Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is Evangelicalism a Mental Disease?

At a biblical studies conference last week I was having fun asking the politically incorrect question of the people I met as to whether or not they were a Christian.  To me, one's religious committments are bound to have a big affect on your scholarship (no matter what you say about "objectivity") and so I'm always keen to know, and at least I do it in person rather than public.  Well one very civilised chap I spoke to answered my question with a scowl and the statement "well, i'm not an evangelical" which was interesting, because I do self identify as such, but the way he said it I wasn't sure we would use the word in the same way.

But then reading about street preachers on Stuart's blog it occurred to me that for many evangelical is code for intolerance, bigotry, irrationality, right wing politics, emotional instability and public outbursts of hatred.  And this is the problem, I know lots and lots of evanglicals and they are by and large open minded, compassionate, polite, intelligent and a little shy.  How is it that such a huge majority has its reputation determined by a tiny excentric minority?

So really there are two meanings for this one word, and I wonder if like "fundamentalist" what was originally coined as a positive self descriptor will soon become an irreparably pejorative slur.  What do you think, is it a word you use of yourself?  To stand in the tradition of such conversionist and social activist examplars as Wesley and Wilberforce, for example, is no small thing, but then neither is being lumped in with every illiterate street preacher or free marketeering hawkish US politician.  Has the term reached the limit of it's usefulness?  Has it's broadness ceased to be useful for unity and become a liability to misunderstanding?

Let me know what you think.


  1. The first time I am aware of having heard the term, when I was a 19 year-old University student, it was used to define an "in group" (Evangelicals or sometimes only "Conservative Evangelicals") and an out-group. I was in the out-group, because I belonged to the wrong Christian society and was friends with the wrong people. I dislike the word. But then I dislike all self-descriptors that are used primarily (or even much) to keep undesirables out.

    If people must have in-groups and out-groups label me OUT, please (and allow me to quietly remember that my Lord was also outed Heb 13:11ff.)

  2. I consider myself an Evangelical, though I've learned that means a different thing in the USA than it does in Europe. The way I mean it is to label a group who shares similar commitments or views on salvation and evangelism. I've heard someone describe themselves as a "Catholic-Evangelical." I was a bit perplexed, and too young to have asked what they meant by that. I think it is a term which has been hijacked in the same way fundamentalism has (for example the political term "fundamentalism of the left").
    I certainly don't vote the way most "evangelicals" do though.

  3. Hi,

    when I saw this post I was reminded of the discussion by the Jubilee Centre on the term. You can see their Cambridge paper on it here:

    Their conclusion that the term is worth keeping:

    and they had a Radio interview on the issue:

    I'm a bit of a fan of the Jubilee Centre (and their Cambridge papers) as they discuss a lot of the issues that I'm interested in so please excuse the shameless plug!

  4. Hi Tom, thanks for the links and the comment, no shame in plugging a good resource!

    Tim, I agree with you if that is what it is used for, but my experience (used to be) more that the term provided a bridge between different denomination and was a way of emphasising commonality rather than excluding others. Should we just not define ourselves at all?

    Justin, yes I think the USA scene is a large part at fault for associating a particular political stance with evangelicalism, it used to be the case in the UK that evangelicals were more left than right, (how could they not be if they read the gospels??!!). However in NZ it is more like the states, and I wonder if it is because in the colonial environment non-conformist christians which would have been anti-establishment in the old world tend to become the establishment in the new.

  5. Jonathan,
    I think the wonderful term has been hijacked by the extreme right wing of the church as you mentioned. I think the one issue that biblical scholars have with self defining as "evangelicals" is the close association of biblical inerrancy with the evangelical movement. It is tough to remain an inerrantist and deal with biblical criticism, and self identifying as an evangelical often carries with it the unfortunate corollary of inerrantist.