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.