Book Review

A look at the history of the evangelical movement

Thomas Kidd on "Who Is an Evangelical?"

January 10, 2020

In 2016, as in every presidential election year, there was no shortage of writing and descriptions of evangelicalism—from exit polls about the infamous 81% of white evangelicals who voted for then candidate Donald Trump, to those who were choosing to no longer use the term evangelical. As Russell Moore, leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (America’s largest evangelical denomination) Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in his own piece on the topic, “the word ‘evangelical’ has become almost meaningless . . .”. For all of those objecting to the term, there was a consensus that whoever was described by outsiders as an evangelical, was not a true evangelical. So who exactly counts in this transnational and trans-denominational movement?

That is the question that guides Thomas Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis. Kidd is the James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History and Associate Director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. He is the author of numerous books on early America and American religion: Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father (Yale, 2017), American Colonial History: Clashing Cultures and Faiths (Yale, 2016), and Baptists in America (Oxford, 2015). As both a historian and devout Southern Baptist, Kidd is one of the most qualified individuals to analyze this movement and articulate for those outside just what the “good news” is that evangelicals profess.

Evangelicals: A definition

Kidd begins by offering a definition of evangelicals with three key components: “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit” (4). Kidd’s definition coincides considerably with the more common definition of evangelicals offered by David Bebbington. According to Bebbington’s definition, evangelicals are defined by Biblicism (the Bible as the Word of God), crucicentrism (Christ’s work on the cross), conversionism (people need to be converted), and activism (the gospel works itself out in the world). 

The definitions overlap at the importance of the Bible (Biblicism), the need to be born-again (conversion), and a personal relationship with Christ (crucicentrism). However, Kidd’s definition expands Bebbington’s by foregrounding the work of the Holy Spirit. In fact, Kidd notes that early evangelicals were more likely to describe themselves as “walking” with the Spirit or having a relationship with God through the Holy Spirit than any other way (22-3). 

The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and the impetus to live in light of the leading of the Spirit, frames the book as Kidd charts this history of evangelicals. Though his book does note the early roots of evangelicalism in Europe and its growth in the third-world, the story focuses primarily on the way in which evangelicals flourished as a movement in the United States. Though it is not uniquely American, it would not have grown as quickly and vibrantly without the cultural milieu of the early American context.

Expanding our idea of who is an evangelical

Kidd’s history of the evangelical movement does much to orient the reader to the major figures and themes throughout. From the growth among Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians in the First and Second Great Awakenings, to the work of individuals such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Billy Graham, and Carl F.H. Henry, the story of evangelicalism is presented as a vibrant community. However, the strength of the book is not in its overview of these major figures but in the way that it reorients our definition of who counts in this movement. Rather than just focus on the work of George Whitefield, Kidd introduces the reader to Phyllis Wheatley, the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry and who wrote a poem praising Whitefield. Another figure who receives attention is Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights activist who registered voters and fought for equal rights because of her evangelical faith (97-8).  

Kidd emphasizes the way in which the future of evangelicalism will be more multiethnic. For example, Latino Protestants, particularly immigrants, are one of the fastest growing segments of evangelicals. The same can be said for immigrants from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Central America. This is especially true given the role that the Pentecostal movement (which Kidd counts as at least evangelical adjacent, if not thoroughly evangelical in its early years), and its growth outside the United States. 

Evangelicals and politics

Kidd deals with the portions of the movement which birthed the stereotype of evangelicals as “white Christian Republican voters.” These “Republican insider evangelicals” form a significant portion of the latter half of this history and are emblematic of the crisis that he describes. Members of this subset of evangelicals become an image (and in some regards a caricature) of what it means to be an evangelical in modern America.

In many regards, it is this portion where Kidd’s ability to present the nuances of this movement are on display. Here he is able to articulate the vision behind these figures and their guiding principles, without dismissing the ways in which the movement did tie itself to power. Kidd notes that the same Billy Graham who desegregated his crusades in 1953 at Chattanooga was also the same man who was a staunch defender of Richard Nixon. Later evangelical leaders would court the Republican party even more closely, becoming a reliable voting bloc for the party. Kidd presents the reasons for their allegiance—legislation concerning abortion especially—in terms that avoid presenting them only as craven political operatives. At the same time, white evangelicals’ allegiance (with some notable exceptions) in the 2016 election does cause Kidd to worry that the relationship between politics and religion had proved toxic and that “something had apparently broken in the white evangelical movement.” 

The only place where Kidd’s book could have provided more clarity was in the wedding of the evangelical and Pentecostal movement. Kidd notes that there are reasons, theological and sociological, for separating the two, but also admits that this is true more in the 20th century than previous years, with the Azusa Street Revival of Los Angeles in 1906 marking the beginning of the modern Pentecostal movement (6). Because Kidd emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit as a defining characteristic of early evangelicals, the historical divisions between evangelicals and Pentecostals are blurred throughout the book. Thus, a discussion of the evangelical republican insiders features prominent Southern Baptist ministers alongside Paula White (a leader in the Pentecostal/Prosperity Gospel movement), who are said to “have supplied a neatly packaged version of evangelicalism as a cohort of white Fox News-watching Republican voters who consider themselves religious” (154). So while Kidd is willing to seperate at the theoretical level these groups, in practice they are united because of their common cause in political goals.

Reclaiming the term “evangelical”

Though the 2016 election revealed a crisis in the movement and led others to distance themselves from the term, this book is a reminder of all that is good in the history of evangelicalism. There are instances where the movement of good news has capitulated to a culture of brokenness (George Whitefield and his support of chattel slavery being but one example), but there are also instances of resistance and hope (two of the three largest charitable organizations are evangelical: the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptist Convention). Kidd’s book even convinced Russell Moore, who was hesitant to use the term after the election, to say in his endorsement “this book makes me remember why I loved the word ‘evangelical’ in the first place . . .” 

I think that there is no higher praise than to remind people that this momentary crisis is no threat to the evangelical movement broadly, and that there is still good news for the world and a people to proclaim it, even if those carrying the message look more like sub-Saharan immigrants or Hispanic mothers in storefront churches than Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.

Alex Ward

Alex Ward serves as the research associate and project manager for the ERLC’s research initiatives. He manages long term research projects for the organization under the leadership of the director of research. Alex is currently pursuing a PhD in History at the University of Mississippi studying evangelical political activity in … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24