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What is an Evangelical? – Thomas Kidd

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Kidd about the confusion over the term evangelicalism and how it has come to be used in modern culture.

Topics of conversation include:

  • Why is it so hard to define the word evangelical?
  • What are some distinguishing marks of evangelicalism?
  • How did evangelicalism become so intertwined with politics?
  • What are some resources for those struggling with confusion over evangelicalism?

Dr. Thomas Kidd is distinguished professor of History at Baylor University and the associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. He has written for several outlets, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and blogs regularly at “Evangelical History” at The Gospel Coalition. He is the author of several books, including Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis. Dr. Kidd holds a PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame.

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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

What is an evangelical? This question seems pressing in American culture today since the word is frequently used, but seldom understood. Is it a political term? In 1976, Newsweek declared that it was the year of the evangelical, and then the 1980s, it seemed that evangelical influence grew to new heights during the moral majority of the Reagan era. And then there was the 2016 presidential election with Donald Trump, who received 81% of white, self-identified evangelical support. And for others, the word evangelical is synonymous with Republican. Or should the word evangelical predominantly be reserved as a religious term, identifying a set of Christian beliefs and values? Why is there so much confusion about what this term means, and how can we better understand it? Well, to help us with that question today, we have Dr. Tommy Kidd. Dr. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University, and is associate director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. Dr. Kidd writes at the Evangelical History blog at The Gospel Coalition. He also regularly contributes to outlets such as World magazine, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He’s a prolific author on American history, including the book Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, which will be the focus of our conversation today. Dr. Kidd, welcome to the podcast.

Thomas Kidd (01:34):

Thanks for having me.

Brian Arnold (01:35):

So we always like to ask our guests one big question. And today that question is—what is an evangelical? So to begin with, I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this word is so challenging to define.

Thomas Kidd (01:49):

It’s challenging because it’s always been part of the Christian tradition. I mean, evangelion in Greek just means good news. And so it’s a term that Christians have been talking about and been familiar with for a long time. But starting probably in the 1970s, the word evangelical in America started to take on very direct political implications. That 1976 was the year that Jimmy Carter ran for president, and was considered by news outlets as kind of the “year of the evangelical” as Time magazine called it. And so from that point on, it’s…you suggested in your introductory comments, you have the founding of the moral majority and the alignment of most white evangelicals in America with the Republican party. It came to pass that in news stories about evangelicals, evangelicals are almost always portrayed as white, religious, Republicans. But in the Christian tradition, obviously the word evangelical has a much richer theological meaning, and also a meaning that that is attached to the global church. It has nothing in particular to do, in a theological sense, with American politics.

Brian Arnold (03:13):

And we will definitely get there, because I think that’s an important point that you’re making of whether it should be a hijacked political term, or if it needs to kind of maintain its historical understanding. I think about somebody like David Bebbington, who has classically defined evangelicals under four terms: Biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism. Do you find that definition to be pretty helpful?

Thomas Kidd (03:42):

I do. And David is a mentor and a friend of mine for a long time. He’s a visiting professor at Baylor. So, as you can imagine, we’ve had many discussions about this. And in my book, I definitely take a version of that. I try to keep it a little simpler than Bebbington does. I don’t think activism is a very specific or helpful attribute, because it implies that there are some Christians who are suggesting you shouldn’t be active in your faith. And I tend to think it’s more that people are active about different things. You know, from mainline Protestants to Catholics and then evangelical Christians. And you know, crucicentrism is obviously…you know, the cross is a distinguishing mark of the evangelical movement, but you know, I went to Notre Dame for my PhD and got very familiar with a form of American Catholicism that was also a very crucicentric, but in a different way. As you know, all the classrooms have crucifixes in it.

