The title is more straightforward than my normal parallelisms, and that’s because I’m still tired of words. The current POTUS uses too many of them (mostly nonsensical or outrageous), and the machine tasked with defending, explaining, condemning and following him uses exponentially more. I said early on in this administration that I was going to say less out of fear of adding to the glut of words, especially given that I think the surfeit of commentary from the entire spectrum of Right to Left (or vice versa) is making words even less meaningful.
When Jason Micheli of Tamed Cynic invited me on his podcast, I wasn’t sure what the topic would be. Shortly after, I tweeted the following:
Dear journalism friends, I’m going to need you to start using the word “evangelical” with a little more attention to the actual definition. Roy Moore is decidedly not an evangelical. He’s a fundamentalist. If you don’t understand the terms, stop writing them.
— Greg Horton (@expastor) November 13, 2017
Jason messaged me to say we had found the topic. I recorded the interview this morning, and we did manage to talk about the definitional issue I have with the way the two words are being used. But because Jason is curious by nature, it seems, and a good interviewer, we meandered through several subjects, much like a real conversation. I decided to use the podcast as motivation to get this done, both for myself and for anyone who wanders here after Jason posts the new episode.
A few days ago, a longtime reader of the old Parish blog blocked me on Facebook because I wasn’t satisfied with his less-than-nuanced definition of “evangelical.” I’ve tried to explain what I think the best definition of the word is in the current context, and if you want to ask who I am that I get to set definitions, I’ll need to respond at length at some point, but for now, just know that I’m not making up definitions. What I am trying to do is apply 20+ years of writing about religion (professionally and on a blog), 10 years of teaching religion at the college level, and 30 years of reading and researching the nexus of religion, politics and culture to understand what “evangelical” means. I told Jason this morning that I’m really trying to defend the good guys in this endeavor, both because I still have friends in professional, evangelical ministry, and because I would never have wanted to be sullied by association with Roy Moore or Donald Trump when I was an evangelical pastor.
I will end up modifying the thinking that contributed to that first tweet, because I don’t think either category–fundamentalist or evangelical–is thorough enough to describe what is happening in our political climate after Trump’s victory in the general election. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Roy Moore represents a toxic combination of fundamentalism and civil religion, a benign form of which has been present in many Southern Baptist and Pentecostal/Charismatic churches for a long time, like this shot from Dallas First Baptist in July of this year.
For now, I’m convinced there is a difference because three key markers of fundamentalism are not present in evangelicalism. I’m working with a definition of evangelical that does take into account the three streams that Mark Noll wrote about more than 10 years ago: small group Anglicanism, Calvinist theology (especially soteriology), and European pietism. However, the American form of this changes dramatically after the rise of the new evangelicals, as embodied by Carl F. H. Henry and Billy Graham, and even more so after Barna and Warren. It becomes far more enculturated, much more American, much more responsive to market forces and cultural shifts.
That last bit is the beginning of the key differences in the markers. Fundamentalism is adversarial to culture; evangelicalism is not, for the most part. Fundamentalism is separatist in orientation; evangelicalism is not. Fundamentalism is painfully, inconsistently literalist in hermeneutic, bordering on bibliolatry (e.g., inerrant, infallible talk); evangelicals have settled on a nebulous definition of “inspired” or “God’s Word” that borders on being an empty signifier, often keeping the “infallible” category but losing “inerrant,” recognizing the latter category as nonsensical or not helpful.
To be fair, both movements have contributed to the degradation of Christian witness, and while fundamentalists engage in self-deceit, cover ups, and outright lies, modern evangelicals tend toward a more permissive soteriology that makes for good consumers, if not good Christians. Taken as a whole, though, I’d far rather spend time with the latter, and the kind of faux Christian piety we see bubbling to the surface among supporters of Roy Moore is far less likely to be present in evangelicals. Still, as I already said, we are going to need a new taxonomy to take into account Christianized hypocrisy and the redefinition of holiness in Trumpvangelical America.