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Is There a Future for Evangelicalism?

Posted: 09/13/10 07:57 AM ET

A few weeks ago, the religion website Patheos.com featured a conversation on the "Future of Evangelicalism." The discussion was the sixth in their series on the future of religion, which had already considered two other branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Mainline Protestantism, in addition to Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. To that point, however, the evangelical series is slated to have the most contributors, 32, a good deal more than its close cousin and nearest competitor, the Mainline Protestantism series.

That there are so many opinions on the future of evangelicalism is telling. Compared to the other faiths considered, it is the most amorphous, and, some would argue, the most in danger of becoming extinct. On Easter Sunday in 2006, Michael Luo published an essay in The New York Times that shed light on what then were growing fissions between evangelicals. He referenced a poll conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which separated evangelicals into three camps: traditionalist, centrist and modernist. The piece concludes with the assertion that some evangelical leaders had been discussing whether to dispense with the title "evangelical" altogether.

Over the next couple of years, much was made of the fissions and cracks that were beginning to show on the surface of evangelicalism, most often along the lines that the Pew Forum survey highlighted. Not long after, many writers and pundits, both within evangelicalism and without, began to pronounce evangelicalism dead. Among those tolling the death knell was the late Michael Spencer, better known as the "Internet Monk," and the magazine I edit, Patrol Magazine, in an editorial entitled "Get Over It."

Certainly those of us whose who perceived evangelicalism to be in decline were onto something, but a closer look reveals that it may not be as simple as proclaiming, "Evangelicalism is dead." In order to understand what is really going on, it is important to understand how we got to this point.

Though evangelicalism has been around in some form or another since the Reformation, by most accounts contemporary evangelicalism, or what Harold Ockenga, founder of the National Association of Evangelicals, called "neo-evangelicalism," is understood to have begun in the 1940s as a kind of middle ground between the fundamentalism of mainline denominations and the liberalization of Christianity. Never at any point in the movement's history has their been a unified definition or set standards that mark evangelicals; though some have tried to create rigid classifications, evangelism has remained fluid.

So amorphous was the movement that many of us who grew up in what now are considered evangelical congregations didn't even know we were evangelicals. The rash of so-called non-denominational churches, which evangelicalism made way for and the Jesus Movement of the 1970s spawned, spent much of their existence as free-floating, undefined entities until that other amorphous grouping of Christians, the religious right, began to absorb them, making it possible, in the early 80s, for the term religious right to become synonymous with evangelical. I sat for a total of 16 years of Christian schooling, including four years at an evangelical college, before I even knew I was an evangelical.

But then, as soon as I knew I was identified as such, a funny thing happened that was not unique to me: I began to resist the classification. The period around the 2004 presidential election and the couple of years that followed, arguably the height of evangelicalism's political power, may have been the closest that the movement ever came to being definable. Even then, however, the mainstream media defined the term with no regard for the theological and traditional criteria that people within the movement often considered. Drunk on the power, however, what evangelicals believed was of less importance to them than what they stood for or against politically. And it is this identity, created not from within but from observers on the outside, that most people in the United States recognize as evangelical.

By this account, evangelicalism began its rapid decline at the very moment it reached its most crystallized form. It was then that many within the movement had to reconcile their beliefs and values with an external set of criteria, perhaps for the first time. Though many evangelicals fit neatly within the new popular perception, large swaths, defined in the Pew poll as Centrists and Modernists, began to pull away. The result of this was the infighting, to which many periodicals and bloggers brought attention, over new hot-button issues like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the environment.

By the time the 2008 elections rolled around, the right-pulling political power for which politicians had depended on evangelicals in previous decades was barely seen, stretched as the movement had become. For the first time since Jimmy Carter, and in a far greater magnitude than back then, young evangelicals rallied around a Democratic candidate, and as a result it became a lot more difficult to talk about the "evangelical vote."

Inasmuch as evangelicalism as most people understand it today really came into being after the mainstream media sanctioned its existence, it has died. Thus, it was dead the moment it was most alive. What we see in conversations like the one that took place at Patheos.com is the awkward struggle to define a unified future by people who share a common faith but not a common practice. Perhaps the greatest good that will come from this kind of consideration will be the realization that one evangelical future is not possible, for one evangelicalism never actually existed.

 
 
 

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