Thomas Kidd (04:49):

So I try to boil it down to—what are the things that really stick out about evangelicals, and are, if not unique, pretty special to evangelicals? And I would say one of them definitely is Biblicism, the very high view of the Bible, you know, either inerrancy or infallibility, or whatever term people prefer—that that’s the source of truth. That’s the source of God’s truth. And then also conversionism, in Bebbington’s term, the experience of the new birth in Christ, being born-again. And then a related issue to that is an experiential sense of God’s presence in your life. So evangelicals recently tend to talk about your personal relationship with Jesus. In the time of The Great Awakening, in the 1700s, people tended to talk more about walking in the Holy Spirit, which is of course a biblical phrase. But however you describe it, there’s an idea that you know God personally, and it’s not just about ritual and church observance and things like that, but it’s a personal relationship with God.

Brian Arnold (06:05):

And when I think of the 20th century as a whole, you think about someone like Billy Graham is kind of this chief evangelical, who is calling people in his crusades to be born again. So the question is coming around a lot, around the Carter kind of administration—are you a born-again, Christian? As to distinguish between other versions, if you will, of Christianity.

Thomas Kidd (06:28):

That’s right. And one of the things that’s interesting in these debates about polls and evangelicals, is that you will find that—especially among African-Americans—that there is much more readiness to identify as born-again, then as evangelical. I mean, it could be the difference between like 60% and 20%. And that right there tells you that I think born-again has a little bit less of a political implication than evangelical does. Although, as you said, in 1976, a lot of the discussion was about born-again. And even some of the media just being kind of mystified by Jimmy Carter’s willingness to talk about having been born again. And a lot of people in the secular media had no idea what he was talking about. But I think both of those terms are more familiar today than, you know, maybe in the 1950s. But born-again, for whatever reason, has just taken on less of a political implication.

Brian Arnold (07:34):

So let’s kind of dive right in there, because that seems to be a lot of the tension point today—is it feels like the word evangelical is inextricable from politics, especially Republican politics. And so when I was even in seminary 15 years ago and that was becoming true, but a little less so, and I heard Bebbington’s quadrilateral, I thought, “man, this is exactly who I feel like I am, and I love having this definition around it.” And then things in the last 15 years have really seemed to go in the direction of making this more of a political term. So let’s talk about that a little bit. Why do you see so much of the intertwining with the politics with this word, and then I want you to reflect a little bit on if we can even retrieve this word in our day.

Thomas Kidd (08:20):

Right. So I do think it starts in the 1970s, especially 1976, because of Carter’s candidacy, but also because 1976 is the first time that Gallup starts asking people if they’re evangelical or born-again. That had not been a part of public opinion polling before 1976. And so by far the most common news coverage of evangelicals—and especially in the past five years or so—has been about public opinion polls. Asking usually only white, self-identified evangelicals their opinions about political issues. Okay? So virtually all the news coverage that you get of evangelicals is by definition political. And so, especially if you do not go to an evangelical church, or did not grow up in an evangelical context, you might think that all evangelicals do is sit around and talk about Republican politics. Which if you go to an evangelical church that that’s all they talk about, you should go to a different church.

Thomas Kidd (09:37):

But you know, what do evangelical churches do? I mean, on a Sunday to Sunday basis? They preach the Bible, right? Well, that’s—I mean, the news media is not going to cover that. They send out missionaries, they take care of the poor, they, you know, they do these sorts of things—not newsworthy. And in most contexts, whether that’s right or wrong, you know, most evangelicals do not have a great deal of influence over the media. And the media is interested in politics and controversy. And so it conveys an impression about evangelicals being almost purely politicized. And also, just by the definition of the way that the polls work of being only white people, and it gives a very—I’m not saying it’s entirely inaccurate, but it is very skewed in the impression that it gives—about what evangelicals are about in America.

Brian Arnold (10:41):

Well you’ve brought this up several times, and I want to keep pressing in here because it should be a burden for us to think about how our black brothers and sisters, for instance, hear this word and oftentimes rebuff kind of against it. And so, that does make me even question—is this a word that we can continue to use into the future, or is it so tarnished over the last 40 years or so that we should be looking for another type of word?

