I try to shy away from politics on the blog, one reason being that political debate is saturating so many other faith-based outlets—not to mention the news media in general—that I see no useful purposes in repeating what most of you read from your other internet sources. But I am intrigued by media reports and conjectures on “the Evangelical vote,” and to be honest, I am not absolutely clear on what is implied by the word “evangelical,”, along with its cousin, “Judeo-Christian values.” Perhaps it is the irony of polling, which reveals that in Iowa the two leading contenders among Evangelical voters might not be, well, the evangelicals I tend to think of. Their appeal, along with several other contenders, is apparently not with their histories but with their promises: to make America a Christian nation again.
In researching today’s topic, I came across a very interesting working model of Evangelical Christianity called the Bebbington Quadrilateral. David Bebbington is a Scottish historian and professor at Stirling College; he is also a practicing Baptist. In 1989, he wrote a history of Evangelicalism in Great Britain from the 1700’s to the present day, notable for at least two major accomplishments. First, Bebbington identified four pillars of Evangelical belief and practice, the quadrilateral. Second, he established by historical research something we have seen in our own lifetimes, the impact of Evangelicalism as a movement affecting all denominations, including Roman Catholicism.
Bebbington’s quadrilateral of Evangelicalism looks like this:
Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
Crucientism: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted;
Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort
I should add here the observation of a very astute Amazon reviewer who includes a very important corollary, that Evangelicals share a high confidence in their personal salvation.
At first glance, it is hard to argue with this outline. But with some reflection, it is obvious to a Catholic what is not here. Evangelicalism, as a theological system, is ahistorical. While it is so that spiritual truth emanates from the Scriptures, it is also true that contemporary man is continuing to dig for these riches, as well as for more accurate renderings of the Bible itself. Evangelicalism is often connected, rightly or wrongly, with fundamentalism, the belief that every word of the Bible is factually true.
The emphasis on “crucicentrism” is handled with considerable reservation by Catholic theologians, on the grounds that if the crucifixion is just about atonement, then the coming of Christ to earth is essentially a juridical process of paying a fine to an implacable God of judgment. This is not exactly the God revealed by Christ in the Gospels, particularly in St. Luke, where symbols of a loving Father (“Abba”) The Coming of Christ’s Kingdom in Catholic theology is a much more expansive event, an enrichment of human meaning.
Again it is hard to disagree with the contention that human beings need to be converted. However, both the process of conversion and the conduct of the converted are somewhat more complex than what I have seen and heard from Evangelical sources. As a pastor in the 1970’s and 1980’s a goodly number of my Catholic adult members would demand to know why they could not be “born again” or re-baptized. I gathered they were being told by evangelical family members or neighbors that they were not truly baptized in the Catholic tradition. I would point out that while Roman Catholic teaching on baptism—the birth into God’s grace, favor and vocation—cannot be repeated, baptism can be renewed at a number of junctures in official Church life: The Sacrament of Penance, recitation of the Creed at Mass, participation in the Easter Vigil, seeking an indulgence during this Year of Mercy or other times, etc., come to mind immediately.
A further point on baptismal conversion is the long and continuing tradition of moral development in the Roman Catholic Church, a process Catholics believe to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Evangelical thinking derives its morals directly from the Scriptures, but as we discussed earlier, deducing literal moral code from the Bible itself is a tricky business: if your right hand is an occasion of sin, (Matthew 5:30) are we really supposed to cut it off? The Catholic Church recognizes the guidance of the Spirit, called Tradition, as a guide to understanding the mind of God in his Revelation.
I want to make it clear that there is a difference between “Evangelicalism” and “evangelization,” the process of making the Good News of Christ known throughout the world. Hopefully we all have evangelization in our bones. Bebbington’s Quadrilateral is an organized understanding of portions of the Christian faithful who understand the Jesus event through a certain prism. And yes, there are Evangelical Catholics whose understanding of their faith contains one or more aspects of Bebbington’s outline: Catholics who adopt an ahistorical understanding of the Church such that any change in Church morals or practice is wrong or even evil, for example.
In the political sphere, it is my guess that “courting the Evangelical vote” is a promise that the values of “Christian America” will enjoy a place of preeminence in a candidate’s thinking and exercise of office. Issues such as same-sex marriage, to cite one, are indications to many that America is on a downward religious spiral and that the clock needs to be turned back to a golden age of Christian observance.
The most basic point to remember, though, is that America is not a Christian country, and it never has been. Its founding documents are based upon the Enlightenment thinking of John Locke. The founding fathers base the premise of the “American experiment” upon the inherent right of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The founding vision was a land where all could worship by the dictates of conscience, without coercion or persecution.
There is no doubt that the practice of Christianity has shaped the culture of America, but not always favorably. Christians owned slaves until 1864. Protestant Christians excluded Catholics and Jews in a variety of ways from full exercise of rights and potential (one reason for the establishment of the Catholic school system in the 1880’s.) Sociologists often speak of Sunday morning as the most segregated morning of the week. There are a good number of moral/ethical issues facing our country, but hard as I try, I cannot find a golden age of Christianity better than our time.