THE BLOG
01/18/2013 10:32 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2013

Is This the End of 'Evangelicalism'?

Last week Louie Giglio was invited to pray at President Obama's second inauguration. The inaugural committee praised his efforts to end modern slavery and human trafficking. The day after the announcement, however, ThinkProgress discovered a sermon Giglio preached in the 1990s in which he identified homosexual activity as "sin in the eyes of God." (The full sermon can he heard here.) Fewer than 24-hours later the inaugural committee announced a new, gay-affirming, faith leader would be found to pray at the event and Louie Giglio withdrew.

The reaction by some evangelical leaders was swift and severe. Many said Giglio's removal was a violation of his religious liberty. Russel Moore said, "When it is now impossible for one who holds to the catholic Christian view of marriage and the gospel to pray at a public event, we now have a de facto established state church." Tony Perkins called it a new "moral McCarthyism," and Gabe Lyons wrote that the White House had "bullied" Giglio.

The entire episode was poorly handled, and I sympathize for Louie Giglio. I absolutely disagree with the characterization of him in the media as "hateful" or a "bigot." And while there is some reason to view his removal from the inauguration as a turning point for evangelical participation in the public square, it also provides the opportunity to reflect on how evangelicals themselves may be at fault. In other words, before we point out the speck in the eye of the LGBT activists who pushed Giglio out, perhaps we ought to see the log in our own.

In the LA Times, Michael McGough identified a fact overlooked by many of those condemning the Obama administration for religious intolerance. At the last significant gathering of Obama's supporters, the Democratic National Convention in August, the President invited Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to pray. Dolan's views on sexuality are just as conservative as Giglio's, and unlike Giglio Dolan has been an outspoken critic of numerous Obama policies. McGough asks, "Is President Obama guilty of a double standard when it comes to clergymen who condemn homosexuality?" Why are Roman Catholic leaders acceptable while evangelicals are not?

We may find an explanation by looking at evangelicalism and Catholicism through the lens of branding. A brand, says expert Colin Bates, is "a collection of perceptions in the mind of the consumer." Many Americans perceive the Roman Catholic Church to be an ancient institution that is increasingly out of touch with modern life. It is generally accepted that the Catholic hierarchy and traditions do not adjust quickly to changes in social values -- if at all. Rome has not budged in its opposition to birth control, divorce or abortion, nor is it expected to anytime soon. As an institution, relevancy is clearly not it's highest value. Remember, it only began to use English in Mass after 1967.

Therefore, when a Catholic leader like Cadinal Dolan fails to embrace same-sex marriage, no one is particularly surprised or offended. This may explain why there was no outcry over Dolan's participation at the DNC -- everyone expects his "brand" of religion to uphold tradition, resist change and transcend ever-shifting popular opinion and morality.

The evangelical brand, like the sort Louie Giglio is associated with, is very different. Evangelicalism has thrived on the value of relevancy and sheds the constraints of tradition at every opportunity. This stream of Christianity eagerly embraces new forms of worship, new communication technologies, new music genres, new models of church leadership and organization. (You won't find a Catholic parish on Second Life, but you'll find numerous virtual evangelical churches complete with avatar pastors. (Check out this video for a glimpse at the future of the American church.)

Likewise, when it comes to social morality evangelicals also have a history of adapting for the sake of relevancy. There was a time when bible-affirming Protestants opposed drinking alcohol, watching movies, dancing, playing cards and interracial marriage. It is difficult to find any who object to these today (except some tea-totalers in the SBC). Defenders will point out that these issues are not addressed in Scripture. True, but even on biblical teachings evangelicals have shown a willingness to accommodate. As no fault divorce laws spread across the country in the 1960s and '70s, Roman Catholics organized resistance (and still oppose it today) while evangelicals have largely remained uninterested in the matter despite the law's detrimental effect on families.

Given this commitment to relevancy, when evangelical leaders refuse to accommodate to the culture on matters of homosexuality it appears to those outside that they are violating their own brand. While Catholic clergy are understandably behind the times, the gay community has trouble believing that evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage is predicated on a principled religious conviction or tradition. As one leader in the LGBT movement asked me, "Evangelicals are fine with ignoring many other parts of the Bible, so why do they insist on holding on to a few verses about homosexuality?" The simplest explanation for many in the LGBT community is that evangelicals must be bigots.

The matter of brand expectations should be considered a factor as we analyze what has unfolded with Louie Giglio over the last two weeks. I believe he was a victim not simply of zealous LGBT activists, but also the long-held evangelical value of relevancy. Relevancy is an advantageous value when the church can largely affirm the culture's mores, but as American beliefs shift further from orthodox Christianity's we may discover the expectation for relevancy obstructing the acceptance of evangelicals in the public square.

There is one final facet of branding that may be applied to this story. The Roman Catholic Church, while certainly embracing a great diversity of people with differing opinions, is nonetheless a clearly definable institution. One can easily look up the Roman church's position about stem-cell research, for example. Individual Catholics may disagree with the Church's stated position -- and many do on numerous issues -- but that does not change the canonical Catholic belief on the matter.

Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is an undefinable, nebulous, leaderless tribe of Christianity. Where does one find the evangelical position on stem-cell research? With the National Association of Evangelicals? The Southern Baptist Convention? Rick Warren's Saddleback Church? No one leader or organization speaks for evangelicals. The brand is also applied, and misapplied, so frequently by the media that its meaning has been completely diluted. When everyone from Rob Bell to Richard Land, and Joel Osteen to Jim Wallis are labeled evangelical, it's hard to know exactly what we're talking about anymore.

This brand ambiguity also contributed to the outcry over Louie Giglio. There have been some "evangelical" leaders who have publicly and aggressively worked against the LGBT community, and they sometimes seek to provoke homophobia in our society as a weapon against gay citizens. Louie Giglio is not one of them. By being identified as "evangelical," however, he is seen as guilty by association. This is the rotten harvest sown by the cultural crusaders and conservative political activists that hijacked evangelicalism in the 1970s and '80s. David Campbell and Robert Putnam verified this in a recent study. They concluded: "The data points to a rich irony about the emergence of the religious right. Its founders intended to bolster religion's place in the public square. In a sense, they have succeeded. Yet at the same time ... the movement has pushed a growing share of the population to opt out of religion altogether."

Where does this leave us? Well, it has led many younger evangelicals to abandon the label altogether. Despite the word's rich theological and historical significance, some have determined it is now culturally contaminated beyond repair. Without a meaningful alternative brand, however, the media and academy who shape public perceptions will continue to apply the evangelical label indiscriminately to all Bible-centric Protestants.

Rather than using the aftermath of the Louie Giglio inauguration mess as an opportunity to blast LGBT activists or President Obama for intolerance, which only serves to reinforce the brand image most Americans already have of evangelicals, perhaps the energy of concerned Christians would be better spent in self-reflection. We not only need to consider how we contributed to this unfortunate outcome by our endless pursuit of relevancy, but also how we are going to change in the future.

There are a great many Christians who are looking for a new public identity -- a new banner -- that is distinct from the tainted brand of evangelicalism we've inherited from the religious right. We're looking for one that retains the theological orthodoxy of Scripture as well as the historical commitment to the common good that earlier manifestations of evangelicalism affirmed. I suspect the leaders who rise up to carry that new banner will not only find many post-evangelical Christians rallying around them, but they may also discover the public square welcomes their presence.