American Evangelicalism

One of the biggest problems facing contemporary sociologists, especially since the collapse of the secularization thesis, has been if and how religion can survive in a pluralistic/postmodern context. Several theses have been proposed, including 1) the sheltered enclave or “sacred canopy theory” (Peter Berger, James Davidson Hunter), 2) status discontent theory (Richard Hofstadter, Joseph Gusfield), 3) strictness theory (Dean Kelly, Laurence Iannaccone), and 4) competitive marketing theory (Roger Finke, Rodney Stark).

In his excellent 1998 book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving Christian Smith offers a look at the one strand American religion that seems to be vibrant in the pluralistic American context, and that is evangelicalism.

The Good

By a set of six sociological measurements (including robustness of faith, saliency of faith, and participation), evangelicalism is indeed thriving. Smith and his team performed the most massive empirical study of evangelicalism ever done, including 2,591 telephone surveys, followed up by hundreds of face-to-face interviews and dozens of church visits. The results show conclusively that evangelicalism is doing well in America — that is, its adherents are committed to it, and it is growing.

The Bad

The reason that evangelicalism is thriving is that it has, since the evangelical-fundamentalist split of the 1940s, developed a relationship of “difference, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat.” One one end of the spectrum, fundamentalists have withdrawn from culture, developed a retreatist attitude (see comments on homeschooling post below), and are have not negotiated a sustaining relationship with culture. Mainline and liberal Christians (Protestant and Catholic alike) are accomodationist, and there is simply not enough difference between them and culture to make a difference to much of anyone. In other words, why join something that looks exactly like what you’re already a part of. All three — fundamentalists, liberals, and mainliners — scored significantly lower that evangelicals in all six characteristics of strength.

Smith then proposes a subcultural identity theory of religious strength in the face of pluralism. “In a pluralistic society, those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural.” Those are the very tools that evangelicalism has employed, and this has led to a love-hate relationship with culture.

For instance, evangelicals rail against the secular media, and yet they relish every possibility to get a major evangelical figure on Larry King Live. They repudiate modern rock and rap music, yet they relish contemporary Christian music which is wholly owned by the same mammoth corporations that own the secular labels. I think you get the picture.

The Ugly

Smith goes on to conclude that the very thing which makes evangelicalism strong in a pluralistic society also dooms it to failure in making any kind of positive change in that society. That is, evangelicalism will never achieve its goals for the redemption of society because the tools in its toolkit don’t work on societies.

For example, evangelicals have an atomistic view of society. In other words, they see society as nothing more than the sum of the individuals who make it up. When asked about social problems, evangelicals overwhelmingly state the answer to these problems is personal relationship. Here’s the theory: if a father is beating his kids, a Christian man should befriend that man, and lead him to Christ, then he’ll stop beating his kids; and once we do that with every child abuser, then the problem of child abuse will vanish from our society. One of the obvious problems with this line of reasoning is that child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, etc. are just as prevalent (or more) among evangelicals as among any other group.

When confronted with the obvious lunacy of this logic, the evangelicals interviewed had a hard time seeing that it was a problem, and when they did, they were often left speechless as to any other response to a social problem (several interviews are printed in the book).

For another example, when polled, the very things that evangelicals are most proud of about evangelicalism are the things most hated by non-evangelicals — not a ringing endorsement from those the evangelicals are trying to convince.

Finally, it actually serves evangelicalism’s purposes to have this conflictual relationship with culture. If culture gets more and more evangelical, then evangelicalism will no longer be a distinct sub-group and, like mainliners and liberals did a couple decades ago, they would gradually lose their identity.

So What?

The emerging church has clearly been attempting to negotiate a different kind of relationship with culture than evangelicalism has. Some have claimed that we’re nothing but accomodationist liberals, while others have said that we’re nothing but evangelicals with soul patches. The fact is, we’re hoping to be Christian in a new way in this pluralistic context — maybe to remain in the tension but lose the conflict. To have our eyes open about the cultural forces that shape us, and to realize that electing a Christian individual to a political office, for instance, actually does little to effect social change.

  • Brett
  • RobeFRe

    Tony I like reading both you and Dr R Davis @ http://www.aintsobad.typepad.com/aintsobad ,where I think you would appreciate his recent posts on ‘Be DazzLed Another One to Someone’ I sometimes wonder, “Is it that you are helping start a new movement that causes you to castigate the affiliations of those who are involved in and endeared by more traditional avenues of trying to approach the Holy One?” I find myself outcast by the fundamentalist because I do not toe the line THEY have drawn, and then repelled by the duplicitous prejudice of the moderate, which I find best described as adamant. Surely I will be a member of the emergent Church until I am 6 feet under and yet always Baptist through reflection.

  • RobeFRe

    Sorry for the double, but I meant to ask if you would tell me again how the Emerging Church will continue to grow in Christ without telling the good news, (or is evangelical, as you use it a period or era sensitive term which Emerging includes in some new and vibrant way that wee Knights of the Old Republic are fairly unaware?).

  • geoff

    hey tony,thanks for these comments. reminded me of this article:Miroslav Volf, “Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter”, Ex Auditu 10, 1994:15-30.peace.

  • Jon

    that’s really interesting to hear how that love/hate relationship with culture developed and continues flesh itself out. as someone with both evangelical and mainline roots, i’m excited about being part of an environment that is trying to negotiate a new kind of relationship with the world we live.

