The April 2016 issue of Christianity Today contains a very useful article, “A New Way to Define Evangelicals,” by Leith Anderson and Ed Stetzer, Anderson is president of the National Association of Evangelicals (in Washington, DC); Stetzer is executive director of LifeWay Research, an organization that conducts surveys for Evangelical churches (in Nashville, which contains the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention and, not so coincidentally, is the location of the Grand Ole Opry—a combination of the Baptist Vatican and the La Scala of Country Western). The NEA, founded in 1942, displays a statement of faith that puts it on the conservative side of the Evangelical spectrum—it uses the term “infallible” to refer to the Bible and it speaks of the “resurrection of damnation” which is where the unsaved are headed.
“Evangelical” is indeed a term covering a broad religious diversity. Anderson and Stetzer point out that definitions, as used in surveys, usually rely on self-identification (by people who say “Evangelical” when asked for their religion) or who belong to denominations or groups that can plausibly be called Evangelical (like, say, the Southern Baptist Convention or Campus Crusade for Christ). This leaves too much aside the question of religious beliefs. The authors of the article discuss some recent efforts to define Evangelicals and then boil them down to four key propositions that they asked American respondents to agree or disagree with. Evangelicals, however defined, have a long history in Europe and America. In Britain the adjective was used to describe factions within the Church of England (such as the very Protestant “low church,” aka “low and lazy,” as against the Anglo-Catholic “high church,” aka “high and crazy,” and the in-between “broad church,” aka “broad and hazy”)—as well groups that jumped out of the Anglican state church and eventually formed separate denominations (such as the Methodists). In Europe there was the large Pietist movement, some of it within the Lutheran state churches in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. To make all this even more complicated, most Lutheran churches in America still have the word “Evangelical” in their names—a translation of the German “evangelisch”—which just means “Protestant,” not Evangelical as in Anglo-American usage. This is not the place to cut through this terminological jungle. Instead let me go right away to the Anderson-Stetzer construct (which is to be understood as a theoretical “ideal type,” not usually found totally replicated in empirical reality, but useful precisely to explore the cases where the reality deviates from it).
So, here are the four key propositions making up the Anderson-Stetzer list of core Evangelical beliefs:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
Constant references to Biblical authority, including the use of “proof texts” from both Old and New Testaments, are common features of Evangelicalism. There is also a general suspicion of modern historical scholarship applied to the Bible. On the conservative end of the Evangelical theological spectrum the “inerrancy” of the Bible is affirmed—each statement in the Bible is believed to be literally true, including accounts of creation in the Book of Genesis and reports of miracles by Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels: The entire Bible, at least in its Hebrew and Greek original texts, was inspired by God word by word. Less conservative Evangelicals, like other Protestants, are more willing to say that the meaning of the Bible can be found as God’s revelation filtered through humanly created words and narratives. The methods of historical scholarship are therefore not rejected outright.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
In other words, every Christian is obligated to bear witness to his faith and to convert others who do not share it. This “great commission” is of course the cause of the huge missionary enterprise that has led to the global expansion of Evangelical Protestantism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In America, since the First Great Awakening in the 18th century, this has led to revival after revival, reaching its more recent climax in the ministry of Billy Graham.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of sin.
This is the understanding of the human condition as hopelessly mired in sin, which is punished by death in this world and hell in the next. The historical roots of this can certainly be found in the New Testament, but its more proximate antecedents lie in the Reformed/Calvinist branch of the Reformation. This very pessimistic view of man burst out in the First Great Awakening, one of whose leaders, Jonathan Edwards (1703–1801), is famous for what is probably the most frightening sermon in Christian history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Jesus sacrifice has taken upon himself the just penalty for the sins of those who have converted to faith in him and who are thereby saved from a sentence to hell. This view of the human condition (“utter depravity” is a common Evangelical term for it) accounts for the urgency of the missionary mandate—soul by soul snatched from the jaws of hell. The full sharpness of this view, most clearly represented by Calvinism, has been considerably modified in most of modern Evangelicalism, conversion to Jesus Christ as the promise of heaven rather than as the reprieve from hell. In either version of the drama of being saved, this salvation requires an individual conversion, in which one “accepts Jesus Christ as personal lord and savior.”
