Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Evangelicals and the Label "Christian"

Historiann has a very insightful post on the way that evangelicals have tried to claim the term "Christian" exclusively for themselves. She writes:

Over the past few decades, evangelical Protestants have commandeered the blanket term “Christian” to refer only to their brand of Christianity. Instead of calling themselves “evangelical Protestants,” or aligning themselves with a particular doctrine or faith tradition, they call themselves “Christians.” This strikes me as a particularly obnoxious form of “Christian” imperialism–seizing the term exclusively from themselves, and implicitly denying it to other Christians. Evangelical leaders downplay the role of tradition and doctrine in their own beliefs and practice, so they don’t teach their flock that Catholics, Episcopalians, Eastern Orthodox, and Presbyterians, for example, are Christian too. Since most evangelicals have little sense of the complexities of the millenia of Christian history between Jesus and Jerry Falwell, many young evangelicals are ignorant of major religious and historical turning points like the Reformation. Accordingly, many young “Christians” of the evangelical persuasion are unaware that Roman Catholicism is one branch–some would say the main trunk!–of Christianity.

Historiann is on the mark here. As a faculty member at an evangelical-oriented college (actually, I think it is the same college her "friend" used to teach at in the 80s and 90s. I think this so-called "friend" is also a friend of mine), I have been trying to teach my students this very lesson. I have spoken to Catholic students who have not felt comfortable in this evangelical environment because many of their fellow students come from homes and churches steeped in evangelical anti-Catholicism. (I was raised Catholic and became an evangelical in high school. For the longest time I believed that when I left the Catholic Church I became a "Christian."). I recently had a chat with a Catholic student who was shocked when a fellow student thought all Catholics believed that Mary was God and should be worshipped.

The comments section of Historiann's post has a nice conversation about the meaning of the term evangelicalism. Let me throw in my two cents, borrowed largely from evangelical historians such as David Bebbington and George Marsden. I would define an evangelical as a Christian who believes in the "New Birth" or the "born-again" conversion experience, upholds the divine inspiration of the Bible as a spiritual and moral guide for living, and takes seriously the "Great Commission" mandate (Matthew 28) to spread the gospel throughout the world.

Evangelicals can thus be found in all kinds of Protestant denominations, not just mega-churches or storefront congregations. I also know a few self-professed evangelical Catholics. Many evangelicals believe that they are direct descendants of the Protestant Reformation. Evangelicalism was present, to an extent, in Puritan New England, but it really hit American shores with force in the eighteenth-century revivals known as the First Great Awakening. It came to define American culture in the early nineteenth-century revivals known as the Second Great Awakening.

The bottom line is this: All evangelicals are Christians, but not all Christians are evangelicals. It is time that we get this straight.

4 comments:

historiann said...

Hi, John--yes, it's the same friend! (Who else?) Thanks so much for your informed commentary. I'm posting a link to it in an updated version of my orignal commentary. Unfortunately, there is no new information on the religious dimensions of the murderer's derangement--it seems to be a surprise to former friends and family members alike who didn't think he was particularly devout.

Christine said...

Dr. Fea,

Thanks for an interesting post. I'm currently a student at the Evangelical-oriented college of which you speak, and am likewise a catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox faith. I heartily agree with both Historiann's and your ideas on the sort of Evangelical Christianity that many modern, particularly young, Christians have embraced. While Evangelicalism is in itself a diverse term that can be applied to a wide array of Protestant Christians, I've found the newest brand of Evangelical Christianity, the approach to faith that seems to have largely come the moral majority movement, to be the most troubling.

The amount of ignorance and prejudice many young, rather militant Evangelical Christians show toward their liturgical brethren is profound. They know far too little about Church history and the roles Catholic and Orthodox churches have played in Christianity's development. As such, they are quick to condemn them as worshippers of a distorted Christianity, looking to demi-gods (the community of saints) and false doctrines (the writings of the ancient church fathers instead of a 'sola scriptura' outlook) to guide them on their spiritual journey. Traditional Protestant churches are additionally dismissed, labeled anything from 'liberal' in their theology to simply unappealing in their old-fashioned worship styles.

This is not to suggest that all modern Evangelicals are intolerant. Some are extremely embracing of Christianity's inherent diversity. There is, however, an attitude against Christian pluralism that is undoubtedly pervading a notable measure of the Evangelical community. It is essential that this is recognized and combated; I'm almost fearful of the "God's warrior" generation certain Evangelical churches are producing.

John Fea said...

Christine: Thanks for reading the blog. I hope you will visit often. I have been hoping that more students would check it out. Spread the word.

Your analysis of modern American evangelicalism is solid. We spent a lot of time this semester in my Early Republic course thinking about how it got this way.

I hope you feel comfortable at Messiah. As you know, Messiah's roots are decidedly low church.(In fact, it doesn't get any more low church!) But we also claim to be an ecumenically Christian intellectual/academic community. If we take this claim seriously then we should welcome students, like yourself, who have connected with liturgical/historical/orthodox/ancient dimensions of Christian faith. Frankly, I think we have come a long way in this area, but there is more work to do. Whatever the case, I support you in your spiritual journey.

Also, don't be too hard on evangelicals. I have been a strong critic of the evangelical culture for the reasons you suggest and often wonder how long I will remain affiliated with this form of Christianity, but I have found, at least for the moment, that I can best address these concerns from within the movement, rather than from without. Others have decided to leave, and I respect their decisions to do so. I actually presented a short paper on this idea a few years ago. I would be happy to share it with you if you are interested.

Here is an essay from the New Republic that you may find interesting. When I read it the first time it made me want to consider becoming Orthodox. I sent it to M.Gaither a few months ago.

http://www.tnr.com/columnists/story.html?id=243a26e8-44ae-4c67-a7b4-c4e958c44aee&p=1

See you in February.

Christine said...

Thanks for your response, Dr. Fea. Both your blog and your new book are very interesting, I'll be sure to stop by here often and take a look at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

I read the article you posted, something that almost perfectly describes my own relationship with the Orthodox Church. I was once an Evangelical Protestant myself, but over time, Evangelicalism became imcompatible with my personal spiritual needs and interests. I wasn't aware that Orthodoxy was a bit of a growing phenomenon here in the U.S. Thanks again, it was a great article. I'd also be interested to see the paper you presented on reaction of different indivduals to the modern church. While I decided to leave Evangelical Protestantism, I nonetheless fully respect your present decision to stay. I also apologize if my criticisms of the church were harsh; I tend to take a sharper tone when I criticize the modern church than is probably necessary.

Finally, just to note, I've found Messiah to generally be a great environment to learn and grow spiritually and otherwise. While the college majority is comprised of the lower churched, it was through Messiah that I first discovered Orthodox Christianity. It has been my experience that both mainstream Protestant and confessing church students are about equally respected. When I refer to concerns I have with modern Christianity and a heightening intolerance, I'm speaking about individual churches (which seem to be appearing everywhere) that preach negativity toward older forms of Christianity.

Thanks again for your thoughts and research about Evangelical Christianity and American society. I'm very interested the interplay between the two and your website has a lot of great posts on this particular topic.

(I'm taking Civil War America, by the way - I'll look forward to meeting you next semester!)