Mapping the End of Evangelicalism: Part 1

I have to say it’s been a surprise to hear so consistently about the end of American evangelicalism. My own experience with the tradition goes back a long ways to my marginal participation in Young Life (mostly because of friends and girls) and then on and off in various groups in college. But the break was solidified the night I attended a Josh McDowell revival at my university; midway through I walked out. I couldn’t take the idea that anyone could seriously try to “prove” faith by trying to proof text the resurrection. I walked home to my apartment and began reading Soren Kierkegaard’s Concept of Dread. I felt relief.

Fast-forward to my second book, Evangelicals vs. Liberals: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest, in which I mapped the incredible power and growth of evangelical churches in the putatively ‘secular’ Pacific Northwest. It was 2007, I thought at that time the evangelical civic religion was at the very heart of American religious, cultural and political life. Evangelicalism seemed like a force that had the ability to maintain itself as a social and a political movement for a long time. But low and behold, with the multiple missteps of the George W. Bush administration, the fiasco of the Iraq War, the election of Barack Obama, the growing groundswell of support for gay marriage, suddenly the civil and religious landscape of American religion flipped. A new evocative secular and even atheist force has made its voice and power known in American culture and politics. How did this all happen? Well, in part, this blog will try to answer some of those questions and grapple with the changes that have occurred and continue to disrupt the American religious landscape.

To be sure, we now live in an open religious market and America’s religious subculture’s must adjust and respond to that culture. This is not to say that religious cultures aren’t thriving. I’m now writing a book on American Megachurches, which will show that megachurches are one of the primary ways American do their religion today. But that story is for another time. Nonetheless, the ground beneath American religion is shifting—and that is exactly what makes it so exciting to explore.

I start with David E. Fitch’s excellent work on The End of Evangelicalism, and his more recent book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier. I think both are worth exploring. The End of Evangelicalism, charts how the trinity of evangelicalism has collapsed: 1) the inerrant Bible, 2) the call for conversion to Christ, and, 3) the Christian nation. The last is perhaps most obvious for many evangelicals. The cultural shift on gay marriage alone is enough to make conservatives claim that the nation has “fallen.” The problems with inerrancy have been thoroughly eviscerated in Christian Smith’s recent book, Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Fitch’s book is a fascinating exploration of the wreckage of evangelical culture. He uses the Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian cultural critic, to announce the “empty politic” of evangelical culture in which belief and action are divorced. Fitch wants a missional and incarnational faith that he brings together belief and action in an unbreakable unity.

Fitch quotes David Kinnaman’s 2007 UnChristian, in which Kinnaman argues that most people consider Christians “antigay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders….” In other words, Fitch and other evangelicals are fighting upstream, in which many in the younger generation are repulsed by evangelicalism; in fact, trends show this is the first generation in the 20th century in which Christian belief is seeing a demonstrable decline.

For Fitch, evangelicalism has become an ideology, which is, as he says, “empty at its core.” That is belief has been thoroughly instrumentalized and used as a weapon in the culture wars—as a club, as it were, to assault opponents and to defend specific political rostrums. This culture war is exactly what has repulsed so many young evangelicals. The ideology of the culture war has been an ill-fated attempt to maintain the status quo. This kind of naked political power as rightly noted, by Fitch, has little to do with the gospel. For Fitch, something terrible has gone wrong. In this midst of this wreckage, as Fitch notes, “irruptions of the Real” show the poverty of the present, and in coming blogs I’ll explore these irruptions and the “signposts” of the real. For now, I’ll go back to reading Soren Kierkegaard’s Attack upon Christendom. What a relief.


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  • Jerry Lynch

    Huh? No comments? Great piece, thank you. I have tried to warn my fellow Christians for years about their involvement in (mostly partisan) politics and how that will severely damage the Church in the years to come. Like here, it appeared that no one was listening. I don’t know how many times I heard, “Sure, but in the real world…” Most I know see it as a Christian duty to be involved in politics, and the phrase Conservative Republican is not much different than saying Southern Baptist. It is a sad, sad situation.

    • James Wellman

      Well, it may be changing, we all have to check our assumptions; I think it’s important to keep checking one another and finding out, where is the spirit of God, by which, I mean, how can we be as critical and coherent and compassionate in our thinking as in our acting.

  • mountainguy

    Good post Mr Wellman. I see you like reading Kierkegaard. Do you think evangelicals would consider him one of them? Leaving aside his stance on civil religion, I think some of his theological positions are not that different from some evangelical “memes” (I’m thinking here about his alleged individualism, and his focus on the concept of indirect communication as a way to explain how to relate to Christ after centuries of his -physycal- death)

    • James Wellman

      No idea about Kierkegaard and evangelicals, wouldn’t have thought so, since he loves uncertainty, but maybe so!

      • mountainguy

        It seems to me few evangelicals know him. But my suggestion came from my experience in the last 3 years in Buenos Aires: attending the readings at the “Biblioteca Kierkegaard” and at the same time worshipping in a somewhat liberal, pastorless mennonite-anabaptist church. In the context of this church that skews the excessive individualism of most christianity (particularly protestant and evangelical), or better, compared with it, I see Kierkegaard quite individualist and pietist (but I may be wrong).

  • Empathogen

    OMG. You mentioned Josh McDowell. He was a huge influence on me as a teenager. “Evidence That Demands a Verdict” made me want to become a bible scholar, which I eventually did, but of the variety McDowell would not have approved of. I saw him in person in Anchorage in the late 70s and thought he was kind of a huckster. Still he did influence me in a positive direction, albeit unintentionally.

    • James Wellman

      That moment of leaving his revival I never forgot!