It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this. These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.
Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.
The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!
But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.
Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.
By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.
This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.
We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.