Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

Wheatley

Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL attended a session sponsored by the Conference on Faith and History at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

Right out of the gate in today’s Conference on Faith and History session at AHA19, both Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Jemar Tisby responded to the recent Twitter debate over whether or not Phillis Wheatley should be considered an evangelical.  Esteemed historian of Evangelicalism Mark Noll also entered the fray in the Q&A session that followed the presentation of papers.

For those (like Noll) who hadn’t followed the social media discussion, here’s a short summary.  In early December of last year, historian Thomas Kidd tweeted a Gospel Coalition post he wrote, titled “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”  Religion journalist Jonathan Merritt replied, “Assigning her the label of Evangelical is weird,” to which Kidd asked, “Why?”  As Du Mez put it in describing the exchange after that, “things devolved quickly from there ….”

In her paper, “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake,” Du Mez posed the question: Who are evangelicals and does that label even mean anything anymore?  Her answer to both parts of that question, in short, was that it depends on who’s asking.  To make that point she briefly discussed themes that she’s written about extensively over at the Anxious Bench, such as the ideas that “Evangelicalism is an imagined religious community” and that “there are, in fact, many Evangelicalisms.”  When considering the more nuanced and seemingly academic responses (compared to the Twitterbate) given to the question by LifeWay in December of 2017 and the Voter Study Group in September of 2018, she referred to a piece by Tim Gloege on Rewire.News, in which he questioned the motivation, methodology, and conclusions of such studies conducted in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.  Noting the vested interest that people such as Russell Moore and Ed Stetzer had in rehabilitating the image of evangelicals both during and after that election, Du Mez also stated that it’s worth interrogating why mostly conservative, white, male evangelicals are the ones trying to define what the word evangelical means today.

As one would hope and expect, Du Mez insisted that we must approach the question historically.  It is not appropriate to use a static definition of the word.  “History didn’t end in the early to mid-nineteenth century,” she noted wryly.  To study more closely that change over time, Du Mez conducted a linguistic analysis of the word evangelical.  What she found was that before the 1970s and 1980s, the word was primarily used as an adjective.  Since that time, it has primarily been used as a noun.  She also found that from 1996 on, the word has been used to connotate a political alignment, not a theological one.  And as she came to discover during one fortuitous visit to Hobby Lobby (also a post worth reading on the Anxious Bench), to contextualize evangelicalism in our current time is to realize that much of it is a white religious brand rooted in consumer culture, Christian Nationalism, and patriarchy.  Today, sadly, “James Dobson and Duck Dynasty have more to do with Evangelicalism than Whitefield or Edwards.”  And while many people view the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention that started in 1979 as being about orthodoxy, Du Mez argued that it was far more about gender.

For Du Mez then, the issues of race, gender, and power (not belief alone, as the Bebbington Quadrilateral lays out) must be considered when defining the cultural meaning of the word evangelical.  To that end, it’s understandable how Merritt found labeling an enslaved African woman such as Phillis Wheatley an evangelical weird in the context of today, even if historically she was part of the trans-Atlantic movement of protestant Christian revivalism that swept the Anglo world in her lifetime, the influence of which is evident in her writings.

Du Mez’s examination of the question who is evangelical dovetailed nicely with Jemar Tisby’s paper, “Are Black Christians Evangelicals? A Multi-perspectival Assessment.”  To answer that query, he used theologian John Frames concept of Tri-Perspectivalism, examining it from a normative, situational, and existential framework.  From the normative perspective, using the Bible and Bebbington, it is quite easy to label most Black Christians evangelical.  According to Tisby, the normative frame only considers a person’s theological beliefs, and this is what Kidd did with Wheatley.  Using the situational perspective, however, forced Tisby to ask if Black Christians in America could be considered evangelical in every historical, cultural, and geographic context.  The answer there was clearly no.  Sunday mornings only became the most segregated time of the week after the Civil War – it wasn’t always that way.  Lastly, the existential frame required him to take personal experience and self-identification into account when deciding who is and isn’t evangelical.  From that perspective, he pointed out, there are many blacks today who do claim the label (as evidenced by organizations such as the NBEA), even if, according to Pew, more than three in four black protestants belong to historically black churches, as opposed to evangelical or mainline denominations.

In the end, Tisby was comfortable with not answering the question, claiming that such a response was the best way to think historically about it.  “Let the ambiguity remain,” he concluded.  As he had just demonstrated, when deciding whether Black Christians are evangelicals, the answer should always depend on the angle of inquiry.

During the question and answer session, Mark Noll provided his own tweet-sized take on the debate and the topic before the panel.  “Whether Wheatley was an evangelical or not is irrelevant,” said Noll.  “Who is or isn’t an evangelical is really not an important historical question.”  He continued, “I don’t think evangelicals exist … evangelical movements exist, evangelical theology exists, but evangelical individuals are a useful fiction.”  From Noll’s perspective, the session had been a valuable one, but he hoped that nobody would follow up on it.

