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.
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.