Monthly Archives: September 2010

A Time to Tear Down? Thoughts on Evangelicalism’s Supposed Political and Musical Divisions (James)

[I beg forgiveness for the looseness of this argument. Though it is meant to counteract what I view as hazy notions of Evangelicalism, I’m not sure that at present I can provide much more than hazy notions of its past.]

Though some observers argue that the Evangelical distinctives of worship style and conservative politics may not abide much longer, I argue that neither is essential to Evangelicalism, nor its specific axis (the Ockenga, Graham et al. coalition formed in the 1940s) under consideration on this blog. It is possible, though, that they have become integral to the present American instance of Evangelicalism, and that their demise spells that of our coalition.

Evangelicalism is a coalition. The NAE’s earliest members included Methodists, Mennonites and Pentecostals. Against my confrere’s fright at the present diffuseness of Evangelical music, I find it hard to imagine a 1940s member of any of the these denominations easily and humanly adapting to the worship style of another. We’ve moved a long way from the era of Keith Green, yes, but Evangelicals did well to exist as a coalition before the 1970s. While today one may keep to one’s own sphere of any sort of Christian or semi-Christian music, even in the time of Green, one might have preferred Larry Norman, or any number of Gospel quartets, or the even listening to the simple inoffensiveness of Pat Boone or Lawrence Welk. Musical diversity is nothing new. Perhaps the praise music phenomenon should be viewed as a blight not only on lyrical and chordal creativity, but also on musical diversity in the church. At its beginning, Evangelical music comprised classic Protestant hymnody, the Harmonia Sacra and Gospel music.

As with Contemporary Christian Music, the Evangelical coalition preceded by decades the Southern Strategy and the Moral Majority. If we find that today’s young Evangelicals are rejecting the Dobsons, Falwells and Robertsons of their youth, we should judge this as classical Evangelical behavior, for evangelicals have always striven to strike a balance between piety and action, culture building and culture critique. The Fundamentalists were children of the Progressivists. D.L. Moody, to pick just one example, is known both for soul-saving and for concern for the impoverished. Closer to home, the Evangelical Left, though largely redacted from our self-understanding, has the same institutional and intellectual pedigree of the Republicanism we assume Evangelicalism to stand for (George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, 74-75).

Of course, the very existence of concerned observers suggests that not all is well. To my mind, it is the understanding by many Evangelicals of these distinctives as markers of true faith that threatens the existence of the broad coalition. Evangelicalism cannot last if disagreement over worship style and politics fester. In my experience, the compromise of singing traditional tunes at 8 am and newer ones at 10 am, if overly accommodating, has kept us worshipping together (or at least in the same building). The greater present concern seems to be the political. We will not dwell together in unity if we reject the tension between critique and construction our forbears wrestled. I’m not sure many Evangelicals know the provenance of their conservatism; I certainly was unfamiliar with the legitimacy of politically liberal Evangelicalism until very recently, so perhaps education regarding the breadth of Evangelical political opinion and the ingratiating strategies of the political right wing would restore unity. But, again, we must decide whether we are truly at a point threatening disunity.

I’m tempted to say that we have gone from an era of political breadth to one of two disparate parties; however, I’m not sure that at any point during the coalition those at the political poles wouldn’t have appeared to belong to separate parties. It seems a matter of historical fact that both Jim Wallis and George W. Bush are Evangelicals. In the political matters, they are at each other’s throats, but both still hold to the same Evangelical creed. The same is true today of Ben Lowe and those evangelicals attempting to ‘restore honor‘ to American life. Evangelicalism, we must always remind ourselves, is something rather basic and low-level. It is a trans-denominational commitment and pattern of belief and action. It is not trans-denominational and not non-denominational; it encompasses and does not erase differences of theological, political and doxological belief and practice. Sociologically, we will continue to be Evangelical while we hold to the Gospel in the manner described by Bebbington. May we not betray this unity of thought and action with anathemas by one political pole against the other.


Roger Olsen on Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Stephen)

In an insightful blog post, Arminian Baptist theologian Roger E. Olsen has pointed to an intriguing and yet disconcerting shift in the definition of evangelicalism.  Whereas Fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell and Dallas Theological Seminary would have at one time held themselves at a distance from neo-evangelicalism, by the 1980s they were claiming that title for themselves:

The general attitude of most post-fundamentalist evangelicals throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s was “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” (a motto touted by the National Association of Evangelicals).

Then something changed.  I experienced it first hand.  While I was in seminary Harold Lindsell’s horrible book The Battle for the Bible fell like a bombshell on American evangelicalism.  The editor of Christianity Today declared quite unequivocally that a person could not be authentically evangelical while rejecting biblical inerrancy (as he defined it).  He named names and implied that evangelical institutions should purge themselves of non-inerrantists.

My seminary never had a doctrinal statement that included inerrancy.  Neither did or does the National Association of Evangelicals.  We were satisfied with “inspiration” and “authority.”  But Lindsell scared the grassroots of evangelicals and opened the door to an influx of fundamentalists who now wanted to be called “evangelical.”  (Sometime during the 1980s Jerry Falwell, among other self-proclaimed fundamentalists, began to call himself an evangelical and somehow managed to get the media to regard his as a leading spokesman for evangelicals.)

It seems to me that PERHAPS what held the post-WW2, post-fundamentalist evangelical movement together were two powerful forces: the NAE (founded in 1942 to be inclusive of many different “styles” of being evangelical) and the huge organizational influence of Billy Graham (who was disliked by fundamentalists for his inclusiveness).  Now, both are waning in influence.  How many contemporary evangelicals listen to the NAE?  Many know little about Billy Graham and his influence is minimal (although he is still considered an icon).

In the absence of any central, unifying force(s) evangelicalism is simply fragmenting.

I can vividly remember a faculty member at a Gordon College faculty forum remarking that the Fundamentalist/neo-evangelical battle is over because the Fundamentalists lost and, for the most part, disappeared.  What Roger Olsen has put his finger on, though, is that this is not in fact the case.  Instead, the majority of American Fundamentalists stealthily migrated into what had been the neo-evangelical coalition (with the shift from Billy Graham to Franklin Graham serving as an illustration of this change in belief and tone), using the same name but taking more extreme positions on issues like dispensationalism, abortion, and biblical inerrancy than had the neo-evangelicals of the 50s.

At the same time, the Conservative Resurgence within the Southern Baptist Convention led to a situation in which one had to be a Calvinist and a biblical inerrantist to avoid suspicion within that denomination.  Soon after this, Southern Baptists became perhaps the dominant voice within evangelicalism, its center having shifted from places like Chicago and Minneapolis to places like Louisville and Orange County, in large part via the political influence of Colorado Springs.  With no “central, unifying force,” as Olsen calls it, the era of a sane evangelical center seems to have passed.