Now more than three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, amid the coronavirus pandemic and his run for reelection, the debate over his white evangelical base continues to rage. Columns and editorials have been written, pundits have clashed, friendships and family ties have been strained. Through it all, some basic questions have underwritten the exchange—What is an evangelical? To whom does the label apply? What policies and politicians should an evangelical support? Of all the recent books tackling these questions on American evangelicalism—and there are many—one stands out as complete and comprehensive.
Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden—all esteemed scholars of American religious history—have assembled an impressive line-up of contributors in their edited volume, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Bebbington, now retired from Scotland’s University of Sterling, is perhaps best known for outlining four main characteristics of evangelicalism. Marsden and Noll, who held the same chair in succession at Notre Dame, have also long explored the salient traits of evangelicals, including their role in higher education. In Noll’s 1994 book about the tension between his twin loves of intellectualism and evangelicalism, he famously wrote, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”
In this latest volume, Noll has helped bring together many minds to ponder different facets of the questions facing evangelicalism. Among them are names that have appeared in the pages of Religion & Politics and around the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics, including Darren Dochuk, Molly Worthen, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jemar Tisby, Timothy Keller, and Thomas S. Kidd. Eric C. Miller spoke recently with Noll about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: This volume is structured as an intervention into the history of evangelical history. What inspired this approach, and how did it all come together?
Mark Noll: Authors are sometimes not the most reliable sources for explanation of how their books have been written. But the current political debates over white evangelical support for Donald Trump have obviously elicited a lot of commentary, and, a couple of years ago, David Bebbington, George Marsden, and I were attending some meetings together, where we were engaged in a conversation about the history of evangelical history writing. So it just seemed natural to try to pull together some coherent report on that project with this other debate over white evangelical Protestants in American politics. It might be a book that we fell into, and it might violate the rule that says that books should be about one particular thing, but we concluded that the two topics had an interesting connection that might be fruitful to explore.
R&P: Douglas A. Sweeney’s essay focuses in part on the “observer-participant dilemma” in evangelical history, and the risks confronting historians of evangelicalism who are practicing evangelicals themselves. Given that so many observers of evangelicalism are also participants, has our understanding of the tradition been compromised?
MN: I think that danger is clearly present. Of course, all history is written from an angle, and there is nothing unusual about people who enjoy or take part in a movement to be active in studying the history of that movement, but it’s a danger in any case. In my mind, what has kept the danger under control in this book is that most of our authors have one foot in the academic world and one foot in the evangelical world. In their churches, these folks often have to defend the intentions of a more neutral, academic approach, and in the academic world, they are often asked to defend the motives of the people they study. I think the same situation prevails if you are a Catholic scholar writing on the history of Catholicism, if you are a gay man writing on the history of homosexuality in America, or something similar. You can be too close, and observer-participants sometimes fail to see things that outsiders see clearly. But they may also catch the feel of a movement in a way that outsiders cannot. So in recognizing this concern, we felt that it was appropriate nonetheless to go ahead.
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 –ism terms like evangelicalism.
R&P: While trying to explain evangelical support for Donald Trump, Michael S. Hamilton proposes what he calls the “white evangelical political quadrilateral,” comprised of “Christian nationalism, Christian tribalism, political moralism, and antistatism.” Has this mix of conservative political priorities displaced theology among self-identified white evangelicals in the United States?
MN: You happen to be calling me one day after Christianity Today published an editorial by its editor saying that the time has come to remove Donald Trump from office. Predictably, there has been a great deal of negative reaction, as well as some positive reaction, to that piece. Both reactions speak to your question because of the way in which the American media have equated “evangelical” with a certain white political constituency. Hamilton’s essay is shrewd in tracking what Dochuk would call one of the “networks” that have used the term for themselves and have been so identified by others.
I’m not sure if the question is answerable since those evangelicals who embrace Trump, those who prefer Trump to alternatives, and those who dislike Trump cannot, in any sense, make up a coherent political constituency. From the outside, from the world of political punditry, it seems obvious that evangelical Trump supporters make sense as a demographic, and that they have a certain degree of clout in the contemporary political landscape. But whether that reality says anything about evangelicalism as a whole, or evangelical history, or how evangelicalism operates around the world, I think, is a very different question.
The observation of a political landscape requires identifiable subgroups. It used to be the case that you could identify “labor” as a Democratic constituency, or you would hear about Lutherans in Minnesota and know that those are Republicans. All of that is quite legitimate up to a point. But in the same way that being strongly in support of labor was not the same thing as being simply Democratic, so being strongly in favor of evangelical religion is not the same thing as being an enthusiast for Trump. Perhaps I have been too confused in my own thinking. But the Hamilton analysis does characterize a certain group of Americans who are willing to call themselves evangelicals and are often called evangelicals by outsiders. The difficulty with that ascription is that it reduces the use of the term in a way that is not strongly connected to the diversity of the faith and is only loosely connected to American history.
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.
