Published on February 17, 2020 by Benjamin J. Montoya

Yale University Press, 2019 | 200 pages

A Book Review from Books At a Glance

By D. G. Hart


“A Second Great Reversal?”

When historian Thomas Kidd was likely in diapers (the early 1970s), two books appeared that foreshadowed his own study of evangelicalism, Who Is an Evangelical? Part of a seven-book series called, “Evangelical Perspectives,” and edited by John Warwick Montgomery, the historian, Richard V. Pierard, and the sociologist, David O. Moberg, both complained that evangelicals were so attached to conservative politics and the Republican Party that they were in danger of betraying their faith. Pierard’s title, Uneasy Yoke: Evangelical Christianity and Political Conservatism (1970) gave his argument away. The evangelical church, he lamented, “had tied itself to the status quo of contemporary middle-class America and traded its prophetic ministry for a pottage of public acclaim and economic well-being.” In The Great Reversal: Evangelism versus Social Concern (1972), Moberg asserted that Nixon-era evangelicalism had abandoned social activism for spiritual ministry. Those evangelicals who supported Billy Graham while voting for Republicans had equated conservative theology with conservative politics and economics. As much as that argument seemed self-contradictory – evangelicals were showing social concern, but it was the wrong kind and did not count – Moberg reinforced Pierard’s critique. They may not have invoked race, but evangelicals’ reputation was clearly Republican, and it was, according to the authors, hurting the cause of Christ.

Thomas Kidd’s new book, Who Is An Evangelical?, unknowingly repeats this older gripe that evangelicalism is too Republican. The current version of evangelicalism’s “great reversal” is the about face that has afflicted born-again Protestantism thanks to the 2016 election of Donald Trump (in which according to many estimates eighty-one percent of the evangelical electorate cast votes for the Republican nominee). The Baylor University historian concedes that the dangers of partisan politics have bedeviled evangelicalism since the Cold War and during the Religious Right’s unqualified support for Ronald Reagan. But the crisis of evangelical identity reached fatal levels with support for Trump. The 2016 election has left evangelicalism with little meaning other than white and Republican. Unlike Pierard and Moberg, Kidd is not a critic of political conservatism. He may concede that Trump is not a very good conservative and that evangelicals have had good reasons for supporting previous Republican presidents. His intention is to save contemporary evangelicalism from the Republican Party of Donald Trump by revealing the movement’s demographic diversity. Ironically, if evangelicals heeded Kidd, they might be guilty of another great reversal that prioritized evangelism over social concern.

Key to Kidd’s strategy is definition. He characterizes evangelicals as “born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” [4] Conversion, Scripture, and experience of the Holy Spirit, accordingly, allow Kidd to decide who is part of his story and whom to exclude. It is a curious approach if only because Kidd cites no historical, theological, or ecclesiastical sources for his definition. Nor does it shape the contents of his book since Kidd does not explore doctrines of regeneration, Scripture, or the Holy Spirit, investigation that would have supported his definition. As it stands, Kidd uses his own definition to select his subjects. The trouble with this approach becomes evident when he writes about Barack Obama. The former president claimed that during one service at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, while kneeling before the cross, “I felt God’s spirit beckoning me” [140]. For Kidd, this qualifies as a conversion, but it was a “mainline” variety, not “an evangelical conversion.” In contrast, he regards George W. Bush’s conversion as evangelical. Although the president avoided the phrase “born-again,” “he made it clear that Jesus had changed his ‘heart’” [136]. Kidd would likely agree that he lacks the capacity to discern a person’s heart. At the same time, the way he defines evangelicalism and selects his subjects reflects Kidd’s control over his material.

