Thomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. In his new book, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, Kidd challenges the popular association between evangelicals and the Republican Party, tracing the history of the faith to situate the current movement in relationship to its past, and so more clearly define what—and who—is an evangelical.
ECM: So, who is an evangelical?
TSK: The simplest answer is that an evangelical is a born-again Christian. But in addition to the conversion experience (being born again), evangelicals have been marked by the “felt presence” of God in their lives. Sometimes they describe this presence as a personal relationship with Jesus. Evangelicals also have a very high view of Scripture. This last attribute did not originally distinguish them much from their Reformed or Protestant brethren, but starting with the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, evangelicals have emphasized that they trust the authority of the Bible in ways that modernists, liberals, and mainliners ostensibly do not.
ECM: Is it fair to say that this book, more than your others, is inspired by current events?
TSK: I think so. Of course I’m trained as a historian and a lot of my work has been on eighteenth century history, the Great Awakening, the American Revolution, and so forth. But this book is a history of evangelicalism that runs through the present day, and so is obviously concerned with controversies around evangelicals and politics—especially white evangelical support for the Republican Party and Donald Trump. This project has grown out of my blogging at The Gospel Coalition, where I felt like there was a need to speak to current evangelical alignments in politics, what these have to do with evangelical history, and in some cases how they’ve departed from that history. This book has also taken me into more social science and polling than I’ve considered in any of the others. So it’s definitely engaging with current events, but still from a historical perspective.
ECM: “Evangelical” is not a short word, but it’s become shorthand for a particular voting bloc, and you seem to be bothered by the imprecision.
TSK: Yes. I think that, by implication, the media has come to discuss evangelicals in a very narrow way. The implication is that, when we use the term, we are talking specifically about white Republicans in the United States. But when you think about the evangelical movement on the world stage, this is very misleading. In the U.S., evangelicalism has been politicized within the last 50 years or so, especially since 1976 when Jimmy Carter’s candidacy prompted the first polling about the term “evangelical.” Since then, the designation has been based on self-identification, with pollsters simply asking whether each respondent is evangelical, recording the answer, and moving on to questions about political behavior. Some polls go deeper, but a lot them—exit polls, for example—are purely based on self-identification.
So while I think the polls can tell us something about people who consider themselves evangelical and how they behave politically, there are a lot of groups who get excluded. Some polls won’t even ask people whether they’re evangelical if they’re not white, and much of the political polling doesn’t consider the large numbers of self-identified evangelicals who don’t vote. So, often, when you read a story about “evangelicals,” you’ll find that it actually refers specially to white voters who call themselves evangelicals. That’s a pretty small segment of the movement, and it’s not reflective of the diverse global population.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.