U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Evangelical Fracture? I don’t think so

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.

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.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “I cannot get the picture of evangelicals standing with large pictures of aborted fetuses in the middle of the university quad out of my head, which seems neither to be civil, nor to aim at the cultivation of dialogue, nor to reject appeals to theology, since the pictures often bear Scriptural citation.”

    Right, because THAT is how most evangelicals operate. There 30 million or so self-identified evangelicals in the US, and they are all peddling fire and brimstone posters, pictures of aborted fetuses, and making bombs in their basements to blow up the nearby abortion clinic. This blog post is indicative of the shallow, misinformed, and frankly paranoid fascination contemporary academics have with the religious right. The propaganda of the extreme is apparently what this blog poster thinks of when he thinks of evangelical “dialogue.” Would we stand for such superficial, one dimensional characterizations of other subgroups – the New Left, the counterculture, and the like? I doubt it.

  2. Dear Anonymous–A fair point. The millions of self-identified evangelicals do not stand around with pictures of fetuses and it was unfair of me to suggest that they did. But that does not make evangelicals the champion of “deliberative norms,” which I was somewhat over-dramatically trying to point out. Here is James Davison Hunter, another respected evangelical, on evangelicalism and its connection to politics from his new book, To Change the World: “The public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Evangelicals and fundamentalists, he admits, lead the way. This obsession with politics has resulted in a corresponding obsession for governmental power as a means of changing the world. As a result, religious activists have become “functional Nietzscheans” in their “will to power.” Does this sound like deliberative democracy? I don’t think so.

    By the way, I can’t help noting that you yourself perpetuate what you decry. You claim, on the basis of one comment in a 1000 word piece, “This blog post is indicative of the shallow, misinformed, and frankly paranoid fascination contemporary academics have with the religious right.” The move from my sentence to “contemporary academics” seems exactly the kind of reflexive stereotyping that is not useful and that, I presume on the basis of your comment, you deplore. I’ve now quoted two respected evangelicals on evangelicalism. Would you care to point out what way these evangelicals, themselves academics, are incorrect?

  3. Two things:

    1. The end of David’s post goes to the heart of why Evangelicalism—meaning as an organized movement of churches (e.g. NAE)—will not die so long has Protestant churches in the U.S. find no better way to collaborate. Evangelism is a personal, social, and political project because all of those levels of meaning making serve as points of entry for Christian proselytizers. That said, analyzing by any one factor will skew perceptions of the strength or weakness of Evangelical culture in the U.S.

    2. Cohesion can be gained by common creed or by common opposition. If the latter currently serves Evangelicals well (e.g. Roe v. Wade, gay marriage, DADT, stem cell research, etc.), then it is natural that lulls in prominent things to oppose might create perceptions of decline or weakness. – TL

  4. Tim: I think your second point is an especially insightful one. It seems to me that a lot of the unity of evangelicalism comes from what the various evangelical groups oppose.

Comments are closed.