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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.

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