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interviews: mark noll
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Dr. Noll is a historian and professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College in Illinois, a leading evangelical liberal arts institution. He also is the author of America's God, a history of American Protestant Christianity. In this interview, he offers a summary of American evangelical history beginning with a definition of the word "evangelical." He talks about why evangelicals became more politically engaged in the 1960s and 1970s and how its leadership changed over the following decades: "They have more friends in power [now]. They're more experienced and working for different issues. They have become political, as well as religious, in their public activity." Noll also talks about the many layers of differences between the African-American evangelical community and the white evangelical community and he defines the type of evangelical George W. Bush represents. This interview was conducted on Dec. 10, 2003.

How would you define the word "evangelical?"

"Evangelical" designates both a trait of churches, religious practices, networks. It designates a certain series of convictions or actions, practices. The beginning of the modern movement and its American phase is in the mid-18th century, with revivals in the British Isles, North America, the West Indies.

Evangelical leaders that have come to the fore in the '90s  have a greater political expertise. They have more friends in power. They're more experienced they have become political as well as religious in their public activity.

Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield are key beginning figures. From those movements have descended a wide array of religious organizations, churches and voluntary groups, and they are the evangelical movement.

But there are also a series of characteristics and designations, beliefs and practices -- of which four have been designated by the British historian, David Bebbington, and provide a very good summary designation of what evangelicals do and believe.

His four characteristics are: a very strong belief in the Bible as the primary religious authority; a commitment to the practice of conversion, so that people need to be changed in a Christian direction as a basis for participation in the life of God. The third characteristic that he mentions is activism, especially a willingness to tell other people about the message of salvation in Jesus Christ. The fourth characteristic is a special assessment of the work of Christ on the cross. The death and resurrection of Christ is the heart of the Christian faith.

These four characteristics do work quite well to designate a broad family of religious interest.

Are there certain denominations that fit underneath this, and others that don't?

Evangelical is a slippery word, because it can be used to designate certain religious groups or denominations. But then it also can be used to transcend denomination. So there would be in the United States evangelical Presbyterians, evangelical Episcopalians, evangelical Lutherans.

But there would also be lots of individual congregations that would be evangelical in some general sense. The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, would certainly be evangelical. Although because it is its own thing, and it's so big in the southeastern part of the country and large in other parts of the country, many Southern Baptists do not use the word "evangelical" for themselves, though everyone outside knows that they are.

So the word is plastic. The concept is not precise. Evangelical movements have been identified and identifiable. Evangelicals recognize each other, often by how they sing hymns, and what hymns. But it's not a hard and fast designation.

The word "evangelical" does designate a limited range of beliefs and practices. But it's not a word like Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic, because its designation is for a certain characteristic way of being religious.

Evangelicals tend to operate against tradition, but there are some traditional evangelicals. Evangelicals historically have been opposed to the Roman Catholic Church. Today, there are Roman Catholics who call themselves evangelicals. So the word is flexible, but it does have a core of meanings that have been associated with it.

The evangelicals that we talked to, they're mostly Republican. But this hasn't always been the case, right?

Historically, from shortly after the Civil War into the 1950s and 1960s, most people who were evangelicals shared the political viewpoints of their region. So it's probably the case that the individuals that sociologists, historians, would now call evangelicals were predominantly Democratic into the 1960s, because so many of them were in the South, and so much of the South was Democratic.

In the last 40 years, that situation has changed, because of political alterations that have taken place in the South. The movement of whites in general to the Republican Party in the South has included the movement also of white evangelicals to the Republican Party.

Northern evangelicals always tended to be more Republican than Democratic, but that is because they were part of the Northern white Protestant establishment. That was just as true for mainline Presbyterians and Lutherans as it was for Baptists and members of independent congregations.

Then there are also the changes in terms of evangelicals becoming more engaged politically. For example, I am thinking of the 1970s, when Roe v. Wade was passed. …

Important things happened from the 1960s and 1970s. One was a process by which evangelicals became more actively involved in political life in general. For that to happen, it took national Supreme Court decisions having to do, I think, primarily with school prayer and abortion, that represented an affront to many evangelicals, North and South, represented what was seen by many as an illegitimate extension of government power.

