Who Are the Real Evangelicals? A Q&A with Historian Thomas Kidd

Historian and author Thomas Kidd caught my attention again with his column at Anxious Bench about evangelicals who are not evangelicals. He contends there that there are four groups of Christians who are often confused for historic evangelicals but should not be considered evangelicals. Theological liberals make up the first group, and orthodox Presbyterians (I would add Christian reconstructionists) the second group. The next two groups, advocates of the prosperity gospel, and Christian nation proponents (think David Barton), will probably flinch about not being included. I have clearly lumped most of those people under the evangelical umbrella at one time or another so Kidd’s precision interests me.
I asked him if I could ask him a couple of questions for the sake of discussion here. He agreed and here is the exchange:
Me: Can a person be in two groups? Can a Presbyterian in your group 2 also be an evangelical? I suspect many believers in a Christian America would also see themselves as evangelical. Can they hold every other tenet of evangelicalism and work for a political solution to the nation’s problem?
Kidd: Yes, I would assume that virtually all evangelicals would also have some other denominational/congregational identity. Plenty of Presbyterians, especially in the PCA and the EPC, would fully accept the evangelical label. My point regarding Hart’s type of confessional Reformed folks is that there are conservative Protestants who explicitly reject the label evangelical, even though much of the media would automatically regard them as evangelical.
I agree that most in the Christian America (as well as prosperity gospel) camp would embrace the evangelical label, but if the core of their Christian message is American patriotism and politics – if there is, for them, an indispensable connection between the American Founding and Christianity – then I don’t see how that fits with historic evangelicalism.

Me: In the case of group 2, the Presbyterians, they have a name for their group. However, how about groups 3 and 4. How would you label them?
Kidd: Group 3 are the advocates of the “Prosperity Gospel,” Group 4 are advocates of “Christian America.” These are not how they
would necessarily label themselves, of course.
Me: As a follow up to question 2, I suspect the Christian America advocates would view the belief in America’s Godly Heritage as a hallmark of evangelicalism since they believe many of the founders were evangelicals. By excluding this group from the historic evangelicalism, are we not engaging in a debate over what historic evangelicalism is? It seems to me that historic evangelicals and Christian nationalists are in a dispute over the definition of evangelicalism with the Christian nation group believing your definition of evangelicalism is missing the important political element. What is your reaction to that formulation? If you think I am right, can you say briefly what you point to historically to suggest they are off?
Kidd: Yes, the whole debate is a question of what historic evangelicalism is. Christian America folks are often eager to cast the non-evangelical Founders as evangelicals, because doing so helps to justify their close connection between the Christian faith and the American Founding. Thus their desire to find quotes that might suggest that Jefferson or Franklin, or other non-evangelicals were actually devout, traditional believers.Historic evangelicals, conversely, say that while they would be delighted if it turned out that Franklin or Jefferson were actually evangelicals, there’s no good evidence to suggest that they were. This is no big deal for historic evangelicals, because our faith is not fundamentally connected to the American Founding. We’re thankful for the many good things about the Founding, especially the traditions of religious liberty and God-given equality. But we don’t need any of the Founders to have been Christians or evangelicals. Some were, some weren’t – they were a mixed lot, even if they pretty much all held to some basic Christian/theistic ideas, like the notion that God is the author of our liberties.
Thomas Kidd is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution and the upcoming George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

Who Are the Paleo Evangelicals?

Last week, historian Thomas Kidd described a subset of evangelicals who are reluctant Republicans. Inspired by the term paleoconservative, he calls them paleo evangelicals. These evangelicals, according to Kidd, are suspicious of American civil religion, and skeptical that much good comes from allegiance to any political party. Although conservative, paleos do not agree with the modern GOP on all issues. On balance, the GOP may be the party that gets their votes, but they are not enthusiastic that voting one’s values is the salvation of the nation.

Kidd specifically raises the differences between paleo evangelicals and the Christian nation movement led by David Barton. He writes

Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his new Founders’ Bible.

Kidd does not speculate about the size of this group but I think he is correct that such evangelicals exist. I certainly would be close to this camp. Picking up on his ideas, Bart Gingrich and Anna Williams see paleos as being more prevalent among younger people.  I hope they are correct.

One leading voice among evangelicals in the younger generation is Jonathan Merritt. His book A Faith of Our Own finds fault with the culture war and the conflation of Christianity with politics. Merritt’s experience may give insight into the making of paleos. About his peers and the church, Merritt writes

Having come of age during the first aftershock period, young people today seem especially dissatisfied. A culture-warring church is the only one they’ve experienced, and they are running away as fast as they can. (p. 77)

Merritt seems to be describing paleos when he writes:

Today’s Christians are rising up to rediscover the faith in a world that is, not a world that was. They desire to reclaim the faith from the partisan spirit so pervasive among some Christians in America…These Christians aren’t consumed with a platform or a party or a policy; they are devoted to a person who emptied Himself to rule supreme over a new kind of kingdom. (p. 86)

I hope Merritt and the others are correct about a rising group of evangelicals who reject the conflation of religion and politics and who want to reclaim the faith. To me, it is interesting to consider what it would look like for this group to become the majority within evangelical circles. Would new leaders take existing groups (e.g., Family Research Council, Focus on the Family) in a new direction? Or would these groups disband? Currently, evangelicals are known more for what evangelical para-church organizations are against than what they are for. Surely, the paleos would go in a different direction.

Although leaning toward cynicism, the following serves as the soundtrack for this post:

From meddling to preaching; two important articles on shifts in Evangelicalism

David Kirkpatrick has a lengthy analysis of shifts in evangelicalism in yesterday’s New York Times. Called “The Evangelical Crackup,” the article describes what appears to be a shift in evangelicalism away from political activism.

And then the Rocky Mountain News describes a similar shift underway at Focus on the Family with the advent of Jim Daly as head of the organization.