Evangelicalism is Dead, and We Have Killed It (Stephen)

Right now this blog has three contributors; to get things going, each will present his assessment of the current state of Evangelicalism. Here’s Stephen’s take:

Like Nietzsche’s “God” (a fill-in for ontological stability, social cohesion, and moral structure), evangelicalism was a fragile thing; we really didn’t know that it was going to leave so quickly, but now we are left picking up the pieces.  As I build my initial post here, arguing (like the other contributors) for a particular take on the question, I will list both characteristics of neo-evangelicalism as it grew into its own cultural matrix and ways in which these characteristics have been and are being irreparably eroded.  [I should make clear here that I am talking about American evangelicalism and about not its relatives in the developing world, which, though related, are usually culturally distinct in important ways.]

Consequently, I will portray neo-evangelicalism as a movement that c. 1942-2008 inherited the mantle of fundamentalism (and of the longer tradition of Anglophone evangelicalism, with roots in German Pietism, British Wesleyanism, and American revivalism) only to watch that mantle dissolve into thin air.  As a result, we now see the spiritual heirs of Billy Graham and Carl Henry left in much the same situation as were American Fundamentalists after the devastating Scopes trial: Without a cultural home or a persuasive political outlet.  Only this time, the silence will be permanent: There will be no evangelical resurrection because the cultural preconditions for neo-evangelicalism and its spiritual forebears have dissipated; whatever comes next will only bear a passing resemblance to the neo-evangelical coalition.

1. Conversionism: At the heart of evangelicalism has always been the free church and revivalist emphasis on personal decision to follow Christ and to accept his substitutionary atonement.  But, as many of the remaining evangelicals among us often lament, sermons about the necessity of salvation from sin, let alone about hell, are becoming rare.  Because of the recent cultural bent toward absolute religious tolerance, even people who believe in exclusivist accounts of human salvation (accounts in which some, even most, will suffer eternally in hell) are reluctant to bring this up.  Despite the hostility directed toward the “seeker sensitive” movement, almost all conservative Protestants in the US are now seeker sensitive whether they like it or not, hesitating to bring up theological convictions that may deeply offend others.

2. Religion in the Public Square: This hesitation is the result of a massive shift in the location of the “public square” in American life.  Whereas the 1954 addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to the US flag captured the mood of a nation in which at least the appearance of Christian piety was demanded of its leaders, by 1992 (500 years after Columbus’ journey) remorse about the treatment of Native Americans had shifted the playing field such that any party could take offense and receive compensation in social capital (not that this was entirely a bad thing).  This feeling of guilt toward the non-white other was accompanied by a religious de-centering away from the evangelical and mainline Protestant core of American religious life.  Regardless of the continued numerical dominance of Protestantism, it seemed that common decency forbade too robust a Protestant presence in American public life.  Although civic religion was nothing new, it used to be more explicitly monotheistic (Judeo-Christian, as they say) and to lend itself to an assumed common foundation in vaguely Protestant Christianity as a least common denominator.

3. Cultural Authority: In a related manner, what Upton Sinclair’s Elmer Gantry failed to do to the continued cultural authority of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible, and ministers was gradually done by a wide array of cultural actors.  Within evangelicalism, televangelist scandals, residual fundamentalist rigidity, and rejections of scientific consensus on issues like biological evolution made enough of a combined impact to lighten the weight that was formerly ascribed to the claims of evangelical Christians.  Furthermore, the sexual revolution (and other cultural shifts), along with disappointment toward the cultural establishment involved in Vietnam and Watergate, had the effect of moving American culture away from residual respect for social (including religious) authority.

4. Political Friction: While we cannot uncritically accept claims that young people are leaving evangelicalism because of its connection (since 1978 or so) with the Republican Party, the fact that evangelicals joined with Catholics on issues of human life and sexuality has caused some friction.  And it is not that young (post)-evangelicals are pro-choice or even rabidly environmentalist on the whole.  Rather, the previous generations who were associated with neo-evangelicalism (more or less those who voted for Ronald Reagan) imbibed a whole host of cultural and political assumptions – worldview garnish, if you will – that are anathema to the generation of evangelicals who cast their first votes for Barack Obama.  These shifts in cultural assumptions range from the turn to multiculturalism during the early 90s (which today’s young post-evangelicals experienced as children) to a lack of fear regarding nations on other continents among people too young to remember any Soviet leader before Gorbachev.  Of course, not all young evangelicals are Democrats or even politically left-leaning, but the lens through which they filter political drama is markedly different from that of their parents (e.g., even mildly racist humor is seen as utterly unacceptable); this phenomenon is linked to the alienation of young people (who once heavily preferred Reagan and George H. W. Bush) from the Republican party.

5. A Decline in Institutional Commitment: As James noted below, younger evangelicals usually no longer identify with specific denominations.  Even those who do, though, do so apologetically and with the understanding that their particular denomination is by no means perfect in its beliefs or history.  Although one could look for exceptions among the neo-Reformed wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, even there a new ecumenical irenicism (at least toward fellow conservative Reformed evangelicals, though usually farther reaching) has taken hold.  So it is, for instance, unlikely that the younger generation would have taken the step of banning Southern Baptists who have spoken in tongues from serving as SBC missionaries (while the generation in power did just that) – even neo-Reformed folks are sometimes charismatic.  At the same time, the trend away from institutional attachment mirrors a broader trend in American culture, as Robert Putnam famously argued has occurred in Bowling Alone; organizations have little hold on us even if we wish that they did.

6. Media-Driven Fragmentation: This phenomenon has prevented the preservation of the neo-evangelical coalition in the wake of the decline of institutional commitment.  Although we might be optimistic in light of the apparent ecumenical orientation of many younger evangelicals, this mostly holds true among the college-educated set and even there is not unanimous.  Instead, evangelicals (who once held to a least common denominator theology and a cohesive political perspective) have divided into multiple tribes, each with their own media outlets and conferences.  There is no longer a standard-bearer such as Christianity Today that can act as the undisputed and objective referee among the various factions.  As Scot McKnight notes, conferences such as the N. T. Wright extravaganza at Wheaton College and the Together for the Gospel gathering this past year (let alone the multiplicity of emergent and Pentecostal/charismatic conferences that you haven’t even heard about) act as focal points of distinct tribes within what used to be evangelicalism.  Now, though, they have less and less in common, not even agreeing on what “the gospel” is.  This is a clear sign of the demise of neo-evangelicalism as a cohesive cultural or social entity, whatever its claim to theological truth may have been (back when it existed).

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  • Patrick  On August 8, 2010 at 5:09 am

    My reaction was basically this:

    Yeah, that’s all true, but I think all of it boils down to the fact that

    1) most people just don’t care (which I regard as a concise summation of your six points) and

    2) those that would care are de-converted when they get a good deal of archaeology/bib crit/biology/rational thought.

    • Stephen  On August 8, 2010 at 5:18 am

      I agree that “most [younger] people don’t care,” but I am really interested in why that is. If only from a cultural perspective, this is a big enough story that it is important to understand just what has happened. I don’t think that your second point explains it for most people, if only because we are probably two of the five people on the planet to have those exact influences. Most people who abandon evangelicalism don’t do so because “it doesn’t make sense from every single point of theological and historical analysis” but because “it doesn’t make as much sense within the current cultural atmosphere as it did within the previous one,” even if they wouldn’t state it that way.


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