I am not an American, so I am a little wary about discussing the socio-political context of religion in the US, especially when I was the first to shout ‘anti-American’ when I perceived Bishop Alan Wilson’s description of freedom of religion in the US as caricature.
There are two related things that the article does not touch on: the place of race in US evangelicalism and a change in the country’s First Believer. I have this nagging suspicion that when the article talks about evangelicals that it really means white evangelicals. After all, evangelicalism in the United States has been segregated along racial lines since the abolition of slavery. Even though segregationist attitudes have mostly disappeared, the conservative nature of church institutions continues to separate US evangelicalism into two racially distinct cultures. Even the signifier ‘evangelical’ is often only used in the US context to stand for ‘white evangelical’ (this is not the case elsewhere), whereas the ‘black evangelical movement’ is called ‘Black Church’; that is the white half is designated by religion, while the black half designated by race. Perhaps it is no wonder that a white American evangelical might see only half of the picture.
The second thing here is the election of Barack Obama. His election was widely seen as a defeat for the so-called ‘religious right’ (who are, no doubt, a more complex grouping than many consider them to be). However, Obama is a committed Christian and member of the Methodist Church (which is usually seen as evangelical, but is perhaps more mainstream Protestant in the modern US context). Obama is often described as ‘liberal’ by those on the political right, but his ‘liberalism’ is widely supported in the Black Church: just mention Civil Rights Movement. Of course, seeing as African Americans are more likely than their faded compatriots to be poor, imprisoned or the victim of crime, it is little surprise that the Black Church has deeper feeling for ‘social gospel’ in place of the tendency to the ‘prosperity gospel’ that often seems a heartbeat away from the religious lifestyle advocated in the White Church.
Both black and white evangelicals in the US have equal passion for Christ and his Gospel, but social context has shaped how that Gospel is know in both communities, often to the extent that it is not recognised in the other. The unbalanced application of signifiers also makes it possible to see the election of Barack Obama as a defeat for evangelicalism and a victory for liberalism, which reduces the complex interaction of ideas in US politics and religion to a single, insufficient dichotomy.
And this is something I think the article gets right: that evangelicals (that is, white evangelicals) “have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism”. By denying any chance for adaptation and progress, the movement has consigned itself to decline. It means that evangelicalism has defined itself more as anti-abortion and anti-gay than by its doctrinal basis. Once you turn a religion into a pressure group, you loose much of value to hand on to future generations. Alongside the socio-political agenda is the evangelical culture that promotes Christian music, Christian clothes, Christian holidays, to the extent that evangelicalism has become somewhat like a gated community in society, cosy in its ignorance of the world. Again, once the religion is just a lifestyle choice there’s little of value to pass on. The isolationist and anti-progressive turn taken by US evangelicalism has led to an inability for evangelicals to ‘do good’ in society. As the article points out, outreach ministries will be increasingly forced to cover over their evangelical connections to be able to operate in a world that increasingly considers evangelical social input to be damaging.
And “the money will dry up”. And the question will be asked, can the evangelical churches do poor, can the megachurches eat humble pie? The extent to which prosperity gospel underpins evangelical righteousness will be tested.
“Expect evangelicalism to look more like the pragmatic, therapeutic, church-growth oriented megachurches that have defined success.” Big churches that meet social and psychological needs will survive, but fail to have meaningful theological and prophetic interactions with the wider world. Conversions to traditional, liturgical churches, like Catholicism or Orthodoxy increase to fill the void in theological meaning when evangelicals become a socio-political clique. Likewise, the ’emergent’ church (new church projects relying on innovative patterns of being a Christian community) will likely blend into the Protestant ‘liberal’ mainstream for a variety of reasons, not least their needs to become established, stable communities and develop a doctrinal stance that can fit with real-world engagement.
“Charismatic-Pentecostal Christianity will become the majority report in evangelicalism. Can this community withstand heresy, relativism, and confusion? To do so, it must make a priority of biblical authority, responsible leadership, and a reemergence of orthodoxy.” Although, perhaps it will end up realising that the thriving movement in the Black Church would be its rightful home.
The article hopes for a ‘rescue mission’ for the US church from Asia and Africa. I’ve always been somewhat sceptical about this so-called ‘reverse’ missionary work. My sociological understanding of what went by the name of ‘mission’ is that it was the religious arm of imperialism. Is it any wonder that a rescue mission from African-American evangelicals is not countenanced?
I made a brief comment to Jeff about the change in evangelicalism in Britain at the end of empire, as I thought it might be comparable. The guiding spirit of Victorian evangelicalism was Muscular Christianity, facing death and dysentery to spread the Word to the ignorant subjects of the Queen Empress. Evangelicals tailored their religion perfectly to imperial politics, and has had much difficulty moving on from that. What an American might describe as ‘mainstream Protestant’ is the rump of the post-imperial decline in Muscular Christianity. Evangelical leadership became entrenched in the wealthy upper-middle class, and has remained there (Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course are shining examples of where the evangelical leadership in Britain are). Cultural influence from US white evangelicalism have been increasing since the seventies, especially in new evangelical, charismatic and house churches. This means that British evangelicalism could well feel a knock on from any decline in its transatlantic sister. British evangelicalism remains a most wealthy portion of British Christianity and has integrated well with mainstream Protestant churches, but has remained largely disengaged from society since the fall of empire and generally ignored.
If you’re American, if you’re an evangelical, what are your thoughts on the challenges facing evangelicalism?