G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Everlasting Man (1925): “At least five times, therefore, with the Arian and the Albigensian, with the Humanist sceptic, after Voltaire and after Darwin, the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.”
No two sentences better capture my response each time there’s a new essay about evangelicalism facing a new life-threatening crisis, or a report about a trendy ex-evangelical counting evangelicalism as unworthy of allegiance or a former official from either Bush administration who has been sent around the bend by a Donald Trump tweet.
For the sake of clarity: I do not consider evangelicalism the sum total of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. As Alan Jacobs writes in his new essay for The Atlantic, “Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning,” the nondenominational force identified as evangelicalism is a “complex and fluid movement dedicated to the renewal of Christianity, largely among Protestants, though its efforts have occasionally reached into Catholicism.”
Jacobs in in pain, and I sympathize, but not enough to share that pain. Writing in The Atlantic, Jacobs grieves what he discerns as evangelicalism’s deep cultural captivity:
By now, God-and-Country believers are so accustomed to voting Republican — and to being disdained or mocked by Democrats — that few of them can remember doing anything else. And God-and-Country Believers are what most Americans, whether religious or not, now think that evangelicals are.
Those white evangelicals who voted for Trump? They and only they are the true evangelicals, no matter what shelves of church-history books say.
[Historian] Tommy Kidd and I, musing on these matters over our tacos, may well lament all this. We may note the strangeness of allowing a centuries-old movement to be defined by people who don’t know that the movement is centuries old; and we may note, as Kidd repeatedly points out in his book, that there are many millions of non-white evangelicals in America, and not very many of them voted for Donald Trump. So we now have a peculiar situation in which people who don’t know what the term evangelical historically connotes and who massively distrust one another — God-and-Country moralistic therapeutic deists on the one hand, and a press that simply doesn’t get religion on the other — have combined to take the term away from those of us who know and care about its history.
A major part of this puzzle is that the press doesn’t “get religion”? Mercy.
Jacobs refers to the “Bebbington quadrilateral” and the “Larsen pentagon” for detailed explanations of what evangelicals affirm theologically and, in particular, the movement’s approach to scripture. (I am partial to the Nollian quintagram, if only for the escalating wordplay. Surely an aspiring evangelical thinker could raise the bar to a decalogue within the next several years.)
But more seriously: the National Association of Evangelicals’ statement of faith, or some variation of it, appears regularly in the bulletins or websites of most prominent evangelical congregations. If there are politicians, adherents of moralistic therapeutic deism, secularists, politically obsessed journalists, cultured despisers of Christianity and even couch-warming members of NAE-affiliated congregations who are unaware of these theological commitments, I land on one response: What else is new?
Journalists: Please notice this about the quadrilateral, the Larsen pentagon, the Nollian quintagram and the NAE’s statement of faith: they are entirely free of references to Democrats or Republicans, Jimmy Carter or Donald Trump, praise choruses or hymns, patriotism or Anabaptism or even any of the social-issue landmines that await detonation in every new stentorian announcement like “Against the New Nationalism.”
Orthodox Christian faith (including the branch that lives in evangelicalism) has survived Nero, the great schisms, the Enlightenment, Nazism, Communism, Elmer Gantry, Jim Bakker, Jay Bakker, Re-Imagining [God], Matthew Fox’s Cosmic Mass, multiple Clown Eucharists, Puppets of Doom and the emergent movement. It will outlast even the puerile satire of The Righteous Gemstones. And people worry that Donald Trump (or his many evangelical Christian supporters) will send evangelicalism into permanent disrepute?
When in doubt, keep your eye on the Global South.