Evangelicals & evangelicalisms:

Why do we want to know?

posted by Rhys H. Williams

Perhaps no word has gotten more airplay in religion and politics lately than “evangelicals.” Can Obama win some of the evangelical vote? Can McCain hold the evangelical base? Has there been a moving away from Christian Right organizations by a new generation of evangelicals? And on and on. Beyond just the concern with the 2008 election, those who follow the American social and religious landscape run into the word constantly—”how many Americans are evangelical?” “Are immigrants from Latin America increasingly evangelical?”

But who are—or what are—evangelicals? Clearly they are not the monolithic group that a one-word signifier, a noun, implies. On this blog in recent weeks John Schmalzbauer, Brian Howell, Joel Carpenter, James K. A. Smith and Corwin Smidt have pointed to variations in theology, religious practices, racial identity, political affiliation, and political ideology among those who get labeled “evangelical.” Christian Smith, and Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout, in various books, have shown many ways in which “evangelicals” display the similarities and varieties that make up “average” Americans. And historians remind us that some of the denominations that we now call “mainline” were once considered “evangelical.”

But the temptation to use “evangelical” as an all-purpose descriptor remains. For example, in the 2006 film Jesus Camp the participants are all described, when described at all, as “evangelical.” The one exception is Becky Fischer, who is the more-or-less central character of the film, who at one point is described as “Pentecostal” without any definition of what that means. Several narrator “script-overs” (done with words on the screen, rather than “voiceovers”) begin “Evangelicals believe . . . .” And put “evangelical” into amazon.com—you get about 70,000 responses—many titles that address small slices of the population and others that purport to speak for a “whole.” Clearly the term is useful in some ways, given its wide use in both scholarly and popular writing, but its meaning certainly seems to expand or contract dramatically.

Why is this a problem? If one wants to sell books, it may not be a problem at all—every author knows the value of a title that has a specific referent but also implies interest to a broad audience. And sweeping claims sell more books than carefully nuanced and qualified argument. On the other hand, if one really wants to understand American religion, as an institution and as an integral part of American culture, one needs more textured analysis than the broad-strokes implied by current use of the term “evangelical.” What it is one wants to know influences how useful the cover term can be.

It is instructive to think about the similar dynamics that shaped a couple of other ideas in recent American religion. Both the idea of the “Catholic American,” and more recently, the term “fundamentalist” have been examined, expanded, and eventually mostly abandoned. For example, up until the early 1960s, political scientists were writing books about, and pundits were referring to, “the Catholic vote.” No one would do that now—but why? Well, for one thing, in last 40 years Catholics have moved in considerable numbers into the middle-class, moved into all sorts of suburbs and exurbs, and now vote in a myriad of ways. In short, they have become such “average Americans” that they defy classification with one-word labels. Also, Catholics were not so homogenous even back in the day, when “the Catholic vote” came in reliable blocs to particular parties and candidates. If one thinks about all the subjective and ethnic cultural differences that are contained within the Catholic population of the U.S., the homogenizing assumption of “the” Catholic vote was even then masking differences among Irish, Poles, Mexicans, and others—differences now further accentuated by the immigration numbers since the 1965 changes in immigration policy.

The term “fundamentalist,” perhaps more than either evangelical or Catholic, has had its normative and analytic meanings tightly connected. Born in theological and social controversies that accompanied the industrializing and urbanizing U.S. in the early twentieth century, “fundamentalist” has been used as a pejorative by at least some almost from the inception of the term. There have been periods, of course, when those within the community used the term with pride as a self-description. And from the late 1980s through the late 1990s there was a significant academic industry in writing about fundamentalists, fundamentalism, and fundamentalisms (full disclosure—I participated in and benefited from that industry). But an examination of recent scholarship shows that the word has faded a bit from book titles and the keywords of published articles. And ethnographic research with many religious communities shows that they themselves use the term infrequently, often because of its negative connotations and perceived stigma. This may be post-9/11 concern about religious radicalism, or it may be an unwillingness of American Christians to recognize any comparisons with conservative groups among other faith traditions, particularly Islam. It may also be connected to a feeling of over-identification between conservative Protestants and the Republican Party, perhaps mixed with some disenchantment with the Bush Administration.

