Wrestling the term Evangelicalism back from the American nationalists

Michael Haykin, in this month’s Evangelicals Now, says this about Evangelicalism:

Recent critiques of Evangelicalism in America have taken aim at what has been called an unbiblical patriarchalism as well as at the fostering of a celebrity culture and the politicising of Evangelicalism. But what these critiques, and other more recent American critiques of this tradition, assume is that the contours of 20th- and 21st-Century American Evangelicalism define the characteristics of this Christian tradition. I, for one, vigorously deny this.

My counter-critique is that Evangelicalism cannot be judged solely, even mainly, in terms of its manifestation in one geographical locale and one temporarility, namely 20th- and 21st-Century America. That would be like defining the Patristic world by what took place solely in Alexandria or solely in Carthage.

moreover, many of the 17th- and 18th- Century roots of Evangelicalism lie in the Protestant world of the British Isles and Ireland. They are not to be found simply on the American continent. And Evangelicalism may have crystallised in the Anglophone world of the North Atlantic in the 1730s, but it is now a global phenomenon.

Haykin, M., ‘Evangelical Weaknesses’, Evangelicals Now, March 2022, p.21

It seems Dr Haykin is expressing something of what I said here recently:

What we are seeing is the tension between American Evangelicals wanting to distance themselves from “big-E Evangelicalsim” – which many of us can understand – and the rest of the world who holds to the historic, theological tenets of Evangelicalism ceding the definition of the term entirely to a socio-political contextually bound American form. Those of us outside of the American context – which it cannot be said enough is the overwhelming majority of global evangelicals – may understandably be a bit miffed by that. Why should a term we own – a term with historic moorings that emanated from an entirely different country (my country!) – give up on our term because some people in another country refuse to be bound by the term and it has been bastardised by foreign pollsters?

That is not to say that I think Thabiti [Anyabwile] wrong to distance himself from the term. I fully understand the impulse and, given his context, I might well have done the same. But that, of course, isn’t my context. Whilst I wouldn’t typically label myself Evangelical to an unbeliever or unchurched person – because I think it means very little to people here – I think it does continue to have real value in describing a set of theological tenets to believers. It does still broadly settle around Bebbington’s quadrilateral; certainly nothing better has come along. It does help to define those who share the label, beyond being ‘orthodox’, which would be a label many Catholics and non-evangelical Anglicans might well own. But I think in the right context it still helpfully distinguishes our approach to the Bible from theological Fundamentalism and theological Liberalism.

And so, what we are seeing is a set of people, who share the same doctrinal beliefs, taking opposing positions on a term because of their particular context. Thabiti sees the socio-political context of America as an unhelpful place to try to use the term Evangelical anymore. I suspect he sees some broader issues in what some have called ‘big-eva’ too – which is another animal to contend with yet again. Those of us this side of the pond, who share Thabiti’s theological convictions, do not have an Evangelical bloc vote in our context. We have Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, A-political and all manner of others present in our congregations – much closer to Keller’s description of non-white Evangelical churches (except still pretty white in many places, though happy multicultural and majority ethnic-minority exceptions exist too). Though a small fringe would beg to differ, most churches do not insist that there is an ‘Evangelical party’ or an ‘Evangelical way to vote’. We are not entirely free of such things, but there is much less party political linkage or political affiliation. And so we have less trouble retaining the theological term without the socio-political overtones. We do not want to cede the term to those who would mangle it that way.

I would encourage you to read both my post and the Haykin article in full. Both make the case that we should not allow a certain brand of American nationalism to define the theological understanding of Evangelicalism. Let’s let actual Evangelicals and their theological commitments define their own term, the majority of whom are not American but spread across the globe.