Evangelical Exceptionalism: How “American/Evangelical” Are You?

American Exceptionalism

Shining_City_Upon_Hill American ExceptionalismAfter this July 4th, it seems Americans are divided on just what it is to be an American. Is Edward Snowden an American Patriot or a dissenting Traitor?  Is American Exceptionalism really exceptional or just an expression of country elitism? Do we improvise based on our constitution or do we foundationalize? Are we democrats, republicans, libertarians, etc?  As America has grown in world influence, so has its presiding definition…or definitions, such that an ideal America can no longer be simply defined. There are definite and irreversible fissures in the definition(s) of what this nations is. Many of the most pertinent and permanent definitions are being formed outside of our borders. The same holds true for the Evangelical movement in the Western world. Upon reading an article about new Evangelical leaders in the Huffington Post, I was struck most by the comment section and what other non-Evangelicals perceived of this movement. It’s not good.

Evangelical Exceptionalism

RIP Evangelicalism

I’m not the first to point this out (see UnChristian by Kinnaman & Lyons) but I have noticed a trend lately – a trend specifically regarding  Evangelicals, regardless of each particular expression. This growing consensus about Evangelicals has begun to castigate and relegate the movement as a whole, to a place of non-relevance, annoyance, or worse, the recipient of outright hate and rage – all reactions that America is receiving more and more from its neighbors.

Huffington Post author, Tom Krattenmaker writes about “Six Evangelicals You Don’t Know…But Might Want To.” On that list were some impressive personalities, two of which I know personally and can vouch for their cred. As I read through the article I heartily agreed with much of what these new evangelicals are saying, though a few red flags did pop up. The author, Tom Krattenmaker, regaled these new voices claiming,

And while they share much of the old guard’s theology, they scarcely resemble the evangelicals we have gotten to know over decades of culture war.

A list of representative “Culture War Evangelicals” make his cut such as, James Dobson, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin & Pat Robertson. He then goes to give us the list of the new cats on the street who deserve new attention.

The Red in the Flag

While I agree that these new voices need to be heard, and louder now than ever, the reason they are different is precisely because of their different theology.  They don’t have the same theology as their predecessors. The author actually makes this clear when he quotes Paul Louis Metzger, one of the highlighted Evangelicals,

Much has been made of the factual “evidence that demands a verdict,” Metzger writes. But today, “Jesus is Lord” is a verdict that demands evidence in our lives. Otherwise, our faith is fiction.

Essentially, one’s conception of God, – i.e. one’s theology – is what determines how we will act. As the Irish philosopher, Peter Rollins has taught me, we can’t really say we believe something unless it is a practice and a thought. James K.A. Smith has argued convincingly that our ethics, our beliefs are pre-coginitive and really find their source in our bodies before they are expressed in our minds.  Our bodily, kinetic interactions with the world around us determine what we really believe, not just what we think or say.  This is radical because the word “belief” has generally been attached to brain function and what one thinks, but a belief can’t only be a thought. As they say in school – “give me your undivided attention” – which means your mind and your body together. For any theology today, we can only hope to believe it, but we can’t really claim to believe anything unless it is an embodied practice and a thought. For anyone identifying with Evangelicalism, we have to understand that that term no longer means one thing – or even two things.  The fissures have set and the embodied practices of many Evangelicals have started them down a very different road than their forebears as well as their contemporary Evangelical neighbors – who may need to be called distant cousins in the not so distant future.

How Evangelical Are You?

HowEvangelical?This leads me to my question, How evangelical do you believe you are? How many Evangelicals do you know – do you want to know? Do you want to be identified as one, or be wholly something else?  Did you consider yourself an evangelical before and now you don’t?  Why?  Are you happy to own the title? Are you ambivalent about it while still holding onto an Evangelical identity?

While traveling overseas, I had to ask all of these questions of my American identity. Depending on the location, I didn’t want to be known as an American – not because I don’t love my country – but because I enjoyed being treated civilly before it was found out that I was an American. The problem with identities like this is that we can’t do much to change them once they are tainted. For Evangelicals the same reality is coming to bear.

american-exceptionalism only 3 Americans

Whatever we do with this Evangelical identity, it’s getting messy out there. In Krattenmaker’s article, the comment section alone will depress you if you have any hope of rescuing this identity. Many, including most of the highlighted evangelicals in this article, want to rescue it.  Others want to abandon it and then there’s the wide populace who don’t know there is even an issue with being an Evangelical. Is it a title worth rescuing or does it need to be abandoned? How we allow our beliefs to align with our actions does determine what our theology really is – so is your theology Evangelical? How Evangelical Are You? Should we care what non-Evangelicals think of the movement? Our actions alone will tell them what they need to know – but is it too late?

What is an Evangelical?

David Bebbington outlines 4 primary features of an evangelical that are widely accepted as the norm:

  • Biblicism – a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
  • Crucicentrism – a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
  • Conversionism – the belief that human beings need to be converted
  • Activism – the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort (adapted from Wikipedia)

Billy_Graham_t607

Roger Olson, author of “How to Be Evangelical Without Being Conservative,” adds two more features to Bebbington’s list.

  • Respect for historic orthodoxy
  • Respect for Billy Graham

Olson also argues in a recent 2 part message (here & here) given at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, that there are three movements emerging from within Evangelicalism that may fissure into different movements altogether. They are:

1. Conservative, Neo-Fundamentalists (He cites the Gospel Coalition as fitting here)
2. Conservative, Mediating Evangelicals (He cites Christianity Today as fitting here)
3. Post-Conservative Evangelicals (He cites Scot McKnight & Sojourners as examples here)

As with the rising and the setting of American Exceptionalism, Evangelical Exceptionalism is now past, and seems to have dark days ahead. The question many Christians are asking themselves is, “How Evangelical Am I?” Or more poignantly, “Do I even want to be considered an Evangelical?” So, what about you?

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Is Evangelicalism Worth Rescuing?

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Results to be posted! For more on American Nationalism, video games and the multiple allegiances we manage, check out Josiah Daniels July 4th post, Bioshock Infinite: Nationalism or Baptism?

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  • Alex Olson

    I’m excited to see the results of this, hopefully a lot of people respond.

    • NathanSmith79

      Thanks Alex. We’ve had a good start, but I’ll wait at least a week and we’ll keep posting it to continue the momentum of responses.

  • Josiah Daniels

    Awesome post Nathan. I am excited to see the results as well.

  • OnTay Johnson

    where did you get the image on this post? (America–A shining city on a hill).

    • OnTay, I apologize for not responding sooner. That image was on google images when I was looking for one. I’m guessing it’s not there anymore.