Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism, and the Palin/Bryan Factor

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

A few weeks ago, just when I’d decided I’d had enough of lipstick, pigs, and the feigned outrage of the suddenly feminist Republican Party, I picked up the local newspaper to read: “Dayton invites Sarah Palin to Speak.”

“Ahhhh! She’s everywhere!” I screamed. I’d already glanced through two Newsweek cover stories about her, read a lengthy Time piece, suffered through seemingly endless TV news coverage…and now here she was on the front page of the Dayton Herald.

 (This was, of course, before the financial crisis dramatically re-focused the nation’s attention.)

As I read through the article, I noticed that, for the third time that week, the vice presidential candidate had been compared to none other than William Jennings Bryan.

Local Republican Randall McGinnis told the Herald, “[Dayton] is essentially the Bible Belt. Palin is going to be the candidate of evangelicals, so what better place to speak than on the steps of the Rhea County Courthouse where William Jennings Bryan so eloquently defended evangelical Christianity in 1925?”

McGinnis’ statement was similar to one made by journalist Michael Gerson in the September 29 edition of Newsweek. In an article entitled “Starbucks Does Not Equal Savvy,” Gerson compares Palin’s small-town values and religiously-charged rhetoric to that of Bryan, claiming that “the closest I have ever come to witnessing a Bryan moment was Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention—the triumph of another backwoods, highly-religious populist. Palin praised the honesty and sincerity of small towns; pressed her credentials as a hockey mom, member of the PTA and small-town mayor; and rallied against the ‘Washington elite,’ ‘power brokers’ and (a little closer to home) ‘reporters and commentators.’ If hats had been in style, they would have been thrown.’”

There are more than a few ironies surrounding this comparison. The most obvious are that: 1) William Jennings Bryan was a democrat, 2) Bryan ran for president three times and lost, and 3) Bryan’s defense of the Christian faith during Dayton’s famous Scopes Trial was, by all objective accounts, less than eloquent.

However, my visceral reaction to the Herald News article was negative, not because of these ironies, but because of the use of the term “evangelical.”

McGinnis said something that has become increasingly apparent over the last several weeks: “Palin is the candidate of evangelicals.”

This election has just about convinced me that I must not be an evangelical after all. Polls show that evangelicals overwhelmingly support John McCain and Sarah Palin. I don’t. Whenever a pastor is called on by the media to present the “evangelical position” regarding anything from gay marriage to tax codes to global warming, I find myself passionately disagreeing. The term “evangelical” has taken on an extremely negative connotation for me, even though I grew up with that religious tradition and still identify with it in many ways.

It all came together late last week, when I read this comment by Scot McKnight on his fantastic blog:

"in the 1920s and 1930s many American evangelicals fought the rise of liberal, critical thought and rallied around the term ‘fundamentalism.’ That term referred to a steadfast commitment to some basics that could not be surrendered. At the time, fundamentalism was a decent and useful word. In time, though, the term was worn out by the abusive use of that term by its critics. So, Carl Henry stood up in the 50s and 60s and said something had to be done, and out of his famous book ‘Uneasy Conscience’ arose a new movement: ‘evangelicalism.’ Fundamentalism at the time called it ‘neo-evangelism’ and that was no compliment. But the movement survived the early attempts to smear it….Evangelicalism lasted--until the 80s and 90s—and now the term works the way ‘fundamentalist’ worked: the term today can hardly be used without having to explain yourself.”

So perhaps Sarah Palin is to evangelicalism what William Jennings Bryan was to fundamentalism. Perhaps she represents the last stand of a struggling, increasingly irrelevant movement.

I’m wondering if there are more Christians like me out there, who are tired of being associated with evangelicalism, and who are looking for a new term to describe their religious affiliation.

So here’s the question: Do you think that “evangelicalism” is beginning to take on the same negative connotation as “fundamentalism”? Also, what do you think of the Palin/Bryan comparison?

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