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Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Have US evangelicals reached the end of the road?


Thanks to Jeff Volkmer for pointing me to an article in The Christian Science Monitor from March this year titled  The coming evangelical collapse. The article gets close to going apocalyptic and rehearsing favoured conspiracy theories, but manages to get in enough social and theological reflection on the state of US evangelicalism to give food for thought.

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?

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

2 thoughts on “Have US evangelicals reached the end of the road?

  1. Evangelicals in America have generally sided with political conservatism from the 1960’s. Today it is difficult to be an orthodox evangelical and a member of what is commonly considered the “left” in American politics because an orthodox evangelical would believe in the concepts of sin, hell, homosexuality as a sin, etc. The American left believes in none of these things and believes that evangelicals are retrograde knuckle-draggers. Unsurprisingly, the American political left has no desire to associate with or consult orthodox evangelicals when dealing with any policy issues.

    Perhaps the only areas of policy an orthodox evangelical could find agreement on with the left leaning parts of American politics are the need for healthcare reform (with the detail of said reform left undecided- there would be strong disagreement on abortion as witnessed by the Catholic church), on environmentalism (God left us as stewards but we are hesitant to deal wit the immediately obvious human cost that results from destroying the economy), and a desire for an income tax that does not punish the poor. I am sure that there are others, this is not an exhaustive list but I can say as an orthodox evangelical that I am not welcome in the American political left unless I submit my view of the world first and foremost to the worldview of the American left.

    As for why many orthodox evangelicals side with the conservative party (the Republican party) and in particular why many evangelicals side so openly with a capitalist economic system I would say that Americans have a strong propensity to look down on laziness in society. American Christians have a strong cultural tendency (no doubt inherited from our Puritan forefathers) to view hard work as work done as to God and laziness as the sin that it is. Paul commanded the Thessalonians to withhold Christian charity to those who would (2 Thess3:10) not work because he knew that laziness is a sin and that rewarding laziness creates yet more people he described as busybodies. As Christians we never believed that the government could decouple utopian social policy from the unintended consequences these policies would create. We never accepted the premise that people are inherently good and would not take advantage of generous social policies to create a vicious cycle of dependency and downward social mobility. Our christian world view made us skeptical of the left’s social engineering and frequently leaves us by default as conservatives.

    Hope this provides some context. As for the apparent ascendency of Barack Obama and left of center politics all I can say is that this too will pass.

    • Thank you for your thoughts.

      I am interested in your first sentence: that the 1960s can be considered the birth era of modern US evangelicalism with its socio-political context and agenda. The obvious thing to point out is that it is a reaction to the permissiveness of that era, but I don’t think that can be the whole picture. I think a lot must also be due to increasing economic security for white middle-income, middle-class households, as money is one factor that the original article points to.

      All too easily, ideological debate, whether theological or political, can become polarised. In such a situation is virtually impossible to understand and communicate with your opposite. I have found it takes huge effort and attentiveness to recognise the commonality of experience in the other and begin to hear where they are coming from. Then there’s the added social pressure: you get labelled a sell-out or waverer if you seek to understand those on the other side. From my British point of view, I find it difficult that what is described as ‘left’ in US politics is what is mainstream in the rest of the world, and the ‘right’ is seen as extreme.

      I find it interesting that, as an evangelical, you can point to key ‘left’ policies and feel in agreement with them: health care reform, environmentalism and tax reform. Two of these are clearly taken from a ‘pastoral’ view of society, that we should care for our poorest and weakest. Evangelical support for environmentalism is interesting, even given some scriptural support, because it comes up against the concerns of big business. The monied base of US evangelicalism is hampered from taking up the prophetic voice against the excesses of capital greed and its effect on people and planet.

      It is sad to hear that the social division between evangelicals and the ‘liberal’ core of supporters of these causes prevents you, and others, from joining your voice to theirs. Although the social divisions are not as stark, I find it important to be a visible part of campaigning causes, while being up front and honest about my faith. I think the important thing for gaining trust has been to be first and foremost there for the cause, with faith there as a personal background to my support. After all, crossing divisions feels like a rather Christlike thing to do.

      I don’t really know about the history of the much vaunted Protestant Work Ethic. It still is very much a part of European social understanding: with hard-working northern Europeans and lazy southerners (although the reality seems to be that northerners are just far more anxious about their work). It is difficult to know what the context of the Thessalonian church is. Other NT sources seem to suggest that churches practise economic collectivism. Someone not pulling their weight within a collective is about failure to partake rather than undeserving of charity. It is particularly of note that Paul compounds laziness with failure to keep the ‘tradition’, which seems to stand for apostolic example: they are lazy because they do not follow the example set by Paul and his companions. On the other hand, almsgiving and handouts seem to have an important place in the Jerusalem church, with servers being specially appointed to oversee the distribution of aid to widows, who were unlikely to be pulling much weight. Given this, I find the Protestant Work Ethic to be a rather selective eisegesis.

      All things but God change, and US politics will swing some other way. I don’t believe the original article’s ‘postevangelical’ author when he prophesies the evangelical collapse, but I can see the truth in his words that a time of testing is ripe. It may not be popular among many evangelicals, but I think a sociological study of the movement is of great interest because it helps us see where the movements strengths and weaknesses are, and perhaps where it goes wrong or right.

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