Though some scholars and others argue that “evangelical” has lost all meaning, Molly Worthen says the term still has life, describing a community of people who share something across denominational and political lines.

But what evangelicals have in common is not a set of doctrines -- as many scholars insist -- but a set of questions, said Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Molly Worthen“In my research, I found that it was more useful to think about evangelicalism, not as a group of Christians who are united around a clear set of shared doctrines, but rather as a community that is circling around a set of shared questions.”

And that community is far broader than the religious right, Worthen said.

“The term ‘evangelical’ is capacious,” she said. “It encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and styles of worship and resources for reconciling Christianity with the 21st century.”

Worthen’s research focuses on North American religious and intellectual history, particularly the ideas and culture of conservative Christianity in the 20th century. She has written about religion and politics for The New York Times, Slate, Religion & Politics and other publications.

Her book “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism” is scheduled for release in November by Oxford University Press.

She spoke about her research and her upcoming book recently with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.


Q: Who are we talking about when we talk about evangelicals? Is the term even useful anymore?

It’s almost a moot question, because we’re stuck with it. Scholars and believers and pundits have been debating the usefulness of the term “evangelical” for decades and saying maybe we need to chuck it altogether and use more precise labels.

But the fact is that people continue to use the word. So we have to figure out what they mean when they use it -- both people in that community and people who are observers.

Also, I think that there is still a “there” there. There still seems to be this community of people who share something, and it goes across denominational and political lines.

The question is, what is that something?

From my perspective, there are a couple of ways to approach this.

One is to ask, what are the historical origins of evangelicalism? Those shared origins are the Pietist revivals that followed the Reformation, running smack into the Enlightenment. This community that we call evangelicalism really emerges at the start of modernity and has a lot to do with some of the questions and the intellectual and social problems that come about in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In my research, I found that it was more useful to think about evangelicalism, not as a group of Christians who are united around a clear set of shared doctrines, but rather as a community that is circling around a set of shared questions.

Some scholars have suggested more doctrinally based approaches to definition, which are useful. The British scholar David Bebbington suggested four basic doctrines that define evangelicalism:

  • The born-again experience
  • An emphasis on Christ’s atoning work on the cross rather than Christ as simply a moral exemplar
  • A literalistic interpretation of the Bible and high regard for biblical authority
  • An activist spirit, emphasizing evangelism and missionary work


    Why I find this limiting as a definition is that when you dig into it and talk to self-described evangelicals, they disagree vehemently on what these doctrines mean.

    Take being “born-again,” which people often think of as the quintessence of evangelicalism. When you really look at it, it becomes problematic. Many people who subscribe in some way to evangelicalism view conversion as a more incremental experience.

    So as I moved through the history of a few different streams of Protestantism -- ranging from Anabaptism to Pentecostalism -- I settled on three questions that I think evangelicals share:

    · How do I reconcile faith and reason? That is, how do I keep truth one thing so that what I know by faith and what I know by Enlightenment reason remain the same?

    · What is true salvation? The way evangelicals often talk about it is, how do I have an authentic relationship with Jesus?

    · How do I reconcile private faith with the secular public square? How do I reconcile private and public in my obligations as a Christian?

    These are all questions whose roots lie in the earliest moments of the Christian tradition. To some extent, they are universal human questions, but I think that they take a special form and pointedness with the dawn of modernity and the breakdown of religion’s authority over the public square.

    It’s useful to define evangelicalism in terms of these questions. It gives us a way to talk about what progressive Anabaptist peace activists have in common with Pentecostal revivalists. Because it’s not necessarily obvious.

    Q: It’s not necessarily obvious what Jim Wallis and Al Mohler and Franklin Graham and Rob Bell have in common. But you think these questions are a better “bucket” for holding them?

    Some people will say there’s not even any utility in trying to lump those people together, but I disagree.

    They are part of a shared conversation. They care about some of the same things, and that’s why they fight with each other.

    Q: As you’ve pointed out before, “evangelical” is definitely a more nuanced and complicated term than the broad public image of “right-wing Christian conservative.”

    That’s one reason why some conservative Protestants have become skittish about the label “evangelical.” It has become associated in the public mind with the “religious right.”

    But I think that the religious right is really the product of a civil war within evangelicalism. It represents the political efforts of a fairly narrow slice out of the myriad evangelical traditions that have been active in American and Western history.

    Its leaders -- some of the prominent leaders associated with organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition -- reflect a particular understanding of the authority of the Bible and of biblical inerrancy that comes out of a corner of the Reformed Protestant tradition that originated in the 17th century.

    By the first couple of decades of the 20th century, we end up with a kind of simplistic understanding of the inerrant Bible that becomes a bulwark for any perceived incursion by humanistic reason into the authority of the Bible over public life.

    But within evangelicalism there are other ways of understanding the authority of the Bible.

    For example, the Anabaptist tradition never had quite as rationalistic an understanding of the truth, the literal truth, of each line in Genesis. That wasn’t their priority.

