Historian Says There is Not One Definition to ‘Evangelical’ and There Are ‘Many Evangelicalisms’

There are “many evangelicalisms” and people should be wary about trying to attach a single definition to the religious movement, a history professor says.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, associate professor of History and Gender Studies at Calvin College, presented a paper on Saturday titled “Race, Gender, and the 81 Percent: Defining Evangelicalism and What’s at Stake” at an American Historical Association conference in Chicago, Illinois.

The ”81 percent” in the title refers to the much touted yet highly disputed 2016 presidential election exit polling data that claimed 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.

Some, including Joe Carter and Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition, and Napp Nazworth at The Christian Post, argued that the polling data was problematic on multiple fronts. The 81 percent, they point out, only includes whites, doesn’t include people who didn’t vote, and is based upon self-identification, rather than beliefs or participation in an evangelical church.

Further illustrating the problem, a 2017 LifeWay poll found that less than half of those Americans who identify as evangelical hold evangelical beliefs, and one-third of Americans who hold evangelical views don’t identify as evangelical.

Du Mez explained in her presentation the modern debate and different perspectives over how to define the term “evangelical,” including whether to accept self-identification or to base it on theological views.

She also noted that for many, including some pollsters, evangelicalism is a term meant to describe some white Christians, while others view it as applicable to all races.

“Is evangelicalism a theological category, a cultural movement, a white religious brand, a diverse global movement? What if the answer is ‘all of the above’?” stated Du Mez.

Du Mez cited Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” approach to nationalism, defining a nation as the socially-constructed product of a collective imagination as inherently limited and sovereign.

“There are, in fact, many evangelicalisms, and each is imagined with a different center and different boundaries,” said Du Mez.

“If we consider evangelicalism an imagined religious community, imagined as inherently limited, bounded with insiders and outsiders, we must pay careful attention to questions of power.”

The issue is not so much which definition of evangelicalism is correct, but rather “which imaginings have more power to shape other people’s imaginings,” she argued.

“When LifeWay Christian Books decides you are no longer an evangelical, it matters,” she continued. “When the evangelical left claims the mantle of evangelicalism to call for an end to the culture wars, it matters rhetorically and beyond that, I have my doubts.”

Scholars of evangelicalism should also be wary of their own biases on the issue, warned Du Mez, saying that they should “examine our own positionality.”

“How have scholars imagined evangelicalism and to what end? How have scholarly definitions opened up some questions and topics for exploration and closed down others? Which scholarly imaginings have wielded power in the academy and why?” she said.

“All this is especially important to consider, since so many scholars of evangelicalism have a personal connection to evangelicalism, as either evangelicals themselves or as ‘exvangelicals.’ Much of the scholarship on evangelicalism, in other words, has been generated by scholars who have a dog in the fight.”

Du Mez presented her paper at the 133rd annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held Jan. 3-6 in Chicago, Illinois.

She was part of a Saturday panel at the annual meeting titled “Who Is Evangelical? Confronting Race in American Christianity.”

In addition to Du Mez, other panel members included Malcolm Foley, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Religion at Baylor University, and Jemar Tisby, author and Ph.D. candidate in United States history at the University of Mississippi.

Tisby’s paper was titled “Are Black Christians Evangelical?” He argued that whether or not black evangelicals can be called evangelical will, and should, remain ambiguous, but should always include the modifier “black evangelical” because the issue of race will be important as well.

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Michael Gryboski