I have just finished reading a fascinating book. In “Deconstructing Evangelicalism”, D.G. Hart argues that evangelicalism, as a term to describe a section of Christianity in North America needs to be abandoned. He argues that “born again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the term evangelical altogether.” Hart says, “Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism.”
For those who do not understand the “wax nose” metaphor, let me explain. A wax nose is a thing easily moulded in any way that is desired. Evangelicalism, says Hart, is constantly being shaped and reshaped for various purposes. Furthermore, Hart argues that the way in which evangelicalism has been defined since the 1950s, has vastly different from its historic protestant definition. In the past, to be an evangelical meant to be a Protestant. But with the advent of liberal Protestantism, fundamentalism was formed to counter this trend. Since fundamentalism was seen to be overwhelmingly negative, evangelicalism became its successor. But the term never had a clear set of definitions.
Instead, evangelical became a useful category for journalists and for some scholars. And the term became useful for it gave many the impression of a vast movement with political and spiritual strength.
But the term never had a formalized statement of faith, nor did it have formalized membership. If one wanted to leave the evangelical fold, asks Hart, whom would one write to retract one’s membership? That, says Hart, is why evangelicalism is merely a construct and not a reality. Hart argues that evangelicalism is more defined by Para Church Ministries, rather than organizational structures that are made up of churches, as has always been the case of Christian movement. He also argues that since evangelicalism has no formal creed, its belief systems are greatly truncated. It consists of no more than the claim to a high view of scripture and a belief in the necessity of a being born again experience.
Whether one agrees with Hart’s analysis or not is not the question I wish to address. Hart himself admits that earlier on in his career, he did view modern evangelicalism as a legitimate movement. I will leave that questions for the historians to decide. But Hart’s chief point demands thought. Contemporary evangelicalism has no clear center. It really has become a wax nose.
In my view, the wax nose of evangelicalism has gradually developed. But it is here. In a recent blog on current events, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition cites a new Pew Research survey in relation to sexual attitudes among self-identified Christians. Catholics (62%) took the view that casual sex was sometimes are always acceptable. The survey, says Carter, defined casual sex between consenting adults who are not in a committed romantic relationship. Of course, many Roman Catholics are nominal. The very definition of evangelical that has been postulated, is that evangelical refers to “born again believers who are committed to Biblical inerrancy, and fidelity to the Bible’s message. But here is the surprise in the Pew Research Survey. They found that 46% of self-identified evangelical Protestants said that casual sex is sometimes or always acceptable.
From my perspective, that would mean that 46% of self-identified evangelicals definitely do not believe the Bible to be God’s authoritative word on all matters of faith and practice. Carter argues that “many self-professed Christians in America have forgotten the fundamental biblical truth: because we belong to Jesus, God alone determines the use of our bodies.” But I think Carter has it wrong. Many self-identified Christians are not Christian at all.
But there is still another point to be made. Sociologists, journalists, and theological scholars may speak about “Evangelicalism as either a religious or a political category.” But one thing is overwhelmingly certain. We have far over-estimated the numbers of historic, believing confessional Christians.
We need to stop fooling ourselves. Spiritual experiences are common and widely accepted, but historic Christianity is a movement made up of a remnant of North Americans. We may need a different term than “evangelical.” It has become meaningless.