R&P: Fred Clark argues that evangelicalism’s mainstream, intellectual class has been displaced by louder voices from the fringe, such that the fringe is now the evangelical mainstream and vice-versa. Has the Wheaton-educated intelligentsia fallen out of touch with the rank-and-file?
MN: George Marsden and I obviously liked Clark’s piece because he has nice things to say about our work—though it may be more accurate to say a clever mix of put-down and admiration. He complimented us on the huge response to our books—sales in the tens of thousands! But then he pointed out that populist Christian fiction like the Left Behind series has sales in the tens of millions, so perhaps we shouldn’t get too excited.
The question about leadership is different, I think, than the question about general constituency. My own sense is that the evangelical world has never been unified, has always lacked structure, and has always been identified with major speaking and publishing voices, so that, though institutions like Wheaton College, Fuller Theological Seminary, Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Christianity Today magazine, and others did make contributions to the evangelical discourse, they never represented in any meaningful way the huge diversity of groups in the United States who outsiders would recognize as evangelicals. Connections with the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, were very tenuous. They’ve grown stronger in the twenty-first century, but remain somewhat tenuous even now. The same is true of the Pentecostal denominations. So the consciousness of an interwoven movement taking in all of the evangelical or seemingly evangelical groups simply did not exist.
Did the Billy Graham-Christianity Today-Fuller-Wheaton representatives lead all in America who could be considered evangelicals? The answer, historically, is a definite no. Did they appear to lead? Well, maybe so. To the extent that that appearance has passed away, we are probably now living in a situation that is closer to the historical reality that always existed. The evangelical voices that seem to be leaders are those that best exploit the available media communications. Graham was an expert, Christianity Today had its innings, but there were always other groups with their own media spokespeople who were by any reasonable definition just as evangelical but who lacked the impression of being leaders.
Clark’s essay nicely points out that the pluralism that has always existed is now manifest. The Jerry Falwell Juniors of the world, the Franklin Grahams of the world—all those who are now referred to as “Trump’s evangelicals”—aren’t new phenomena, but are modern-day representatives of what was always going on but perhaps not recognized. I don’t think there has been a transition of actual, demographic allegiance. But there has been a transition of perceived leadership.
R&P: Jemar Tisby takes up the question of whether African American Christians are evangelicals, and concludes that they are, but only within racial limits long drawn and enforced by whites. Is Sunday morning segregation somehow inherent to American evangelicalism?
MN: Certainly the principles of evangelical religion would suggest that ethnic or racial differences are secondary to unity in Christ. I only do contemporary things with the back of my hand—I’m really a historian of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and I think the example of George Whitefield and Phyllis Wheatley is significant here. When Whitefield died in 1770, Wheatley wrote a poem in his honor that praised him for preaching a message that reached African Americans. She won a considerable amount of renown when that poem was published. Whitefield, who did actually insist that colonial blacks be allowed to attend his public meetings, was also an active promoter of slavery in Georgia because he needed slaves to make his orphanage profitable. So the question is, does evangelical religion presuppose racial difference? Does it oppose racial difference? The answer is yes on both counts.
Historically, white and black evangelicals have been no more exempt from the enslaving and segregating traditions of American history than have other Americans. Theologically, there has been a consistent strand of black and white Christians who have intentionally tried to work together. Tisby’s essay is really interesting in its treatment of the black evangelist Tom Skinner, who was, for a while, very well received in white evangelical communities. However, when he began to articulate themes calling on white evangelicals to repent of their participation in America’s racist history, Skinner lost a great deal of his credibility in white evangelical communities. Tisby is implicitly raising the question—which is the more authentic evangelical history? The early part of Skinner’s career, when he was hailed as an effective evangelist all across the racial spectrum, or the latter part of his career, when he was ostracized by many white evangelicals for rocking the boat and drawing attention to the racist past? The answer depends upon the angle from which it is asked.
R&P: The volume closes with an essay from each of the editors, trying to chart a course forward. Having covered who evangelicals have been and are, who do you think they could be?
MN: One of the essays that I was very glad we were able to secure is by Brian Stiller, a Canadian who is an official with the World Evangelical Alliance. He asks himself, in light of his international contacts, is “evangelical” still a viable term? He reports on visits around the world during which self-identified evangelicals ask him, “What’s going on in the United States? Why have white evangelicals politicized this term that we use to refer to ourselves religiously, or theologically?” Stiller recognizes that there is a problem, but his conclusion states that, in the world picture going forward, what happens in the United States is going to be less and less important, given the rising tide of evangelical movements in Asia, Africa, and much of Latin America. He reaches the conclusion that, what evangelicals could be is a worldwide movement stressing the tradition’s religious emphases—loyalty to the Bible, love of God and neighbor, the belief that Christ can change hearts—and that these prominent theological elements may be, once again, definitional of evangelicalism. If evangelicalism is going to have more than a merely American political meaning, it is going to have to reassert the religious aspects of the tradition.