To counter the contemporary association of evangelicalism with white Republicans, then, Kidd features minorities. In ways that few historians have attempted, Kidd weaves women, native Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos throughout the book. For the most part, this inclusion is seamless. Minority figures are part of the entire narrative, not covered in a special section designated for non-whites. Although commendable, this tactic sometimes looks like overcompensation. For example, Kidd gives three paragraphs to Tom Skinner’s biography (a black evangelist) compared to one for William Jennings Bryan’s career. This is odd since Bryan’s politics (Democrat and populist) would help to show that evangelicals were not always Republican. But Kidd’s apparent intention to disconnect evangelicalism from politics may explain his reduced attention to Bryan, not to mention the book’s silence about figures in the evangelical Left, such as Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and Mark Hatfield.

Kidd’s narrative sometimes meanders but generally runs from the First Great Awakening to the present. The book organizes evangelical developments around the awakenings associated with George Whitefield, the revivals and voluntary associations that fueled the Second Great Awakening, the early twentieth-century controversies that contributed to the fundamentalism, the rise of neo-evangelicals after World War II, and the rise of the Religious Right around the election of Ronald Reagan. Through it all, Kidd mainly presents a balance between evangelism and a healthy concern for society. Only with the coming of “Republican insider evangelicals,” as he calls them, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Ralph Reed, did evangelicalism become synonymous with partisan politics.

Missing from Kidd’s narrative is sustained attention to Progressive era when leading Protestants, who still regarded themselves as evangelical, promoted church unity and preached a social gospel. This was the time when what had been haphazard civil improvement the Second Great Awakening through parachurch agencies became full-blown interdenominational commitment to Christian nationalism through agencies like the Federal Council of Churches (1908). These endeavors had great appeal even to conservative Protestants because they promised a Christian response to the dangers evident in big cities, immigration, and religious diversity. If Protestants before the Civil War had used Sunday school and Bibles to evangelize and civilize the frontier, during the Progressive era Protestants used large institutions (church, business, and education) to forge a national identity and assimilate outsiders (ethnic and religious). This was the time when the largest denominations, mainly of British background, forged what became known as the Protestant mainline.

Fundamentalism was a reaction against this Progressive vision for America. Conservatives believed that liberal Protestants, who wanted to improve America, had abandoned large parts of the faith to do so. When neo-evangelicals came along with Fuller Seminary and Christianity Today during the 1940s and 1950s, they hoped to speak for America in the way that mainline churches had, except with a better expression of Christianity. During the Cold War, evangelicals and mainline Protestants supported America’s contest against godless Communism under the banner again of Christian America. Only after the Protestant mainline turned into a critic of America during the Vietnam War did the Religious Right enter the fray to carry on the faith-based politics that Protestants had conducted at least since 1850. If earlier Protestants had believed it was their duty to support the nation’s role in God’s plan for the world, leaders of the Religious Right were hardly strange to continue to do so.

Tracing contemporary evangelicalism’s ties to the Republic Party back to earlier eras will not, of course, resolve the crisis of evangelical identity that prompted Kidd to write this book. But that longer trajectory of faith-based nationalism eliminates much of the surprise over the 2016 presidential election. Nothing will make sense of Donald Trump’s victory. It is truly stunning on so many levels. But evangelical support for Trump, considering his opponent and Protestants’ historic affinities with the Republican Party, is not shocking. That older history also puts into perspective the alleged damage caused by evangelical votes for Trump. The history of Protestantism in the United States is littered with examples of white, black, male, and female overestimation of political candidates and their intentions. That same story features Christians who, instead of following Augustine’s sober estimate of the City of Man, have repeatedly done the opposite and immanentized the eschaton. American Protestants, along with many western Christians since Constantine’s conversion, identified God’s work of redemption with the affairs of their own nation.

Kidd has every right to be alarmed by the reality of an egotistical man with no political experience holding one of the most powerful political offices on planet earth. He may even be correct in objecting to evangelical support for Trump. But creating his own definition of evangelicalism and cobbling together bits and pieces from the past for an evangelicalism untarnished by the 2016 vote is no more intellectually plausible than it is a solution.


D. G. Hart

Hillsdale College

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Yale University Press, 2019 | 200 pages

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