Is the Term “Evangelical” Over?
The media are full of anguished testimonies of people formerly identified as “evangelical” declaring that it has been irrevocably spoiled. It won’t disappear because, for scholarship, it’s too useful. But that doesn’t mean everybody has to keep it.
There is a difference, that is, between a label and a brand.
The “spoiling” has come from the linkage of evangelical leaders, mostly from the “prosperity gospel,” with American president Donald Trump. This alliance coupled with polls indicating that Trump enjoyed the vote of a large majority of white evangelicals has meant embarrassment for many evangelicals, white and otherwise, who are outraged by his behaviour, politics, and values. So they want to be identified otherwise, and are everywhere shedding the “evangelical” label.
This problem is, to be sure, largely an American problem. But because of America’s prominence on the world stage, evangelicals elsewhere, and particularly in Canada, feel its effects. So is “evangelical” over?
Speaking historically, it isn’t a big deal if it is. The roots of evangelicalism as a movement of renewal and mission go back to Puritanism in Britain and Pietism in continental Europe. It was the religious awakening of the eighteenth century under John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and many lesser lights that wrote the first chapter of evangelicalism’s history. And it didn’t feature the term “evangelical.” The preaching and hymnody focused instead on “the New Birth.”
As evangelicalism spread throughout North America and around the world in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t called “evangelicalism” then, either. But again the revivals featured the characteristic emphases noted by British historian David Bebbington: a focus upon Jesus Christ (rather than “God-in-general”) and his atoning work on the Cross (rather than moralism or mysticism); a commitment to the supreme authority of Scripture (versus church tradition or the current opinion of the day); promotion of conversion, including both personal declaration of faith plus a lifelong commitment to holiness; and activism in fostering spiritual renewal, sanctification, and the improvement of society along Christian lines.
Most of these affirmations are generically Christian, of course, with only the sola Scriptura element marking them out as Protestant. And for the first two centuries of evangelicalism, no one felt the need to label this movement. But it was distinctive, particularly because of a fifth element identified by the American historian George Marsden: transdenominationalism. These Christians emphasized these characteristic commitments over others (such as sacramentalism or a particular form of church government) so that they could work together on matters of common concern. And thus their networks reached across the divides separating Baptists from Anglicans and Methodists from Presbyterians.
It was only with the rise of liberal theology in the twentieth century to dominate formerly orthodox denominations and ecumenical groups (such as the World Council of Churches and its national counterparts) that people of these convictions felt the need to organize. And organizations need names.
“Fundamentalism” had been the label in the struggles against liberal or “modernist” Christianity during the first quarter of the twentieth century, particularly in the United States but also across the English-speaking world and beyond. By mid-century, largely due to American influence, the term “evangelical” was promoted as a less pejorative term for the less separatistic and less militant form of cooperative, revivalistic Protestantism identified with the career of Billy Graham.
The World Evangelical Alliance, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and dozens more organizations sprang up featuring the name. And the German language saw the term evangelikal arise to distinguish these Christians from generic Protestants, known as evangelische.
Historians and social scientists have come largely to agree that “evangelical” is the most useful term to apply to this distinctive global phenomenon of linked movements of Protestant renewal and reform. The term likely won’t disappear anytime soon from scholarship, and no other label is even being discussed to replace it.
The label will stay. But that doesn’t mean the brand has to.
Princeton Evangelical Fellowship recently changed its name to Princeton Christian Fellowship, bringing it into line with its parent organization, the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Anyone encountering either organization will soon learn that it isn’t generically Christian, but distinctively evangelical—just as, a generation ago, students learned the same thing about the Queen’s Christian Fellowship (in which I participated).
Christian Higher Education Canada isn’t an organization embracing all Christian higher education in Canada: Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant schools are conspicuously absent among its membership. It’s an evangelical organization.
No evangelical has to identify with the term “evangelical.” And since evangelicals typically are pragmatic, if the brand “evangelical” is impeding effectiveness, the brand can and will change.
For the time being, we scholars will keep it—as long as it remains useful. But scholars, pragmatists also, will adopt a new term if a more useful one emerges.
And I’m sure John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and Billy Graham himself would approve.