The Anthony B. Susan Field Guide to American Christianity

Not fluent in American Evangelicalese? Do not fear, Anthony B. Susan is here to translate! Below, I’ve listed phrases, acronyms, and public figures that you’ll see frequently in my coverage of American Christianity. This page is a work in progress, so suggestions are welcome.

ABWE: Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. Prominent American Baptist mission board, plagued by its historical failures to address the sexual abuse of missionary children. Its former president, Michael Loftis, is on the Board of Trustees at Cedarville University, despite the fact he resigned from ABWE in disgrace for failures in leadership.

ATI: Advanced Training Institute. A homeschool curriculum designed by Bill Gothard and his supporters. ATI is strictly complementarian and promotes itself as a Biblically based educational alternative for families. It is produced by another Gothardite organization, the Institute in Basic Life Principles or IBLP. ATI uses Wisdom Booklets, rather than traditional textbooks. Ostensibly, ATI fulfils state requirements for high school education, but ATI is not intended to prepare students for higher education. ATI students can attend Training Centers for more intensive instruction in ATI principles. Boys participate in ATI’s ALERT Cadet program, which features intense physical training and wilderness activities and feature heavy paramilitary overtones. Girls attend COMMIT conferences and are trained exclusively to become homemakers.

Calvinism: Also called Reformed Christianity. Named for John Calvin. Calvinists adhere to five major doctrinal tenets, often identified by the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverence of the saints. According to five-point Calvinists, humanity is intrinsically and totally depraved, and cannot save itself. They also believe that God elects (chooses) the redeemed, that Christ’s sacrifice covers the elect alone, that one cannot resist God’s election, and that the elect cannot lose their salvation. Not all Calvinists are complementarian; one Reformed denomination actually ordains women. Famous American Calvinists include Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and yes, Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Christian adoption movement: Adherents of the Christian adoption movement adopt foreign children as a missionary activity. Adoptive parents believe they have a religious obligation to adopt children in order to expose them to Christianity. This movement has been criticized by journalists like Kathryn Joyce for its willingness to bend or, in some cases, break international adoption laws. Proponents: Russell Moore, Steven Curtis Chapman, the Christian Alliance for Orphans.

Christian homeschool movement: The Christian homeschool movement emerged in the 1970s and promotes home education as a superior alternative to secular public education. Members of this movement believe that Christian parents have the responsibility to properly educate their children in a culturally pure environment. They are strong proponents of parental rights, and are often politically engaged, thanks to organizations like the Homeschool Legal Defense Association. Due to the efforts of advocacy groups like Homeschoolers Anonymous, the Christian homeschool movement is increasingly becoming the object of scrutiny for its support of lax state regulations that fail to protect child abuse in homeschool families.

Christian Reconstructionism: Also known as Dominionism. Christian Reconstructionism is a fringe movement that supports Christian domination in the United States. Christian Reconstructionists do not support the separation of church and state. Rather, they believe that the government should be run by the church, and that the United States would benefit from the implementation of religious law. There is overlap between Christian Reconstructionism and white supremacy, but the movements are distinct. Famous Christian Reconstructionists include RJ Rushdoony, Douglas Wilson, and Doug Phillips.

Christian Zionists: Christian Zionists believe that the fate of Israel is integral to certain End Times events. For example: the Battle of Armageddon is to occur in Megiddo, Israel. Additionally, they believe that Solomon’s Temple will be rebuilt, then defiled by the Antichrist. Christian Zionists are politically active on behalf of Israel because they believe that these events must unfold in a particular way in order for Christ to return.

Complementarianism: A conservative approach to gender roles, defined by the belief that men are to lead in the church and the home. Complementarians believe that men and women have equal intrinsic worth, but that women are designed to submit and men are designed to lead. Some complementarians are more extreme than others. For example: soft complementarians might permit a woman to serve as a church deacon, while strict complementarians ban women entirely from spiritual leadership. Well known American complementarians include Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem.

