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Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis by Thomas S. Kidd: A Review Article

Richard M. Gamble

Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, by Thomas S. Kidd. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019, 191 pages, $26.00, paper.

In the 2020 presidential election, American citizens face the same decision they confront every four years: they can vote for the candidate of one of the two major parties; vote for a third-party candidate, an independent, or a write-in; or not vote at all. If they choose to vote, they may support the candidate who best exemplifies the standards of character and domestic and foreign policy they favor; they may vote strategically and choose the proverbial “lesser of two evils” to throw their weight against the worse option; or they may chalk up a protest vote by going third party and having the satisfaction of not accepting the candidates handed to them by the political establishment and the quirky primary process.

Christians may and do disagree over which of these options is best pragmatically and even which of these options is morally and theologically defensible. For many believers voting is simply a matter of prudential judgment necessary under a representative system that depends upon popular elections to choose office holders. The principle of consent embedded in this imperfect process has been an essential part of American government since colonial times, and for four hundred years now Christians have had to exercise the rights and privileges they share with unbelievers within the constraints of the existing political system. They may hope and work for change, but they cannot engage in participatory government outside the given institutional structures of this present age. If they happen to consider voting to be part of their civic duty under the earthly powers ordained by God, then they must choose and live with the consequences of their actions.

With Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and his position as the presumptive Republican candidate in 2020, some Christians find themselves impaled on a dilemma. Ought they to vote for a man whose character repels them if, in the very act of voting against him, they help ensure the victory of someone whose character and policies they find even more objectionable? For the so-called Never-Trumpers among evangelicals, this question is more than a dilemma; it is a crisis. For some vocal critics of the president, that sense of crisis has been intensified by the ardent public support high-profile evangelical leaders have given to Trump since 2016. These equally outspoken defenders of the president have, so the charge goes, wedded the evangelical agenda to the Trump agenda in spite of his multiple marriages, vulgarity, and reputation as a racist and bigoted champion of “America first.” That fusion has led a number of evangelical pastors, scholars, editors, and pundits to try to rescue their endangered movement from a pact with the devil pursued for the sake of power and influence.

In Who Is an Evangelical? Baptist historian Thomas S. Kidd calls Trump’s 2016 election “the most shattering experience for evangelicals since the Scopes Trial” (143). A prolific historian of American evangelicalism, the Baylor professor and blogger lays out his case against Trump in the context of a short book about the long history of the movement with which he wholeheartedly identifies himself. Kidd is scandalized by the 81% support rung up for Trump among white evangelicals. It is difficult if not impossible to gauge why these voters vote the way they do, and polling data is generated by questions that might say more about what the media wants to prove than the complexity that marks the amorphous group called “evangelical.” Kidd finds the simplistic media label inadequate and misleading and wants to do his best to show readers a wider, deeper, and older evangelicalism—older, that is, than the current election cycle.

Kidd works hard to drive a wedge between historic evangelicalism and the most prominent leaders of what he repeatedly calls the “Republican insider evangelicals” (not a compliment), namely Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., John Hagee, Robert Jeffress, and others with access to a large national audience thanks to Fox News. His heroes are the #NeverTrump evangelicals Beth Moore, Albert Mohler, Russell Moore, John Piper, Marvin Olasky, such media outlets as The Gospel Coalition, and historians like John Fea, who in 2018 published his own jeremiad against Trump (Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

Kidd places his assessment of Trump at the end of the book in what he calls a “Coda,” but the chapter is more than a concluding remark to his overview of American evangelicalism. What he chooses to emphasize as the movement’s defining attributes keeps one eye steadily on Trump. This may not amount to the historical sin of “presentism,” but it does shape his selection and exclusion of evidence. Kidd’s evangelicalism is multicultural, politically diverse, and open to a prominent role for women. He highlights the breadth and inclusiveness of evangelicalism. While he populates his story with the expected Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham, he emphasizes the contributions of blacks, Latinos, and women as well.