This dilemma emerged in discussions at a conference I attended recently. Although the word “fundamentalisms” was in the conference title, a significant number of participants expressed discomfort with it. Even finding the proper scope of the term sparked disagreements. Some noted that if defined by theological beliefs (such as premillennial dispensationalism, a doctrine used as a definitional component by some scholars), fundamentalism should be confined to Christianity. Others noted certain religious practices, such as rigid rules for scriptural interpretation and a focus on scriptural authority, made the term reasonable for the three Abrahamic traditions. Others went for more sociological and political definitions that defined the term broadly, but largely lost sight of the phenomenology and self-understanding of religious fundamentalists themselves. This ambiguity, combined with the seemingly inseparable normative issues, may be why the academic literature on fundamentalism has waned (and, of course, the need for academics to move on to new topics and ideas).

In any case, similar issues dog “evangelicalism” as a category. It is well known, at least among scholars of American religion, that there are several different ways of defining who is an evangelical (see Corwin Smidt’s recent posting for more detail). There can be self-definitions, and in several surveys people have shown themselves willing to distinguish between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” and “mainline” and “liberal” when describing themselves religiously. Or one can use denominational affiliation; that is, some denominations are defined as “evangelical” and any person who attends a church within those denominations is thus tagged). Or one can list a set of core beliefs, or religious practices, and define those who subscribe to them as “evangelical.” Conrad Hackett and Michael Lindsay have an article coming out in the September 2008 issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion that shows that the estimates of how many evangelicals there are in the U.S. can vary widely, depending of the definitions and measures used.

These definitional matters, and the nuance they afford, are useful for scholars, and those wanting to understand the variation in the American religious landscape. And they give us understandable caution about responding to such basic—and simplifying questions—as “how many evangelicals are there?”

But in the end, whether this matters really depends on why one wants to know. Those who have traced historically or sociologically the emergence of evangelicals in the U.S., either in the nineteenth century or in the mid-twentieth century, have carefully delineated theological, doctrinal, and denominational distinctions. But how much does that all matter, either in everyday life, or in politics? James K. A. Smith, in an earlier post on The Immanent Frame said that evangelicalism “is defined by a contingent constellation of practices and institutions.” “Evangelical,” Smith claims, “is an identity forged at a level more visceral than doctrinal.” Thus, Smith goes for an “it takes one to know one” definition—a basic cultural knowledge and compatibility that is embedded in a variety of little things. Corwin Smidt, in his recent posting on the “measurement of evangelicals” mostly advocates a “movement” definition; that is, people who are evangelical when they identify with the religious tradition as a “movement”—although he is quick to point out how nebulous measurement can be with such a definition.

That makes pretty good sense, and respects the wide variation that scholars find in the details of what evangelicals believe doctrinally, how much money they make, how educated they are, and the like. It helps to make some sense of arguments made by Michael Lindsay and Rebecca Sager, also on The Immanent Frame, that there are “new types” of evangelicals, often relatively progressive in their politics. And with the newly articulated concerns on, for example, poverty, AIDS, and global warming, by Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and others. So, understanding variation, and finding shades of gray in the “evangelical” monolith, may have significant political implications.

Moreover, the idea of evangelical “identity” as primary and visceral also helps make sense of the affection conservative Protestants showed for both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They may not have agreed on all the issues and policies, and there were even some questions as to how explicitly religious President Reagan was. But both men spoke a language—and were comfortable in the assumptions of a faith—that connected at a visceral level with evangelicals. Those things were often absolutely incomprehensible to many on the other side of the current political divide, and who don’t share those religious sentiments. This identification wasn’t a cognitive agreement, or a matter of instrumental or material interests, as much as an alignment of identities. It worked—there was a connection.

But the implications of this last point undercut the commitment to maintaining a focus on evangelical variation. Evangelicals are people of diversity and wide variations, I don’t doubt that. But in an election one gets to choose one or the other. A lot of variation gets condensed, by necessity, into an either/or choice. One can have doubts, questions, or be “leaning” one way or the other. But the voting choice itself records the committed partisan and the leaner the same way.