Dispensationalism: Proposed by John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren sect, dispensationalism divides Christian history into certain temporal periods, or dispensations. Dispensationalism is now a mainstream Christian belief. Christians use dispensationalism to exempt themselves from Old Testament law; they believe that after the crucifixion, God sent the Holy Spirit to Earth and gifted Christians with the ability to interpret the law for themselves, which represented the start of a new dispensation in church history. Each dispensation, therefore, represents a shift in God’s relationship with humanity. This doctrine also influences Christian approaches to Revelation. Dispensationalists are typically pre-milliennialists. They believe that after a literal Rapture and a literal Tribulation of seven years, Jesus will literally reign over the Earth for 1000 years as the head of Israel’s theocratic government (this represents a distinct dispensation). For obvious reasons, it’s also related to Christian Zionism.

Egalitarianism: Roughly, it’s feminist Christianity. Egalitarians believe that conservatives misinterpret Biblical passages on female leadership in the church and the home. They favor the concept of ‘mutual submission;’ husbands and wives submit to each other. Not all egalitarians identify as feminists, but egalitarianism is defined by its commitment to gender equality. Well known American egalitarians include Rachel Held Evans and Douglas and Rebecca Groothius.

Emergent Christianity: An offshoot of Western Protestant Christianity that characterizes itself as a more progressive, less hierarchical religious practice. It is not a denomination, and therefore, there is no official leadership board. Emergent Christians often describe themselves as ‘purple’ Christians, uncomfortable with both political parties and with the Republicanization of the church. Congregations are typically small, and often meet in homes. Emergent services typically vary; there is no set order of services, but they do often feature the use of liturgy and homilies as opposed to traditional sermons. Emergent Christians try to eschew legalism, and as a result, follow fewer lifestyle restrictions. Well known American Emergents include Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, and Tony Jones. Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and Searching for God Knows What, is also usually considered an Emergent.

Evangelical Christianity: Encompasses a wide range of denominations and interpretations. Traditionally, Evangelicalism’s focus is exactly what its names implies: evangelism. For this reason, Evangelicals are not typically separatists. There is overlap with fundamentalist Christianity, though the movements are distinct. Evangelicals are, historically, Biblical literalists. They are also more likely to actively interact with the political process; Evangelicals are customarily more willing to ally with Catholics, Mormons, and other religious movements on behalf of socially conservative campaigns and politicians. Evangelicals are usually, but not exclusively, complementarian. And although Evangelicalism has built a reputation as a reliably conservative voting bloc, there is evidence that many American Evangelicals are moving away from certain conservative tenets, and there is growing support for immigration reform, legal contraception, and even marriage equality, particularly among young Evangelicals. Well known American Evangelicals include Billy Graham, Chuck Swindoll, and James Dobson. Famous evangelical colleges and universities include Wheaton College, Calvin College, and Liberty University. Evangelical seminaries include Dallas Theological Seminary, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and Beeson Divinity School.

Exodus International: Recently closed, Exodus International supported the use of reparative therapy as a means to ‘cure’ queer attractions. Exodus International promoted the use of ‘same sex attaction’ or SSA rather than ‘queer’ to reflect the belief that homosexuality is a pathology. It enjoyed the support of organizations like Focus on the Family and the Family Research Council.

Family Research Council: Headed by Tony Perkins, the Family Research Council is a fundamentalist organization. It recently hired Quiverfull superstar Joshua Duggar. Like Focus on the Family, it promotes traditional gender roles and the idea that GLBT Americans are pursuing a ‘homosexual agenda’ against traditional values.

Focus on the Family: Founded by psychologist James Dobson, Focus on the Family is a conservative Evangelical organization that promotes traditional gender roles and actively organizes against GLBT equality in the United States.