    The average Anabaptist would have said, “Yes, the Bible is literally true,” but they were more concerned about the Bible as a rule for common life, for discipleship.

    In the Wesleyan tradition, John Wesley was far more humble about what humans can really know about God and much less willing to make grand, sweeping statements about who God is and what he can do.

    He saw the interpretation of Scripture as something that happens at the intersection of Scripture, reason, experience and tradition. It’s not just about what you, the individual, think you understand by virtue of your common sense.

    These other ways of understanding Scripture are more accommodating and allow Christians to adjust in less antagonistic ways to some of the challenges of modern thought.

    So much of what we are talking about when we talk about the religious right and this uncompromising view of the teaching of evolution, for example, or gender roles and how we interpret Paul on gender, reflects one particular understanding of Scripture’s connection to modern life that does not speak for all evangelicals.

    The rise of the religious right has been understood a number of ways. Usually, it’s a story that’s told strictly in terms of politics -- as a set of reactions to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and the next chapter after the major anti-Communist movements of the early Cold War.

    That’s all true. But that political story is incomplete unless we also understand this intellectual undercurrent. The religious right represents this subset of the broader evangelical tradition in terms of how we as a human community should relate to ancient Scripture.

    The reason why evangelicals are special -- and a factor that explains a great deal of evangelical, intellectual and political history -- is this ongoing crisis of authority that has been there since the origins of the tradition and the aftermath of the Reformation.

    This is why I’ve come to understand evangelicalism as really a community that’s been in a rather constant crisis of authority, pulled in multiple directions at once, rather than a community that blindly follows one authority or another.

    Q: What in your research would be most surprising to evangelicals?

    I’ve had several evangelical scholars read my manuscript and find a lot to like in it. But I do anticipate a lot of evangelical readers being irritated or frustrated with my argument.

    This framework of unifying questions sometimes uses language to describe evangelicals that they might not use themselves.

    I tried to create a historian’s definition of evangelicalism intended for people who are trying to make sense of this movement over time, rather than what an anthropologist tries to do, capturing the language of people themselves.

    Some evangelical believers may think I focus too much on the question of repairing the breach between faith and reason, far more than the other two questions. They might think that emphasis is misplaced and that this is really a heart religion; it’s not about what goes on in your head. The truth is that it’s a balance.

    I suppose evangelicals in some of these traditions that I lump together might be surprised and scandalized to be put in the same room with their fellows. Most liberal Mennonites may not want to be called evangelical at all. Certainly, they don’t want to be lumped into a group with conservative Southern Baptists and Pentecostals.

    But we need a way to lump these people together to make sense of history and of our current moment.

    Q: Would evangelicals be surprised to find that their differences, among themselves and with others, revolve around these three questions going back centuries?

    My argument that there are centuries of intellectual history in forming the political events in America in the 1980s and ’90s and 2000s is perhaps not that obvious.

    But I think there is a major gap in the way people have tried to explain the culture wars. Many sociological surveys have all but reduced religion to politics, arguing that religious affiliation is really just a proxy for political belief.

    I think that that’s a very narrow way to interpret the data. People don’t have to be fluent in theological jargon or consciously knowledgeable about the intellectual history of their own tradition in order to be shaped by ideas, in order to have theological content.

    I’ve seen this in my own reporting. A few years ago, I wrote a profile of a Calvinist pastor who was known for breaking down theology into digestible language in his preaching. His congregants might not use exactly the right polysyllabic doctrinal term -- they probably haven’t heard of the Synod of Dort -- but in paraphrase, they absolutely had the content.

    It’s been stated in other ways by other scholars, but I think it is always worth emphasizing that the Christian right is not synonymous with evangelicalism.

    There are all these resources in the evangelical tradition that equip Bible-believing, conservative Protestants who want to retain a high regard for Scripture and want to resist certain kinds of liberal attenuations of the authority of the Christian God and modern life. They have all these resources other than Reformed fundamentalism with which to think about relating the Bible to modern life.

    The Christian tradition is simply a lot richer than we are led to believe by the thinness of evangelical pop culture and the narrow band of evangelicalism that is represented by some of the loudest, most strident voices in politics.

    Q: In summary, what’s the most important point that church leaders and leaders of other Christian institutions, evangelical or otherwise, need to understand about evangelicals?

    Number one, that the term “evangelical” is capacious. It encompasses a broad spectrum of beliefs and styles of worship and resources for reconciling Christianity with the 21st century.

    Two, these three questions that I mention help us understand what is unique about evangelicalism, but they also provide opportunities for contact, dialogue and common ground between evangelicals and nonevangelicals. Because to some extent, all Christians -- perhaps all people of any religious persuasion -- are grappling with some recognizable version of these three questions.

    These are questions that a Buddhist can get interested in. They are questions that a Jew or a liberal Methodist can get interested in. I do think they have unique ramifications for evangelicals and a unique history, so I stand by it as a particularly useful framework for that tradition. But I think that they open up evangelicalism rather than cordon it off.