As a variety of scholars have shown, in the end the lever gets pulled for reasons that often are difficult to articulate in terms of ideology, issues, or cognitive alignment. Certainly voters explain their votes after the fact based on those factors. Few people openly admit that they voted for George Bush over John Kerry (or Al Gore) because he seemed like he would be a better person “to have a beer with” (a popular claim)—but there is no doubt that a form of that emotive identity alignment deeply influences huge numbers of voters. There is an ideological presumption behind it—our democratic, somewhat populist ideology frowns on the idea that some are “born to lead” and therefore encourages identification between the populace and their leaders. But how is that connection via the “common” established? Not through policy white papers and close examination of interests. It is established through a version of “it takes one to know one.” When people feel a connection—particularly people for whom the subjective experience of religion is highly emotional and highly legitimate—it is real for them. Thomas Frank may heap scorn on Kansasans because they fail to see what their “true interests” are—but just as surely, Frank fails to see that often people pull the lever from their gut. How else can a multi-racial man who was raised by a single mother and went to school on scholarships be thought to be “elitist” compared to white men who grew up in families of privilege? It is because we find the “common” or the “elite” in a cultural style. We know it when we see it.

Now it is true that in an electorate fairly neatly divided, one need not persuade very many people in order to win an election. Just a few cracks in the Republican base, including that part composed of conservative Protestants, may tip the balance. So perhaps I should not doubt the importance of the actual variation among those Christians who consider themselves “evangelicals.” But after the Saddleback Church “conversations” hosted by Rick Warren, where Obama spoke easily and sincerely about his faith, few churchgoers who attended (and spoke to reporters afterward) seemed to be persuaded to actually vote for a Democrat. He was still too different, too unknown, and, some said, still not right about the “core” social issue of abortion. For many people, there is now almost 30 years of associating evangelical Protestantism with voting Republican—it may well have become a part of evangelical identity for many, a core affiliation.

Thus, at least in an election year, when elected officials, aspiring candidates, consultants, and media all have a lot at stake on shaping their appeals effectively, this practical outcome seems to me to swamp the scholarly concerns scholars have with precision and definition. If we want to know who evangelicals are, how many there are, and what they believe and how they practice, I am all for precision, nuance, and variation. But if we need to know how “they” are going to pull a voting lever regarding an either/or choice in a divided electorate, it seems to me that the global term bandied about in the media tells us what we want to know.

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2 Responses to “Why do we want to know?”

  1. avatar Penny Edgell says:

    As always, Prof. Williams writes well and persuasively. Why we want to know is caught up with what we want to know and how we go about finding out.

    I agree there is power in a visceral sense of connection, and that sociology often, by its concentration on fine-grained classification and “counting things,” misses the chance to have compelling things to say about how that visceral connection can matter.

    Case in point — the media is calling Sarah Palin an evangelical, when the sociologist might well quibble and say that “holiness” or “Pentecostal” is the more accurate term. But the media is right that her “evangelical” (broad/fuzzy label) identity is what will mobilize some (many?) people to vote for her and Mr. McCain.

    However, I do think a little nuance could help us tease out why the media is right about Ms. Palin’s power to move the electorate and the media, and, by extension, the power of the broad/fuzzy label of “evangelical.” Quite a bit of it has to do with the cultural power of this conservative religious label to resonate beyond its religious base, to get that visceral “these are my people” reaction from small-town and working-class voters who feel like outsiders and feel like the Sarah Palins of the world get that in ways that no other candidate does. “Evangelical” has become a label that signals more than just religious content — it connotes a particular cultural style as well as a set of beliefs about government, community, and the individual.

    It is clearly true that those who are deeply embedded in the evangelical religious subculture are often politically active in an array of ways (volunteering and fundraising, for example, and not only voting). But in the solitary act of voting, those not even part of the subculture can act on the basis of an identification with that culture that is one of style, emotion, and recognition. That is to say, the breadth of the term “evangelical” is one issue. Its resonance beyond those with any sustained religious engagement is another issue, and one it’s time sociologists started to explore.

  2. Penny: Your proposition, if I understand it correctly, that the label “evangelical” holds a cachet of cultural associations that even non-(religious)evangelicals will identify with is interesting, though I must admit I haven’t (yet, at least) seen this playing out in the current campaign. The motivations cited by those attracted to the GOP ticket by Palin seem to be based in specific identity or policy values, independent of any greater evangelical “package.” Can you point out any particular counterexamples?

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