Reevaluating the Relationship Between Anabaptism and Evangelicalism

Regina Wenger

In Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, she argues that white evangelical support for Donald Trump was not an aberration, but the culmination of more than fifty years of evangelicalism’s increasing affinity for militant masculinity. The recent riot and invasion of the US Capitol by persons displaying Christian nationalist slogans adds a tragic concreteness to Du Mez’s claims.1 While Du Mez does not explicitly discuss Anabaptism in her narrative, she presents a definition of evangelicalism in America behind Trump’s ascendency that I believe needs to be wrestled with in historical discussions about Anabaptism’s relationship with evangelicalism after World War II.

Du Mez offers a cultural definition of white evangelicalism specifically tied to consumption. A white evangelical consumer culture exploded in the postwar period with books and resources (e.g. Focus on the Family, Mars Hill Church), Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), and films like the God’s Not Dead series. “Rather than seeking to distinguish between ‘real’ from ‘supposed’ evangelicals,” Du Mez contends, “…it is much more useful to think in terms of the degree to which individuals participate in this evangelical culture of consumption.”2

Du Mez’s definition of evangelicalism runs counter to those of a more theological and doctrinal nature offered by people such as David Bebbington and Thomas Kidd.3 The scholarly conversations about how to best to characterize modern evangelicalism open a Pandora’s Box too extensive to discuss here. Nonetheless, Du Mez’s conceptualization of evangelicalism as participation in a broadly shared Christian consumer culture represents a notable contribution to discussions on the topic.

One of the things that struck me in Du Mez’s description of the diffuse nature of evangelical consumer culture was her observation about its effect on her own Christian Reformed denomination. “My own upbringing in the Christian Reformed Church, a small denomination founded by Dutch immigrants, is a case in point,” she states. “For generations, members defined themselves against American Christianity, but due to the onslaught of evangelical popular culture, large swaths of the denomination are now functionally evangelical in terms of affinity and belief. Denominational boundaries are easily breached by the flow of religious merchandizing.”4

Du Mez’s observation mirrors my own experience as a pastor and lifelong member of various congregations within Mennonite Church USA. Out of both personal and scholarly experience, I think that the pervasiveness of evangelical consumer culture, and its abilities to transgress denominational boundaries, present an intriguing angle from which to evaluate the relationship between evangelicalism and Anabaptism.

Two books, written decades apart, display two distinct approaches for understanding the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism. The first, Norman Kraus’ Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (1979), generally views the two traditions in tension rather than compatible.5 Conversely, Jared Burkholder and David Cramer’s The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (2012) sees the traditions more as able conversation partners.6Additionally, as my Anabaptist Historians colleague Devin Manzullo-Thomas pointed out, there has been an “Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography.”7

What Du Mez’s definition of evangelicalism and her personal aside reveal is a new paradigm for historically interrogating the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism. Have congregations and persons in the Anabaptist tradition become “functionally evangelical”? If so, how and when? For example, would a historical examination of purchasing patterns of Christian education materials in Anabaptist-related congregations shed light on this phenomenon?

One of the reasons I think this relationship needs reevaluation—utilizing Du Mez’s approach—is the extent to which she ties evangelicalism to militancy and Christian nationalism. Our post-2016 conversations about the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism need to more readily grapple with Anabaptism’s positions on peace and nonviolence in conjunction with the rising militancy in postwar evangelicalism that Du Mez charts. The power and pervasiveness of evangelical consumer culture can overwhelm efforts from both the pulpit and denominational publishers.8

I expect new explorations of the relationship between Anabaptism and evangelicalism using Du Mez’s insights would not reveal a doctrinal declination of the former in its interactions with the latter; in that assessment I concur with Burkholder and Cramer.9 However, I also suspect, particularly related to examining matters of war and peace, that the incompatibility that Kraus sees between the two traditions will come to the fore as well.10 And it is because, as these and other texts illustrate, postwar evangelicalism has interacted with Anabaptism in various and complex ways that Du Mez’s culture of consumption definition of evangelicalism can offer insight into histories of contemporary Anabaptism. It is an exploration in which I invite the readers and contributors of Anabaptist Historians to join me in undertaking.


1. “…the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such…” Kristen Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright, 2020), 3. For a recent and more thorough explanation of Christian nationalism, see: Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

2. Du Mez, 8.

3. Bebbington lays out his influential “quadrilateral” description of evangelicalism as characterized by belief in conversion, activism, cruci-centrism, and biblicism in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730 to the 1980s (London: Routledge, 1989). Kidd’s most recent and developed definition of evangelicalism may be found in Who Is an Evangelical?: A History of a Movement in Crisis (New Haven, Yale, 2019).

4. Du Mez, 7-8.

5. Norman Kraus, ed., Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979), reprints are available from Wipf and Stock. In Kraus’ opening chapter, he described an early 1970s “shift in public opinion” regarding evangelicalism, “…heralded by the ‘Honor America’ celebration on July Fourth, 1970, when Billy Graham was featured as the star speaker along with Bob Hope and John Wayne…” Kraus, “What is Evangelicalism?” in Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001), 16-17.

6. Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer, “Introduction,” in Jared S. Burkholder and David C. Cramer, eds., The Activist Impulse: The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 5.

7. Devin C. Manzullo-Thomas, “The Not-So-Quiet in the Land: The Anabaptist Turn in Recent American Evangelical Historiography,” The Conrad Grebel Review, 33, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 359-71.

8. Du Mez, 8.

9. Burkholder and Cramer, 3.

10. In addition, to Kraus, Ted Grimsrud critiques what he sees as an assumption in Burkholder and Cramer that does not strongly consider “the problem of evangelical Christianity (and, actually, Christianity in general) actually tending to influence people to be more violent, not less violent.” Ted Grimsrud, “Anabaptist Evangelicalism?” Thinking Pacifism, blog, July 8, 2012. See also: Ted Grimsrud, “The Activist Impulse: Essays on the Intersection of Evangelicalism and Anabaptism,” The Conrad Grebel Review 31, no. 3 (Fall 2013).

4 thoughts on “Reevaluating the Relationship Between Anabaptism and Evangelicalism

  1. Thanks for this helpful review. The last four years makes much of what we did in The Activist Impulse feel dated already. I would have a much different take today. Regarding evangelical consumer culture, I have been pleasantly surprised by how oblivious some Mennonites are to that world, which I grew up in. It still seems there is a fairly strong Anabaptist counter-culture with things like Mennonite hymody (as opposed to the CCM worship-industrial complex). Some Mennonites have never heard of evangelical luminaries like Piper. If anything, figures like Boyd are breaking down some of those barriers with evangelical-Anabaptist mega-church culture. Anyway, let’s hope for a third volume to reexamine the relationship post-Trump. (I won’t be editing it though!)

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    • You’re welcome, and thanks to you as well, David. I appreciate the work you did on The Activist Impulse. It’s a great collection. I suspect that the last four years have or will alter scholarship in a number of fields significantly. I too am pleasantly surprised by the ways I’ve seen the obliviousness of some Mennonites to evangelical consumer culture; hymnody is a great example. I too hope that they’ll be a third volume on Anabaptism and evangelicalism post Trump. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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  2. In the midst of a lot of reading (including this book) and reflection on my own experience at the often unhappy confluence of anabaptism and evangelicalism, I approach this dialogue (which I support) with hope and pessimism. If we do not face and address the significant differences between these world views and ways of seeing Jesus (and this country,) our congregations will decide for us. They already are. Your attention to this gives me more hope.

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    • Thank you, Wayne. I agree, it is a necessary but tough dialogue. I welcome opportunities where the academy can work alongside the church to engage in this work.

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