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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. Continue reading