Whither "Evangelicalism"? Reflections on the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of Randall Balmer's "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory"

Brantley Gasaway

At the Winter Meeting of the American Society of Church History earlier this month, I was honored to be part of a panel that celebrated and reflected upon the significance of Randall Balmer's classic study of "popular evangelicalism": Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture. First published in 1989, the book received periodic updates and expansions in subsequent editions, with the fifth one appearing last year. 

Ed Blum moderated this panel, which also included Anthony Petro, Dan Vaca, and Mary Beth Mathews. They each presented insightful papers that addressed a range of historiographical and methodological issues. Prof. Balmer offered engaging responses and remarks, and we then enjoyed a fruitful discussion with the audience. 

In my limited time, I chose to focus on Balmer's effort to define and to describe "evangelicalism." Below, I reproduce most of my remarks, including several asides as part of the oral presentation. Feel free to add your own comments or reflections, either regarding the book as a whole or regarding its analysis of "the evangelical subculture."
As a preface to my reflections on this “book about popular evangelicalism,” I want share my testimony and describe how I came to have a personal relationship with Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. I first encountered this book in 2002 as I began my graduate studies in American religious history with inchoate plans to conduct research on contemporary evangelicalism. Like many appreciative readers, I admired Prof. Balmer’s prose, perceptive analyses, and nuanced portraits of evangelicals. But in addition, the book captivated me because many of its autobiographical elements—descriptions of Balmer’s religious background within and professional journey beyond the evangelical subculture—seemed similar to my own personal and professional path. I was also reared in a fundamentalist household, albeit in North Carolina rather than the Midwest. Like Balmer, I was taught to believe that Catholics were not really Christians. [I’m sorry to say that we did not have a high view of Episcopalians, either.] I too annually attended church youth camps, and Balmer’s moving chapter on Word of Life Island brought back a flood of memories. Not only did I experience those “perennial, elusive quest[s] for summer romance,” but I also participated in ritualized re-dedications of my life to Jesus as I stood in front of the camps' climatic campfires. In short, I was a fellow “product of the evangelical subculture.” As a result, I appreciated how Balmer admitted in the prologue that he wrote the book in part “to come to terms with what it meant to grow up fundamentalist, and to sort out the many ways that the evangelical subculture had shaped [him] and continues to define who [he is].” I know what that process is like. [1]

But—rest reassured—my topic this morning is not the therapeutic benefits of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory for former fundamentalists. Rather, I want to express appreciation for—and then ask critical questions about—how the book addressed a recurring debate for those of us who study and teach about evangelicals: how do we know who exactly are “evangelicals,” and how should we define and describe “evangelicalism”? [I should note that this topic has been raised at two other sessions that I have attended here this weekend.]

Widespread confusion regarding these questions animated Balmer’s work in the late 1980s. As he noted in the prologue, he hoped to combat ignorance and misconceptions regarding “who evangelicals were, what they believed, or what motivated their recent forays into the political arena.” At that time, this task particularly required countering “the media’s assumption that all evangelicals were the moral equivalent of the televangelists”—such as Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell—whose scandals and political provocations had become the lenses through which many outsiders viewed the evangelical subculture. But Balmer regarded the influence of these televangelists and other well-known leaders such as Billy Graham as overrated. Passing over these figures, he sought to render a more complex and more complete “portrait—or at least a collage—of evangelicalism” by focusing on its popular expressions (or, as I would characterize it, various forms of evangelicals’ “lived religion”). To this end, Balmer chose a colorful cast of characters, concerns, and contexts that would display the “variation and diversity” within “a subculture generally regarded as monolithic.” And indeed, one of the greatest contributions of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory is the book’s clear demonstration of this diversity. Whatever else readers may conclude after finishing Balmer’s travelogue, I suspect that most appreciate the new and different types of evangelicals whom they meet in chapter after chapter. [2]

And yet, I want to ask: did the success of the book in displaying this diversity undermine its portrayal of what Balmer’s subjects have in common? How are they all “evangelicals”? How are they all part of something distinct called “evangelicalism” (or “the evangelical subculture”)? What, if any, are the boundaries of this “evangelical subculture” into Balmer journeyed? And, finally, is there really a “heart of the subculture,” which Balmer claimed that he wanted to reach?

Balmer recognized these definitional issues, of course, and thus he opened the book with “a word about words.” He began by describing the evangelical markers of the Protestant focus on salvation by faith and through God’s grace, “born again” experiences, biblical authority and inerrancy, evangelism and revivalism, and personal piety. Balmer also described different “camps” of evangelicals and then concluded with this summary:

I shall use the word evangelical as an umbrella term to refer broadly to conservative Protestants—including [the different “camps” of] fundamentalists, evangelicals, pentecostals, and charismatics—who insist on some sort of spiritual rebirth as a criterion for entering the kingdom of heaven, who often impose exacting behavioral standards on the faithful, and whose beliefs, institutions, and folkways comprise the evangelical subculture in America.

