Are Evangelicals Their Own Worst Enemy?

Audrey Farley on Thomas Kidd

Thomas Kidd. Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis. Yale UP, 2019. pp. 200. $ 26.00 (hardback).

As the coronavirus pandemic intensifies across the world, so does blame for the failed efforts to contain the virus. In the United States, many academics and members of the media have pointed the finger at a political-religious community: conservative evangelicals. A late March New York Times op-ed traced the Trump administration’s downplay of the virus’s risks to the longstanding “science denialism” among right-wing evangelical insiders who have had an outsized influence on American politics in the last half-century. This and other nationally circulated stories have also reported on evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., who have refused to implement life-saving social distancing measures in the name of their faith and business interests.

Critics of the Times editorial swiftly countered that many influential secular progressives also minimized the virus’s risks and the loss of lives and claimed that the op-ed caricaturized evangelicals. For these critics, the portrayal of evangelicals as “science deniers” reflects a larger, notably classist image of the religious community, in which members are predominantly rural, white, working-class, uneducated, misogynist bigots, whose figureheads are sinisterly plotting to turn America into a theocracy. It is a sweeping portrayal that Thomas Kidd’s new book Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis seeks to undo.

Kidd is a professor of history at Baylor University and an evangelical himself. Like many critics of his religious movement, he is greatly dismayed by the rise of rightwing insider evangelicals who have put political ambition over humanitarianism. But rather than enumerating such individuals’ many misdeeds, as others do, he gives visibility to the rank-and-file evangelicals across the world who are much more diverse—politically, geographically, economically, racially, and theologically—than media portrayals tend to suggest. In his words, “The narrative of white evangelicals’ corrupt quest for Republican power is not false. But it is incomplete.” And this incomplete narrative hinders social justice by obscuring the daily labor of those believers who are striving for peace and equality on earth, rather than trying to impose their politics upon others. If religious and secular progressives are serious about curtailing the power of Republican insider evangelicals, Kidd suggests, they need to more honestly engage with the everyday evangelicals whose beliefs and practices seldom make headlines.

Everyday evangelicals, according to Kidd, are those who cherish scripture, have a personal relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and give generously to the poor and the socially oppressed. In fact, Kidd notes, evangelicals far outpace non-believers even in their support for non-religious charities. He adds that two of the three biggest disaster relief agencies in the nation are evangelical and that faith-based organizations provide nearly 60 percent of all emergency shelter beds in the nation. Such facts may surprise the many Americans who have come to associate the entire evangelical movement with power-hungry nationalists.

Kidd further disentangles evangelicalism from its almost wholly partisan meaning by chronicling the movement from its mid-eighteenth-century beginnings to the election of Donald Trump, whom 81% of evangelicals supposedly supported. (Kidd, a #NeverTrumper himself, questions this statistic by noting, among other points discussed below, that many Christians who seem to embrace evangelical values don’t claim the label, likely due to political baggage.) This history is intended to demonstrate that, while the evangelical movement has never been entirely apolitical, “historically, [it has been] defined by the message of conversion and eternal salvation, not partisan politics.”

Readers learn that evangelicalism began as a reaction to nominal Christianity, as leaders like George Whitefield perceived great need for a deeper spiritual experience of the divine. At the turn of the twentieth century, evangelicalism became associated—for a time, even synonymous with—fundamentalism, which opposed the theological liberalism then sweeping Protestantism. During this time, evangelicals developed their belief in the inerrancy (infallibility) of scripture, which, according to Kidd, continues to be a hallmark of the movement today. Only after after World War II did evangelicalism firmly secure its ties to the Republican party, as leaders like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell, Sr. found members of the GOP willing to champion school prayer and oppose abortion, sex education, and gay rights.

Across this near-three-hundred-year history, Kidd explains, evangelicals mobilized around such political issues as slavery/anti-slavery, temperance, the Sunday delivery of mail, and the teaching of evolution in public schools. With the exception of the anti-slavery cause, Kidd writes disappointingly of evangelicals “bringing their moral convictions into the public square,” since these ventures have tended to distract from the more important work of sharing the Gospel, while also turning the public against evangelicalism, as a whole. Kidd offers the example of the former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, whose 1920s crusade against the teaching of Darwinism resulted in much of the nation characterizing fundamentalists/evangelicals as anti-scientific buffoons.

Rather than blaming the media for grossly over-simplifying the movement or choosing controversial figures like Jennings Bryan (or more recently, Falwell, Jr.) as stand-ins for evangelicalism at large, Kidd largely points the finger at the influential figures who “have often led rank-and-file evangelicals into such establishmentarian efforts.” He admits that, over the centuries, “the temptations of political and cultural power have been strong for white evangelicals,” often to the detriment of minorities within and beyond the movement. And he urges evangelicals to focus their political ambitions on causes that uplift those who are oppressed, rather than on causes that expand their influence. “As a general rule,” Kidd writes, “evangelicals have been at their best when using their political sway to defend the weak and oppressed (such as slaves), rather than seeking to impose evangelical practices, ideas or standards of conscience on the public.”

Kidd’s discussion of evangelicals’ division over slavery allows him to take a hard look at evangelical ideals. He considers, for instance, how the movement’s spiritual emphasis has historically been both a strength and limitation. On the one hand, the focus on individual salvation has lent evangelicalism a “powerful egalitarian impulse,” allowing for anyone regardless of class, race, sex, or other identifying factors to be saved. This very emphasis has led many African Americans to embrace evangelicalism across the centuries. (Though Kidd doesn’t say so, it also inspired many evangelicals to resist eugenics at a time when more progressive Protestants were supporting the movement to eliminate the “unfit.”) On the other hand, Kidd writes, such an emphasis has allowed for believers to ignore vast political and economic injustices. Many slave-owners acknowledged enslaved individuals’ capacity to be saved, while denying their human rights; and in the years of segregation, many evangelical Protestants actually leaned upon spiritual salvation to justify their silence on earthly evils like lynching.

