Mark Noll on the Definition of Evangelicalism

Evangelicals Book NollOver at Religion and Politics, Eric C. Miller talks with historian Mark Noll about the definition of evangelicalism.  Noll is the editor of a recent book on the subject (co-authored with George Marsden and David Bebbington) titled Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be.

Here is a taste:

R&P: Your co-editor David Bebbington famously defined evangelicalism according to four theological tenets—conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism—that most of the subsequent historical work has responded to in some way, including several chapters in this book. Why has it been so influential?

MN: The “Bebbington Quadrilateral” identifies four characteristics—and I want to emphasize that he is very serious about calling these characteristics rather than pitching them as an a priori definition—that gave structure to his 1989 book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. I think the reason why the fourfold characteristics became so important is that there is a considerable body of historical literature and—particularly since the rise of the Christian Right in the United States—a considerable body of media attention that together have called out for a definition that is relatively simple and transportable for different purposes. As someone who appreciates with some dissent the characteristics, that is in part a good thing, but the negative effect may be to over-simplify evangelicalism and to ease out some of the real complexities that come with its study, either historically or in the contemporary world. So, in short, I think Bebbington provided a straightforward, direct, exportable language that could be used in many different discussions—more, I think, than he originally intended in his book.

R&P: One potential critique that arises throughout the text—in Darren Dochuk’s essay, for instance—states that evangelicalism is not merely a theological category, but that it is profoundly shaped by the times and places in which it operates. To what extent can we think of evangelicalism as a situated cultural product rather than a precise set of religious beliefs?

MN: That’s an excellent question that gets at the nub of the definitional difficulties. I try to explain in the introduction to the book that, considered abstractly as a certain kind of Protestant Christianity, evangelicalism appears relatively simple and makes a lot of sense. Dochuk’s observation, however, is that many strange phenomena inhabit the history of evangelical groups. One of these from our own time is that some people who are regarded as evangelicals use that word to describe themselves, and some others don’t. Another is that political pundits often use the term in very different ways than religious historians do. Several of our essays point out that, when it comes to affirmations of belief and practice, or to theological orientation, the most evangelical demographic in the United States is African American churchgoers. And, as all political observers know, African American churchgoers have been strongly Democratic in their electoral preferences. That reality makes complete sense if you are trying to label the group based on the characteristics that Bebbington outlined, but it makes no sense if you are trying to label them based on the practical alliances, networks, and grids of communication that link groups together, or how these are discussed in our media. Dochuk’s comment is the kind commonly made by an empirical historian—one who is interested in splitting rather than lumping—in reference to –ismterms like evangelicalism.

R&P: Kristin Kobes Du Mez writes—in an essay adapted from a piece published on this site—that evangelical Trump support is largely traceable to a militant strain of evangelical masculinity. Is this aggressive, “warrior Christianity” consistent with evangelical belief?

MN: First I would say that her characterization, like Hamilton’s, makes a lot of sense in the religious-political environment of the last 50 years. The broader question is whether the traditional evangelical characteristics that Bebbington identified naturally or organically or inevitably point in the direction that Du Mez identifies. There are numerous questions, I think, about that conclusion. It’s been the case throughout the history of Christianity that women make up the majority of the constituency. Evangelical Protestantism has had a tradition of gender differentiation, and quite a few of the evangelical and fundamentalist denominations do not allow women pastors, for example. But that is a very different thing than the valorizing of militarism and macho masculinity. My own sense is that Du Mez is accurately reporting on developments coming out of the 50s and 60s—the polarization of politics, the polarization of culture, and conflicts over issues in the public sphere that have become aligned with certain evangelical emphases. She is describing a late twentieth and early twenty-first century American phenomenon that would only be marginally or partially observed in evangelical movements at other times or places.

Read the entire interview here.

“Christian Politics?”: Week Two


Yesterday I taught the second of four 90-minute classes on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Read my summary of Week One here.

If you recall, in Week 1 I explained five ways in which Christians have thought about politics–past and present.  We discussed Anabaptism, Lutheranism, the African-American Church, Calvinism, and Catholicism.

This week we asked: “How have American evangelicals practiced politics, especially in the last fifty years?

We began by defining evangelicalism using the Bebbington Quadrilateral: Biblicism, Crucicentrism, Conversionism, and Activism.  This proved to be a very fruitful conversation.  I taught about 120 people this morning (in 2 sections) and nearly all of them believed in the theological tenets of the Bebbington Quadrilateral.  But only a small percentage ( roughly 25%?) use the word “evangelical” to describe their faith.  In both hours I had people ask me to distinguish between an “evangelical” and “fundamentalist.”

