The REAL Quadrilateral

NOT  what I am talking about!

OK, so this is NOT a lecture on the philosophical legitimacy of a certain family of mathematical shapes!  So those of you who are not math people, including myself, can breathe a sigh of relief.

What I am talking about is rather a historical formula that has been used to describe the hallmarks of the Christian tradition of Evangelicalism.  I should point out that this is, for the most part, a formula that you find in academia--that is to say, that if you were to go to your average person sitting in the pew of an evangelical church on Sunday morning and ask them, "What is the Evangelical Quadrilateral?", you are likely to see the same look on their face had you asked them to describe what the pastor's sermon was about.  So this is a bit of an example of the fundamental disconnect between school theology and street theology.

what defines 'evangelical christians'?

Even if the concept of the 'Evangelical Quadrilateral' is usually reserved for academic inquiry within the 'ivory towers' of seminaries and Bible colleges, it is still an immensely important discussion!  Why? Because it seeks to articulate the true identity of Evangelical Christians.

Human beings self-identify all the time: "I'm a Democrat," "I'm a Republican," "I'm an environmentalist," "I'm a free market capitalist," "I'm a Starbuck's guy," "I'm a Peete's Coffee guy," "I'm a Dodger fan," "I'm a Yankee fan," and we can go on and on.  Now if someone were to ask what we mean by these proclamations, you and I should be able to give a good answer.  And that is exactly what led the historian David Bebbington to come up with what most students of evangelicalism actually call, "The Bebbington Quadrilateral."  It is a simple and concise formula that seeks to answer the question, "What is Evangelical Christianity as an identifiable faith movement and community?"

There is a page on the website for the National Association of Evangelicals that places front and center Bebbington's answer to this question.  Here is what it reads:

"Historian David Bebbington also provides a helpful summary of evangelical distinctives, identifying four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

These distinctives and theological convictions define us — not political, social or cultural trends."

the problem with historians

History Channel Couch Potato.png

Now please know that I am a HUGE fan of history (and historians)!  I've actually strongly considered at times going back to school so I could professionally teach the subject.  If I could afford it, I would probably binge watch The History Channel until family and friends would have to stage an intervention, tearfully imploring me to rejoin the world of the living.  Historical understanding gives us critically important context to the present day.  With that said, the problem at times with historians or more accurately their teachings and theories is that they tend to be stuck in the past.  In the world of historical research, there is an inevitable lag time between theories and present day reality, kind of like my dad holding on to that vintage 1970's mustache far too long into the 80's.

A perfect example of this was a recent NPR interview with Ed Stetzer, who I want to note is, even with our likely differences in theological convictions, a leader within the evangelical community with whom I greatly respect and admire.  The interview drew upon Ed's expertise in sociological research of the American evangelical community in the context of a conversation on President Donald Trump's first year in office and the immediate aftermath of the special election in Alabama.  The irony is that he refers to the Bebbington Quadrilateral to define who Evangelicals are, but the statistics he goes on to present actually highlight how fragmented that community is, particularly along racial and ethnic lines.

I've seen this time and time again.  There seems to be this relentless, psychological need for evangelicals to define themselves by their history and minimize or all-together ignore their actual present day beliefs, values and behaviors.  But the theory of self or in this case community identity is not "who we were" but "who we are".

my proposition and theory

So here is my proposition.  The Bebbington Quadrilateral is now obsolete, especially when speaking of distinctly AMERICAN Evangelical Christianity.  This is particularly true when narrowing the focus to white evangelicals, which demographically make up the vast majority of all American evangelicals.

So what is the REAL Quadrilateral that accurately defines the dominant characteristics of Evangelical Christianity, especially here in America?  Here are my four:

  • Moralism: Enforcing their moral convictions on a few select issues, those being abortion and homosexuality
  • Ethnocentrism: Defending their religious freedom and instituting as the informal civic religion of the United States of America a form of “Christianity” that strongly reflects a dominant white culture
  • Authoritarianism: Demanding an absolute commitment to those in authority as long as they preserve their moralistic and ethnocentric vision of America
  • Consumerism: Enjoying without interruption their distinct brand of cross-less, consumer Christianity

These, I would argue, have become the actual "distinctives and convictions" that "define" American evangelicalism.  The National Association of Evangelical's statement that I quoted earlier is evidencing the height of wishful thinking when it declares that, "political, social and cultural trends" are not what unites their so-called "vibrant and diverse" group.  The experience of the last few years should have completely obliterated this fantasy.  Yet it appears that for most American evangelicals, the realm of fantasy is precisely where they want to stay.