The Shifting Sands of “Evangelicalism”

There is no more accomplished student of American Protestantism than Martin Marty. This week, he muses on how odd it is that evangelical leaders are teaming up with Catholic bishops to fight the Obama administration. Evangelicalism, he writes, has in the past few decades shifted from a type of private piety to a publicly political category:

Martin Marty

“Evangelical” in this case has become the code word for the ever-expanding population of conservative Protestants who joined and join some Catholics on the front lines of Cultural Warfare. They may be great-great-great grandchildren of nineteenth-century Protestant activists, but in most of the twentieth century such activists had backed off and changed their mission. In 1970 in Righteous Empire I could speak of Evangelicalism as largely “Private Protestantism,” which “accented individual salvation out of the world” over against what latter came to be called “Mainline.” It had been “‘Public’ Protestantism,” which was more exposed to the social order and the social destinies of citizens. Note: there remain plenty of ‘Mainline’ and ‘Public’ Protestant Activists in action today, but the cameras and microphones have turned attention from them. What is going on and what has gone on with the Mainliners, who have left a cultural niche or a political canyon to be occupied by activist “Public Evangelicals?” In one word, “Accommodation,” specifically “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment.”

READ THE REST: Protestant Accommodation by Martin E. Marty.

  • Dan Hauge

    It is interesting how evangelicalism has shifted in that way, but it seems to me the core of the piece is the issue of accommodation on the part of liberal Christians: “The accommodation to Darwinian Evolution and many other scientific challenges came more easily to Mainliners, who performed many kinds of services in cultural life. But these occurred at expense to their institutional power, the loyalty of church members, and much of their hold on cultural and political life.” I’m guessing many emergents/progressives will balk a little bit at the conclusion that the mainline decline is a result of being more open to scientific and enlightenment thought–it sounds a lot like the argument evangelicals make. What I’m really curious about is how much the emerging progressive church (there’s a label mash for you) be able to take up any of that space in the ‘cultural niche’ or ‘political canyon’ left by the mainline.

  • tom c.

    A good book that explores the trajectory of Evangelicals and Politics in the 20th Century is “God’s Own Party” by Daniel Williams. Williams specifically discusses the coming together of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals.

    In any case, I found out about the book via the U.S. Intellectual History and Religion in American History Blogs (very good blogs for this sort of stuff, by the way).

  • Marshall

    “Accomodation” is when you are in the market and you move your cart so some perfect stranger can get to the broccoli, whereas you don’t like broccoli and don’t see why anybody would. How did it get to be a bad word? (You should hear what Jerry Coyne has to say about such people.)

  • Alan K

    Is not an evangelical merely a liberal who shows up for a party a few years late but with more zeal and fervor?

  • Bill W

    @Dan, I like this question: “What I’m really curious about is how much the emerging progressive church (there’s a label mash for you) be able to take up any of that space in the ‘cultural niche’ or ‘political canyon’ left by the mainline.” It kind of relates to our convo over at Homebrewed. Is this space a structural- oganizational one, cultural, both? How to inhabit the outdated model that may still have a tenable theological future?


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