  • EL MOL

    tonyanother great post . . . as I was reading and before I got to the bottom . . . I kept thinking the only way we know to observe and make critique on evangelicalism or christians is to look at blocks of people . . .in denominations. . . which are supposed to be a waning theological way of organizing thyself . . . I thought to myself, if there is any hope for us it will be in the way we “reorganize” and “live” so to speak. so I am eager (as you know from a previous comment) to see your observations in your thesis that relate to these “new organizations” that you call emerging churches . . . just as you say a catholic blends into culutre and an evangelical stands opposed, I want to hear how the specific emerging churches either blend in stand opposed or something else . . . show us the way grand theologicical MOL . . . give us a blip of your damn thesis . .. lovemol

  • Mike Clawson

    “…maybe to remain in the tension but lose the conflict” or howabout to change the focus of our conflict from superficial issues to more important points of difference. I think one of the big problems evangelicals have is that we’ve picked all the wrong battles to fight.

  • Anonymous

    Hm! It seems that Mr. Jones has read a new book for one of his classes — perhaps because of Prof. Smith’s involvement with the National Study of Youth and Religion. Of course, you know from Smith’s other book, The Secular Revolution, that the UNC professor seems quite sympathetic to evangelicalism, and wants to show that evangelicals are not all right-wing extremists, but are mostly nice and tolerant…- Joshua -

  • Anonymous

    Oops. I also wanted to add that Prof. Smith — in contrast to most theorists of secularization — never thought that secularization was an invetitable outcome of modernization and the Enlightenment. Rather, secularization (according to Prof. Smith) is a result of a power struggle; the winners, namely the power elite, were better served by not being subservient to religion. This CRITICAL understanding of Prof. Smith’s understanding of secularization is KEY to understanding why he believes that evangelicalism has survived: because their particular worldview has provided them with the “power” needed to resist (they think) the power elite. It is interesting to ponder if evangelicalism would survive if THEY became the dominant power, and no longer needed their worldview to survive as an “embattled minority.” Perhaps, with the current administration, we will find out…- Joshua -

  • Tom Allen

    In the UK there is developing the thought that the “successful mega-churches” represent the last stage of modernist Christianity – succesful cos they offer refugee camps and complete solutions to those that need it. An alternative view is to be reminded by William Temple Archbishop of Canturbury in the 1950s that the Church is the only organisation which exists for non-members – or more recently by Brian McClaren that the parts of the Church that will ultimate grow beyond the consumerist age are those who “offer most to non-adherents”

  • David M

    A little late to the game… this post didn’t show up on my RSS!I find this book(post?) to be another example of when absolutism goes bad. The problem being (as always, I would propose) that as soon as one hole is found, the whole structure falls apart. [for the record, I tend to lean towards absolutism myself]Problem: “One of the obvious problems with this line of reasoning is that child abuse, alcoholism, divorce, etc. are just as prevalent (or more) among evangelicals as among any other group.” Come on!! This is not a problem with the approach but with it’s non-use. “Well I know someone, and THEY don’t conform to your little theory.” It’s like junior high all over again. So idiots and hypocrites inhabit the Evangelical theory. This makes it all irrelevant?!? Speak to the idea, not to the idea’s caretakers.Independent of my agreement or non with the “Evangelical approach” – just don’t use lame reasoning!! We are going to get NOWHERE like this.Another question to the study/book: if Evangelicalism is growing, how can that not be said as accomplishing its “goals for the redemption of society?”Sorry. I honestly rant because I love the Church and I know of Tony’s brain (as well as some of the posters on this blog) – I long to see such power used in ways that I deem wonderful (that’s a blatently honest assement).David

  • Geoff Holsclaw

    I know this is really late, but I couldn’t resist on this one…“Speak to the idea, not the idea’s caretaker” goes the critique… This is all too modern of a rebuttal for me to let go. It takes us to the heart of the situation for there is not “idea” outside its caretaker, outside of a form of life supporting it, a language/grammar expressing it, and a community being trained into it.the notion that there is an “idea” and also the idea’s “caretaker” simultaneously sets up a situation of private faith separated from public action (or the revere for evangelical where there private actions [abuse, additions, relations dysfunctions] are separated from their public faith), and therefore sets in motion the project of universal reason, which distinguishes the true ideas from it false caretakers. as Hauerwas would say, there is no truth w/o sanctification.

  • RobeFRe

    NO outside influences? I am incredulous!

  • David M

    [I find it funny that we are discussing discussions on someone else's blog]“simultaneously sets up a situation of private faith separated from public action” – isn’t that hypocrisy? That’s my point. The method, when enacted, will certainly not be detached from the actor. But the method may be categorized, no? My request is to look past the hypocrisy of those in any given category.Suppose Hauerwas reverses some aspect of his sanctification, does that make his assesments of living ALL wrong? Of course not.My issue is with the quote “the obvious lunacy of this logic…” The author’s “logic” doesn’t work. What he is railing has NOTHING to do with the logic of absurdity of the idea.But now I come to the end of my understanding. Geoff wrote of “which distinguishes the true ideas from it false caretakers.” Without this very distinction, I do not understand how sanctification can even be. How can I move towards conformity to Jesus without being distinguished from what He desires for me?[Lest this continue on Tony's blog, I would be most desirous if Geoff would email me so that I may further understand what I am missing - davidm777@yahoo.com]

  • Anonymous

    ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?is this academic theology? Who are these obscure names you cite? they are laughable in academia? Who is your audience? Why don’t you cite max lucado and the left behind series while you are at it? is this just a forum where evangelicals banter back and forth about evangelical stuff? It seems to be.

  • DLW

    Tony, which of the explanations for the failure of the secularization hypotheses explains the decline of Christianity in Europe based on the extreme lack of autonomy between Church(es) and State(s) following the 30 year war and the subsequent failure of Christianity to attract to itself intellectuals that dealt with the extant questions of their day from within the faith, helping it to remain intellectually vibrant? It seems to me that the process of secularization in Europe itself was culturally specific. dlw


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