Evangelicals & evangelicalisms:

Who’s afraid of sociology?

posted by James K.A. Smith

Attempts to define “evangelical” often hover between theological definitions from those who self-identify as evangelicals and so-called sociological definitions from those who take themselves to be observers of the phenomenon. Though I don’t think we can make this distinction neat and tidy, let’s work with it as a heuristic starting point. In what follows, I want to make a theological claim for emphasizing a sociological definition.

The recent unveiling of “An Evangelical Manifesto” was an occasion for me to once again express reservations about theological definitions of the term “evangelical” (see here). I have two worries about these normative, theological definitions. First, such theological definitions have a sort of centripetal force about them: they often feel like a conceptual circling of the wagons, intended to de-fine a group by marking off its differences from other groups—and usually from other Christians. In my experience, this almost always ends up being an anti-Catholic move, a repristination of the Protestant Reformation. Now, I don’t mean to say that such theological definitions of evangelicalism are shaped by a rabid anti-Roman Catholicism (though we academics who make claims about a “generous evangelicalism” would do well to attend a few prophecy conferences in order to be reminded of the still-rabid anti-Romanism dispensed by dispensationalist radio preachers and embedded in all those charts hung up in church basements). We have seen a flourishing dialogue between Catholics and evangelicals over the past decade, to the extent that Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom could jointly ask, “Is the Reformation Over?” But the very project of defining and continuing to define “evangelical” should be an indicator that the answer to their question is still, “No.” Theological definitions of evangelicalism assume that there is something about being “evangelical” that is different from being “Catholic,” an older, more ecumenical label that was meant to indicate a commitment to a certain core orthodoxy (as when St. Augustine the preacher would admonish his congregation, “Remember, you are Catholic…”).

This first concern about theological definitions of evangelicalism points to a second: if such definitions are sometimes too narrow, they can also be too broad. For instance, if someone suggests a theological definition of “evangelical” which actually could include Roman Catholics, then one has to wonder just what work the term “evangelical” really does. This tension came to a head when Joshua Hochschild, a convert to Rome, could not remain employed by Wheaton College because the college’s “evangelical” statement of faith was taken to de facto exclude Roman Catholics, despite Hochschild’s assertion that a Catholic could affirm the statement’s primacy of Scripture. If “evangelicals” can be Roman Catholic, we have to wonder why the historic term “Catholic” couldn’t do the same definitional work. So attempts to broaden “evangelical” to include Roman Catholics fail for this reason.

But there is another kind of vague breadth in recent theological definitions of “evangelicalism” that concerns me—namely, the demographic sleight of hand that enfolds Pentecostals, charismatics, and the explosion of “world Christianity” under the label “evangelical.” I worry that there is a covert conceptual colonialism at work here, which lumps vibrant expressions of faith in other parts of the world together with the revivalism behind North American and British evangelicalism. This is painting with a very broad theological brush indeed; worse still, it paints over important differences in practice and implicit theology that serve as more significant identity markers in Christian expressions like Nigerian Pentecostalism. Theological definitions of evangelicalism are, we might say, poorly calibrated: they see certain theological similarities and conclude that we’re seeing the same phenomenon. But I’m suggesting that this is a poor theoretical filter; or rather, we might say that it is a poor theoretical net. Designed to catch “evangelical” fish, it assumes that any fish that get through must be evangelicals. But I would suggest that what “defines” global Pentecostalism is a set of practices—and a tacit theology within them—which is quite different from the Euro-American “evangelical” paradigm.

For these reasons and others, I find myself both skeptical and suspicious of theological definitions of evangelicalism. Such definitions have a normativity about them, which assumes that the doctrinal markers of evangelical Protestantism—marking it off from other Christian traditions—are something worth celebrating and preserving. I think such distinctions and divisions are lamentable. In our secular (or post-secular) culture, we’d do better to encourage all Christians to see themselves as “Catholic” rather than continue to assert a sub-Christian identity.