Thanks, Matt!

4 thoughts on “Race and Evangelicals (#AHA19)

  1. Identifying names are interesting.
    “Evangelical” is one. There is often a tension over who owns the name, and what it means and describes.
    I came to the Christian faith through a small independent church that used “fundamentalist” to describe themselves. We were what I consider old school fundamentalists. We simply meant there was for us a relatively short list of fundamental non-negotiables. Such as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the resurrection.
    We were not anti science or learning, and far from legalistic.
    Anyway, it was a difficulty in that virtually anyone hearing that descriptor envisioned something along the lines of that Kansas church that pickets at servicemen’s funeral as a protest against whatever they don’t like in America.

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  2. Thanks for the thoughtful response, John. I agree with much of what you wrote and, suffice it to say, I’m going to be thinking on yesterday’s session for quite some time. I resonated with Du Mez and Tisby’s analysis. And while I found Noll’s comments interesting, with all due respect to both people, they struck me as being similar to some of what John Wilson wrote in his review of “Believe Me.” Although I did not include the first presentation from yesterday’s session in my write-up, as it didn’t directly address the question of “who is an evangelical?” or the topic of Wheatley, I think that Malcolm Foley’s paper on the evangelical arguments for and against lynching during Jim Crow fits nicely with your main point. Foley never argued that the proponents of lynching in his research were’t evangelical. By any number of definitional constructs (including the quadrilateral, pre-Bebbington), they were. The point was that one could be evangelical and support lynching, just as one could be evangelical and oppose lynching. Like you, I oscillate between wanting to steal the word back or (as you tweeted on election night in 2016) abandon it completely.

    At the end of the day, whether we are approaching the word historically, sociologically, linguistically, or politically, we need to leave room for nuance, humility, and most importantly empathy for the people who claim the label and for the people have had to applied to them. Which is why your airplane vignette was so effective and appropriate. People are always more complex than the labels they wear. This reminds me of a powerful David Dark quote from his book, “Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious.” Wrote Dark, “When I label people, I no longer have to deal with them thoughtfully. I no longer have to feel overwhelmed by their complexity, the lives they live, the dreams they have. I know exactly where they are inside – or forever outside – my field of care, because they’ve been taken care of. The mystery of their existence has been solved and filed away before I’ve had a chance to be moved by them or even begun to catch a glimpse of who they might be. They’ve been neutralized. There’s hardly any action quite so undemanding, so utterly unimaginative, as the affixing of a label. It’s the costliest of mental shortcuts.”

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  3. This raises some interesting points about evangelicals. It seems like folks want to let Phillis Wheatley speak for herself about whether or not she is an evangelical. But why don’t 20th or 21st century evangelicals get to speak for themselves as well?

    Frankly, I like the word “evangelical” because it means “the good news.” I would like to try to steal back that word from the pundits and (it now appears) some American historians. But at the same time, I think I agree with Noll. I am not sure the word “evangelical” is very useful today. I also, however, agree with Bebbington–there are people out there who believe in the authority of the Bible, believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins, have had a life-changing conversion experience, and see the need to share their faith with others. Most of them are good/flawed people who are doing their best to live out their faith. Bebbington seems to understand these folks. I think it may have something to do with the fact that he has visited hundreds and hundreds of churches and, from what I understand, has taken extensive notes on every visit. I wonder if Noll has spent too much time breathing the rarefied air of the academy. That is not a slight on Noll. I am saying that Bebbington, if the stories I hear are correct, is more of an anthropologist. His understanding of “evangelical” is shaped by these experiences.

    The people Bebbington describes in his quadrilateral–whether one calls them “evangelical” or not–are are real. They exist. I go to church with them. I went to college and seminary with them. And it usually takes a few minutes of conversation to identify them when I meet them for the first time outside of a church setting (such as on an airplane). When you talk to these evangelicals, they don’t say: “Hi, I am a born-again Christian and I am racist and I believe in patriarchy.” They talk about the way God has changed their lives. Can these people be racists? Of course. Can they be patriarchs? Of course. Can they be hypocritical? Of course. Can they do amazing things for the poor and the oppressed based on the mandates of their faith? Absolutely. Have they acted on their faith to promote racial reconciliation? Yes. Are they striving (sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding) to be good parents, husbands, wives? Yes. Are they sometimes critical of things that go on in their churches? Yes. Did some vote for Trump? Did some vote for Hillary? Yes. Did some vote for neither candidate? Yes. Anyone who does not tell this full story, and reduces these people to something other than their deeply held religious beliefs, is engaging in politics, not history. This is why I have said that my Trump book is not a work of history–it is rather social commentary with a historical inflection. As someone trusted to teach history to students, I would never approach the Trump presidency in the classroom like I do in *Believe Me*.

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  4. If someone self-identifies as an evangelical but is excluded on the basis of their identity surely thats more reason to take their voice seriously and allow them the label evangelical rather than less of a reason?

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