Future of Evangelicalism
Are Evangelicals the New Mainline?
It becomes very boring at a certain point, but it's relentless and completely predictable. The only thing that saved them a little bit is how little publicity these resolutions have received in the last twenty or thirty years. That has protected them some. But I can remember back in the 1960s when it was clear that the members of many of the churches had never heard of the positions being taken by the denominational leaders. The denominational leaders would pass resolutions that "everybody in prison is a political prisoner," for example, or that "everybody commits crimes but only the poor are sent to prison for it." Well, I don't know about you, but I don't have many friends who engage in drive-by shootings and stick up liquor stores. I just don't. (Granted, they're a bunch of cowardly professors, but still.)
As you're surely aware, just as there was a progressive movement in the mainline denominations before, there is today a progressive evangelical movement. It has some fairly prominent organs like Jim Wallis' Sojourners magazine. Emergent evangelicals also emphasize the need for systemic and political transformations. Yet you've said that one of the causes for the decline of the mainline denominations has been the way in which liberal ministers turned churches into centers for progressive political activism. Do you foresee the same fate for evangelical progressives?
Sure. They're not going anywhere. If you don't hold church, why will people come?
I want to say one thing about the Leftist Christian movement in the 1930s. They were at least consistent. They hated charitable giving. They said it's ameliorative, an attempt to reduce the really sharp pangs of inequality and keep this corrupt system going. So they hated it. If there was good government, they thought, there would be no charitable giving. I suspect that there is still, underneath it all, a lot of that even in Wallis' movement.
The only thing I wonder is why he claims to be an evangelical. Except that he gets much more attention. If he did not claim to be evangelical, he would just be another liberal Christian. But this way, he gets to be the media's favorite evangelical. Martin Marty will invite him to the banquet.
A colleague of mine, Byron Johnson, and one of his graduate students, just published a study in which they look at whether the evangelical commitment to social conservatism is breaking down. Jim Wallis and his ilk want to claim that young people are all wising up and moving his way. So Byron Johnson and his student look at some large data sets of self-identified evangelicals.
They don't find anything of the sort. Of course, the media want evangelicals to become liberals, so they will jump on any speck of evidence that anybody produces. But the evangelical commitment on what are called the cultural issues is just as strong and just as conservative as ever.
I want to finish with two questions on other subjects. First, how do you see the rapid growth of technology shaping evangelicals and Christians in general in recent years?
People fail to appreciate the effect of really cheap and accessible travel. Witness the enormous numbers of self-appointed missionaries going abroad. Back in the days when you had to sail for six months to get there, becoming a missionary was a dramatically different thing. But if it takes four hours on an airplane, then that's an entirely different proposition.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.