Who Is an Evangelical?: A Book Review

Series: Book Reviews

by Mike Brooks September 26, 2019

This week marks the official release of Thomas S. Kidd’s new book with Yale Press, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of A Movement in Crisis. I am among those who have been looking forward to the book for quite some time as I became more aware of the types of questions Kidd was asking via blog posts and social media in light of the fallout from the 2016 Presidential Election. His posts frequently made mention of the need for accuracy in reporting, for integrity in journalism, for a bit of nuance in hot takes, and for definitions of terms. As believers, we deal fundamentally with truth. When it is not present – that is, when falsity or the possibility of it abounds – we engage in the pursuit of truth for the glory of God and the good of others. Placed along the way, in this pursuit, is a mile-marker in the form of Who Is An Evangelical?– an expert-level, historically-thorough, convicting, and motivating volume that arrives at just the right time. 

As a reviewer, I unapologetically make a number of assumptions about you, primarily based on the fact that you are reading here at For The Church. At minimum, I suspect you have at least a passing interest in Kidd’s work and respect for his expertise. I even venture to say you have at one time or still consider yourself to be a Protestant evangelical Christian. I write with you in mind. Here are three reasons you should read Who Is an Evangelical? sooner, rather than later.

1.) Read the book to remember from whence we came.

Evangelical history is, at times, painful to recount, but glimmers of hope are revealed in the process. To the great benefit of readers, Kidd does not skim over evangelicals’ collective and individual blights. They are there, in print and with a name on them – racism, pride, grasping for power via political and cultural influence, etc. The past and present sin within and outside the evangelical camp has shaped a public identity of evangelicals at present that is wholly different from the movement’s foundational features. The movement, per its current reputation within our culture, is largely unidentifiable alongside its traditional counterpart, primarily due to the seemingly inseparable relationship between the religious movement and partisan politics. What was an increasingly multiethnic group committed to the theological tenets of conversion, the presence of the Holy Spirit, missions, and revival has been effectively reduced in commentary and poll-results to the voting habits and opinions of “white Republicans.” The disparity between who was and now is considered an “evangelical” is cavernous. Kidd stands in the gap, writing to “show how historically peculiar a partisan and ethnic definition of evangelicals is” and he examines the contributor factors that led us to the politicized version of evangelicalism that is prevalent today. Kidd reminds us of what initially earned us the "evangelical" label, beckoning us to remember where we came from and offering a proposition to return.

2.) Read the book to come to grips (and terms) with where we are.

Kidd’s work is demanding of its readers in the sense that it is impossible to ignore the “crisis” at hand. Public perception of evangelicals is not all that matters, but it is far from inconsequential. Public witness is frequently a concern biblically speaking, though it is helpful to reflect at times on the grounds and warrant of certain criticisms and accusations. To sift through every tweet and article, consider every ounce of nuance, and entertain every possible angle and solution to perceived problems within evangelicalism is likely as exhausting as it sounds. At base, the critique levied against evangelicals is centered on the 81% figure touted as the percentage of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election. The urgency with which many rallied behind the statistic and the subsequent outpouring of criticism – some level-headed, most of it laden with vitriol – prompted the title question of Kidd’s work. Who exactly is among the 81%? Who considers themselves to be an evangelical when asked by a pollster? Answer: A variety of people and many among them who shouldn’t. Kidd makes this case convincingly in the latter half of the volume.  

3.) Read the book to be hopeful about where we are headed.​

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, media reports swirled and proclamations were made online of the intentions of many to jettison the evangelical movement or, at the very least, to abandon the moniker. In a recent interview with Thomas Kidd, I asked what he thought was at stake if the evangelical movement was lost by name or conceptually. His answer:

In a sense, it doesn’t matter much if we lose the name. The Greek word euangelion, of course, simply means “good news,” and whatever people call “evangelicals,” I hope we will still be known as bearers of the good news about salvation through Jesus Christ. Some have even suggested other names we could call ourselves, such as “gospel Christians” or “Jesus followers.” But there is no practical way that we can get away from the term evangelical, which journalists and scholars will keep using, even if we don’t.

However, I do think there is a great deal to be lost in a historical sense if we simply accept the notion that “evangelicals” are, and have been, an interest group within the Republican Party, which is what a lot of the coverage of evangelicals seems to imply today. That impression misses the spiritual and theological core of what it has historically meant to be an evangelical, but it also makes evangelicals seem far more politicized, ethnically homogenous, and America-centered than they have been in the past, or than they remain on the global stage today.

In the book, he writes: “Perhaps I am naïve to hope that there remains a core of practicing, orthodox evangelicals who really do care more about salvation and spiritual matters than access to Republican power.” In many ways, Kidd’s concern about wishful thinking diminishes as more come forward who share the same hope. Our culture is quick to judge by association, and we should be mindful of our associations, but the critiques and conclusions drawn are not so formulaic. Who appears to be an evangelical isn't always an evangelical.

In moments of optimism shared with the author, I’d like to think there are many among us, perhaps without Twitter accounts and more in tune with reality, that air on the side of confessing things are broken while keeping an eye toward the possibility they can be mended. We have in mind and heart the theological moorings that earned us the evangelical label in the first place, though we aren’t tight-fisted with the name we go by. Many of us remain, as Kidd deems it, “politically homeless,” but reasonably and needfully hopeful about what's ahead. We'll take all the help we can get to make sure we get there.

Editor's Note: Who is an Evangelical? is available now online or wherever books are sold.