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Evangelicals and the Challenge of Moral Education

In a late November column New York Times columnist Ross Douthat asked, “Is there an Evangelical Crisis?” This is a riff on his 2015 Erasmus lecture, A Crisis of Conservative Catholicism. For Evangelicals, Douthat wonders whether Donald Trump’s presidency might split American Evangelicalism just as it might split American conservatism, and as it might split the GOP. Or might not. Douthat muses whether the turmoil in Evangelicalism extends no further than a small group of Evangelical “never-Trumpers”; leaders without all that many followers.

I doubt President Trump presages an Evangelical crackup. To say that, however, is not to say that American Evangelicalism is not in a crisis. American Evangelicalism has been in crisis for at least two generations. Indeed, Evangelicalism was birthed in crisis. The Fundamentalist/modernist debates split American Christianity (along with several denominations) in the first half of the 20th century. (“Fundamentalists” were so named for affirming several of the supernatural “fundamentals” of the faith, such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus.)

Modernists won the first half of the 20th century, taking over mainstream denominational leadership, seminaries, and publishing houses. Fundamentalists were pushed to ecclesiastical and cultural margins. The modern Evangelical movement sought to express a kinder, gentler fundamentalism. They (typically) affirm the same fundamentals that Fundamentalists affirm. Yet Evangelicals sought engagement, not least in emphasizing evangelism where Fundamentalists would emphasize separation.

In many senses the Evangelical movement has been wildly successful. While the exact definition continues to be debated, self-identified Evangelicals became, and remain, a significant presence in American Christianity. A 2013 Pew study reported that Protestants affirming a “strong religious affiliation” (which I’ll take as a proxy for Evangelical) increased by ten percent between 1974 and 2012 (from 43 percent of self-identified Protestants in 1974 to 54 percent in 2012).

To be sure, the numbers are not quite as rosy as they may appear. The absolute numbers of Evangelicals did not increase markedly during this period. The percentage increased, however, because “weak” Protestants basically dropped out of identifying themselves religiously. So the proportion of strong Christians increased because their absolute numbers stayed the same while the overall population of self-identified Protestants declined.

Nonetheless, sustaining their aggregate numbers over this period is impressive. Mainline denominations declined precipitously during this period. Even among Catholics, self-identified “strong” Catholics according to the Pew study declined during this period both proportionally and in absolute numbers. While there have been high-profile conversions to Catholicism, for the most part, U.S. Catholicism has maintained its overall percentage in the population mainly because of Hispanic immigration.

As a religious phenomenon Evangelicalism has, so far, proven relatively sturdy. Evangelicalism as a cultural phenomenon is a different story. The story of Evangelicalism’s crisis is how culture intersects religion for American Evangelicalism in a unique way.

While “weak” Christians might have dropped out of Christianity, they did not simultaneously drop their citizenship. While the “nones” might have jettisoned belief in the supernatural elements of Christianity, they did not necessarily jettison their belief in morality. (Whether morality can be sustained without supernatural religion is another issue entirely.)

That the nones did not jettison morality in toto, however, is not to say that they continue to embrace Christian morality. Indeed, the first three (if one is Lutheran or Catholic) or four (if one is a non-Lutheran Protestant) of the Ten Commandments pertain to duties toward God. Those are obviously off the table for nones. Among the remaining seven (or six) commandments, most obviously today, the one teaching that sex should be channeled through marriage is widely rejected. Less obviously, but perhaps just as critically, modern Americans (whether Christian or not) invest little effort to avoid coveting. (Imagine how quiet black Friday would be, and how many retailers would go out of business, if Americans did not covet.) And even the admonition to honor one’s mother and father has been dramatically reimagined. And not simply since the “don’t trust anyone over 30” of the 1960s. With some sympathy, Tocqueville noted the transformation of intergenerational relationships in the democratic America of the 1830s.

Today’s nones are not amoral. But neither do they pretend to embrace the breadth of Christian morality. Indeed, they regard at last half the commandments as morally repressive. They kept those aspects of Christian morality necessarily to sustain the modern market economy, while jettisoning that which, at least by hypothesis, is superfluous to sustaining a market society. (There have been additions as well, but those for another column.) And, indeed, if pressed, I think most of the nones would think that their market, or Millian, morality sufficient to sustain modern republican governance as well. I believe a fair number of non-religious conservatives affirm the same, even if only implicitly.

