Future of Evangelicalism
New Ways of Shaping Society
There are evangelicals today who I think fit into that category, but they are few in number. What evangelicals have to do is build more of those kinds of relational networks that they can draw upon. Cultural change occurs at a very micro level in the right places. There's a real possibility here. It requires us to befriend practicing homosexuals, people with whom we disagree politically. It requires us to know people in Las Vegas and New York as well as we know people in Wheaton and Colorado Springs. It's that relational substrata that undergirds the ways in which power flows in our society, and evangelicals need to be more strategic about building these kinds of relational webs.
There seems to be a fair amount of mutual suspicion and misunderstanding, and sometimes even enmity, between liberal and conservative evangelicals. What can be done to foster greater understanding and mutuality of purpose?
The awakening of evangelicalism's political consciousness began in 1976, when Jimmy Carter publicly identified as a born again Christian. For the first time in modern political history, evangelicals had someone who was willing to publicly identify as one of them. The problem was that his party had a number of policies that ran counter to evangelical priorities, specifically abortion. Evangelicals did not feel that Carter's people stood up for their priorities, which was in fact the case. President Carter was a committed Christian, but all of his senior advisors were people who did not share his faith commitments. He largely drew from the Council of Foreign Relations, Trilateral Commission crowd to form his administration.
Evangelicals wanted not just lip service. They wanted to be taken seriously, within the powerful institutions like the federal government. In the process, they found in the Republican party some folks who shared their priorities, specifically conservative Catholics, who welcomed them to the table. President Reagan appointed prominent evangelicals to senior positions, individuals such as Gary Bauer and C. Everett Koop. Then the story became that evangelicals quite simply were going to be at home with Republicans in ways that they had not been at home among the Democrats.
In the past five to seven years, however, there has been a reawakening of the religious imagination of the Democratic party. You have leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama, who recognize that Democrats must learn to form religious justifications for Democratic policies as well. They could not cede the field to the Republicans.
But I think what's happened is that we have seen a maturing on both sides of the political aisle of how they can use religious rhetoric to advance their public policy agenda. What has been most unfortunate -- and has been a real downfall for evangelical influence -- has been the fact that a number of evangelical politicians have been publicly outed as hypocrites. You cannot opine about the family and then do very little to nurture your own. That's a real problem that the evangelical community faces. Hypocrisy probably hurts evangelical political influence more than any other variable, more than backbiting or jealousy.
Are there other trends right now that will shape the future of the evangelical church in America?
Two things have to be borne in mind when you consider the future of groups. One is demographics, and the other is institutions.
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.