The Collapse of Evangelicalism?

Perhaps you’ve already read this article about the coming collapse of evangelicalism in the Christian Science Monitor, or perhaps you’ve seen discussions around the blogosphere. My fellow blogger Eugene Cho is talking about it, and despite his posting before me, I’m not copying him.

The article combined the recent results of the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by Trinity College indicates what we have all long suspected: Americans are not as religious as they were previously and the most religious of them all, evangelicals, are losing dominance and influence in American life, so much so that it is being called a “collapse.”

There are many who are celebrating this collapse, both within and outside of evangelical circles. Some because they believe it will lead to a needed reformation, or because they are sick of the culture of evangelicalism. Others are glad because they believe that Christians are altogether wrong, that religion is unhelpful and the bane of civilization. Some share his concern about the dumbing down of Christianity in order to generate mass appeal.

The article makes several good points, but his second particularly is striking for someone who works with young adults. He asserts:

2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

I can testify to the truth of this assertion. As I mentioned in an earlier post about Biblical illiteracy Christian students are woefully ignorant about their own faith. Combined with a thrust for activism, I foresee that evangelicalism will not so much collapse as cease to be orthodox. Of course orthodox (small o) Christian is thriving in America and around the world There is a subtle assumption in Spencer’s article that evangelical = white middle class American. It does not.

Though we may not care to remember it, and some now view evangelicals as out of touch, evangelicalism was (and is) the movement of the non-elites in American society. It thrived, in all its various forms, among those who were not especially well educated and certainly who viewed themselves as not being among the “in-crowd.” During the hey-day of mainline churches in America, evangelicals (then called fundamentalists) were definitely not the cool kids. They still aren’t. Despite their perceived political strength, they are, at best, the red-headed step child of the Republican party, which likes the evangelical vote, but is somewhat less enamored of actual evangelicals. The evangelical left, which has increasingly become associated with the Democratic Party treats run of the mill evangelicals like the crazy uncle that embarrasses you whenever you have friends over. You can’t really disown them, but if you could get away with you’d like to keep him lock in the attic. In fact I daresay that evangelicals probably get worse press than any other religious group in America, far out of proportion to their numbers or influence.

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Biblical Illiteracy, Cultural Critique & Socio-Politcal Engagement

As one who works daily in the cauldron of ministry with the next generation of social, political, economic spiritual leaders (college students), I am well aware of the level of engagement or disengagement that many students have with the issues of the day. I also have an opportunity to evaluate, anecdotally, the level of biblical literacy that students coming from an evangelical background bring with them into college.

It is an understatement of the highest degree to assert that the current generation of college student evince a high level of Biblical illiteracy. Though many of them have been raised within the context of the church, have participated in missions, church youth groups, Sunday School, and numerous other church related activities, most of them do not have anything remotely resembling a worldview based on their Christian commitments, beyond that demanded by a cultural Christianity. They know, or are at least vaguely aware, that the Bible has something to say about sexual ethics – chiefly that believers ought to abstain from sexual activity until married. They also know that the Christians are to be generous, kind, share their faith, avoid lying and other overt sins. In many ways though, there consciousness, their life choices, their politics, their cultural engagements and social relations (including their sexual behavior) is not much different that of their peers.

One the other hand, we are in the midst of a dynamic season in the life of the larger church, as many pastors, theologians, and lay people are having conversations about how to revitalize what has become for many a dead orthodoxy or lifeless faith. There is a great deal of critique of current church culture which seems to be in many ways disconnected from the every day of life. There is a vitality among many, especially in the “millennial” generation who are excited about engagement in missions, social justice issues, diversity and multi-ethnicity and are examining how the gospel is connected with these questions. There is tumult in the church around critical issues, which often breaks down around geographical, social, and financial lines.

I am excited about how engaged and creative many are in wrestling with these issues, but I am also concerned that much of this activity and concerned, driven by the Spirit though it is, is being laid atop a very low level of Biblical knowledge, which leads to a social and political engagement rooted not in the gospel, but in sociology or political science. The thing is, we’ve been here before.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century a new religious Spirit driven movement was being birthed (Pentecostalism). The American church at large was orthodox in their theology and yet the issues of the Progressive movement (women’s rights, social justice, labor reform) were pressing concerns for the church of the day. Many American churches actively moved to engage these issues, or even took the lead in them. In time, many of those churches abandoned orthodoxy and are now, in terms of relevance, numbers and scriptural fidelity, are mere shadows of their former selves. Other churches retreated from any involvement in social issues, became proudly known as fundamentalists, then not a derogatory term, but one that denoted fidelity to the fundamental claims of the gospel. These believers retreated from engagement in the public sphere, from the university and in many ways from socity and were the forebears and progenitors of today’s evangelicals.

