HOWEVER LONG it may take to relinquish its hold on American culture, evangelicalism in the United States—still probably best defined by the British historian David Bebbington as a movement whose members adhere to conversionism, Biblicism, activism and crucicentrism—faces near-certain extinction. It has been blinded by its symbiotic relationship with the Enlightenment, and has perpetually failed to see beyond its hopelessly Western perceptions. Confined to the paramaters of liberal rationalism, it has mounted no challenge to the present political order and offered no intellectually acceptable explanation for how one is to live and think in the postmodern world. As this magazine has chronicled, its brightest children are throwing up their hands in record numbers, defecting heavy-heartedly to less temporal churches, or to no church at all.
But rather than recognize evangelicalism for the sinking ship it is, its cheerleaders are calling in increasingly desperate tones for a regrouping. Last year, a collection of prominent leaders met in Washington, D.C. to consider an “evangelical manifesto” designed to clear up the theological and political confusion that is intrinsic in the movement. In January, the hard-right Web site WorldNetDaily offered a checklist for identifying “true Christians.” Southern Baptists assume the apocalypse is coming from within, and mobilized this year to draw lines between themselves and cussing drunkards like Mark Driscoll and Rob Bell. (Ironic considering that those same leaders, often perceived as “liberals,” are just as insistent on salvaging the term for themselves.) Most recently, the ecumenical journal First Things launched an evangelicalism-focused blog that devoted its first few days to further pulpifying the dead horse. Evangelicals simply cannot stop talking about who is and who is not an evangelical.
This definitional masturbation is frustrating for those who see many of the values typically associated with evangelicalism as worth preserving. First, it behaves as if evangelicalism were once a unified, coherent tradition to which Protestants can return. On the contrary, with its scatter-shot, authority-averse tendencies, evangelicalism has always been a concept in constant cultural flux, particularly in the democratic United States. Some evangelical denominations have kept a firmer grasp on their senses than others, but the broad sweep of American Christianity is hopelessly fractured, diluted, politicized, ideological, nationalistic, and often plain idiotic. The notion that the term and the culture it represents can be salvaged from this smoldering heap is naïve at best.
The fight to define evangelicalism in its latter days also operates on the mistaken premise that an imagined theological purity or conformance to a “lost” orthodoxy, rather than an emphasis on ethics, spiritual discipline and mystery, will revive the power of the Christian church. It is astonishing that so many intelligent Christians seem to believe there is a deficit in emphasis on evangelism and scriptural literalism, and that, if the hatches are just battened down on a more solid “worldview,” evangelicalism can resume explaining the universe to new generations of believers. In this respect, evangelicalism’s true believers resemble the faction of the Republican Party that asserts with a straight face that returning to “core principles,” and not a radical restructuring of priorities, will bring waves of Americans back to the right wing.
But so many twenty-somethings are not calling themselves “post-evangelical” because they know too little theology or have put too small an effort into synthesizing it with reality. They have come from the most apologetics-obsessed generation of Christians in American history, and have realized that many of their prepared answers are for questions that no one is asking. Adrift in the cultural sea, many turned to traditions and theological systems of the past, only to find those similarly unequipped to address the questions of our time. The only choice has been to begin the messy and at times overwhelming process of drafting something new.
The growing collection of post-evangelicals is what the defensive, definitional evangelical fears the most, and could by itself explain the recent obsession with protecting the label. Surely many of the intelligent professors, students, writers and bloggers rushing to its defense have also felt the naggings of cognitive dissonance and the inkling that the world might make more sense if they abandoned some of their cultural presuppositions. But haggling over the details of theology provides a psuedo-intellectual haven from real-world questions, where evangelicals can exercise their minds without coming to any unsettling conclusions. And thus the cycle of definition and redefinition continues, providing endless diversion as it cuts deeper and deeper ruts into what was once known as the Christian dialogue.
Refusing to align squarely with evangelical shibboleths requires courage, but the sooner it happens on a larger scale the better. All signs point to a near future where religion will play an increasingly climactic role in global culture and politics. Men and women who, as Mark Noll puts it in the final pages of The Evangelical Scandal, “think like a Christian”—by which he means “take seriously the sovereignty of God over the world he created”—should be leading the way on the meta questions that are already besieging society. But as long as they are busy drafting manifestos in their barricaded salons, hubristic rationalism will continue charging unchecked into the 21st century.
ART: J. M. W. TURNER, SLAVERS THROWING OVERBOARD THE DEAD AND THE DYING (1840), OIL ON CANVAS.
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