To be sure, Balmer admitted problems with the label evangelical. Some groups, such as Southern Baptists, “squirm in the face of attempts to force them into categories.” [I wonder if here Balmer had in mind the well-known disavowal of Southern Baptist leader Foy Valentine: “We’re not evangelicals,” Valentine insisted in 1976. “That’s a Yankee word.”] In addition, Balmer acknowledged tensions between these so-called camps. “I can think of several people in the pages that follow who would be embarrassed, even outraged, to appear in the same book as some of the others treated here,” he wrote. [3]

Yet put them together Balmer did, and at the end of his series of discrete chapters he returned in the epilogue to a comprehensive analysis of evangelicals and evangelicalism. He admitted that “discerning any single pattern in American evangelicalism is difficult at best,” for evangelicals shared only “general—but by no means unanimous—agreement” on core issues such as personal conversion and biblical authority. Thus, one might wonder, without “hierarchical structures or liturgical rubrics,” what bond do evangelicals share? Balmer answered: the belief in the importance of belief—or “the insistence that followers subscribe to a set of doctrines”—is what holds American evangelicalism together. But, almost as soon as he explained evangelicals’ cohesion by this shared “general insistence on belief,” Balmer blamed their inability to “agree on any one configuration of doctrines” for producing the dizzying diversity of the evangelical subculture:

fundamentalists, pentecostals, charismatics, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Assemblies of God, Church of God, Church of the Open Bible, fifty-some stripes of Baptists, not to mention independent, non-affiliated congregations that go by names like Evangelical Chapel or Community Bible Church. [No doubt, all of us in this room could multiply this list with many more examples.]

The prominent historian Timothy Smith had described evangelicalism as a mosaic, a metaphor that conveys diversity but also an overall design. But Balmer concluded his work with a different metaphor that he found more satisfying. Evangelicalism is like “a patchwork quilt,” he suggested, for it represents “folk art rather than fine art,” “requires the work of many hands,” and comprises many pieces that each “contributes its own ‘signature’ to the project.” [4]

Now, twenty-five years later, how should we think about Balmer’s definition of evangelicals and portrait of evangelicalism?

As most of us are aware, ongoing—[some might say tiresome]—debates concerning the meaning of these terms has marked much scholarship on evangelicals. Of the making of many definitions there may be no end, but I do have time constraints and thus will only summarize several prominent examples written in the same time period as Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. In 1989, David Bebbington published what seems to have become the most popular definition accepted by recent scholars. He described

four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism. 

In 1991, George Marsden endorsed a similar list as essential characteristics, but he seemed uncomfortable that such a definition could subsume within evangelicalism such dissimilar groups as pentecostals, Reformed confessionalists, African-American churches, and Mennonites. Therefore, Marsden suggested that evangelicalism “can also mean a self-conscious interdenominational movement” comprised of “card-carrying” participants who identified with similar leaders, publications, and institutions. Also in 1991, Donald Dayton and Robert Johnston edited a volume of essays dedicated to this debate. The editors focused on the question: “Should we speak of the variety of American evangelicalism, the varieties of American evangelicalism, the varieties of American evangelicalisms, or even of American evangelicalism as a coherent category at all?” Johnston proposed that the concept of “family resemblances” offered “a new model for describing American evangelicalism” by allowing for more fluidity and different amounts of shared attributes. In contrast, Dayton called for a “moratorium on the use of the term” evangelical, which he criticized as “theologically incoherent, sociologically confusing, and ecumenically harmful.” If we had more time, we might turn away from historical analyses in order to discuss different social scientific approaches to defining evangelical identity. For example, while Christian Smith used the criteria of reported self-identity in his numerous studies of evangelicalism, alternative approaches that rely upon denominational affiliation or affirmation of particular beliefs yield drastically different portraits of evangelicals and evangelicalism. [5]

Let me conclude with my own brief reflections on these issues and then pose several questions for Prof. Balmer on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his engaging book. As a scholar, I have become increasingly wary of using the label “evangelical” and of analyzing something called “evangelicalism.” But wait—did I not just publish a book on people whom I classified as “progressive evangelicals” and movement I identified as "progressive evangelicalism"? Why yes, yes I did.  [And thank you for asking.] But I did so because “evangelical” was the religious identity that my subjects used for themselves, and I believe the self-identification of our subjects should be our starting point. Of course, the fact that different groups of self-identified evangelicals refuse to recognize each other as such—or, just as problematic, the fact that people whom we think might likely identify themselves as evangelicals but do not—requires us to emphasize and to explain the contested, contingent nature of evangelical identity. Above all, and I am certainly not the first to say this, I question whether something called “evangelicalism”—or even “the evangelical subculture” as singular entity—exists as a coherent phenomenon that we can analyze. Put simply, I see no tangible evidence of unity or cohesion among self-identified evangelicals, much less if we include all the additional groups often labeled as evangelicals within broad definitions. To illustrate my concerns, let me ask Prof. Balmer several questions that reflect these interpretations.

First, as you reconsider the evangelicals in your book, could—or would—they all worship together…or, less ambitiously, fellowship together…or, even less ambitiously, talk together? Where might they all come together within a singular evangelical subculture or within evangelicalism?

Second, how might the portrait (or collage) of evangelicalism change if you had included in this new edition the profile of LGBT evangelicals (such as Matthew Vines, the author of God and the Gay Christian) or other affirming leaders (such as David Gushee) who have been rejected as evangelicals by many vocal conservative evangelical leaders? Or, what if you included a chapter on the adherents of the prosperity gospel so richly depicted in Kate Bowler’s recent book Blessed? How might these have changed the book’s reception?

Finally, do you still find the metaphor of a patchwork quilt an illuminating metaphor for evangelicalism? A patchwork quilt is constructed—and to what extent is "evangelicalism" a construction, or even a fabrication, of self-interested leaders and scholars?

[1] Randall Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4, 105, 5, 6.

[2] Ibid., 5, ix, 7, xviii, 10. On “lived religion” as an analytical category, see David D. Hall, ed., Lived Religion in America: Toward a History of Practice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

[3] Balmer, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, xvii-xviii.

[4] Balmer, 351-353; Foy Valentine, quoted in Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: the Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 157.

[5] David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: a history from the 1730s to the 1980s (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 2-3; George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 4-5; Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston, The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 2; 255; 251; Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 233-234; Conrad Hackett and D. Michael Lindsay, “Measuring Evangelicalism: Consequences of Different Operationalization Strategies,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 47:3 (2008), 499-514.


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