In this transformation, however, is the crisis for Evangelicalism specifically, and for American Christianity more generally. Except at the margins, American churches have never been much more than religious clubs. What Jesus announced as a kingdom, Americans turned into a club. The habitual listing of the Church in the United States, even by conservatives, among “voluntary organizations” bears witness to that. But while denominational pluralism has been a source of strength in U.S. Christianity, it has not been without weaknesses as well.

Americans apply their ideology of freedom not just to government, but to everything. This, combined with the ecclesiastical pluralism of American Christianity, prevented most American churches, even if they wanted to, from developing religiously thick communities. (Immigrant churches were immune to this, but only as long as language and class differences prevented assimilation.)

As a result, inculcation of Christian morality in the U.S. came at the level of culture rather than as a matter of ecclesiastical tutelage. American churches could free ride on cultural enforcement of moral norms rather than do the hard work of inculcating them as matters of Christian ecclesiastical identity.

The collapse of Christian morality into a minimalist market morality thus constitutes an ecclesiastical threat to American Evangelicalism (and to Catholicism in the U.S. for that matter). American churches rarely had to exercise any distinctive moral backbone because the culture did most of the hard work for them. But no more.

This is the current crisis of American Evangelicalism. It’s not primarily a cultural issue, it’s an ecclesiastical issue, but one that flows from the cultural issue. Because of their linkage, the cultural transformation constitutes a religious threat to American Evangelicals. American Evangelicals sweat the culture because their voluntarist ecclesiologies haven’t, and can’t, produce churches with thick Christian identities.

G.K. Chesterton once quipped that America is a nation with the soul of a church. That has been a strength for American Christianity, but is also a source of institutional weakness. For American Evangelicals, the current crisis can only produce uncomfortable questions and uncomfortable changes. They need to get used to being what they’ve never experienced before: being cultural aliens in their own country. But if that transition is not made successfully, Evangelical churches will fade into the broader American culture, with their distinctive Christian morality fading into the reigning market moralism. The crisis of American Evangelicalism is that process is already well along the way.

Reader Discussion

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on January 04, 2018 at 13:19:17 pm

I find all this to be unacceptably vague.

First; since 1535 the terms "evangelical," "reformed" and later "Protestant" have been synonyms in the English language. In this sense, saying that one Protestant congregation is evangelical and another is mainline is a distinction without a difference.

Second; if Rogers insists that "fundamentalist" congregations are congregations that have adopted the Nicene Creed (e.g., the resurrection of Christ and etc.) then that also includes high church Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans as well as low church Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists and most other "mainline" congregations in the Anglo-sphere.

Third; since the Fist Century Christian religious congregations have always been mutual aid societies.

Fourth; from the very beginning when all of New England was organized as a republic of church-towns "religiously thick"communities have been a feature of American communities. This began to breakdown only after 1800.

Finally; anyone who takes their religious cues from the likes of Ross Douthat and Rod Dreher, both high church seekers, needs to do much more reading.

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EK
on January 04, 2018 at 17:11:55 pm

I agree with EK re vagueness. I want to say, as a judge might say in tossing out an unconstitutionally ambiguous criminal statute, this particular article is "void for vagueness."

Secondly, the author (who has heretofore written admirably on this blog) has, this time, contrived a specialized "crisis" (here, for "evangelicals") whereas the crisis is specifically one OF Christianity and, thus, generally a crisis FOR America, Europe and western civilization. This contrived crisis is then intellectualized by morphing it into a poorly conceived and confusingly written discussion of politics and culture.

Finally, I must say "amen" to EK's sentiment about citing (with a straight face) the authority of Ross Douhat , who is to cultural discussion what David Brooks and David Gergen are to political discourse, "crypto-Leftists'' all.

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timothy
on January 05, 2018 at 13:55:32 pm

On the point of moral education and evangelical sects, John Lilburne's position was that he had no objection to an established church and religious education in schools so long as his conscience was left free to follow the "Law and Will of God."