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”
I’m not quite clear what this fourth belief adds to the third. I suppose its repeated “only” emphasizes the exclusive character of Evangelical faith. No easy interfaith amiability here! As other movements imported into America, Evangelicalism supplanted its original scowl by a friendly smile. (Compare the Americanization of psychoanalysis—Viennese pessimism giving way to cheerful re-invention of self. Compare the Americanization of Buddhism—from the horror of the endless wheel of deaths to the primal American experience of a second chance.)
This depiction of Evangelical beliefs, I think, is very helpful as one tries to delineate the Evangelical community within the exuberant pluralism of American religion in general and its Protestant component in particular. But the most interesting aspect of this article is its estimates of overall totals of American Evangelicals:
- 30 percent of all Americans are estimated to be Evangelical (I take it, by the aforementioned criteria).
- 29 percent of white Americans;
- 44 percent of African-Americans (my guess is that the percentage would be higher if one simply counted the percentage among members of African-American Protestant churches);
- 30 percent of Hispanics in the United States (that is astounding!);
- 17 percent of other ethnicities.
There can be no doubt that the Evangelical community is an important factor on the religious landscape of the United States. That fact is significant in the important comparison between religion in this country and in Europe, where (by any criteria) the former comes out significantly more religious than the latter. Evangelicals (or Pietists, if you will) are a very small minority in Europe (which probably helps to explain the difference between these two equally modern parts of the world!). If one then looks at the entire world, especially if one includes Pentecostals in the Protestant totals, one must conclude that Evangelicals constitute a significant proportion (almost certainly more than the American estimate of 30 percent). Christianity is the largest religious grouping worldwide (with Muslims in second place); the majority of its Protestant churches have an Evangelical flavor. (So, if one wants to set up a world headquarters for Evangelicals, Nashville, Tennessee would be a plausible location!)
A reader of this blog with acquaintance with the Evangelical world will probably ask why no mention has been made here of so-called fundamentalists. This is not difficult to explain: The most obvious reason is that efforts to estimate the number of fundamentalists is especially difficult. The term has usually a pejorative undertone: A fundamentalist is an individual who is intensely religious in a way I disapprove of. If one wants a more objective definition I would suggest the following: A fundamentalist project (which could be secular in ideological content) is to restore the sort of taken-for-granted status which religion used to have in pre-modern times. In other words, fundamentalism describes the “how” not the “what” of a faith. But that topic is too large to discuss here.
At least in the United States, Evangelicals constitute not only a distinctive version of the Christian religion. (This is why I think it makes sense to write the term in capitals, not in lower case, as has become common even in publications like Christianity Today who should know better. Why “evangelical,” but not “protestant,” “lutheran,” “jewish,” “buddhist,” and so on. The difference between common and proper nouns was clearly defined for me by my English teacher in secondary school. The people who these days write publishers’ style manuals or computer spell checks probably had the measles every time English grammar was taught in school.) Evangelicals also constitute a broadly diffused subculture, especially in the South and the Southwest. One may say about this subculture what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart said about the definition of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” In Texas it will not attract attention if some diners in a crowded restaurant bow their heads and say grace before they start eating; in Boston this will raise eyebrows at neighboring tables. The language provides audial as well as visual cues: As when someone says, “I’ll pray over it.” Or, in connection with what outsiders would see as a coincidence, “I think we are being shown something.” Also, when someone is described as “Christian,” without a qualifying adjective, in Boston this might mean “I don’t think he or she is Jewish, and not a likely prospect for joining our synagogue.” In Dallas it may mean, “Put these people on the outreach list of our church” (which, of course, is Baptist).
I cannot resist the temptation of telling the story of my very first encounter with the Evangelical subculture, just a few months after my arrival in America. I had received a scholarship from Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio. I had acquired a Finnish girlfriend, also a recent arrival in this country. We had decided to attend a revival service announced in the local paper. Everything was very strange, the music, the sermon. Then came the “call from the altar,” inviting people to come forward and “accept Jesus as personal lord and savior.” As the ushers were coming forward toward where we were sitting, I saw my companion tensing up. She was sitting in the aisle seat to my left, so the usher came to her first. He asked: “Sister, are you saved?” After a moment’s hesitation she replied: “I am a member of the Lutheran Church of Finland.” He was clearly baffled, but he apparently took her answer as a yes. He said: “God bless you, sister,” and moved on. He didn’t ask me—I was with her, so he must have assumed that I was saved too.