But does that mean that evangelicalism is left as a free-floating signifier, an empty term that tells us nothing? I don’t think so. Rather, I think it leaves us with something like a sociological definition of evangelicalism. On such an account, what defines “evangelicalism” is not some sort of direct link to the essence of the Gospel (behind most theological definitions of evangelicalism is some sense that “we” are the real Christians), but rather an appreciation that evangelicalism represents a contingent style, a sort of accent within Christendom. It is not simply a “recovery” of the so-called essence of the Gospel and the New Testament church. It is a style that has a history and genealogy that is contingent, particular, and geographically situated. It is a distinctly modern, post-Reformation configuration of Christian discipleship that engendered practices and institutions which closely mirrored the development of what Charles Taylor describes as “the modern social imaginary”—a focus on individual salvation, a valorization of the autonomy of the local congregation, an entrepreneurial spirit that fueled ambitious programs of church and parachurch expansion, a kind of Christian materialism that generated its own markets, and other distinctive features.

What I mean to suggest is that “evangelicalism” is defined by a contingent constellation of practices and institutions that elude theological formulation or definition. This is why I think a sociological definition of evangelicalism is the only viable option. Admittedly, this approach can seem a little fuzzy, on the order of “it takes one to know one.” But here again, Taylor might help us to get a handle on why this is the case: if evangelicalism is not a theology but an imaginary, then that means what “defines” it can never be adequately articulated or expressed in theological formulae. Instead, “evangelicalism” would be a sort of ethos, a sensibility, a contingent set of practices and institutions within which one lives and moves and has her being. “Evangelical” is an identity forged at a level more visceral than doctrinal.

It is in this sociological sense that I own up to being an evangelical, despite all my theological reservations. I still pick up Christianity Today before I pick up the Christian Century or First Things. I get the jokes, jabs, and sly references in the orbit of conservative Protestantism. I’ve taken friends to a Billy Graham crusade and still revere Nonconformist saints like Jim Elliot and Corrie ten Boom. I know the words to Michael W. Smith’s “Friends are Friends Forever” (sung when departing every Bible camp), as well as all the words to Keith Green’s anthems. I still understand the inner workings and issues of evangelicalism better than the labyrinthine machinations of American liberalism or Catholicism. I still feel at home in evangelical circles—if you understand being “at home” like coming back to a small town Thanksgiving dinner, with all its charm and awkwardness, all its arguments and hugs.

For theological reasons, I think even we who self-identify as evangelicals ought to embrace the contingency and historicity of a sociological definition. But even such sociological definitions will need to be better calibrated to the on-the-ground shape of lived religion in evangelicalism. Social scientists observing evangelicalism will want to avoid the red herrings of theological definitions without ignoring the implicit theology—the social imaginary—that is “carried” in the habits and practices of evangelicals. For that reason, I do think there is a sense in which “it takes one to know one;” if evangelicals can put aside their inclination toward theological definitions, they might become critical partners for a more nuanced sociological definition of evangelicalism.

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9 Responses to “Who’s afraid of sociology?”

  1. Hmm. The two arguments seem to be:

    1) The theological definitions are deceptively broad (to which I say, narrow them! Pentecostalism should not be seen as a subset of evangelicalism in any case).


    2) You don’t like celebrating theological distinctives, or, perhaps, you are embarassed by the claimed theological distinctives of evangelicalism… (to which I say, does evangelicalism not have something THEOLOGICAL to say, that Catholicism and liberalism won’t or can’t—but should—say?)

    It seems to me that to allow this sociological definition is to concede the theological ground somewhat, which would be a shame. You can have the theological definition without the abuses you mention.

  2. “Theological definitions of evangelicalism assume that there is something about being ‘evangelical’ that is different from being ‘Catholic,’ an older, more ecumenical label that was meant to indicate a commitment to a certain core orthodoxy (as when St. Augustine the preacher would admonish his congregation, ‘Remember, you are Catholic…’).”

    James, this is a place where I think your evangelicalism probably prevents your from seeing through sociological eyes. Defining catholicism theologically as “a commitment to a certain core orthodoxy” sounds awfully Protestant. If you want to try and get into the mindset of catholicism as a sociological ideal type, you might look at the work of David Tracy and his distinction of the dialectical imagination of Augustinian religions, predominately though not exclusively Protestant, and the analogical imagination, predominately though not exclusively Catholic. A more accessible and sociological appropriation of this model has been provided by Andrew Greeley’s many works on the Catholic imagination.