Thomas Kidd (11:11):

I do think that it has gotten to a point where if a pastor, say, is going to use that word as a self descriptor in church, it probably warrants another sentence or so explaining what you mean by the word evangelical. Because if you just take it for granted that everybody knows what that word means, some of the people in your congregation are going to misunderstand what you’re trying to say. And some people, in the worst case, might hear: well, we’re all Republicans here. Which I don’t think most pastors would want people to hear that in the word evangelical. I don’t think we can do without the word, because it’s a biblical word, and so to that extent, it’s going to be part of our vocabulary and tradition. But I also think that the news media is going to continue to use the word. You know, even if evangelicals are bothered about the way that it’s used, that is not going to persuade the news media to stop using the term, because it’s so familiar now. And people think that they know what it means. And it is the term that they usually use, along with maybe born again, to identify that religious demographic in polling. And so I think probably the best we can do is to be careful about the way that we use it in church. And for any of us who write, you know, for more of a public audience about it, to be very careful about defining what we mean by the term.

Brian Arnold (12:43):

I think that’s a helpful word for pastors, especially if pastors are listening, to recognize how loaded it is, and how definitions are always really important. Because it’s a word that is used a lot, but not understood by too many people. One of the things that has been deeply impactful for my life, is thinking back of the 18th century and The Great Awakening. You’ve written a lot on this topic. It seems like evangelicalism was really in many ways at its peak of spirituality. And I would love to see that recovered more in our day. So I’d love to hear you even talk about like 18th century evangelicalism, and how we might recapture that vision for today.

Thomas Kidd (13:29):

Yeah. So, at that time…I mean, in the Reformation, the term evangelical—or in German, evangelisch—was used just to indicate Protestant, but when you get into the 1730s-40s, and The First Great Awakening, you do see the term evangelical in English being used all the time, though usually as an adjective and not a noun. So people wouldn’t say “I am an evangelical.” They would say, instead, you know, “that’s an evangelical book,” or “that’s an evangelical sermon,” or “Isaiah was called the evangelical prophet,” at that time. So it’s really not until the 1800s that you start getting people called evangelicals, as a noun. But I think that in those days, of course evangelicals had political concerns. I don’t think becoming completely apolitical is a realistic option for evangelicals.

Thomas Kidd (14:29):

But nobody would have mistaken evangelicals in the 1730s-40s for being anything other than people who preach the gospel of salvation through Christ. Right? I mean, that was so clearly, manifestly, their main business, that that’s really what came to define The First Great Awakening. And especially through the ministry of people like the evangelist George Whitefield, and the pastor and theologian, Jonathan Edwards of Northampton, Massachusetts. And so I think there was a drivenness about evangelism and the gospel that I think many other evangelicals since then, including evangelicals in America today, really overall do pale in comparison in their comparative lack of zeal for evangelism and the gospel. And, it—among other things—is a gut check to make sure that the things we say theologically, spiritually, make us evangelicals, that they really are the main thing.

Brian Arnold (15:38):

And those main things, again: back to preaching the Word, loving the Bible, emphasizing the need for personal conversion. What I see happening a lot today is people are talking about a whole lot of other things within the broader spectrum of evangelicalism—anything from conspiracy theories to critical theories—where these are becoming the main talking points, instead of coming back to that place of preaching the gospel. Because it wasn’t like there was a heyday—I think this is even what you were getting at—in the 18th century, they were still intertwining the politics. Some people don’t look back on those early evangelicals as heroes at all. They had some of their own blemishes as well. So we don’t want to paint any period of history as though it’s this golden era. And yet at the same time, recapturing that essence of preaching the gospel and impressing on people the need for personal conversion.

Thomas Kidd (16:35):

That’s right. And that is definitely what drove The First Great Awakening, and prayer for conversion and revival. Those have to be the distinguishing marks of The Great Awakening. And as you said, I mean, there’s problems with those early evangelicals with regard to slavery. And, you know, they certainly had their versions of bickering among Christians about, you know, various theological issues. And with Whitefield in particular, I mean, he’s the most important evangelist of The First Great Awakening, and one of the things that really marked his ministry was a willingness to cooperate with other evangelicals for the sake of the gospel. So much so, that he was an Anglican, or you know in our terminology, an Episcopalian. And Anglican officials really tried to crack down on him for cooperating with members of other denominations, which just wasn’t done very much in those those days. But Whitefield said, you know, the main point is preaching the new birth, and people are doing that in Baptist churches, and Presbyterian churches, and Anglican churches. And I’m willing to partner with anybody who believes in the new birth of salvation through Christ and the Word of God. And in that sense, he was ecumenical, which has a bad connotation today in many ways. But he was ecumenical in his sense of unity around the Word of God and the new birth. I think that’s a great example for us today.

