Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Deconstructing Evangelicalism: A Brief Overview

D. G. Hart's Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham makes the point that the term "evangelicalism" is essentially meaningless. Those who coined the term were intending to create a broad coalition of conservative Christians to function as a countervailing force to the liberal mainline denominations. In so doing, they reduced the baseline for calling oneself an evangelical to so little that the term and the movement says virtually nothing about a theological commitment to anything.

What the term did was provide a useful tool for historians and pollsters. In the past 30 years a body of literature on evangelicals and evangelicalism has exploded. Hart argues that the reason is that publishers are more likely to buy a book that can be sold to a broader market than analysis of just one distinct denomination. Folks like Gallup and Barna love evangelicalism because it likewise makes their data more interesting to more people. Of course, Hart argues that this is hardly surprising since the questions and characteristics pollsters have used to identify and track evangelicals has far more to do with social conservative politics than with theology that is faithful to the gospel.

I intend to follow this post with a couple more on some specific issues Hart addresses. This book probably is not a must-read for all evangelicals or fundamentalists since it is fairly technical and demands some prerequisite knowledge, but his conclusions ought to be discussed more than they seem to have been to this point. If you are committed to understanding the history of evangelicalism, you will not want to miss Hart's analysis.

5 comments:

Dave said...

ereI am glad you are interacting with this book. It contains some provocative thoughts that are timely to a lot of discussions about fundamentalism and evangelicalism. Looking forward to your musings on it.

franklin said...

So, it's kinda like the word "fundamentalist"? LOL...I couldn't resist;).

Seriously, sounds like a great read. Thanks for pointing us to it.

Michael C. said...

I appreciate Hart's point.

I've argued several times on SharperIron that the notion of evangelicalism as a movement is flawed. It's hard to see much in common between John MacArthur, Greg Laurie, Gary Collins, Douglas Wilson, Billy Graham, and Jay Adams. While "evangelical" may be an accurate way to label these men, I don't see how you can call it their movement. A lot of fundamentalists seem to think that evangelicalism is a monolithic movement, rather than an almost meaningless classification. This can lead to a stereotyped view of evangelicals where the foibles and failures of some are imputed to everyone else.

I know that this isn't exactly what Hart argues, but I see it as a related idea. Even so, I'm not sure that I see how we can dispense with the term evangelical, as misleading as it may be.

Ben said...

Dave,

Please take all liberties to share your impressions and conclusions. I can find little reason to disagree with his. I think there are some other rumblings along this line of thinking from outside traditional fundamentalist circles.

Franklin,

The Dave posting above is actually the one who first brought Hart to my attention, so he deserves the credit. If he weren't so shy by nature, maybe he would say more. ;-)

The book is actually pretty recent—published in 2004. I really think your joking point isn't too far off. The Carl Henry quote I posted last week (about fundamentalism losing the battle with modernism because it reduced essential doctrines to the five points) connects in many ways with the construct of evangelicalism reducing doctrine to a least common denominator of virtually nothing.

On the other hand, the objective of evangelicalism and its doctrinal minimum was to build a broad movement, while the objective of fundamentalism was to defend specific doctrines against a specific attack at a specific time. The outcome obviously led to a more narrow movement rather than a broader one. The two strains may have made similar errors, but there is an important difference between their root motivations.

Ben said...

Michael wrote:
"A lot of fundamentalists seem to think that evangelicalism is a monolithic movement, rather than an almost meaningless classification. This can lead to a stereotyped view of evangelicals where the foibles and failures of some are imputed to everyone else."

Michael,

You may have heard this already, but for an excellent example of the broad-brushing of which you speak, listen to the audio of the panel discussion found here.