Scholars continue to wrestle with the important question of “who is an evangelical?”. Some look at historical pedigree, looking for continuity of belief, behavior, and lifestyle (see Thomas Kidd, for example). Others have observed the cultural and political dynamics as a defining characteristic. Yet others have focused on developing the apologetic Biblical worldview that would protect evangelicals against the onslaught of secularism.
None of these approaches are able to adequately define contemporary evangelicalism.
Why? Because evangelicalism has taken on the form that Jean Baudriillard called simulacra. He argues that symbols take on particular meanings within a community. Eventually, the symbols become independent of the reality they are supposed to convey and become hyperreality — operating in the performed life space while no longer conveying specialized meaning.
This occurs as media culture creates a context in which identifiers are exchanged and language allows the maintenance of shared perspective. I took the above picture today on a walk in suburban Denver. The first thing that got my attention was the idea of “making Jesus famous“. I’m not sure what help Jesus needs or what theological principle is involved therein. The second thing I noticed was the word “Champions“. Not servants, not believers: winners.
This is an illustration of evangelical simulaca. I was violating the terms of identity by trying to plumb the various intended meanings. I wanted to know what the phrases meant. But they do not function to communicate meaning. The operate to communicate identity in a visceral, unreflective manner.
This week, my friend Kristen DuMez posted in The Anxious Bench about a family trip to Hobby Lobby. Walking through this Christian craft store (that of the “closely held religious beliefs” of SCOTUS fame) and taking remarkable photos allowed Kristen and her daughters to explore the impact of symbolic expressions of the nature of gender, true Americans, and religious identity.
By this point it had become clear to me that Hobby Lobby wasn’t just a Christian company because its owners were Christians, because they contributed a large chunk of their profits to evangelistic charities, or because they had emerged as heavyweight champions in the latest round of the culture wars. But Hobby Lobby also reflects (and, by selling Christian material culture, reinforces and shapes) a distinctive white evangelical cultural identity.
What does it mean to put wall plaques up in your house adorned with Bible verses? What is the purpose of bumper stickers that share stock Christian phrases or vanity plates that read GOD 1ST?
One might assume that this is an evangelistic tool, designed to coax people into asking questions after which the owner would share the Gospel. But survey data regularly report that people are almost as uncomfortable talking about religion as they are to hear about it.
Baudrillard would have us recognize that the essence of the simulacra is performance. One acts as an evangelical, embracing the signs and symbols evangelicals are expected to embrace. It is a statement of anticipatory identity — say it and it becomes true.
This process explains why 12% of self-identified evangelicals, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, seldom or never go to church. They perform evangelicalism in other ways through the manipulation of symbols. Going to church simply may not be necessary to maintain the identity.
The media and politicians become adept at manipulating these symbols: religious freedom, protect the unborn, stop secularists, MAGA. One doesn’t have to agree with the religious sentiments underlying these positions, as Jonathan Merritt observed today. You just need to know how to perform the rituals that are present in the hyperreality.
This makes the study of “real” evangelicals remarkably difficult. It is true that many operate in the realm of church attendance, orthodox beliefs, and Bebbington’s quadrilateral. But all of that is conflated with the performative aspects of American Evangelicalism, which results in us never knowing exactly whom we are talking about.