I think this is correct. The children do need to be catechized in something and until the 1950s all children did receive some rudimentary moral instruction based upon the King James Version of the Bible in public schools. But the Supreme Court put a stop to that by incorporating the 1st Amendment's establishment clause into the 14th Amendment and applying it to the states. But this is a complete perversion of the establishment clause, which limits the federal government, not the states.

It also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of liberty of conscience as understood by everyone from John Lilburne and Roger Williams to Madison and Jefferson. Their idea was that liberty of conscience, as described by Lilburne, should be protected but that the state had an obvious interest in teaching the basic civilc and personal morality commonly associated with reformed Christianity. This is clearly set out in the second paragraph of the charter Charles II granted Rhode Island on July 15, 1663. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/17th_century/ri04.asp

This charter was granted to Roger Williams and others and affirms that the liberty of conscience established by Roger Williams in Rhode Island and endorsed by Parliament in its charter to Rhode Island of March 14, 1644, would continue. In both charters, the language used was the language suggested by Roger Williams.

I think it is clear that in the mid-20th C., the Supreme Court conflated "freedom of religion," with "liberty of conscience." The two are not the same. Freedom of religion implies a natural right that the state may not infringe upon but liberty of conscience implies only toleration of different views.

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EK
on January 08, 2018 at 09:39:07 am

The above discussion needs more nuance. There is an apparent, but unrecognized, overlap of the non-religious "Nones" and the demographic rise of singlehood. Singles have risen from 30% of the population in 1960 to about 50%; and this is not due to a population bulge in younger people who tend to be single. What seems to stimulate religiosity is when there is conventional marriage that produces children. Parents recognize they have to ground their children in some form of morality, indeed religious morality, even if themselves they have been nominally religious. And singleness seems correlated with modernity. So there may not be a "moral challenge" to Evangelicals as much as there is to religious Nones when they marry and have children. Otherwise, I doubt single Nones perceive any moral challenge at all and merely subscribe to the minimalist "commercial" morality mentioned by the author.

I am aghast that the Erasmus lecture would invite Ross Douthat as their speaker. Douthat left fundamentalist Protestant Christianity for Catholicism. Erasmus' book 'In Praise of Folly' presented fools in responsible roles: gamblers, fortune hunters, lecherous old men and women (such as the central character "Folly" - a woman). What Douthat missed in his Erasmus lecture is that we have a president who, like Erasmus, believes that non-violent feigned madness can make happiness and that the happiest life is that of the fool. To Erasmus the true Christian must act like a fool in the eyes of the world. This just might characterize president Trump even though he is a nominal Christian. There is much to learn from Erasmus but not Douthat.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on January 08, 2018 at 22:25:54 pm

"First; since 1535 the terms “evangelical,” “reformed” and later “Protestant” have been synonyms in the English language. In this sense, saying that one Protestant congregation is evangelical and another is mainline is a distinction without a difference."

No. It's not 1535 and we're not talking about Europe. In the U.S., by the mid-20th century a relatively clear distinction emerged between "evangelical" and "mainline" Protestant denominations. While there's a little bit of gray area, there's not much. Pollsters routinely ask Protestants if they identify as "evangelical" or not, and there is a high level of consistency in the responses; I don't think many people come back with, "this is a distinction without a difference." Students of the intersection of religion and politics routinely classify denominations into "mainline" and "evangelical," again without much disagreement. So, by your standards, it's not just the author who is wrong, but vast numbers of people -- perhaps, in fact, the vast majority of people -- who are using the terms differently from you.

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Bill
on January 09, 2018 at 09:47:33 am

True enough; most people say there is some difference between so called evangelical and mainline sects but what is it in people's minds that distinguishes a contemporary evangelical from a contemporary mainliner? I don't know, do you?

My test is based on the degree of autonomy exercised by the individual congregations. If the congregation is "gathered" from individuals in the community; if the congregation is free to hire and fire its minister at will; and if the congregation welcomes lay preachers and lecturers it is evangelical. Otherwise, it is not.

Do you have a different test?

