Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Evangelicalism: Waning or changing?

Falwell: Evangelical or Fundamentalist?
Scot McKnight wonders if evangelicalism, at least as he defines it, is on the wane.
What is evangelicalism? I have been, am and will stand by David Bebbington and Mark Noll. Evangelicalism is a movement in the Protestant church shaped by differing but clear emphasis on four beliefs: the centrality of the Bible, the centrality of the atoning death of Christ, the centrality of the need for personal conversion, and the centrality of an active mission to convert others and to do good works in society.

Who decides who is evangelical? No one, really. Others, mostly. There is no one who decides who gets to carry the evangelical card but there is a a general conviction on the part of others who is “in” and who is “out.” I have an opinion, and you may have an opinion, and the one with the louder voice or the bigger voice might be the most compelling but … let this be said: God does not equate “Church” with “evangelical.” But because it is a movement, and for some the movement is so important that it is nearly the same as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, it matters deeply to some.
My old seminary mate (actually he was a year or two ahead of me) Ken Schenck takes issue with McKnight's criteria.
My problem with this approach is that it mistakenly thinks that there is some objective thing called "evangelicalism." Even worse, it plays into some self-perpetuating myth by which a particular social group can consider itself the true heirs of Christ, not unlike the Roman Catholic Church. That's laughable.

In reality, this word will have multiple meanings at any particular time and its meaning will change over time. So let's be clear, the question being asked is whether or not the particular social movement known as neo-evangelicalism, which rose in the late 1940s, is on the wane. It is not a question of whether these four things are true and necessary (or, if so, how):

  • a personal commitment to God in Christ
  • a commitment to action so that the world transformed for God
  • a sense of Scripture as a sacrament of revelation

Christ's death and resurrection as God's focal mechanism of cosmic reconciliation
I am not sure that the social group that was twentieth century evangelicalism is on the wane so much as its heirs are changing. My wording above in itself reflects some of the ways in which it may change. I do doubt that evangelicalism as the Republican special interest group it has been will have much power going forward. But, then again, I would have said that in 2000 right before 9-11 and would have been completely wrong.
I think Ken is on to something in noting the decline of a particular strain of what has, perhaps incorrectly, been popularly identified as "evangelicalism" since the latter half of the twentieth century. He is also correct in pointing to a much broader, and less static, movement within the church--far broader than that narrowly defined by Bebbington and Noll--that will continue to exercise influence for the foreseeable future.

Ironically, McKnight's original post is flanked with a photo of the late Jerry Falwell who, while being the very embodiment of the "Religious Right" in its heyday, was an oldline fundamentalist who never really fit either the classical or contemporary definition of "evangelical."