Fundamentalist Christianity: As with evangelicalism, a variety of denominations and movements can be classified as fundamentalist. Again, like Evangelicals, fundamentalists are Biblical literalists. The name is derived from The Fundamentals: A Testimony of Truth, a series of essays published in the early twentieth century that establish certain precedents for contemporary fundamentalism. Specifically, these essays promoted a belief in certain absolute truths, and attacked philosophies that the authors  perceived as relativistic. This tendency remains a hallmark of Christian fundamentalism.  Fundamentalists are strictly complementarian and are more likely to be separatists; ie, they follow strict lifestyle requirements, and are less likely to interact with mainstream society. They are politically conservative, and many are libertarian, due to the belief that the state is inherently corrupt. Many, but not all, fundamentalists use the King James Version of the Bible exclusively. Many Fundamentalists are Calvinists; there are also fundamentalist Baptists and non-denominational fundamentalists. But all share the basic belief that Christianity is threatened by relativism, and that relativism must be actively opposed and even attacked. Well known American Christian fundamentalists include Michael Farris, Ken Ham, and Tony Perkins. Fundamentalist colleges and universities include Bob Jones University, Tennessee Temple University, and Pensacola Christian College. Fundamentalist seminaries include The Master’s Seminary, Maranatha Baptist Bible Seminary, and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

GARBC: General Association of Regular Baptists. A small denomination of fundamentalist Baptists. GARBC is strictly complementarian. Cedarville University affiliated itself with the GARBC until 2006.

Gothardites: Followers of Bill Gothard. Gothardites homeschool exclusively, using ATI curriculum. They eschew the use of contraception, and can therefore be considered part of the Quiverfull movement. Gothardites are strict complementarians. Men are designed to lead, and women are designed to follow. Women do not customarily leave home to work or attend college. Men are also discouraged from attending college. There are exceptions; however, individuals who attend even a Christian college or university will find themselves subject to intense criticism. Gothardites also have strict lifestyle requirements. Women wear skirts of at least knee-length. Secular music is discouraged. Alcohol consumption is not allowed. Neither are tattoos.

GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments. Founded by Boz Tchividjian, grandson of Billy Graham, GRACE investigates sexual abuse in Christian ministries and schools. It investigated the abuse of missionary children at a New Tribes Mission school. ABWE hired it investigate the abuse of its own missionary children, only to fire it in order to hire a firm believed to be friendly to ABWE.

Homeschoolers Anonymous: Founded by Nicholas Ducote and Riot Stollar, Homeschoolers Anonymous (HA) advocates for increased state regulation of home education, based on high rates of child abuse within the movement. HA members and supporters come from a variety of backgrounds. Many are from Quiverfull or Gothardite families. Others were homeschooled with more mainstream Christian materials. All agree that state regulation is necessary to protect homeschooled children from abuse. Note: this blog actively partners with Homeschoolers Anonymous.

HSLDA: The Homeschool Legal Defense Association. Founded by Michael Farris, the HSLDA believes that parents have an inalienable right to home educate their children. The HSLDA provides a legal defense for parents who feel their right to homeschool is threatened by the state. Controversially, the HSLDA makes a practice of doing so even when parents have been accused of child abuse. The HSLDA opposes any government regulation of homeschooling, and partners with extremist parental rights groups that include anti-vaccination organizations and men’s rights groups.

Missional Christianity: Missional Christians  believe that the Christian life is a missionary life. Missional Christians are actively engaged with their communities in an effort to transform them. They often settle in urban communities with the intent of embedding themselves within that community; they are less concerned about door to door evangelism, and more concerned with practical manifestations of faith, like feeding the local homeless or providing an after school refuge for children. Missional Christians are not necessarily Emergent, but there is overlap.

New Tribes Mission: An American Protestant mission board. It is the subject of significant controversy due to its failure to adequately protect missionary children from sexual abuse, and its failure to properly investigate abuse claims.

No Longer Quivering: A blog and website founded by ex-Quiverfull women. They are highly critical of the Quiverfull movement.

Pentecostal Christianity: Pentecostal churches believe that the miracle gifts, like healing and speaking in tongues, are still active in the church. Evangelicals and Fundamentalists disagree. Pentecostal churches are also often referred to as Charismatic churches. They are not strictly complementarian, but they are socially conservative.