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EK
on January 09, 2018 at 10:59:11 am

There is a sociological distinction between "mainline" and "evangelical" Protestantism in the US. It is social class. Mainline churches are typically comprised of upper middle class (say Presbyterian and Methodist) and upper class (say Episcopal) members. That said, "evangelicals" are not uniform as to social class either. Jehovah's Witness would generally be comprised of lower class members but Evangelical megachurches can cut across the class spectrum. People tend to worship with whom they are comfortable; witness the Black Protestant churches. Class, however, does not entirely define or determine a Protestant evangelical church as to theology. New South American immigrants who are no longer Catholic tend to congregate in Charismatic churches (e.g., The Potters House) and Calvary Chapel churches.

Protestant churches that are autonomous are not all "Evangelical". The defining characteristic of Congregational churches for example is that each church independent and autonomously runs their own affairs.

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Wayne Lusvardi
on January 09, 2018 at 18:40:53 pm

Why are the Congregationalists, as few as they are, not evangelical? They think they are now and always have been evangelical.

I'm familiar with David Bebbington's classification but I don't find it useful.

Mainline denominations are easy to define. They have a hierarchy, a defined system of belief that is enforced on all member congregations and parishes and the minister is controlled by the governing body of the denomination.

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EK
on January 09, 2018 at 21:42:34 pm

Congregationalists are not evangelical. In fact, they are also what came to my mind as violating your definition. That is not at all the sort of definition that is used among those studying religion in public life in the US, and I have Congregationalist friends and they certainly do not think of themselves as "evangelicals."

"Evangelical," as used in the US since the mid-20th century, has had definitions like, "the branch of Protestantism that is deeply committed to the Bible as the only authoritative source of God's revelation and stresses the adult conversion experience and vigorous evangelizing." (from, Religion and Politics in America.) The emphasis on adult conversion and evangelizing typically reflects a belief that salvation cannot occur without a self-conscious acceptance of Jesus Christ.

The definition you are using may obtain in Europe but not in contemporary US usage.

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Bill
on January 10, 2018 at 01:07:38 am

Bill, below, does not see Congregationalists as Evangelical. Wikipedia, however, lists them as "Evangelical".

Sociologist Peter Berger devised a four part typology of Protestant Christians:

1. Cognitive Bargainers - Evangelicals who selectively capitulate to modernity by compartmentalizing their lives and religion (e.g., Saddleback Church).

2. Cognitive Surrenderers - who believe modernity is correct in denying supernaturalism (e.g. the Evangelical Left)

3. Cognitive Retrenchers (two subgroups):

a) Defensive mode - withdrawal from society into their own subculture. Mostly apolitical (e.g., Congregationalists).

b) Offensive mode - seek to reconquer secular society and convert masses - a Fundamentalist option (the old Moral Majority, the Elite Evangelicals, "Crusade" Christians).

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Wayne Lusvardi
on January 10, 2018 at 11:01:06 am

Actually, the Congregational or Independent churches were what I had in mind when I offered my definition of "evangelical." It's the only definition that allows one to separate the Independents/Congregationalists from the Presbyterians.

Historically and politically, one must has to make that distinction because the secular political tension between the contemporary mainline sects and evangelical sects, and between the conservatives and everyone else, has been a recurring feature of American history and politics since 1630.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by English Independents and John Cotton and Thomas Hooker were the ones who coined the term Congregationalist. The Bay Colony was captured by Presbyterian divines in the election of 1637 who then used the General Court as the church's governing body. This forced Hooker to move his congregation to Hartford; Wheelwright to move his to New Hampshire and Williams to move his to Rhode Island. Something very similar happened in England in the 1640s when the Presbyterian Parliamentarians tried to force the Solemn League and Covenant on the Independent Parliamentarians, which precipitated the second English Civil War (1648-49) and which the Independents won.

For the next 370 years in the Anglo-sphere, churches with a hierarchy have been associated with the haut bourgeoisie who exhibit a strong attachment to the established government and whig politics. Over the same period, churches without a hierarchy have been associated with the petty bourgeoisie who exhibit a strong attachment to local government and radical republican politics.

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EK

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.