Defining Terms or Defined by Terms

By Mary Todd

I have moved from a small-e evangelical campus to a capital-c Catholic campus. In learning about my new Catholic world, I find that, more and more, we need not only to understand the words we use but to ask—in an attempt to understand—about the words others use. When I heard that the theme of the second issue of The Daystar Journal was going to be evangelical and catholic, I remembered how students in my classes in American religious history had struggled with those words, and I suggested an article on the subject. Watch what you ask for, Hezekiah. I got invited to write it.

Despite what you heard in school, grammar matters. Words such as evangelical and catholic take on different meanings when capitalized. For example, I’ve been attending a church whose signage reads “Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church.” And I am chief academic officer of a university whose identity is “Catholic in the Dominican tradition.” Yet the creed I recite says I believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” and the newsmagazines I read report of the influence of evangelicals on the current administration in Washington.

I will defer to other writers in this issue to engage the terms in Lutheran understanding. My purpose is to add another layer to the discussion by suggesting that it is to our advantage to acknowledge that our Lutheran usage is not how most folks in America use these terms today. That is not to suggest we stop using them, only that we recognize how language can serve as both benefit and detriment. To that end, history can inform us because both terms are deeply embedded in the American story.

American religious history is rich with a cast of characters who have helped shape the pluralist religious landscape of the 21st century. American history itself has been significantly influenced by religious developments. But thanks to a widespread misinterpretation of the concept of separation of church and state, public education in America has become what President Clinton once called a “religion-free zone.” Therefore few Americans are aware either of the role religion has played in the history of the republic or of the impact of history on the various traditions that make up the religious tapestry in the United States. So here comes the history lesson in 500 words or less.

The idea that came to be called evangelicalism dates to the early 18th century and the Great Awakening, a series of revivals between 1730 and 1760 led by Calvinist clergymen such as Jonathan Edwards and the English itinerant preacher George Whitefield. While some historians downplay the influence of the Awakening, others see it as a rehearsal for the American revolution a generation later. Evangelicalism came to be understood as “heart religion” to distinguish it from the more intellectual traditions or “head religions.” Believers responding to the revivalist’s question—“Are you saved?”—said “Yes!” without first resorting to theological study or reflection. Because they felt it, they believed.

By the end of that same century, the first stirrings of the Second Great Awakening began in camp meetings along the western frontier of the new nation and spread in subsequent decades to western New York State. The Second Awakening, as Randall Balmer recounts in his fine little book on evangelicalism, was Arminian, “grounded in an alternative Protestant theology” that emphasized human agency in the salvation process. The Awakening was marked by the birth of home-grown American originals, new populist and noncreedal traditions based on primitivism, anticlericalism and egalitarianism. American religion experienced a democratization in the 1830s that changed the balance of power away from the more staid traditions of the colonial period and made evangelicalism a force that shaped both the nation and the century.

At the same time as evangelicalism was taking hold in rural America in the 19th century, the largest mass movement in history was beginning as immigrants from Europe came to America in increasing numbers. Many of those were Roman Catholics, who were unfortunately not readily welcomed by Protestant America. Anti-Catholicism is a long and dark chapter of American history, and in response American Catholics built an extensive parish and parochial school system to serve their own. A recent conversation with a woman religious reminded me again of the surprise I used to encounter in Catholic students who had only ever learned about Catholicism, thought they were surely in the majority and knew very little about other religious traditions in America or elsewhere.

Evangelicals understand themselves over against confessional traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed/Presbyterian, Mennonite, Episcopalian). Because I appreciate the distinction evangelicals make, I have always rejected the claim of ultraconservatives in the Missouri Synod that they are confessionals and the rest of us are not. To be Lutheran is to be confessional. To be Lutheran is also to be small-c catholic.

To add to the confusion, do a Google search on the word evangelical, and the top hit is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Tryevangelicalism, and you’ll be directed to the web site of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, where you will learn that, while Luther was the first to apply the term to the church, current usage is very different. Given that estimates of the number of Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals is upwards of 100 million, it behooves us to pay attention to both the distinction in usage and meanings of these terms.

How interesting that we claim both terms in thinking of Lutheran identity, for throughout American history small-e evangelicals and capital-c Catholics have been at serious odds. The anti-Catholicism noted earlier was largely promulgated by evangelical Protestants, but of late relations between the two traditions has thawed a bit, as evangelicals and Catholics find themselves strange bedfellows on certain moral issues. The political observer will understand this development differently than either the historian or the theological observer, but there is no disputing its reality.

So, to ask a very Lutheran question, what does this mean? It means that we ought to remember, in using the terms evangelical and catholic to refer to ourselves, that those same terms are also claimed by others in understanding their religious identity. As I find with Catholic colleagues regularly, every conversation is an opportunity to teach as well as to learn. Living in a pluralist society, it’s easy to slap labels on individuals and groups and even to dismiss them because we presume to know what the label stands for. Emerson said, “If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.” We might be well advised to consider how unhelpful labels can be when their primary purpose is identify someone as Other, as Not Me. I learned recently that as a candidate for my current position last spring, I was known not by my name but as “the Lutheran,” meaning the non-Catholic. Identity matters.

Dr. Mary Todd is Provost at Ohio Dominican University, Columbus, Ohio

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