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Episode 20 - Are Evangelicals Experiencing an Identity Crisis?


Date: October 24, 2018
Run Time: 13:59
Host: Dr. Gregory R. Perry
Guest: Dr. Vincent Bacote
From the Series: The Image of God

Program Notes

Is there an evangelical identity crisis? “Yes,” says Dr. Vincent Bacote. In this episode, as we move toward the midterm elections, Dr. Bacote helps us navigate:

  • The evangelical identity crisis
  • What to do now that we're no longer "circling the wagons"
  • What faithful Christian participation in society looks like

Sponsors this Week: The Center for Applied Christian Ethics at Wheaton College and the book, The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, written by our guest, Dr. Vincent Bacote and published by Zondervan.

To help us explore the remarkable, biblical description of human identity, 4 the World welcomes Dr. Vincent Bacote to our conversation. Vince is Associate Professor of Theology at Wheaton College and the Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. He is also the host for our newly revised series, Building Your Theology. Vince has contributed to numerous theological works and has authored two books: The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life, published by Zondervan, and The Spirit in Public Theology: Appropriating the Legacy of Abraham Kuyper, published by Wipf & Stock. Vince resides in the Chicago area with his family.

Podcast Transcript

EPISODE 20: Are Evangelicals Experiencing an Identity Crisis?
Guest: Dr. Vincent Bacote

4 the World is a production of Third Millennium Ministries where we believe every Christian deserves a well-trained pastor. To study Scripture deeply or to learn more about how you can partner with us to provide Biblical Education. For the World. For Free. download our App to your phone or visit our online classroom at Thirdmill.org. And now, your host 4 the World, Dr. Greg Perry.

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Some have you have tuned in today because you’ve heard about the stimulating conversation that we’ve been having with our guest Dr. Vincent Bacote. Now, building somewhat on what we were talking about last week, there’s an important question that a lot of people are asking right now: Are evangelicals having an identity crisis? I know this is something you care a lot about, Vince. You’re a professor at one of the leading evangelical institutions in America, so what do you think?

Dr. Bacote: Yes, there is a crisis. There’s been one for a long time, but it’s been intensified since the 2016 election. Now, we have to admit that it was not an election where there were easy choices to be made, but I think the biggest thing was people were not, for example, actually just saying, “Yes, there are major character problems here, but at least he had meetings with us when Hillary Clinton would not.” I think if that was the discourse, and people would say, “Yeah, there’s all kinds of things that had me very concerned about this person,” I think you wouldn’t have the same level of crisis. But you would still have the crisis because for some people, you know, our chief executive is identified with enabling a certain kind of xenophobia and nationalism and a certain kind of, if not hostility, then at least a discourse that enables hostility towards people that are, you know, not American, and particularly “illegal immigrants,” of course, really, illegal immigrants south of the border.

And also the president’s views towards women and his...

Dr. Bacote: Yes, his behavior towards women. He’s married three time. He’s boorish. He’s a narcissist. I mean, there’s all kinds of things we could say that are problematic about his character, and those things were generally set aside, and a few people were saying, “Well, this is the kind of person we need at this time.” People who fit, what the historian David Bebbington gave, four characteristics of being evangelical that are about beliefs: a belief in the integrity of the Bible, so it’s called biblicism; emphasis on a conversion experience; an emphasis on the saving work of Christ, with which one engages for that conversion experience; and then an activism or participation in the mission of the church. So those markers are things that, there are people who hold to those things, and they may never have used the word “evangelical,” but they fit under that umbrella, or people who have used the label but say, because of the recent state of affairs, they just don’t want to be associated with that because they can’t understand how people who claim to be so committed to the Bible can seem to be characterized by certain types of nationalism, xenophobia, etc. It doesn’t mean, I think, that there’s actual, this sort of, full-blown xenophobia or this full-blown nationalism, but there is this sense of ways that people are like, “Hey, now we’ve got an opportunity to be,” some would say, “back in power,” some would say, an opportunity to roll back some of the things that were happening that made people predict two to three years ago that the culture wars were lost and that evangelicals just needed to get ready to get steamrolled by progressives, particularly around issues of sexuality.


What are some things that connect the dots for you that bring us to this moment politically in terms of the category evangelical?

Dr. Bacote: I think there’s lots of historians contending for refining the narrative about exactly how this worked out, but — so that’s an important preface — but what I would say is in general you had in the end of the 1920s, at the end of what was called the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, people that were fundamentalists in terms of belief, a number of those people circled the wagons, became separatists, militant, etc. Eventually some of those people are the ones who, like Carl F.H. Henry, Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, they would call themselves fundamentalists in belief, but they were more, at least, intellectually engaged. So, you know, it’s okay for people to go get Ph.D.’s at places like Harvard and things like that.

Start Christianity Today, institutions. Be engaged.

