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Explaining Evangelicalism Today: An Interview with John Stackhouse

Explaining Evangelicalism Today: An Interview with John Stackhouse

By John Longhurst
September 17, 2020

Ever since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there's been a lot of focus on evangelicals in that country. Specifically, why so many of them voted for Donald Trump--and why they continue to support him.

That support has prompted some evangelicals in other countries to put distance between themselves and their American co-religionists, and to try to define what evangelicalism means in their own nations.

One of the leading voices for that in Canada is John Stackhouse, a professor of religious studies at New Brunswick's Crandall University.

Stackhouse, who formerly taught at the University of Manitoba, is writing a book on evangelicalism--what it is, what it isn't, and how it is different from what we see in the U.S.--for Oxford University Press. Before it comes out next year, I asked him a few questions about the book and the state of evangelicalism today.

The book is due out next year.

What prompted you to want to write this book?/B>

Evangelicalism is widely recognized but not widely understood. There are lots of simplistic versions of it, from critics who think it means just "fundamentalism" or "Trump supporters" to people who think it means just "true Christianity."

So because I have been a historian of evangelicalism, a theologian within evangelicalism, and a journalist on behalf of evangelicalism, I thought I could help a wide audience see evangelicalism as the richly interesting style of Christianity it has been for almost 300 years.

What are you planning to write about in the book?

I'll cover the history of evangelicalism, of course, from its European and American origins to its current status as the world's fastest-growing form of religion. I will also, however, take considerable time to define it: to sort out what it is and what it isn't.

I'll be careful to discuss not just its main convictions, but also its defining characteristics. That means looking at evangelicalism in terms of social science as well as theology, as an actual coursing phenomenon in history and not just as a collection of beliefs.

Evangelicalism is not only doctrinally orthodox about Jesus, say, and the Bible, but it is also a deeply populist and sometimes ruthlessly pragmatic form of religion.

It is fundamentally a "heart" religion, but it has strong convictions about one's "head" and "hands" as well, in some forms aimed literally at world domination, while in other forms simply trying to better society as it can.

Perhaps controversially, I'm going to suggest that in Christianity there are three basic styles: conservative, liberal, and evangelical, and they show up across the Protestant spectrum and even within Roman Catholicism and (small) parts of Orthodoxy. Evangelicals, that is, aren't just Baptists and Pentecostals!

What do you see as the future of evangelicalism? (In Canada, the U.S.)

Historians know enough not to try to tell the future--at least, the careful ones predict it very carefully.

For the short term, evangelicals in Canada are going to continue to just get along, make a few converts, work hard to retain the allegiance of their young people (which they do better than almost anyone else), stay out of trouble, and do some good for their neighbours here and abroad.

It is an open question, however, as to how much pressure will be exerted on evangelicals to conform to an increasingly heavy-handed regime of "correct" thinking that insists that all physicians, lawyers, professors, teachers, pharmacists, public speakers, media, and more get in line.

There are too few people defending meaningful freedom of religion in Canada, and evangelicals, among others, are being constantly squeezed by jurists, politicians, professional societies, and others to conform to a particular secularist orthodoxy.

In the United States, well, let's see how the presidential election goes. Black evangelicals, like Black people in general, have been energized as well as saddened and infuriated by the recent spate of high-profile killings.

White evangelicals have been told that "reconciliation," their favourite word for relating to Black Christians, might just have to wait until justice is actually significantly increased.

Meanwhile, the Trump phenomenon that has so badly scarred so many people's estimation of (white) evangelicals will play out in ways none of us can foresee.

You have said that a move to the left by younger Christians today is a straightening out of evangelicalism. What do you mean by that?

Evangelicalism in Canada, and much more so in the United States, was so worried about young people losing their faith and being lost to "the world" that they formulated mores of a highly precise, vivid, and strict kind--and policed them rigorously. Hence the old line, "We don't dance or smoke or chew, and we don't go with the girls that do."

Doctrines likewise were defined extensively and insisted upon rigidly. That conservativism, typical of fundamentalism but quite widespread in evangelicalism generally, has relaxed considerably since the 1960s.

Some worry that evangelicals have slackened the reins too far and have become indistinguishable from the world around them, and in many cases that's true.

But surveys have shown that faithful churchgoers manifest strikingly different lives from the rest of the population, and mostly for the better: in terms of marital and sexual happiness, financial stability, volunteering and contributing to charities (both religious and otherwise), use of drugs, incidence of depression and suicide, and more.