By and large, though, Kidd does not frame the crisis faced by evangelicals in terms of ideology. Rather, he frames it in terms of the politically ambitious few who hijack the movement by bringing their beliefs “into the public square.” But this idea that evangelicals have been lured to the political realm takes for granted that their spiritual beliefs developed outside of that realm. The reality is that politics—especially gender politics—have thoroughly shaped evangelical values, even at times when evangelicals haven’t identified as expressly political or pursued legislative ends.

There may be no better example of the formative influence of politics than the modernist-fundamentalist conflict that Kidd claims left an indelible mark on the movement. As he explains, fundamentalist Protestants became so known when they challenged the modernists in seminaries and churches, who had begun to apply literary-historical critical methods (“higher criticism”) to the study of scripture, expressing doubts about the historicity of longstanding doctrine. Fearing such liberal influence would erode that longstanding doctrine, conservative evangelicals insisted upon the “fundamentals” of the faith: the inerrancy of scripture, the virgin birth, Christ’s death as atonement for human sins, Christ’s bodily resurrection, and the veracity of miracles. This belief in the primacy of scripture led public figures like Jennings Bryan to rail against Darwinian theory, perceived to undermine the authority of the Bible.

But it wasn’t as though fundamentalists unilaterally defended the Bible for its own sake. As historians like Betty DeBerg, Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, and R. Marie Griffith have noted, many defended the Bible because they regarded it as the basis for a set of eternal, fixed social norms, such as those governing gender. At the time, middle-class white women were increasingly repudiating the Victorian ethos of prudishness and “separate spheres,” and embracing new methods of birth control, the Vote, and other political gains. Many fundamentalists upheld the inerrancy of scripture to defend traditional standards of morality against these progressive winds. Time and again, conservative evangelical preachers betrayed gender-related concerns when speaking against evolution. The famous preacher John Roach Straton traced all sorts of female vices, such as high hemlines and use of birth control, to “the degrading philosophy of animalism which evolution is spreading over the earth.” J. Frank Norris likewise blamed evolution for breeding “free-loveism.”

In addition to using inerrancy to claim divine sanction of gender conventions, fundamentalists discredited higher critics by portraying them as effeminate. A contributor to Searchlight magazine derided liberal professors as “sissy,” and the editors of the King’s Business called modern theology “emasculated Christianity.” The popular evangelist Billy Sunday gained notoriety by growling and throwing punches at opponents at his revivals, where he preached against the twin evils of feminism and theological liberalism.

Kidd does not acknowledge such deliberate, widespread efforts to masculinize Christianity and enforce gender norms during this early-century moment of crisis for the movement. Nor does he address present-day critics even within the movement, such as Karen Swallow Prior, who have described parts of evangelical culture as toxic. (Prior, a strong female presence in a conservative culture where nuanced views such as hers—on LGBTQ issues, for example—garner criticism from both sides, has been the target of much vitriol, including from orthodox critics who celebrated her near-death from a tragic bus accident.) This may explain why Kidd expresses doubt that Trump-voting evangelicals sincerely support the “profane [man who] gloried in a personal history that openly contradicted evangelical standards of sexual behavior and marital fidelity.” In the final chapter, Kidd suggests that perhaps Trump voters regarded the then-candidate as “the lesser of two evils” or as someone whose political vision aligned with theirs, even if his personal life offended their religious sensibilities. He may be right that such voters exist, but in only offering such explanations, he refuses to engage the possibility that, for some evangelicals, support for Trump may be consistent with their values.

And that’s a shame, because excavating evangelicalism’s gender politics could greatly help to explain the crisis facing the movement—by illuminating insider evangelicals’ path to power. Too often, Kidd under-analyzes the reasons for insiders’ political gains. For instance, when explaining the evangelical establishment’s new opposition to abortion in the early eighties, when Falwell, Sr.’s religious-political action group Moral Majority began to gain strength, Kidd suggests the possible influence of Psalm 139, in which the psalmist praises God for “knitting me in my mother’s womb.” He does not consider that longstanding fundamentalist anxieties about non-procreative sexuality or about female sovereignty might have something do with evangelicals’ resistance to abortion. This is not to suggest that religious objections to abortion are merely a ruse—just that such objections are only part of the story of resistance to reproductive technologies. If Kidd wants to encourage non-evangelicals to more fairly engage with evangelicals, he needs to be more earnest himself, acknowledging the means by which evangelical insiders gained and now wield their authority.

Perhaps, were Kidd to approach the dynamic between inerrancy and gender with the same nuance he does spiritualism and race, he could build an even stronger bridge between conservative and liberal evangelicals, and between “rank-and-file” evangelicals and secular progressives. He is right that these groups share a common goal—protesting social injustices—and that the sooner the media and public recognize this fact, the sooner they can triumph over those doing harm.

Audrey Farley is a literary scholar and historian with a PhD in English from University of Maryland, College Park. Her first book, The Unfit Heiress: The Tragic Life and Scandalous Sterilization of Ann Cooper Hewitt, is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing. It tells of a long-forgotten criminal case that transfigured the eugenics movement in America. She is now working on a manuscript about the Hall-Mills murders of 1922, which staged raging theological debates between modernist and fundamentalist Protestants. Her literary criticism has appeared in various peer-reviewed journals; and her public writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and many other publications. Tweets @AudreyCFarley.