding support, never-Trump evangelicals have demonstrated their faithlessness. Liberal evangelicals also have a calculus of conversion that excludes their conservative rivals. “Conversion” acts as a theological weapon that muddies the definitional waters; it’s not an analytical category.
“Biblicism” functions similarly. Imagine a political scientist defining Republicans as “those who take the Constitution seriously.” Who would accept this transparently partisan statement? And yet many people today accept that evangelicals are “biblical,” while everyone else…isn’t? This is how former megachurch pastor Rob Bell and popular author Rachel Held Evans ceased to be evangelical: not because they quit the Bible, but because they came up with “wrong,” (thus “unbiblical”) answers about hell and being gay. “Biblicism” is evangelical gerrymandering.
Like using water to define Kool-Aid, Bebbington’s definition confuses common, ill-defined, features of Protestantism or Western Christianity for evangelical particularities. Evangelicals love it because they can do theology—make theological claims—under the guise of analysis.
A definition should connect to a movement’s most salient features (what sets it apart), and help us understand how they developed. Does “the theological priority of the cross” capture something uniquely evangelical? (It doesn’t.) Does it explain why white evangelicals tend to harbor a deep suspicion of the federal government and embrace free-market capitalism? Why policing sex and sexuality is such a priority (except when it isn’t)? Does it connect the dots?
The Bebbington Quadrilateral does none of these things; rather it offers theological slogans that make respectable evangelicals feel better about themselves. Rather than spur self-reflection, it lets evangelicals ignore hard questions, while the movement they helped conjure burns down the country.
I am probably one of those “respectable evangelicals” who want to “feel better about themselves,” so I guess I should keep thinking about this some more. Whatever the case, I appreciate Gloege’s attempts to historicize the term.
In my forthcoming book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I assume the Bebbington Quadrilateral is the best way of defining evangelicals. On one level, Gloege is right. Conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism, when considered alone, are features that one can find in many religions and Christian traditions. But when you bring them all together it still seems like you do have something that is unique.
Moreover, people who believe in conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism have taken all kinds of positions on social issues. Gloege knows this. They have been abolitionists and slaveholders, socialists and capitalists, supporters of strong government and defenders of states rights, defenders and opponents of gay rights, revolutionaries and reactionaries. Is there room in American evangelicalism for Roy Moore and Jim Wallis (21st century politics)? William Wilberforce and Robert Dabney (slavery)? John Wesley and John Witherspoon (American Revolution)?
In the evangelical church I attended thirty years ago there was much diversity on social issues. The same thing is true about the evangelical church I attend today. But in both churches our differences were (are) aired under the umbrella of a shared understanding of a faith defined by something very close to Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. I know there are people in my evangelical church today who supported Donald Trump from the moment he came down the escalator in Trump Tower and announced his candidacy. I also know that there are people in my church who would have voted for Roy Moore if they lived in Alabama. All of these people believe in the tenets of the Quadrilateral and some of them lead lives of devotion to God that put me to shame. Some of my readers might wonder how this is possible. I do as well. But I have hope that because my fellow evangelicals believe in an inspired Bible, or a conversion (“born-again”) experience that results in holy living, or the command to share their faith with others, they can be persuaded that racism or nativism or Trumpism may not be the best way to be “evangelical” in this world. Perhaps they can be convinced, with the Holy Spirit’s help, that they have ignored large chunks of the Bible that don’t conform to their political views. Perhaps they can be convinced that personal holiness is something more than just casting the right vote. Perhaps they can be convinced that rabid support for Roy Moore or Donald Trump hurts their Christian witness.
This Sunday I begin a course at my church titled “Christian Politics?” It could get ugly. But I chose to teach the course, and I am hopeful it will be civil and productive, because most of us in the classroom will share a common approach to faith. Many of those who attend the class will trust me to lead them in a discussion of such a sensitive topic because, like them, I believe in the tenets of the Bebbington Quadrilateral. We will differ on a LOT of things, but most of us will have a common commitment to faith and practice because we can point to a conversion or born-again experience, we believe Jesus died on the cross for our sins, we affirm the Bible as the word of God, and we think it is important to live our faith in an active way in the world that includes not just social action but evangelism as well. This shared faith will provide a kind of subtext for my class. I call this subtext evangelical Christianity. It is not a subtext I can expect when I teach in mainline Protestant churches or Catholic churches or in secular arenas. It is not even a subtext that I can expect any more at the Christian College where I teach history. In those places, I need to understand my audience in a different way and argue in a fashion that makes appeals to universal ideas or a broader understanding of Christianity.
OK, I am rambling now. I may return to this later. Please take these thoughts as half-baked.