Definition: White Evangelicalism

Context: I’m trying to get reasonably clear definitions of all the terms I either use or have heard lately, so I’m going to start collecting definitions here. These definition posts will be edited as I learn or think more.

My working definition:

As with White Supremacy, I don’t have a perfect working definition, but a friend reminded me it’s important to not just use terms that people who think like you “know when they hear it.” I want the terms I use to be clear to anyone reading.

The Short Version

Here’s the short version which I just made up and will probably modify a hundred times or even totally decry at some point, who knows:

White Evangelicalism is a subset of Protestant Christianity that suffers hopelessly from white supremacy, focusing on its white historic and present leaders, theologians, concerns, and cultural values to the exclusion of all else.

The Long Version

I’ll start with what I know off the top of my head.

Evangelicalism is a particular branch of Protestant Christianity, coming out of Enlightenment-era Europe and founded and led almost exclusively by white men. It’s the largest religious group in America, and the Christian group most associated with fundamentalism and conservative politics.

Most American Christian denominations are either exclusively Evangelical (Assemblies of God, Baptists, Evangelical Free, Evangelical Covenant, Salvation Army, Vineyard, most nondenominational churches, most or all Pentecostal churches) or have large Evangelical subgroups (Anglican, Brethren, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, most or all Reformed churches).

The meaning of the term Evangelical has shifted a lot over the years. While Evangelicalism technically started hundreds of years ago, the Evangelicalism we talk about today sort of started in the 1940’s, but didn’t evolve into its current form until much later–the actual timeline of that I’m not sure.

Evangelicals theologically are “born-again Christians”, evangelistic, “Sola Scriptura”, and probably more terms that feel a bit inaccessible to non-theologians like me… substitutionary atonement and all that. Basically, if you imagine a generic Protestant in the U.S., they’re probably Evangelicals.

Here’s what I know about the history: in the 1940’s the National Association of Evangelicals was founded and Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and John Stott led the way for Evangelicalism to become one of the three primary groups of protestants: fundamentalists, liberals (or “modernists”), and Evangelicals. My best understanding of the distinction between the three comes from Stott’s book Evangelical Truth; what I remember most is that he distinguishes them based on their approach to the Bible, where, in his view, liberals treat it loosely, Evangelicals believe it but allow for contextual understanding, and fundamentalists are more literal. That’s a huge dumbing-down of a conversation better served by a historian, or at least Wikipedia.

Today, however, Evangelicals seem to have most of the fundamentalists, too. It’s the group most associated with the Religious Right, the Republican Party, anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-gay marriage, and more. Many criticisms of Evangelicalism come from its conservative nature (e.g. how 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump, which is basically a reflection of pure evil), but I think the most nuanced–and the most useful–conversations look more at the group’s flaws even considering its more progressive members.

The reason I choose the term “White Evangelicalism” instead of “Evangelicalism” is not to suggest that there’s an explicit and well-drawn “Black Evangelicalism” and “Latin Evangelicalism” and so forth. Rather, it’s to draw attention to the fact that my primary concern with Evangelicalism is not its majority’s political and social stances, which I happen to find mainly abhorrent, but the way those stances derive from the white supremacy that’s deep in the heart of Evangelicalism–even theologically, and even in a way that affects many progressive Evangelicals.

Jemar Tisby, in his article One Black Man’s Experience with White Evangelicalism, wrote:

I quickly learned that in the United States to be evangelical meant much more than assenting to a set of theological beliefs. Evangelicalism encompasses a culture, an aesthetic, a discourse, and a way of viewing the world. All of these elements tend to be filtered through white racial lenses.

Jemar Tisby, One Black Man’s Experience with White Evangelicalism

This is what I mean when I say and write White Evangelicalism. Not just the theological beliefs, although I’d contend that even those are strongly informed by the white racial lenses. It’s that the entire movement is white-centering, white-led, white-accommodating, and white-affirming. And that means that, just like you can be a person of color and perpetuate white supremacy, you can also be a person of color and subscribe to White Evangelicalism. It’s not about your color, it’s about whose color is centered in your beliefs.

I have a book on my table titled “Still Evangelical?” which contains an essay from my dear friend, Latina teacher and preacher Sandra Maria Van Opstal, who rejects white supremacy but still remains in Evangelicalism because she aligns with its theological foundations. People like Sandra make me think that there may be a future Evangelicalism that isn’t White Evangelicalism, and reminds me that there are people within Evangelicalism who aren’t in bed with white supremacy.

So, that’s my best take at what White Evangelicalism is.

When I write often that I “broke up with White Evangelicalism a few years ago”, what I mean is this: I grew up conservative Evangelical; in college I became a progressive Evangelical; and then I realized that the issues I thought I had escaped by becoming progressive were still right there with me. My theology and much of my worldview had been formed in a white-racial-lens bubble, and while I had spent a decade trying to escape it by learning from and listening to my friends and teachers of color, I was still just running out to the edges of the bubble. I had to escape the bubble in order to even begin identifying the ways white supremacy (and patriarchy and other fun -y words) had insidiously infiltrated my understanding of Godliness, the Bible and its actual meaning, and so much more. I’ve been doing so passively until now; this blog is me working through doing so actively.

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