  3. Both good comments to help me hone what is an admittedly fuzzy post, meant to articulate an intuition more than lay out a thesis. Let me say a couple of things in reply:

    Ad Jensen: You’re certainly right that the “culture” of evangelicalism emerged from what was a decidedly theological identity, viz., a robust Protestantism (which often saw the magisterial Reformation as not going far enough). This often and usually included a central focus on the doctrine of justification, or found expression in the concern that one has “a personal relationship with Jesus.” In either case, there is a noted emphasis on personal, individual salvation as an interior work. This has at least two consequences: first, it means that, for evangelicals, there IS salvation outside the church; or, in other words, the community that is the ecclesia does not mediate salvation in any way. Instead, church is a kind of encouragement club for saved individuals. Second, this thin ecclesiology has usually been attended by a suspicion of “external” matters of ritual, liturgy, and the sacraments, as well as a general disparaging of that long period between “the New Testament Church” and the Reformation. (Surely one of the most notable and encouraging developments in evangelical theology over the past ten years has been a renewed interest in the Church Fathers and even medieval theology.)

    So what? My concern, I guess, is that evangelicalism as a theological identity affirms, celebrates, and amplifies these theological distinctives in a way that construes them as the only way to think about Christian faith, and does so in a way that implicitly or explicitly disparages the Catholic theological tradition. In short, I have second thoughts about the Reformation for what, in evangelical-speak, I think are “biblical” reasons.

    Perhaps this is just a long, rambling way of trying to say that I’m a reluctant Protestant whereas most who are ardent supporters of a theological definition of evangelicalism are often quite enthusiastic Protestants. But nonetheless, I know where I come from, recognize how my imagination has been shaped, and own up to the fact that I am “evangelical” in terms of my (sociological) formation.

    Ad Coverston: Very fair point. You’re right; I regrettably fell into an old evangelical habit (thus proving my point! 😉 by fixating on the doctrinal. In fact, I’ve just finished a book that makes a case for not doing this. Instead, like you suggest, I argue that “the Catholic faith” is primarily carried in a set of liturgical practices that form our imaginations before it’s ever articulated in doctrines (see George Weigel’s wonderful little book, Letters to a Young Catholic on this point). I hope you can see this already in the post when I suggest that we ought to focus on the “implicit” theology that is carried in evangelical practices.

  4. avatar Evan Kuehn says:

    I think the problem with Smith’s comparison of “evangelical” to “Catholic” is not his theological characterization of Catholic identity in itself. He quite clearly references Augustine, conjuring up memory of the Donatist controversy of North Africa where Catholic identity was most certainly concerned with theological orthodoxy, or at least the ecclesial matrix within which that orthodoxy could be obtained (and such an ecclesiological standard isn’t really “sociological,” at least not in Augustine and not as Smith uses the term here). So this doctrinal focus isn’t distinctively evangelical as opposed to Catholic.

    But that brings us to where I think Smith might have erred somewhat in his evangelical/Catholic comparison. Are evangelicals really intending to distinguish themselves from the “Catholic” identity that Smith references… the “older, more ecumenical” one? …the one that Augustine preaches? I don’t think so. That evangelicals might try to distinguish evangelicalism from post-Reformation “Catholic” identity is more on the mark, but then, as Coverston points out, in looking at this Catholicism we lose the very doctrinal focus that Augustine can provide in identifying the catholic.

    Whether evangelicalism recovers Augustine’s sense is another question—certainly it tries, and perhaps the annoyingly broad theological definitions of evangelicalism are somewhat redeemed by the fact that what they’re attempting is a sort of catholicity. That they attempt this from denominational or sectarian beginnings (sociological or theological, call them what you will) obviously makes such an attempt a difficult sell to the non-evangelical, just as catholicity can be a difficult sell to the evangelical herself.

  5. avatar Joy Fuller says:

    I came here from Digby through Beliefnet’s Progressive Revival blog (which is a long journey!). So I’m not going to talk about St. Augustine.

