Scotsmen, Falwell, and Why Historians Can’t Define ‘Evangelicalism’

How is this possible? Have you seen the poll numbers? As I write this, when Katelyn Beaty asked on Twitter if the abominable evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr. was “an evangelical leader,” about three-quarters of respondents said no.KB twitter falwell

What? How could so many people think that the leader of a ‘UGE evangelical university doesn’t count as an evangelical leader? The obvious conclusion is that people are disgusted by Falwell’s alleged behavior as a shady alcohol-fueled real-estate scammer and Lynchburg bully. Anyone who behaves like that, people might be thinking, doesn’t count as a real evangelical.

As usual, historian Tim Gloege has offered a clear-sighted explanation of this evangelical conundrum. There has always been an evangelical tendency, Gloege explained, to explain away the parts of the evangelical tradition that people don’t like. “It’s not us,” evangelicals have always said about members of the evangelical family that they would rather not acknowledge. As Dr. Gloege put it,

Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry.

Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”

In the case of Falwell, it seems like this tradition is alive and well. By behaving badly, many people seem to think, Falwell Jr. has defined himself out of the evangelical family. If being an evangelical means having a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ, the reasoning goes, then Falwell can’t be an evangelical. No one with a real evangelical religious commitment could behave the way Falwell does.

This disagreement about the definition of “real” evangelicalism has always been tricky for historians of evangelicalism. A while back, historian John Fea and I had a polite disagreement about the nature of “real” evangelicalism in colleges and universities. In the wake of Trump’s election, I argued that evangelical higher education had ALWAYS supported Trumpish values. As I wrote back then at History News Network:

White evangelicals are a religious group, true, but they have also always been energized by a vague yet powerful patriotic traditionalism.  Like other enthusiastic Trump supporters, white evangelicals have been fueled by a combative culture-war patriotism.  They have always defined themselves by their proprietary attitude about “our” America, the one they hope President Trump will make great again.

Historian John Fea took issue with my argument. As he responded,

For every Liberty University or Mid-America Nazarene there are dozens and dozens of evangelical colleges who reject this kind of Christian nationalism and Trumpism.

I would venture to guess that the overwhelming majority of the faculty and administrators at evangelical colleges and universities in the United States DID NOT vote for Donald Trump.

If students at evangelical colleges voted for Trump–and there were many who did–it was not because they were fed pro-Trump rhetoric from their faculty.  In fact, I know several faculty and graduates from the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University who strongly opposed the Trump presidency.

Just as with current disagreements about whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” Professor Fea and I were both right, in our ways. After all, the evangelical family is so broad and diverse that any statement anyone makes about “real” evangelicalism is subject to a million counter-examples.

When it comes to whether or not Falwell is “an evangelical leader,” I bet both the “yeses” and the “nos” can agree: There have always been prominent evangelical leaders, in charge of prominent institutions, who have embraced political positions that are immoral and untenable, racial segregation being the most prominent example. There have always been prominent evangelicals who have behaved in personally immoral ways; leaders who have engaged in sexual and financial crimes while publicly mouthing evangelical platitudes.

Where do we disagree? The “yeses” might think something like the following: But those have all been mistakes, wanderings from the evangelical path. No true evangelical—meaning someone who shares the profound personal love of Jesus Christ—should have embraced those values.

The “nos” might think: When there is a pattern of this kind of thing, that pattern must be considered part of the definition, not whisked away by the No True Scotsman fallacy. Consider the Catholic abuse story. Would a true follower of Christ abuse children? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that the second a Catholic priest does so, he is therefore no longer representative of the structural flaws within the Catholic hierarchy itself, a hierarchy that is both committed to preaching the saving love of Jesus Christ AND guilty of covering up abuse to protect its own interests.

So is Jerry Falwell Jr. an “evangelical leader?” Beaty’s question exposes a long tension at the heart of the evangelical experience in the USA. As a prominent leader of a prominent evangelical institution, of course he is. But as a scumbag, of course he isn’t.

The answer you choose depends on how you think about evangelicalism. If you think of it primarily as a way of being a true Christian, then you can define away anyone you don’t like. But if you think of “evangelical” as a box to check on a census, a way to explain your social background, then of course we have to include all the members of the group, even the ones we don’t like.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Well, it’s Christmas, but the ILYBYGTH elves never take a day off. Here are some stories you might have missed as you stuffed your face with candy canes and eggnog:

Why don’t evangelicals care about the latest scientific discoveries? A review of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s new research, at CT.

Why is it so hard to root out sexual abuse at schools? At NYT, a story of an investigation gone nowhere.Bart reading bible

Pinterest preaching: At R&P, Katelyn Beaty asks why white evangelical women leaders don’t talk about politics more.

How can we stop school segregation? The answer has been just a bus-ride away since the 1970s.

How can we solve our history culture wars? Rick Hess and Brendan Bell say stop fighting over which heroes to teach and teach about heroism itself.

When principals cheat: At EdWeek, an update from Atlanta’s cheating scandals.

What should learning mean? Conservative college leader calls for a return to the great values of the Western tradition.

What is Chicago doing right? Measuring urban schools—an interview with Stanford’s Sean Reardon.

Mississippi history classes still avoid civil rights, at The Atlantic.