Who Is an Evangelical, Anyway?

An Interview with Thomas S. Kidd

by Thomas Kidd and Mike Brooks September 19, 2019

Thomas S. Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University (Waco, TX) and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Church History at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Kansas City, MO). His latest book, Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale University Press, 2019), is a brief overview of the history of the evangelical movement and examines distortions in the public understanding of evangelical identity.

Mark Noll says the book is "as important as it is timely."

Russell Moore reflects: "Reading this book makes me remember why I loved the word ‘evangelical’ in the first place, and why I think our movement is worth saving."

John Fea writes, "Thomas Kidd...reminds us that evangelicalism has always been primarily a religious and spiritual movement that, when at its best, has transcended race, class, ethnicity, and politics."

Recently, Dr. Kidd answered a few questions I asked about the book and about the ongoing conversation surrounding evangelicalism in the 21st century.


MB: Your latest book with Yale University Press is Who Is an Evangelical? Can you tell us a little about what prompted you to write it? 

TK: Most of my books have focused on some aspect of evangelical history, but I have encountered an increasing need to contrast that history with the current public debates about and impressions of “evangelicals” in America. In short, evangelicals have gone from being known as born again Christians, to being known as religious Republicans. Whatever the merits of that political association, I don’t think most evangelicals would want to be known by their temporal party alignments. So the book seeks to understand what “evangelical” has meant historically, and how it came to be inextricably connected to Republican politics over the past sixty or seventy years.

In the book, you address the reasons for the mischaracterization of evangelicals in public and political discourse. What’s at stake if evangelicalism is lost either in name or conceptually as a movement?

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.

Today, evangelicals are most readily associated with specific political leanings, but, as you point out, that association has not always been primary. Historically, what have evangelicals been known for? What have they championed most?

Put most simply, evangelical religion has historically meant the faith of born-again believers. In other words, they are Christians who have definitively experienced the transforming power of God’s grace. Evangelicals also stand out from many other Christians because of their palpable sense of God’s presence in their lives, and because of the centrality of an infallible Bible to their faith.

Even today, “evangelicals” are much more uniform in these beliefs and experiences than they are in voting for Republicans, if by “evangelical” we don’t just mean white American voters who tell pollsters they’re an evangelical.

What advice or additional perspective would you give the believer who is an evangelical per its more traditional definition, but who is hesitant to accept to the label?

I can certainly understand why many people would not want to embrace the political baggage that the term evangelical comes with today. If nothing else, the term can unfortunately give some outsiders the sense that you have a basically political agenda, instead of a “good news,” gospel message about Jesus to share. 

I would not want people with such concerns about the term to neglect the riches of the evangelical tradition, however. If nothing else, it is important to remember those who have gone before us - from Jonathan Edwards and Billy Graham to lesser known heroes such as Phillis Wheatley and Lemuel Haynes (both were evangelical African American writers from the American Founding era) - as part of the great “cloud of witnesses” from church history.

As a practical matter, I suspect that many people who are evangelicals by belief and experience don’t necessarily call themselves evangelical in everyday conversation, anyway. This is definitely the case at my evangelical church in Waco, where I suspect people would more readily identify as Baptists or “Bible-believing” Christians rather than evangelical.

Maybe the most common way you’d be asked to identify as an evangelical is in an opinion poll. I must admit that if I was asked by a pollster if I was an evangelical, I would want to ask them what they mean by “evangelical” first. If they couldn’t give a coherent definition, I might decline to answer!

The intersection of faith and politics has often been met with relative unease. What advice would you give a local church pastor wanting to faithfully shepherd his people in today’s political climate?

Our faith has inescapably political implications, not least in the claim that Jesus is King. I believe there are only a few current issues (such as the value of human life) that the Bible gives indisputably clear directions on, however. The Bible is not a voter guide for 21st century American elections. 

I recommend that pastors give as much latitude as they can to people in their congregations reaching different political conclusions, especially in the fraught and dismaying environment we inhabit. We surely will not agree on every issue or candidate, but as Christ-followers we must love and serve one another across our political divisions. If we do that, we surely will shine as a light in darkness. 

Editor's Note: Who is an Evangelical? is available now online and in bookstores September 24, 2019.