Brian Arnold (18:16):

And again, I, as a historian, I want to see us be able to pull those things back to the fore. When I think about things like cooperation in our day, what needs to be happening, especially as Western society becomes more secular, you want to see believers binding together underneath the gospel. And what has been saddening to me is as secular society begins to increase, Christians are not uniting around the gospel as much as I would hope that they would.

Thomas Kidd (18:45):

Yeah. Well, and I think it’s always a dilemma, right? To figure…I mean, there’s some professing Christians that we cannot be unified with, because they’re doctrinally aberrant or whatever…you know, if they don’t believe in the resurrection, they don’t believe in the Trinity, or something like that. I mean, you can’t partner with people over those sorts of issues. But we have a hard time knowing where to draw the line. I mean, how big of tent should the evangelical tent be? And I think a lot of the fighting over issues, like critical race theory and so forth, I mean, they’re about racial tensions, but they’re also about trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. And often—evangelicals today I think—are often not very good at that.

Brian Arnold (19:33):

No, they are not very good at that. And if Twitter teaches us anything, it shows us that evangelicals are not really good at that. Lots of mudslinging around these things. And I think that just shows the broader world a side of evangelicalism, as we talk about this term, that is not something to be imitated or delighted in.

Thomas Kidd (19:53):

Yeah, that’s right.

Brian Arnold (19:55):

So you have written quite a bit on these topics. You’d mentioned George Whitefield. I would want to commend to anyone listening right now to read that biography. I thought it was excellent. You’ve got two new volumes out—I guess they’re still new—from B&H, right? On American history?

Thomas Kidd (20:15):

Yes. Two volume set from B&H on American history, and as you said, also my Who Is an Evangelical? book.

Brian Arnold (20:25):

That’s right. What are some other resources that you might point pastors to that are really struggling with this? They hear this word thrown around a lot as well, and they know that it’s caused a lot of confusion in their church. What are some places they could go to study on this?

Thomas Kidd (20:41):

Well, David Bebbington’s work is certainly outstanding. He first developed that quadrilateral in his book, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. And I think that that’s not only helpful because of the definition, but also thinking about evangelical development in other contexts. I mean, so you know, being an evangelical in Britain today is a very different thing from being an evangelical in the United States. I mean, being an evangelical in Britain, for instance, means that you have almost no hope of political influence. And that just puts…that’s not necessarily better or worse, but it puts evangelicals in a very different type of situation. And I’d also recommend a work by my doctoral advisor, George Marsden, who wrote the best biography that’s available on Jonathan Edwards. So thinking about the evangelical historic tradition. And he also did just a wonderful book called Fundamentalism in American Culture that is talking about that era of the fundamentalist modernist conflict. Which really is, in some ways, where the modern version of evangelicalism was born. So anything along those lines, I think would be very profitable

Brian Arnold (21:57):

Like Dr. Father, like Dr. Son—read everything by Marsden, read everything by Kidd, and you will have a great picture of American history. Really, you two are some of my favorite authors on American evangelicalism. And I would throw in like a Mark Noll in there as well, as somebody who’s reflected on this quite a bit. Well, evangelicalism is a word that we are going to have for a long time to come. And I want to give your definition as we close out, that you have in your book, Who Is an Evangelical?: Evangelicals are 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. I think that’s a word for the church today. If we can continue to focus on the need to see people born again, to cherish the Bible, to preach the Word and to walk in the Spirit, we’ll have an evangelicalism that will change this world.

Thomas Kidd (22:49):

Yes, I agree.

Brian Arnold (22:50):

So Dr. Kidd, thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate it.

Thomas Kidd (22:54):

Thanks for having me.

Outro (22:55):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at

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