So some of the "leftward" movement has been a helpful emancipation from an overly defensive stance, while of course, like any social movement, it may well go too far in the other direction in at least some instances.

You said there "approximately zero" evangelical churches aimed at intellectuals, artists, dissidents. Why?

Because North American evangelicals have been worried for more than a century about doctrinal liberalism, ethical looseness, and any other sort of deviance from the norm, evangelical families, churches, and other institutions have not been fertile places for criticism and creativity.

That is to say, lots of critical and creative people have been raised in evangelical homes and congregations, but then have felt they had to leave because they were too hot to handle, condemned as disruptive instead of welcomed and perhaps also mentored as Christian creatives.

Many evangelicals will disagree with this characterization and point to churches with highly educated congregants and a lively arts program of some kind. But in terms of the broader culture, in terms of any decent university, the tolerance for diversity, or even ambiguity--which are the stock in trade of creative people--remains pretty low. Those smart, artistic churches are still very conventional.

What would an evangelical church look like that resonates with people who resonate with The New Yorker as much as with Christianity Today?

Such a church needs leaders who have significant training and experience in the big world of ideas and arts. There is no substitute for actual engagement, not even education about contemporary ideas and arts that one can get in a good evangelical university. One has to "get it," and you don't really get what you don't really do.

Instead, alas, we have "groovy" evangelical churches pastored by charismatic men who perhaps have a single degree in theological studies and no expertise in philosophy, social science, or the fine arts trying to interpret a culture they have hardly experienced themselves and then telling the budding intellectuals and artists in their churches how they ought to think and feel and act.

That's no environment for genuine experimentation and supportive evaluation--which is the only way real creativity progresses.

What does it say about evangelicalism today that Americans have dominated it so much? How did it end up being so American-centric? How has this impacted global evangelicalism both positively and negatively?

Americans have dominated evangelicalism mostly in the same respects in which they have dominated the modern world, especially since the Second World War. Money, initiative, and innovation are a powerful combination whether you're Exxon, Google, the CIA, or World Vision.

Global evangelicalism has been quite aware of the mixed blessing of American participation, and evangelicals on every continent are consciously trying to move forward in ways authentic to their own cultural heritage without being ungrateful for American help but also trying to emancipate themselves from it--not unlike the way previous generations had to extricate themselves from unhelpful dimensions of the British and other European empires.

With the current situation in the U.S. politically, and how many evangelicals have allied themselves with the GOP and Trump and nationalistic fervor, what does this say about the character of American evangelicalism? And why should evangelicals in other countries do about it?

My American editor wants me not to write a book that is focused on the United States. And, indeed, evangelicals worldwide are now predominantly non-White. She also wants me not to fixate on Trump, so I literally have not mentioned him in the first draft and likely won't mention him even if he is re-elected.

Why? Because the most important stories about evangelicals in the world today are being told in Latin America, Africa, China, and Korea. Those are the places with the largest evangelical populations outside the United States and those are the places evangelicalism is exploding.

Support for Donald Trump in the United States among White evangelicals seems to be largely a function of White Christian nationalism, a belief rooted in American Christianity right back to the Puritans that America is special. America is a light to the nations, a city on a hill, an example to "Old Europe" and the rest of the world of what a godly nation looks like.

Indeed, America has a God-given mission to bless the world: originally as this inspiring example, and progressively as the bearer of American goodness to the world--the American version of Kipling's "white man's burden."

This messianic complex is uniquely American, and White evangelicals see themselves as the original and as the (most) authentic Americans. They want America to be great again in all the ways they define "greatness"--and they believe that's what God wants, too.

Other American evangelicals--Black, Latinx, Asian, and so on--shake their heads and distance themselves from that ideal, as do Canadians and, indeed, evangelicals all around the world.

Indeed, we're all hoping and praying that Americans can somehow rid themselves of this toxic syncretism of Christianity and racist nationalistic "manifest destiny" once and for all. But it doesn't look like it will be soon.

What would a uniquely Canadian evangelicalism look like?

Canadian evangelicalism would be faithful, fervent Christianity that was at once pragmatic, tolerant of even deep difference, and focused on the everyday virtues of security, prosperity, justice, and neighbourly compassion, as we see in the best emphases of Confederation itself, in the best ideals of multiculturalism, and in the best elements of our Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


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