In other words, evangelicalism’s family lineage does not lead inevitably to white Republicanism.

Kidd targets his book at an audience of “journalists, pastors, people who work in politics, and more” (3). He wants to set the record straight for these shapers of public opinion. To that end, he begins by defining “evangelical.” He sets out in this brief “primer” to clear up confusion about the label, especially in the media, to extend the scope of evangelicalism beyond white Republicans, and to depoliticize the evangelical identity while at the same time lamenting that black and white evangelicals are separated by such deep political differences.

Evangelicalism is “the religion of the born again,” he emphasizes (4). It adheres to the authority of the Bible, the new birth, the centrality of Christ, “a relationship with God mediated by the Holy Spirit” (17), the need for revival, transdenominational cooperation, support for foreign missions, and an active faith demonstrated through benevolence. He acknowledges some of the inconvenient facts of evangelicalism, such as Edwards and Whitefield owning slaves, but he ignores other features, such as the degree to which rabid anti-Catholicism united evangelicals in the nineteenth century.

Kidd insists that while evangelicals throughout their history have been politically engaged, such engagement did not define the movement as they fought for religious liberty and such reforms as temperance and abolition. Evangelicalism was first and foremost a spiritual movement and only secondly political, he argues. Nevertheless, he singles out for praise the kind of political activism that championed the marginalized and oppressed. Evangelicals took wrong turns whenever they attempted to impose their views as a cultural establishment, as in the effort to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools culminating in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. Political activism per se is not the problem, but the kind of political activism, that is, whether it grows out of evangelical doctrinal commitments or betrays them.

A good half of the book focuses on the emergence of the link between evangelicals and the Republican Party. Kidd sees evidence of this strategic alliance already in Billy Graham’s support of ardent anti-communism and the Nixon administration but attributes the current politicization of evangelicalism to Ronald Reagan’s success in mobilizing neo-evangelicals and fundamentalists with such issues as school prayer and the pro-life agenda. Jerry Falwell, Sr., and his Moral Majority proved key to this effort. Today, Kidd claims, “evangelical insiders look back nostalgically at Ronald Reagan’s two terms as a golden age” (133). Even the born-again George W. Bush “proved vaguely disappointing to Republican evangelical insiders because of his lukewarm approach to key social issues” (139) and his insistence that “true Islam was a religion of peace” (137). And the Obama presidency simply left them in the “wilderness” (140).

Enter Donald Trump. His candidacy had no hope of attracting black evangelicals away from Hilary Clinton, and liberal white evangelicals rejected him as well. But for Kidd, the key development came with the opposition of conservative evangelicals who otherwise would have been expected to vote Republican. This stance marked a rupture in evangelicalism. Kidd and his fellow Never-Trumpers are scandalized that so few evangelicals seem to agree with them and persist in their “obeisance to the GOP” (147). But exactly why voting for Trump amounted to a posture of submission is not clear. People vote the way they do based on a calculation of a whole range of economic, social, cultural, and foreign and domestic policy grounds. Religious affiliation is but one of these complicated factors. Voting for a candidate does not equal endorsing everything about that candidate. Evangelicals and confessional Protestants and Catholics and others may vote for Trump in spite of his character, not because of it.

The way in which and the degree to which some celebrity evangelicals support Trump does indeed signal a woeful politicization of Christianity in modern America. The pursuit of power and influence always burns the Church in the end and jeopardizes theological orthodoxy in a quest for alliance-building that subordinates the faith to success in politics and victory for social activism. But surely outspoken opposition to Trump by pastors and through the agency of parachurch organizations also politicizes Christianity. Unintentionally perhaps, Thomas Kidd gives confessional churches the opportunity to think carefully at a turbulent time in American history about the need for an apolitical pulpit.

Richard M. Gamble is a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics. He serves as a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC. Ordained Servant Online, June 2020.

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