End Times for Evangelicals

American evangelicalism has been the most potent force for the Christian faith in contemporary American culture. Historian Martin Marty once noted that to look at American religion and overlook Evangelicalism "would be comparable to scanning the American physical landscape and missing the Rocky Mountains."

This past week New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick penned a cover story for the New York Times Magazine with the provocative question, “End Times for Evangelicals?” emblazoned on its front, followed by the following: “They don’t have a natural presidential candidate.  They don’t have a unified leadership. They no longer seem to share even the same political beliefs.” The actual title of the article is “The Evangelical Crackup.”

Though some, such as Charles Colson, have taken the article to task in its portrayal of older evangelicals as distanced from core social issues (Colson was right in noting his work in prisons, Dobson’s work with families, and Falwell’s work with unwed mothers), along with its contention that evangelicalism as a whole is becoming more liberal in regard to key social values. We’re not. The evangelical mosaic is still united in its efforts to uphold traditional values, defend life, and pursue justice and care for the poor.

But where I think the article places a finger on the pulse of evangelical Christianity is the real and growing divide between generations of evangelicals in terms of emphasis, spirit and method, and the changing dynamic of the evangelical mosaic itself. 

Here is a section that captures the essence of the piece:

“The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines that go much deeper. The phenomenon of theologically conservative Christians plunging into political activism on the right is, historically speaking, something of an anomaly. Most evangelicals shrugged off abortion as a Catholic issue until after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But in the wake of the ban on public-school prayer, the sexual revolution and the exodus to the suburbs that filled the new megachurches, protecting the unborn became the rallying cry of a new movement to uphold the traditional family. Now another confluence of factors is threatening to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

“The founding generation of leaders like Falwell and Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene. Falwell died in the spring. Paul Weyrich, 65, the indefatigable organizer who helped build Falwell’s Moral Majority and much of the rest of the movement, is confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs because of complications from a fall. Dobson, who is 71 and still vigorous, is already planning for a succession at Focus on the Family; it is expected to tack toward the less political family advice that is its bread and butter.

“The engineers of the momentous 1980s takeover that expunged political and theological moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention are retiring or dying off, too. And in September, when I called a spokesman for the ailing Presbyterian televangelist D. James Kennedy, another pillar of the Christian conservative movement, I learned that Kennedy had “gone home to the Lord” at 2 a.m. that morning.

“Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.”

Most would agree that contemporary American evangelicalism has been a patchwork quilt of organizations and networks held together by a few central personalities, most notably Billy Graham. Yet the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently discovered that nearly one out of every three Americans under the age of 30 have never even heard of Billy Graham. 

And while younger evangelicals may hold to traditional values, they do not like how those values have been espoused.  In a previous Update, I discussed the research of Steve Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons; how many of many of those outside of the Christian faith, specifically those between the ages of 16-29, think Christians no longer represent what Jesus had in mind. We’re seen as hyper-political, pushy in our beliefs, arrogant, homophobic, hypocritical, and judgmental. What I did not mention is how this is not simply the perception of young “outsiders,” but those inside the church as well. Young Christians are raising the same challenges and concerns to the Christian faith as those outside of the faith.

And younger evangelicals have little interest in the culture wars typified by the Moral Majority of the 80’s. Rather than critiquing culture, they are more interested in “making” it, engaging it, infiltrating it. So rather than condemning films, they want to make them; rather than simply condemn homosexuality, they want to redemptively embrace homosexuals as people and serve those most impacted by the AIDS pandemic; rather than immediately aligning all things “environmental” with a left-wing conspiracy, they want to go green and combat global warming. 

Historian George Marsden quipped in the opening line of Understanding Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism that “A fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something.” Ironically, this is exactly how many younger evangelicals would distance themselves from, well, evangelicalism.

They are evangelicals who are not angry about something.

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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Sources

“The Evangelical Crackup,” by David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times Magazine, October 28, 2007 (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/magazine/28Evangelicals-t.html?em&ex=1194062400&en=fa9deb4b3195f80e&ei=5070).

“The Demise of the Religious Right?”, Chuck Colson, BreakPoint Commentary, delivered 10/30/2007 (http://www.breakpoint.org/listingarticle.asp?ID=7179).

Martin E. Marty, A Nation of Behavers (Chicag  The University of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 80; 88.

On the survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, see

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/november/12.18.html.

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian: What a new generation really thinks about Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), p. 1.