So we’re up to religion and the revolution! In other words, I’m home and we’re going to linger here for quite a while. But today’s discussion of Thomas Kidd’s God of Liberty, ended up in an interesting cul de sac. Nothing new to see here, but the prevalence of the word evangelical in the news during primary season makes it worth mentioning again: pundits, and even academics, play very fast and loose with that term. There are serious attempts to define it, and mobilize it in social science research, but the term has its greatest purchase in politics. Indeed, some of the definitions (or, at least, a justification for separating black and white evangelicals), have to do with the political trends. My favorite such analysis recently has been this one, by Tobin Grant.
Kidd’s functional definition of evangelicals is certainly political, because he sees the revolutionary era as guided by principles (an evangelical code word) that were shared, surprisingly, by deists and evangelicals. By which he usually means Baptists. Some of his points, like human sinfulness, are theological, but some, like separation of church and state, are only visible through a political lens. But if “evangelical” only has meaning in terms of politics, it cannot be conceived of outside of politics. I don’t think the position that evangelicals are at heart a political category is in any way fair to the vast range of scholarship on evangelicals in history, but I do think it’s a fair point about the way the term is deployed in the public square, and also, in this case, about the American revolution.
Phrased in that way, “evangelical” also shares some important characteristics with the early modern usage of the word “protestant.” This is where we cycle around to my research, and my central concern about the way institutions and politics shape the ways we see religion and the ways our historical actors engaged religion. “Protestants” were never a voting bloc, but I find it interesting that “protestant” too only had meaning in political forms. That’ s a topic about which a lot more needs to be written. At which time I remind myself that I really need to get back to a very different form of writing.
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