Dr. Bacote: Exactly. And Carl F.H. Henry wrote a book that is notable for that he wrote it, but not because it was persuasive, in 1947, I think it is. He writes The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. So he’s concerned that people who are evangelical need to be more socially engaged because they had sort of withdrawn from that. And it’s important to know that even though there was that kind of withdrawal, none of that ever meant that fundamentalists or evangelicals became Anabaptists in their political disposition. In other words, they were still people who cared about patriotism, they cared about voting, so they would vote, but they wouldn’t tell people to actually be in the mix of the political process. And the thing is that, largely, evangelicals might have cared about patriotism, and might have cared about the direction in which the country was going, but they still weren’t going to encourage people in their churches to do more than vote and to be actually people running for office, or spending too much time on political matters because that’s not what your priority should be. So it’s really in the 70s when that begins to get larger. It’s in 1980 when you get the Moral Majority. But I think what’s important to note is that it’s really not until the mid-90s I think that we get anything like a consensus for evangelical Christians thinking, “Hey, we should be involved in all matters of culture, and we certainly should be involved in politics.” There’s even people in the 90s that are still thinking, “Is that social gospel? Is that too worldly?” So it’s contested even though you had the Moral Majority and you had a lot of people talking about we want to get certain policies passed. So, I’d say in the last maybe twenty years I think you’ve had more of something like a consensus. Of course, the problem is, I’d say in the last ten years people haven’t known what to do with this political engagement because society hasn’t changed the way that people think it would change once they got involved, to which I say, the political process is a long game. You think after you stay out of it for almost half a century that other people aren’t going to steer the ship politically in some way? They are. Just because you get reengaged doesn’t mean that all of a sudden everything is going to change in your favor.

And turn on a dime.

Dr. Bacote: Exactly. So, you’ve got to be, I think, committed to the process as a very long game. Some evangelicals wanted to add to issues like abortion and sexuality questions about the environment and poverty.

And even race.

Dr. Bacote: And even race for some, yes. And so you’ve got… I think you have more of a spectrum about that political involvement now. If you think about the diversity of “evangelical” as a label, because you’re basically talking about what I call a conservative Protestant ecumenism where you have all these different Protestants, for example, who would never have communion together because some of them are sacramental and some are not, some believe in infant baptism, others do not, some are Arminian, some are Calvinist. I mean, there’s all kinds of things that are different about these people. They may coalesce around that Bebbington quadrilateral, but there’s a whole lot of difference ecclesiologically, culturally, in terms of how theologically they’re going to even get to thinking about political life. And so when you think about all of that diversity, actually, you can’t really nail down evangelicals as being one kind of political thing because there is so much difference among them.


I’d like to bring us back, though, to this idea of the integrity of the beliefs of evangelicals in relation to politics. Now, last time we talked a little bit about Abraham Kuyper, someone that you’ve studied a lot and even wrote about, as an example of a Christian politician who had both good things and some warts, like all of us. Let’s talk about North America, though. What are maybe some hopeful signs that you see of bringing these beliefs and political action together in a form of integrity in terms of what it means to be an evangelical.

Dr. Bacote: In the midst of all this confusion where everything is up in the air, and people don’t know which way is up in some ways politically, it is the greatest opportunity for evangelicals to have forms of public engagement that emerge out of that commitment to the common good and to do things that notably express that, and to show that they are people of conviction out of being people who take the Bible seriously. Because they take the Bible seriously, they take an all-of-life ethic seriously so that they are willing to be people that are, I would say, politically creative and inventive in the way that they are thinking about seeking the flourishing of all people and figuring out ways to do that creatively in a society that’s increasingly pluralistic in terms of worldview. So there’s opportunities here. We just need people to be catalyzed to do that by their leaders rather than just thinking that it’s either responding, you know, either getting on board with Trump or being angry at Trump, or thinking the only option for me is to be, you know, perhaps more progressive than your convictions might be, or what have you. So, I think there’s that opportunity. When I think organizationally, someone who does this well… I used to be on the board of an organization called The Center for Public Justice — cpjustice.org — there’s a number of things that they are doing that I think are helpful for trying to get people to do things another way. One example that they just developed, they developed, literally, a political discipleship curriculum that’s a twelve-week curriculum for people, ideally in churches, to get together and to go through a kind of Bible study, but also it’s an education about how our government works. And the goal at the end is to, one, decide on an issue and to contact either your congressman or another political representative about that issue, and to have a meeting with that person. That’s the goal at the end and, ideally, people who are not all on the same page to do this in groups of about ten to twelve people. This is one organization whose goal is to take seriously Christian commitments and to think about how those Christian commitments lead to faithful Christian participation in society. So, you know, equipping citizens, advancing justice, serving society. I mean, this is what they do.

And that’s what politics is about. The common good.

Dr. Bacote: It really should be, yes. So, I encourage people to take a look at CPJ, and that’s, I think, one of the best examples for things that are already in place and things that they can join where they’ll see ways to be Christian in public.

And I would encourage our listeners to get The Political Disciple by Dr. Vincent Bacote, part of the Ordinary Theology Series. Dr. Bacote, thank you again for this conversation that we’ve been having over four weeks now on the image of God and some of its implications particularly in our life of work and in our common concerns about politics and how we live together as God's image bearers.

Dr. Bacote: It’s been great.

4 the World is a production of Third Millennium Ministries where we are reimagining biblical education for Christian leaders in a global church. Each week we bring you conversations to cultivate you're curiosity about God's word, to inform your intercessions for God's people, and to equip your efforts in God's mission for the world. Our host is Dr. Greg Perry. Our sound engineer and editor is Christopher Russell. Our web designer is Ra McLaughlin. Production assistance is provided by Stephanie Mathis. And I'm your announcer, Cindy Sawyer. Our guest for this series is Dr. Vincent Bacote, the author of The Political Disciple: A Theology of Public Life published by Zondervan, and the host of our newly revised series “Building Your Theology.”