Plymouth Brethren: Divided into Open and Exclusive Brethren. Brethren do not refer to themselves as Plymouth Brethren; they simply refer to themselves as Christians or, rarely, as Brethren. Plymouth Brethren churches are often called ‘chapels’ or ‘gospel halls.’ Founded by John Nelson Darby, they are dispensationalist and conservative. Women cover their hair during services, and do not speak except to sing hymns. Brethren are suspicious of church hierarchy. Congregations are deliberately small, and are governed by an elder board, not a pastor. Exclusive Brethren are strictly separatist, follow legalistic lifestyle requirements, and can be accurately called a cult. Open Brethren do not engage in cultish behavior. Note: author’s parents affiliate with the Open Plymouth Brethren. 

SBC: Southern Baptist Convention. The SBC has always been conservative. It is strictly complementarian, and has backed politicians like Mike Huckabee and George W. Bush. Controversially, it is steadily shifting from a conservative Evangelical affiliation to a more fundamentalist approach to faith.

SGM: Sovereign Grace Ministries. SGM identifies both as Pentecostal and Calvinist. It became the subject of national attention after victims of sexual abuse sued its leadership for an extensive abuse cover up.

Quiverfull Christianity: Quiverfull Christianity is defined primarily by its followers’ refusal to use family planning. Rather, they believe they have a religious obligation to produce as many as children as possible. The name is derived from Psalm 127:5, which reads: ‘Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.’ Them, in this instance, refers to children. For Quiverfull Christians, ‘be fruitful and multiply’ is a divine mandate. Quiverfull Christians adhere to the concept of Biblical patriarchy, a version of complementarianism. In this system, fathers have unchecked control over their households, similar to the Old Testament patriarchs.  Women are completely subject to their male head. Daughters typically stay at home until marriage, and these marriages must be approved by the father. In some cases, the father actually arranges the marriages. Quiverfull children are homeschooled and do not date; rather, they ‘court’ in a chaperoned process entirely controlled by the parents, particularly the father. Boys cannot court a girl with explicit approval from her father. Daughters do not typically receive higher education, though some take distance learning classes. Well known Quiverfull Christians include Doug Phillips of Vision Forum, the Duggars, and the Botkin Family.

Vision Forum: Founded by Doug Phillips, Vision Forum is a fundamentalist organization that promotes Quiverfull values and sells homeschool curriculum, based on their interpretation of the classical model of education. They are Dominionist and there is overlap with Southern reconstructionism. For example, their online store sells Civil War reenactment materials, but it is only possible to buy Confederate memorabilia. Vision Forum produces its own films in an attempt to present a fundamentalist Christian alternative to secular media. Until very recently, it also sold the controversial Elsie Dinsmore series, which idealize a passive female heroine who submits to physical and sexual abuse. Vision Forum actively discourages girls from attending college or university.

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11 thoughts on “The Anthony B. Susan Field Guide to American Christianity

  1. Thanks for this. It’s a useful guide as far as it goes. Your focus is on the “conservative” side of American Christianity – there is nothing on the progressive side. Items/entities/movements worth exploring are contemplatives/mystics (Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault), Open and Affirming Congregations (most UCC, some Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), others. Perhaps presenting a broader picture is worthwhile. Just a thought.

    • Thanks for the suggestion! I started with the denominations and movement I cover most here on the blog. I think I might start a separate section for affirming denominations/movements as an extra resource for readers.

  2. I would just add that international adoption is pretty in vogue right now in american culture (Angelina Jolie being the most obvious example) and isn’t really exclusive to christianity (except for the missionary part).

    Also what good is a field guide without a dichotomous key (aka flow chart)? 😉

  3. This has been incredibly enlightening. In college, I had some negative encounters with a Calvinist who espoused extreme misogyny (no female clergy, believed marital rape was okay because of “submission”). He later got in trouble when he was discovered to be actively involved with white supremacists movements (to be clear, I wasn’t friends with this person, we just had the same major and it was a small department, so there was no avoiding him). Reading about the connections here makes everything make sense suddenly.

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