So there was a process by which formerly quiet evangelicals became more active politically. The Republican campaign of Pat Robertson in 1988 was not particularly successful politically. But it did succeed in energizing particularly the Pentecostal and Charismatic parts of the evangelical world that were characterized by a kind of pietistic indifference to political life.

But along also with increased involvement was a change in partisanship. The political scientist whom you've talked to can explain that in great detail.

But what seems to have taken place is that, as the Republican Party came to be seen as the party with a moral agenda, it attracted middle class, lower-middle class white Southerners, and added those evangelicals to the Northern evangelicals who had been primarily Republican all along.

So what you are saying is that, along the way, there were a couple of decisions by the Supreme Court that ignited evangelicals to become politically active, and in doing so, they started to relate more to the Republican Party -- a party which also was taking on a more moral platform?

Yes. Two things happened from the 1960s. One was a fairly widespread evangelical resentment at the extension of federal power via the courts, particularly with the school prayer decision and the Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

Resentment or nervousness about extending government power goes back to the 1930s and 1940s. But these particular cases in the 1960s and 1970s sparked political mobilization of a sort that had not been present before.

Along with a more general interest and involvement in political life came then this shift of partisanship. Middle-class and lower-middle class, largely white evangelicals, often Southern, who had been instinctively Democratic, began to be instinctively Republican, as the Republican Party … came to be seen as the party of family values or traditional values.

Tell me what "traditional family values" means to an evangelical.

Most white evangelicals, North and South, would probably see family values as related to influence in the local schools, as preference given to traditional families, one man, one wife married. Traditional values would include protection for children. Traditional values would include protection for life.

I think there probably are strong family elements in most evangelicals' opposition, for example, to abortion on demand.

Over the past 30-40 years, in what ways has this leadership changed or evolved?

Evangelicals have no given leadership. There is no pope in the evangelical world. But over time, different individuals do come to the fore as recognized leaders -- sometimes recognized within evangelical groups, sometimes recognized by the outside.

One of the really important developments after World War II was that Billy Graham and his associates came to be recognized leaders inside the evangelical world, and as spokespeople for evangelicals on the outside.

Billy Graham and his circle were always interested in politics, but in a low-key way that was pretty quiet, pretty much oriented toward behind-the-scenes influence. That generation of evangelical leaders eventually gave way in the 1970s and 1980s to a more assertive, a more aggressive, a more abrasive leadership. That was energized by the moral struggles precipitated by the Supreme Court decisions, but by other matters as well.

So Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and eventually Dr. James Dobson were not so much concerned about keeping together the coalitions that the Graham people had worked on, but were concerned about standing up for what they thought was important in American life and what was threatened.

A good question could now be raised whether there might be a shift of generations taking place again, with leaders like Bill Hybels and other significant local ministers of the mega-churches often, but of other significant churches who do have a more peaceful demeanor, but who may be just as adept politically as some of those from earlier generations.

Would you then separate the fundamentalists from the evangelicals in the leadership of the movement over recent decades?

Well, sometimes people … want to make a strong distinction between the word "evangelical" and the word "fundamentalist." I myself do not do that, because I think usually the word "fundamentalist" is used of people you don't particularly like. There aren't too many people who call themselves fundamentalists, and so the word can be abused.

I, for one, do not actually think it's helpful to call the major evangelical political leaders of the 1970s, 1980s, fundamentalists, as opposed to evangelicals. I do think, however, they were in earlier stages of political mobilization. Leaders that have come to the fore in the 1990s and on into the 21st century -- and Richard Land of the Southern Baptists would be a good example of these -- have many of the same beliefs and practice, many of the same things as the generation in the 1980s and 1990s, but have a greater political expertise.

They have more friends in power. They're more experienced, and working for different issues. They have become political as well as religious in their public activity.

When we look at polling numbers, evangelicals are mostly white. Why is that the case?

One of the most important features of American religious life is the political difference between blacks and whites who otherwise share a tremendous amount in their religious beliefs and religious practices.

When pollsters talk about evangelicals, they usually mean white evangelicals, and white evangelicals vote now overwhelmingly for the Republican Party. It would be legitimate, from a religious point of view, to regard huge sections of the African-American churches in the United States as evangelicals. They believe in the Bible. They believe in conversion. They are supernaturalists. On moral issues, they oppose abortion. They believe that marriage should be restricted to one man and one wife.

