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Recently Roger Olson attempted to explain what he calls the "dark side of evangelicalism," and I have some thoughts about it. Surprise surprise. patheos.com/blogs/rogereol…
I know Roger personally as his former editor, and I appreciate him as one of the better evangelicals out there. But his piece exemplifies the ongoing blind spots of even the best evangelical thinkers.
First, Olson kicks things off by defining the "evangelical ethos" in terms of the “Bebbington quadrilateral”: conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. And he says that "as a kind of Platonic essence, in its purity," this ethos doesn't have any weaknesses.
Except, not quite. He says: "I don’t think it has any weaknesses except certain tendencies it seems to carry along with it that have to be resisted because they automatically 'pop up' among people who 'catch' the ethos of evangelical Christianity (or are raised in it)."
This is a very strange statement. Olson is caught in a bind. On the one hand, he doesn't think evangelicalism in its pure form has any problems. And yet he can't help but acknowledge "certain tendencies" that keep cropping up.
Olson has no way of explaining this except by appealing to a miracle, albeit a negative one. This "dark side" appears for no reason as an aleatory moment of sheer chance, an irruption of something totally unexpected, which of course means we are helpless to stop it.
He also seems to use the metaphor of a disease that someone "catches," as if someone could come down with a case of bad evangelicalism. I think Olson is suggesting that those who "catch" the ethos might be more enthusiastic and thus prone to fundamentalist extremes.
Olson comes close to using the "bad apple" argument: finance capitalism is not the problem, just certain bad hedge fund managers; the policing system is not the problem, just certain bad cops; evangelicalism is not the problem, just certain zealous fundamentalists.
Perhaps most remarkable are the characteristics of the "dark side" that Olson lists:

1. Anti-intellectualism
2. Hero-worship
3. Lack of social work
4. Neglect of the arts
5. Spiritual elitism

All of these, he says, are mere "tendencies."
I don't have time to list all the problems with evangelicalism that Olson fails to mention, but a few come to mind:

1. Authoritarianism
2. Culture of white supremacy
3. Purity culture and enforced cisheteronormativity
4. Neoliberal (i.e., systemically individualistic) religion
Here I would point people to previous threads of mine: twitter.com/i/moments/8297…
Here's another on gender and sexuality norms: twitter.com/i/moments/8313…
The issue with Olson's piece is not primarily his failure to diagnose the central problems with evangelicalism, but his complete denial that these problems are *features* of evangelicalism baked into the very "Platonic essence" he names earlier in the piece.
The "Bebbington quadrilateral" is not neutral. Those characteristics provide the recipe for the problems Olson names as well as ones I would add. As @C_Stroop points out, "evangelicalism is essentially authoritarian" and this derives from its biblicism. rewire.news/religion-dispa…
As @timgloege observes, the quadrilateral is not a definition but "a prospectus for a theological agenda. ... It offers theological slogans that make respectable evangelicals feel better about themselves." religiondispatches.org/itsnotus-being…
The quadrilateral, especially biblicism and conversionism, are shifting goalposts that allow evangelicals to exclude anyone they don't like while preserving themselves from critique.

"Those folks over there don't take the Bible seriously. They aren't truly converted."
This is not only the basis for authoritarianism, but it also leads directly to the anti-intellectualism that Olson names. Anti-intellectualism is not a distortion of these characteristics; it is their logical fulfillment.
The quadrilateral, taken objectively, does not distinguish evangelicalism from any other early Protestant group and thus it fails to perform the analytical work it claims to do. What makes the quadrilateral *evangelical* is how it gets used to police boundaries.
For a better definition of evangelicalism, @timgloege is helpful: "Evangelicalism...was the application of enlightenment ideas about self and society to Protestantism. And the core conviction this produced was the belief that God interacted primarily with individual believers."
This is from @timgloege's excellent piece at the @anxious_bench patheos.com/blogs/anxiousb…
Evangelicalism is thus essentially authoritarian neoliberal Christianity, meaning a form of Christianity that is systematically individualistic, denying structural ways of thinking & living, which enforces boundaries defined arbitrarily based on perceived loyalty to leadership.
Or as I've put it before, evangelicalism is the inability to see the world in systemic, structural terms.
As @AntheaButler and @kkdumez have pointed out, defining evangelicalism according to Bebbington's theological concepts allows evangelicals to deny that there is an evangelical culture that enforces a culture of whiteness. kristindumez.com/resources/defi…
The perceived neutrality, objectivity, and universality of the quadrilateral serves as ideological cover for the fact that these terms have been covertly defined in a way so as to reinforce a particular culture that demands total obedience and unwavering fidelity.
Of course, it's precisely the appearance of neutrality, objectivity, and universality that should indicate there is a problem.
Olson says we need to work to "correct these tendencies." He admits that he "struggle[s] with the question of whether these weaknesses are actual endemic to evangelical Christianity or whether they could be overcome with success."
It is to Olson's credit that he even struggles with this question; most evangelicals do not. But until he and others recognize that these "tendencies" are baked into the foundation of evangelicalism, we will make no progress at all. The whole edifice needs to come down. END
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