Has the Time Come for a New Neo-Evangelicalism?
A bit of history for those who are not already versed in the story of 20th century American evangelical Christianity. (And here let me put in a plug for Ryan Reeves’s Youtube video “The Rise of Evangelicalism.” You could spend worse 30 minutes than watching it.)
In 1942 a group of fundamentalist evangelicals (or evangelical fundamentalists) got together and formed a new umbrella organization called the National Association of Evangelicals. One of the founders was Boston-based pastor and religious leader Harold John Ockenga who was disillusioned with the anti-intellectual, anti-almost-everything ethos of American evangelical fundamentalism (or fundamentalist evangelicalism). Ockenga and friends invited Carl McIntire, well-known fundamentalist leader, to join but he declined.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Soon after the founding of the NAE came the rise of the Billy Graham empire. Graham associated himself with the NAE types more than the McIntire types. (McIntire had his own rival organization known as the American Council of Christian Churches which still exists. For the most part they are separatistic fundamentalists.) Then came the founding of Fuller Theological Seminary, which also was unofficially related to the NAE, and Christianity Today magazine.
In 1947 Carl F. H. Henry, who earned two doctorates in theology including one from Boston University, published a landmark book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. This came to serve as a manifesto of the break within American evangelicalism between fundamentalists and so-called “neo-evangelicals.” (There is much debate over who first coined the label “neo-evangelical” and I have discussed that here before; my conclusion is nobody knows for sure.)
The neo-evangelicals were postfundamentalist orthodox Protestant Christians with a pietistic (irenic) ethos rather than a “fighting fundy” ethos. Of course, to mainline, liberal Protestants they were fundamentalists, but to fundamentalists they were liberals. That made them somewhat pleased with themselves. (I know because I grew up among them personally knowing many of the founders of the movement such as Bernard Ramm, Carl Henry, Donald Bloesch and others.)
The postfundamentalist, neo-evangelicals eventually dropped the “neo-“ and called themselves simply “evangelicals.” When I was studying in a moderate evangelical seminary in the 1970s a major point of the president and professors was that we were evangelicals but not fundamentalists.
Fuller Seminary president E. J. Carnell called fundamentalism “orthodoxy gone cultic.” Some wag quipped that evangelicals were fundamentalists who weren’t mad at anyone. Another said evangelicals were fundamentalists with manners. On and on and on it went. George Marsden wrote a book about the similarities and differences between fundamentalists and evangelicals as did others.
My own opinion is that the best one volume book about the matter is Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism by Joel A. Carpenter (Oxford University Press, 1997).
My own “take” on the matter is that “evangelical” is a very broad category, a “big tent,” that includes fundamentalists as well as most charismatics of all denominations and many orthodox-pietist Anglicans and even some Catholics. Fundamentalism is one tribe of evangelicals; neo-evangelicals are another. Both can be found in many denominations. Both are “transdenominational” tribes of evangelicals.
What I think (to get to the point of this blog post!) is that the time has come for a new neo-evangelicalism! We moderate evangelicals find ourselves in roughly the same situation as Ockenga, Henry and company in the 1940s. Fundamentalists called themselves evangelicals then; Ockenga and company chose to keep the label but invest it with new (old) meaning—throwing overboard, as it were, the anti-intellectualism, narrow dogmatism, and separatism of fundamentalism but keeping the basic orthodoxy and pietistic ethos of pre-fundamentalist evangelicalism going back to the Pietist awakenings in Europe, Great Britain and North America in the 18th century as well as the Great Awakenings in Great Britain and North America (1740s and first decades of the 19th century).
We moderate evangelicals who are not fundamentalists need not throw off our venerable evangelical heritage and label, but we find ourselves in a crisis in which far right-wing neo-fundamentalists have co-opted and hijacked our identity and label (with the enthusiastic help of the secular media).
Instead of discarding our heritage, identity and label, let us reclaim all of it. Let us say loudly that evangelicalism is not limited to America and that evangelicalism is not limited to any one political ideology. Also: evangelicalism is not the Republican Party at prayer! And anyone who thinks it is, is simply not thinking globally. There are many more evangelicals outside the United States than in it! And even if all American evangelicals did enthusiastically join the Republican Party and adopt Trumpism, that would not make evangelicalism identical with that political persuasion because there are more evangelicals outside the U.S. than in it.
Why people don’t understand that, I cannot fathom. But we need to and can get the word out to the media if we try hard enough.
Journalists listen! “Evangelical” is a spiritual-theological identity not tied to any nation-state or political party or ideology! It exists throughout the world and there are more evangelicals in Africa than in the U.S.! Please stop treating evangelicalism as if it were the Republican Party at prayer. It is not and cannot be that!
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