I then offered a quick history lesson focused on why so many conservative white evangelicals in the 1970s began to worry about the decline of Christian culture.  We touched on the separation of church as defined by the Supreme Court in 1947Engel v. Vitale (1962), Abington v. Schempp (1963), changes to American immigration policy (Hart-Cellar Act of 1965), the relationship between segregationism and evangelical libertarianism, Roe v. Wade (1973), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and the religious liberty debates of the last twenty years (“Merry Christmas,” Johnson Amendment, Ten Commandments in courthouses, etc.).

I then introduced the political playbook devised by the Religious Right in the 1970s to deal with these social and cultural changes.  The playbook teaches:

  1. America was founded as a Christian nation
  2. America’s status as a Christian nation is in jeopardy
  3. We must “reclaim” or “restore” America to its Christian roots
  4. We must do this through electoral politics by electing the right people who will, in turn, pass the right laws and appoint the right judges
  5. We will win back the culture for Christ
  6. If this happens, we’re not really sure what we will do next, but we do know that God will once again be happy with the United States.

When I talked about #6 above I emphasized how evangelicals have not thought very deeply about politics.  Many evangelical leaders have no idea what they will do if the proverbial dog catches the proverbial bus.  This, as Ronald Sider described it, is the “scandal of evangelical politics.”

Here is what I told the class they could expect in Week Three:

  1. The current evangelical political playbook, as written over the course of the last fifty years, privileges fear over hope, power over humility, and nostalgia over history.
  2. We will then ask: “Are these healthy or biblical ideas (fear, power, nostalgia) from which to build a truly evangelical approach to politics?

Stay tuned.

Should We Retire the “Bebbington Quadrilateral?”

latin evangelicals

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).

Gloege writes:

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.

Gloege adds:

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 TrumpI 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.

Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part Two

For part one of this series click here.

After Darren Dochuk offered this thoughts on the Bebbington Quadrilateral, Mark Noll of Notre Dame University took the lectern.  It was fun watching these two giants in the field–Bebbington and Noll–debating the history and definition of evangelicalism.

Noll argued that there was no such thing as a monolithic movement known as “evangelicalism.” (Yes, you read that correctly!)  The term is not helpful when it comes to writing historical narratives.  Noll preferred to say that many Christian groups have certain evangelical “traits,” but it is very difficult to think about some kind of unified movement.  He thought that Bebbington’s Quadrilateral was a helpful tool for identifying these “traits” or “essences,” but could not bring himself to embrace the idea that evangelicalism exists.  Throughout the talk and the Q&A that followed, Noll suggested that many Catholics, for example, exhibited evangelical commitments to the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need for evangelism, but they historically have had little in common with folks like Billy Graham.  When John Wilson of Books & Culture asked the panel how African-American conservative Protestants fit into the discussion, Noll concluded that they were a vibrant Christian movement who shared evangelical traits, but were not part of any specific movement known as evangelicalism.  He concluded: “There is no such thing as evangelicalism and David Bebbington has provided the best possible definition for it.” Needless to say, this brought loud chuckles from the audience.

Bebbington began his remarks in response to Noll by saying “I have a firm principle: Whatever Mark Noll says is right.”  He then went on to argue with Noll’s claim that evangelicalism does not exist. Bebbington said that evangelicalism exists because evangelicals have thought that evangelicalism exists.  It was another great laugh line.  But despite the humor, Bebbington was basically challenging Noll to explain organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals or magazines such as Christianity Today who have taken the label “evangelicalism” seriously.

In response to Wilson’s question about African-American evangelicals, Bebbington argued that most conservative Protestant African-American churches uphold the four prongs–biblicism, activism, conversionism, crucicentrism–of his Quadrilateral.  They could thus be viewed as part of evangelicalism.

Following Noll, Molly Worthen offered her thoughts on Bebbington’s Quadrilateral.  Rather than focus on the more traditional theological definition of evangelicalism, Worthen wanted to push Bebbington to consider a more social or cultural definition.  She argued that evangelicalism is defined by anxieties over the relationship between faith and reason–anxieties that are inevitable in a movement that lacks no real ecclesiastical authority.  How does one form a movement without an appeal to reason or a magisterium of some type?  Bebbington largely agreed with Worthen on this point, but still clung to the theological components of the Quadrilateral to define the movement.

Worthen then wondered if Bebbington’s Quadrilateral was still useful now that the center of evangelicalism had moved to the Global South.  I wish that there was more conversation on this issue because it is a very important one.

Worthen ended her talk by suggesting that evangelicalism is not going away anytime soon.  She may be right, but I have also found that many of my students at Messiah College do not identify with the term.  Some of them have never even heard of it.  Several tweeters who teach at Christian colleges tended to agree.  This leads me to wonder just how long the term (or the movement) “evangelicalism” will last.