I do not think that we are repeating history. In fact I believe that we are in many ways on more solid ground than our predecessors. Evangelicals have in the years since the mainline/fundamentalist split, developed seminaries, worked to engage social issues more actively, and thought long and hard about how the gospel has social implication. However, we are at a disadvantage in that our predecessors, both mainline and fundamentalist, were much more thoroughly versed in scripture than we are. Likewise American society shared a common language of Christian ethics which provided the social apologetic for many of the reform movements. It was very possible to hold to an orthodox view of scripture, of miracles, of Jesus, and yet remain socially engaged. Many in the millennial generation however, are illiterate concerning the Bible. They do not know how to think Christianly about their own lives (which was the concern of fundamentalists) much less about society. What will be the impact of a generation of Biblically illiterate believers charging into the fray to engage society and transform the church?

Further Reflections on a Historic Election

A week has passed since the presidential election and I have had some time to think more about what the election means and what is my personal response to it. I want to first clear the air about what might be the perception among some of my few readers, namely that I am a partisan of one or the other political parties or candidates: I am not. I am independent in thought and political persuasion and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a Christian, my chief allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and so I “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” including my vote and my voice in the public square. All other things belong to God. I refuse to unquestionably support or unalterably demonize any candidate or party. I am committed to certain principles which I can never compromise no matter how compelling the candidate, or how high the stakes presumably are in any given election.

Having said that, the election of Sen. Obama to the presidency is a historic event and worthy of celebration as a milestone in our nations’ tortured racial history. Time and history will judge whether or not he is to be considered among the best or worst executives, but his election cannot be overlooked as insignificant in any event. A conversation with my father some weeks ago is instructive as he shared with me his own feelings as he recalled his time as a teenager, skipping school to protest segregation in downtown eateries. As he said, “we had to fight even to have the right to eat in a restaurant. And to think that a Black man could be president is simply amazing.” He’s right; it is amazing. Thinking about his journey and his response to this election is more moving to me than the election itself.

As for me, I am a child of the post-Civil Rights Era. I came of age in a time when institutionalized segregation and discrimination was a thing of the past. Certainly racism and the effects of racism were and are real components of my upbringing, but for the most part I have been free to explore elements of my identity apart from the overtly oppressive structures of race prejudice. Further, I have been privileged to develop a Black Christian identity that is open rather than closed to opportunities for learning and cross cultural interaction that those in my parent’s generation were exposed to.

My Christianity and my ethnic identity are the twin defining realities of my life and political engagement cannot be separated from these realities, and neither can they be for many (or I would argue) all Christians. It is evident from post-election analysis that the overwhelming majority of Black voters, many of whom are Christians and conservatives, cast their vote enthusiastically for the candidate that many of their White evangelical brothers and sisters rejected on the basis of their Christian commitment. This is not unusual, despite the amazement of the punditocracy; Black Americans have long cast their votes for Democratic candidates that White evangelicals reject. What changed in this election is that racial identity has been added to the mix, which heightened the emotional stakes in the election for everyone. For many evangelicals or otherwise conservative voters, the presence of a Black American on the ticket caused a degree of self reflection about their own racial attitudes. Given the media rhetoric and constant polling about racial attitudes in the country, many White evangelicals found themselves feeling somehow defensive and perhaps timid about their lack of support for Obama. The anticipated Monday morning quarterbacking of the campaign has not served to alleviate, but to exacerbate these questions and I believe could potentially set back the racial dialogue in this country if White evangelicals become timid or reactionary.

On the other hand, the Obama candidacy and presidency increased exponentially the level of interest and excitement of many Black Americans in the election. In large part Black people did not vote for Obama only because he was Black; they would likely have voted for whatever candidate had headed the Democratic Party ticket. However, it would be dishonest to say that Obama’s racial background had nothing at all to do with the enthusiasm of Black voters and even of some White liberals for whom the election of a Black person was a refreshing and even redeeming event. Many Black Christians, already estranged in some ways from White Christians, will find themselves operating even more in alternate political universe.

By illuminating this disparity in evangelical voting patterns between Black and White Christians, this election opens the door to profound questions about the intersection not only of our faith and our politics, but also our ethnicity. For many White American Christians, political engagement has not been overtly intertwined with ethnicity, though there have been clearly. As the dominant racial group in the country, Whites have had the luxury separating their theology from their ethic and political identity in a way that Black Americans never have. Being a Black in America has always been political, and our identity as a people has been in many ways formed theologically. It is well nigh impossible for Black people to separate their ethnic, theological and political realities. Arguably, the same is true for White people, but due to their majority status, it is not nearly as evident, at least not to most Whites.

Given how intertwined faith, ethnicity and politics have been and continue to be in American Christianity whether overtly as with Black Americans or covertly as with Whites, it seems to me exceedingly unlikely that one election, no matter how historic or significant will alter this dynamic. Many Whites wonder how their Black evangelical brothers could support a candidate who supports abortion rights and who has ties to less than savory individuals and institutions. Many Blacks understand the choice of White evangelicals to support Republican candidates based on issues of abortion and gay marriage, but also have a keen understanding of how White Evangelicals have often failed to advocate for issues of justice and social equity that often disproportionately affect Blacks. The election of Barack Obama does not change any of these dynamics and indeed may exacerbate them as the different groups retreat to their respective enclaves and avoid conversation with one another about these issues.