    You’ve put your finger on something that I as an ex-Evangelical, have been trying to convey to my non-Evangelical friends for years. Being an Evangelical in the U.S., in the late 20th-early 21st century, involves more than theology. It is also a lifestyle.

    As an amateur sociologist (aren’t we all?), my concept of the relationship between the theological and the sociological is something like this: The theological definition provides a floor – you cannot be admitted to the Evangelical club without being able to affirm something like the seven beliefs listed in the Evangelical Manifesto, out loud, in front of people. But that isn’t enough. You also have to join the sociologically defined group, which requires adopting certain folkways, patterns of speech, dress, habits, activities and so on. Because these sociological markers are more visible to others than theological commitments, they become a shorthand way to recognize other Evangelicals, used both by Evangelicals themselves and by outsiders. As I know from my own history as a former Evangelical, failing to adopt these folkways is every bit as damaging to one’s perceived identity as a true Christian as standing up in the middle of the 11:00 service and expressing doubts about the Trinity would be.

    At the same time, these sociological markers are an outgrowth of the baseline theological beliefs, although not a necessary outgrowth. In other words, if you become an Evangelical in the middle of a forest with no one to hear (except God!), do you really become an Evangelical, even if you sign on to the Evangelical Manifesto? The new Evangelical, sitting alone in the forest, wouldn’t necessarily come up with the same sociological markers as did his or her Evangelical counterparts back at the megachurch. The lone Evangelical won’t spontaneously start listening to Keith Green (he’s from my era, too) or today’s equivalent. On the other hand, I think the lone Evangelical would start setting up some structure, or test, or marker, to help determine Who is on the Lord’s Side and who isn’t.

    Of course, one danger of such a sociological shorthand is that Evangelicals become mind readers, believing themselves able to tell who is really a Christian through the outward manifestations, even over the protests of the person himself or herself. I see both Barrack Obama at Saddleback and Joshua Hochschild at Wheaton as running afoul of this Evangelical clairvoyance. And, unless the congregation were in a very generous mood, a Pentecostal believer from Nigeria would face some serious doubts of both the theological and sociological kind were he or she to be plunked down in the middle of an American Evangelical church.

    So I agree that you cannot ignore the sociological element of the definition, but I think it is bound up with the theological, to the point that it is very difficult to separate the two.

  6. One of the tings a sociological approach like this might accomplish is not the elimination of theological criteria, but the broadening of what we mean by theological. As a modern movement, evangelicalism is prone to the modern reduction of theology to the propositional. Even if one concedes to all the propositions held by evangelicals (if there is a common set anywhere), that is an impoverished version of the faith that will not sustain itself across the generations – if even in the life of a single person.

    Adding in a sociological component might allow us to see what evangelicals want to do in light of Billy Abraham’s Canonical Theism project, a recovery of non-propositional elements of the faith that make it truly sustainable.

  7. avatar Miranda Klaver says:

    “There is another kind of vague breadth in recent theological definitions of ‘evangelicalism’ that concerns me—namely, the demographic sleight of hand that enfolds Pentecostals, charismatics, and the explosion of ‘world Christianity’ under the label ‘evangelical.'”

    James, in your critique of a too broad definition of evangelicalism, I wonder how you would define Pentecostalism from a sociological perspective. Is there a Pentecostal style that is distinct from what you describe as evangelical?

  8. The trend toward generalization is not just a theological phenomenon. Across all social spectra, specific groups are co-opting tangentially related designations for their own purposes. The larger movement we see where new groups arise and absorb existing terms—thus unintentionally changing the original linguistic meaning—is what I find personally fascinating.

  9. avatar Robert Berman says:

    Well, I guess I’m three years too late to this party, and doubtless other more recent posts have covered related ground. That said:

    This particular post emphasizes evangelicalism primarily in opposition to Roman Catholicism. That was doubtless true in the 17th-19th centuries. However, the internal schism in American Protestantism in the 20th Century resulted in a refocusing of evangelicalism as the conservative alternative to the liberal theological strains which overtook the mainline Protestant denominations. The dispute with Roman Catholicism, while still very much alive, shrank to secondary importance in comparison.

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