In the end, perhaps Noll is correct.  Evangelical “traits” such as the New Birth, evangelism and social action, the centrality of the cross, and a belief in the authority of Bible are not going away anytime soon.  But what about evangelicalism?  This session made me wonder if “evangelicalism” is really little more than a movement founded by Baby Boomers in the wake of World War II that has just about run its course.

For example, the college where I teach–Messiah College–is certainly evangelical in essence, but it is also diverse enough–both in terms of student body and faculty–that it does not seem to identify with “evangelicalism” in the way that a place like Wheaton College might identify with the term or the movement.  While some of our students and faculty might find a theological and ecclesiastical genealogy in the organizations and churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals or Christianity Today or Billy Graham, others come from Anabaptist, Pentecostal, theologically conservative or moderate mainline Protestant, or even Roman Catholic backgrounds.  Messiah is a very evangelical place.  It strongly adheres to the authority of the Bible, the belief that Christians should be sharing their faith and addressing social problems, the centrality of the Cross, and the need for conversion (although not everyone would completely endorse a belief in the New Birth).  But is it part of a movement known as “evangelicalism?”  Maybe.

Defining Evangelicalism at the Conference on Faith and History: Part One

I spent a lot of time thinking about evangelicalism this weekend.  It was the focus of several high-powered panels at the biennial meeting of the Conference on Faith and History.  One of those panels was focused on David Bebbington’s “Quadilateral” of evangelical faith.  In his book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, Bebbington defined evangelicalism using four “isms”: conversionism, biblicism, activism, and crucicentrism.  After twenty-five years, three prominent interpreters of American evangelicalism–Mark Noll, Molly Worthen, and Darren Dochuk–sought to reflect on the continued usefulness of the Quadrilateral.  At first I found it a bit odd that three historians of American evangelicalism were called upon to critique a book about British evangelicalism, but after listening to the entire session I am willing to admit that the Quadrilateral is, at the very least, a transatlantic concept.

Since this session was so rich, I have decided to cover it in several posts.  So let’s begin with Darren Dochuk’s thoughts on the Bebbington quadrilateral.  Dochuk, the author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism, suggested that we expand the quadrilateral to include the eschatological system of premillenialism, the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christian community or fellowship.  (When I tweeted some of Dochuk’s remarks, someone on my feed mentioned that Thomas Kidd, during a session on Bebbington’s book at a recent meeting of the American Society of Church History, had also suggested adding the Holy Spirit to the Quadrilateral ).
While a concern with the last days, a reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit, and a commitment to community are all traits that have historically characterized evangelicals, Bebbington argued, contra Dochuk, that these traits do not characterize all evangelicals and thus should not be added to the Quadrilateral.
Bebbington argued that not all evangelicals have embraced a premillennialist or dispensationalist eschatology.  For example, many evangelicals have been postmillennialists.  Rather than waiting for Christ’s return to establish his earthly millennial kingdom, postmillennialists believe that we are living in the kingdom and need to work hard at spreading the gospel and solving social problems as a necessary prerequisite for Christ’s return. In other words, there will be no 1000 year earthly reign of Christ following his return.
I think Bebbington is right here.  In fact, the view that evangelicals were eschatologically diverse has been around since a slew of historians in the 1970s and 1980s, including Dochuk’s own dissertation adviser George Marsden, criticized Ernest Sandeen’s reductionist argument in The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millennarianism, 1800-1930.  If we are going to add premillennialism to the quadrilateral we need to exclude folks like Charles Finney T.T. Shields, J. Gresham Machen, and William Jennings Bryan from the evangelical fold.
Bebbington also suggested, contra Dochuk, that not all evangelicals were keen upon tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is a tricky one.  On one level Dochuk is right.  All evangelicals believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and its influence in their lives.  But, as Bebbington pointed out, not all evangelicals give it a prominent emphasis in their theology in the ways that Pentecostals or the adherents to the Holiness movement might.  
There are many evangelical groups–the twentieth-century dispensationalists who taught at Dallas Theological Seminary come immediately to mind–who have been cautious about embracing the full power of the Holy Spirit in their lives and congregations. Many evangelicals, including Jonathan Edwards and some of the early fundamentalists, were skeptical of spirit-empowered religious enthusiasm, speaking in tongues, or the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.”  Many evangelicals who wanted their hearts to be “strangely warmed” (to quote Wesley) got out of the spiritual kitchen when and if the Holy Spirit fire got too hot.
Finally, Bebbington suggested, contra Dochuk, that “community” or “fellowship” should not be considered a defining characteristic of evangelicalism.  Were evangelicals concerned with this kind of togetherness?  Of course.  But evangelicalism was also very personal and individualistic.  
I have argued elsewhere that evangelicals tend to be so interested in community today precisely because evangelicalism is such an individualistic approach to Christian faith.  We actually had a good discussion about this the other day in my History of American Evangelicalism class.  
 Stay tuned for more posts on this session.