Every so often, with about the same regularity that pundits proclaim the Religious Right dead, someone proclaims an evangelical crack-up. The general idea is that evangelicalism, which has always been somewhat loose as a religious style, has finally reached the point in its internal tensions that it is no longer possible to speak of evangelicalism as a unified movement or as a sustained and coherent religious tradition. Most recently Timothy K. Beal proclaimed a fracturing of evangelicalism in a piece for the Chronicle Review. But unlike the usual punditry, this is harder to dismiss. Beal is the Florence Harkness Professor of Religion at Case Western University and the author or editor of twelve books on religion. His argument would seem to bolster those political watchers who, from afar and with far less credibility, proclaim the end of a unified evangelicalism and therefore of the Religious Right. Could it be that those have proclaimed the imminent demise of evangelicalism have been correct all along? I don’t think so.
Evangelical Fracture? I don’t think so
Beal’s claim is actually somewhat odd, coming as it does in the context of a wider discussion of the burgeoning interest in evangelicalism among nonevangelical readers and outside the university. For Beal, at least as he talks about it in this piece, evangelicalism is mainly a recent phenomenon, stemming from the public reemergence in the 1940s of people who formerly identified as fundamentalists. The upsurge in evangelical religion, which has grown intense in the last forty years, has created in Beal’s interpretation a corresponding upsurge in interest in studying evangelicalism from scholars who are not necessarily evangelical and who are not necessarily historians of religion. This upsurge further corresponds with a rise in interest in the subject of evangelicalism among the general reading public. Beal also notes that many of those writing on the subject are first-time authors (I suppose my own work would apply here), which suggests the general movement of the field and the growing momentum to the study of evangelical religion in multiple disciplines.
But the problem, as Beal sees it, is that “as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits.” The multifariousness of evangelicals suggests to Beal that “there is no such thing as evangelicalism,” if by evangelicalism we mean a unified movement of like-minded people. Rather, it is a collection of various groups, many of whom disagree strongly with one another and regularly air their differences. I’ll skip the bibliographic portion of the essay to get to the conclusion, where he addresses what I think is the obvious question: How, if there is no such thing as evangelicalism, can the Religious Right, many of whom are as he admits “self-described evangelicals,” how can such a conflict-ridden group muster the political power in the United States that they have obviously achieved? Here Beal draws on Jon A. Shields’s book, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, which presumes not a unified body of belief that unites evangelicalism but instead argues that evangelicals have embraced “deliberative norms” that the Left normally champions. “These norms, which include the practice of civility, the cultivation of dialogue, the use of moral reasoning, and the rejection of appeals to theology,” Beal writes in a gloss of Shields, “enable the Christian right movement to maintain a degree of effective unity despite the many theological and political differences among its adherents.”
I have to admit that this is provocative, but I don’t buy it. Beal seems to suggest that evangelicalism, to have a clear meaning, would require a require a common set of doctrinal commitments–that evangelicals should think alike. But I don’t think evangelicals need to think alike theologically in order to be have a shared identity. They need to think the same way, in a way that grows out of a shared history or tradition. As Richard Lints, an evangelical theologian, explained in his 1993 book, The Fabric of Theology, “The movement’s unique identity is defined to a considerable extent by cultural, institutional, and personal factors.” Rather than common beliefs, there are “social structures that hold the movement together and give its constituents a common sense of identity.” These social structures, he implies, arise most significantly out of a shared history.
To my mind this is a much more satisfying way of understanding evangelicalism that helps account for its tendency to continue as a self-described “evangelical” movement even as people proclaim evangelicalism’s imminent crack-up. Evangelicals share the historical loss of the mainline denominations and the subsequent loss of control over American law, politics, and culture. Evangelicals seek a return to that control, perhaps chastened somewhat by the belated recognition of the diversity of American life and of the retrograde moral impulses of some of their movement in the past. Evangelicals’ internal differences about a host of doctrinal issues do not undermine that fundamental belief that they share a historical burden as evangelicals: they are people who seek to spread God’s word through evangelism and who seek to bring their theological understandings to bear on public life in response to their shared past of public marginalization that they seek to overcome.
Update: I have edited the original post to remove the offending (and unfair) sentence quoted by the first commenter.