But on political issues, blacks, and especially African-Americans who go to church, vote for the Democratic Party. The reason for this feature of American public life -- and it's a very important one -- the reason is rooted in history, culture and the social divisions that have divided whites and blacks in United States history.

From the period before the American Civil War, evangelical religion became very strong in the African-American community. But African-Americans were at first enslaved, and then segregated, discriminated against, by a number of white communities, including the religious, the Protestant community.

So over the last 150 years, there's grown up an almost separate religious culture for African-Americans, divided from the religious culture of white Americans. There are some exceptions. But these two cultures, though they often share similar beliefs and practices religiously, they have been socialized into very different political behavior.

We talked to four students here at Wheaton. There were three white students from the Midwest. There was a fourth black student, also from the Midwest, and she's one of 35 or so black students on campus. I asked them, "What are the issues that you would vote on?" The first three kids said the moral issues. Abortion [and] gay marriage was very important to them, and the war, supporting the troops. They all said that. The black student said education, social welfare and then the war, but didn't list the moral issues. When I asked who would vote for Bush, the first three white kids said George Bush. And she said, "I just don't know yet." Does it surprise you?

Not in the least. Not in the least. Black churchgoers and white churchgoers who would share a common set of evangelical beliefs almost predictably are going to come down on different sides of the modern political debate.

African-American churches, and especially urban churches in the main cities of the United States, are concerned about issues bearing in on those communities. Those issues have to do with support for public education. They have to do with the provision of welfare for stressed families. They have to do with the provision of work and government policies that support the ability to make a living.

White evangelicals are -- not exclusively -- but they are comfortable in the suburbs, and in the small towns and rural areas of the United States. Those two environments historically and contemporaneously have posed different ranges of social issues, and have put different social issues in the forefront of church concern, as well.

So we have in the United States now a situation where religion is the second-strongest indicator of public partisan behavior. But race remains the number one indicator.

That's really interesting, isn't it?

… If you can somehow point out that huge numbers in the black churches are evangelical in a religious definition, that will actually be a step ahead, a step forward.

I keep hearing from black Protestants that, "Hey, we're evangelical, too. But I'm not going to call myself evangelical."

That's exactly right One of the interesting divisions between black America and white America is in the use of the term "evangelical." White churches and white church people who have the traditional evangelical beliefs in practice are much more likely to call themselves evangelicals than African-Americans who might share the same beliefs in doctrine and share the same attitudes toward moral practices.

Black evangelicals, and people whom historians might call black evangelicals, are much more likely themselves to use terms like "Bible believers," "spirit-filled," "true Christians," "folk on fire for the Lord" and not use the word "evangelical," because in American public discourse that is a word usually used by and about white folk. There's actually a complication with Hispanics too, but you don't want to get into that.

Why is it that, right now, mainline Protestant churches are going along at a sort of steady pace and even declining, and evangelical churches are definitely seeing an increase? What's going on right now?

The churches that are known as evangelical today are descended from the mainline Protestant churches of the 19th century. When a distinction is made between evangelical and mainline churches, it's not a hard and fast distinction. There are many, many evangelical mainline Protestants.

But the mainline churches are traditional. They are less entrepreneurial, less flexible in relationship to cultural [issues], and have, for reasons of belief and practice and organization, not fared nearly as well in the postwar world as have more self-consciously, self-identified evangelical churches.

Would you consider President Bush an evangelical?

George Bush is evangelical, but evangelical of a particular type. His church in Midland, Texas, as I understand it, shares some characteristics of the mega-churches. It is, however, a Methodist church, but it's a Southern Methodist church. It's a largely white church. It's a church that does not stress doctrine, but stresses community and fellowship and therapy.

So, yes, George Bush is an evangelical. But he's one kind of evangelical in a mosaic that includes many, many other kinds of evangelical Christians.

When you say "of a particular type," what do you mean?

George Bush is an evangelical of a certain type. There are evangelicals in the mainline churches, of which he would be one. There are churches that have a mega-church style, of which his would be one. There are evangelical groups that emphasize the kind of therapeutic rescue that his group of supporters in Midland provided for him after he turned from alcoholism.

That style would be very different than, say the reform Christians of western Michigan, or the Pentecostal churches of downtown Chicago, or even, in many ways, the inter-denominational evangelicals of Wheaton College.

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posted april 29, 2004

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