John Stackhouse on the Label “Evangelical”


John Stackhouse

Over at Religion News Service, Jonathan Merritt interviews John Stackhouse, a scholar of American and Canadian evangelicalism.  Stackhouse argues that “evangelical” simply means “of the gospel” and adds: “only in the United States does ‘evangelical’ primarily mean ‘white Protestants descended from fundamentalists who want to re-convert America and then use its influence to convert the rest of the world.'” (I love it!).

Stackhouse still identifies as an “evangelical.”  Here is a taste of the interview:

RNS: You’ve chosen to hang onto the label. Why?

JS: It helps to be Canadian. Canadian evangelicalism experienced a bit of fundamentalism, but fundamentalism hasn’t overshadowed the whole tradition as it has in the U.S. International evangelicalism, as seen in bodies like the World Evangelical Alliance (until recently, led by a Canadian), the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and the Lausanne Committee do have to deal with massive American influence. But, on the whole, they maintain a healthier balance: one that retains the focus on personal piety and friendly evangelism typical of the eighteenth-century roots of the movement in people like John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards.

RNS: But what is wrong with someone rejecting the label because of what it has come to mean?

JS: Labels are just tools: If it works for you, use it. If not, then don’t. I don’t use it when I’m pretty sure it’s going to misrepresent me in this or that conversation or group. But it’s a pretty good label for a genuine phenomenon: this distinctive kind of Protestantism that emerges out of Puritanism (in Britain) and Pietism (on the Continent), blossoms in the trans-Atlantic revivals of the eighteenth century, and carries on to this day in varied but related streams. If we drop “evangelical” as a descriptive term because of political poisoning, okay, but we’ll have to find another one, because there is something there that needs a label.

RNS: It seems to me that the meaning of a word is comprised of both a definition and connotation. You seem to value the definition, but some people are reacting against the connotation. That is, the negative associations that have been strapped to this word. Are you talking about different things?

JS: Identifying a movement by what strikes you as most interesting (most admirable, most terrifying, most ugly) is one way to pick it out, but another is to see it on its own terms, calming down one’s emotional reaction to analyze what’s actually there. So, yes, I’m using the term as one does in the quiet of the historian’s study. But I sympathize with those are triggered by it to blast off in rage about the excesses of the prosperity gospel, racist and sexist elements in evangelicalism, and, of course, the current U. S. president.

I’m reminded of a scholar of John Calvin, who taught at a Calvinist school and belonged to a Calvinist church, finishing a public lecture once and fielding this question from the audience: “So are you a Calvinist?”

He wisely paused, and then replied, “What do you mean by that?”

“I mean someone who enjoys worshiping a God who delights in damning babies to hell.”

“Oh. Well, then, no. I’m not a Calvinist. And neither was John Calvin.”

Read the rest here.