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Hi and welcome back! Today’s story concerns how evangelicals define themselves. As it turns out, for a long time now they’ve been using one definition. But another is overtaking it. These two definitions may stand at the very heart of the current tug-of-war over evangelicals’ future.

(Rodrigo Curi.) Credit: Rodrigo Curi / Unsplash

Two Definitions Enter the Ring.

I like the word quadrilateral. It’s such a tumbling, arms-flailing kind of word. In real talk, quadrilaterals are simply four-sided shapes. Squares, parallelograms, trapezoids, rhombuses (rhombi?), kites, plain ole rectangles, and more qualify.

Quadrilaterals also can be four-sided definitions, as in today’s case.

Evangelical scholars and theologians have long defined evangelicalism using what they call the Bebbington Quadrilateral. David Bebbington published it in 1989. His definition contains four elements:

  • Biblicism: Extremely high regard for the Bible (maybe not inerrancy or literalism per se, but definitely — for example — the mistaken belief that all of life’s wisdom can be found in its pages)
  • Crucicentrism: Extremely close focus on the imagined atonement performed by Jesus at his crucifixion
  • Conversionism: Firm belief that humans must convert to this particular flavor of Christianity
  • Activism: Firm belief that the group must expend effort to Jesus correctly

Obviously, lots and lots of other definitions for evangelicalism exist. Barna Group famously adds a bunch of stuff to it (like belief in a literal Satan). Bebbington’s offering, however, has held sway over the rest for a long time.

At least, until now.

Now we have a new definition to examine.

And it may define modern evangelicals way better.

The Definitions Contend!

I caught today’s story in a recent Baptist Standard article (link). It concerns a “leadership crisis” within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). And yes, blah blah blah. We’ve talked about that many times around here. Yes, indeed, a whole lot of big huge stinky-powerful men seem to have been leaving the SBC these past 3 or 4 years.

But then in the middle of the article, I read this:

Barry Hankins, a Baylor University historian who studies Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, believes the Southern Baptists have become conflicted as their religious identity becomes synonymous with their political and social identity.

As evangelicals, he said, they are defined by what’s known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral—a proof test of beliefs about the Bible, the cross, religious conversion and religious activism, laid down by British historian David Bebbington.

But as a social movement, Southern Baptists and evangelicals have become defined by what he called the “Du Mez Patrilateral,” inspired by the work of Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez.

In her bestselling book Jesus and John Wayne, Du Mez argues that powerful men promoted a patriarchal and authoritarian leadership style both in the church and in homes. Those leaders also endorsed a patriotic version of nationalism that has become common in evangelical culture.

Hankins sees the recent conflict in the SBC as a clash between the two quadrilaterals.

“The Du Mez Patrilateral.” Interesting!

We have a good explanation of this definition straight from Kristin Du Mez herself:

I suggest that that [Bebbington Quadrilateral] doesn’t characterize well the dominant strand of white ev[angelicals] in America today. Instead, I situate white patriarchal power at the heart of conservative evangelical identity. [Source]

Where the Definitions Diverge.

Obviously, there’s plenty of room within Bebbington’s Quadrilateral for authoritarianism, racism, hyper-nationalism, and patriarchal power structures to exist. Nothing about that definition forbids such elements from existing — any more than it forbids culture wars and conspiracy theories.

However, Kristin Du Mez has lifted “white patriarchal power” (along with conservative politics and nationalism) to the level of a tribal marker belief. It thus becomes not just an element that can be found within evangelicalism but an element that defines evangelicalism itself to the exclusion of other groups. It lends evangelicals the P that delineates them from not-P groups. And its absence in a group, to the evangelicals who buy into it, means that that group can’t possibly be truly evangelical.

I wholly agree that these two definitions exist and that they form the kernel of the current crisis within evangelicalism.

The evangelicals who want to focus on the Bebbington definition find themselves having to deal with their more aggressive, more willfully-ignorant, and more power-maddened brethren who are operating more along the lines Du Mez has outlined.

Indeed, authoritarianism marks the Du Mez Patrilateral more than anything else.

Watching the Du Mez Definition at Work.

A few days ago, I ran across a hilariously hateful Christian YouTuber. This guy seriously said out-loud that Russell Moore (the newly-resigned leader of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) was not only a “leftist” but also an actual apostate. Meanwhile, he had a lot nicer things to say about Moore’s enemies in the SBC.

The YouTuber heaped all this disgusting abuse Christian love on Moore’s head simply because Moore rejected and called out the SBC’s racism, sexism, Trumpism, and continuing refusal to engage with its sex-abuse crisis. In all other ways, Moore conforms to his vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. The YouTuber doesn’t actually differ all that much with him in terms of beliefs and worldview, from what I can tell.

And by the definition that YouTuber uses for evangelicalism, Moore may well have disqualified himself from the title of evangelical. The YouTuber very clearly operates under the Du Mez Patrilateral, while Moore floats a lot closer to the Bebbington Quadrilateral.

Like a lot of his peers are doing nowadays, that YouTuber was doing nothing less than drawing battle lines — and gatekeeping for his tribe. Those activities are far more important to him than even pretending he GAFF about anything Jesus told Christians to do.

The Factions and the Two Definitions Driving Them.

That Baptist Standard article indicates that Moore’s enemies (the Old Guard, and in particular the very extremist part of that faction) are gearing up for a huge fight over the next SBC presidential election. That election takes place this coming summer.

If the Old Guard wins that election — and they very well might — then we can fully expect to see Du Mez’s definition of evangelicalism dominating the SBC for many years to come. This faction is driven by authoritarianism, patriarchy, entrenched racism and sexism, and power-lust.

(Of course, the other faction, the Pretend Progressives, aren’t much better — but they’re trying to pretend that they’re driven more by the four classic Bebbington definitions of evangelicalism.)

And y’all, the Old Guard winning the next SBC election isn’t the worst news we could possibly get. The Old Guard largely orchestrated the entire Conservative Resurgence, which in turn presided over the SBC’s decline-in-earnest. Seriously. I’ve no doubt that given full rein, that faction will finish the denomination for good.

NEXT UP: Our childhood traumas may turn out to be more of an influence on our overall lives than we thought, according to a new paper. We’ll check that out next time. See you then!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...