Unintended Consequences in American Religious History

Unintended Consequences in American Religious History March 26, 2014

Evan Treborn has a gift.  The main character in the 2004 science-fiction film The Butterfly Effect, Evan possesses the ability to travel back to particular points in his life, changing the events of that moment.  Over the course of the movie, he does this several times, hoping to change outcomes for the better.  Of course, as is always the case with time travel, his decisions in the past change the future in unanticipated ways.  A dark film, these unintended consequences spiral ever-downward to a troubling ending (in the director’s cut).*  A work of fiction, The Butterfly Effect highlights the historical reality that often, good ideas have unintended dark consequences, something that has recently come more sharply into focus for me as it relates to American religious history.

This semester, I am teaching the course entitled American Religious Movements in our undergraduate program at the Houston Campus of Southwestern Seminary.  The course introduces students to the wide variety of religious movements such as Puritanism, Fundamentalism, Mormonism, Revivalism, and many others.  I focus on the larger trends in American Religious History, discussing those movements and their particularities in light of the larger religious and cultural context that is America.  Perhaps because I launched my class with a discussion of the age of exploration, the conquistadors, and the colonial mindset, I have perceived more of the dark, unintended consequences of many of the good ideas that emerged in the America.

For example, with colonialism came Christianity.  As entrepreneurial explorers and pioneering settlers encountered new peoples, they often intentionally shared the gospel with them.  Distinguishing Native Americans as religiously different than than the colonists gave some Europeans a burden to minister to them.  At the same time, it bolstered a European mindset that aggregated the plethora of different North American people groups into the totalizing categories of “Indian” and “pagan.”  In losing their distinctiveness, they became primarily identified–in many European minds–by the fact that they were not European and not Christian.  On the heels of the Reconquista, the fall of Constantinople, and Ottoman pressure into Southeast Europe, this classed them as enemies to be conquered as much as potential souls to be won.  As the conquistadors and English settlers in King Phillip’s War demonstrated, it often did.

Similarly, many Protestants rooted in European dissenting traditions teamed with Enlightenment co-belligerents in America to work towards the ideal of religious liberty.  They succeeded in their efforts and effectively codified many of their cherished principles into the founding documents of the United States.  Disestablishment represented an especially notable accomplishment.  It also birthed the American religious marketplace wherein religion eventually became a commodity to be marketed to consumers.  (More about that here.)  In the early twenty-first century, these developments too often lead purveyors of evangelicalism to a customer-is-always-right approach to marketing their brand of Christianity, vacating it of any serious theological content or meaningful standards of orthopraxy.  Thus, the same thing that many eighteenth-century evangelicals advocated in order that they could freely practice their religion caused evangelicalism to devolve to the point that many of its present-day descendants are hardly worth embracing.

Everett Swanson and Korean Orphan

In the mid-twentieth century, the evangelical renaissance known as neoevangelicalism brought a wide variety of conversion-oriented evangelicals together.  They cooperated together in a whole host of worthwhile ventures, founding new institutions (e.g. Fuller Seminary), launching a serious theological magazine (Christianity Today), evangelizing the nation (via Youth for Christ and Billy Graham’s Crusades), and addressing global poverty (through World Vision, World Relief, and Compassion International).  At the same time, in order for the movement to sustain its energy and cohesiveness, denominational differences and other areas of potential conflict were subjugated to the simpler areas of doctrinal agreement.  In the end, evangelical cooperation unintentionally weakened firm commitment to more specific (and more rigorous) theological traditions, while strengthening commitment to the theologically minimalist “mere evangelicalism.”**

Perhaps seeing these unintended consequences is–as one of my colleagues in systematic theology reminds me–the curse of being an historian.  But the blessings of the trade are also bountiful, as I often encounter a healthy dose of stories of human triumph and gospel transformation: stories like that of Everett Swanson, the founder of Compassion International, who saw many young Koreans embrace the gospel, and embraced many young Koreans who were dying of hunger and privation.  From a chance encounter one morning, millions have been saved, body and soul.  In my darker moments, I remind myself of such stories.


*The Butterfly Effect is a thought-provoking movie with a well-written plot.  Further, it is proof of the surprising fact that Ashton Kutcher can act.  However, be forewarned.  It is a very dark movie that I cannot unequivocally recommend as it somberly portrays depraved human behavior.

**My colleague Robert Caldwell coined this term.  I borrow it from him with full credit given.



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  • Antiphon411

    It is interesting to juxtapose the observations of this article with a few recent “Whither religious liberty?” articles here at the Anxious Bench (Kidd’s and Turner’s).

    I would say that the more significant unintended(?) consequence of the error of religious liberty has been religious indifferentism and increasing secularization.

    We might be so generous as to believe that this was indeed an unintended consequence, but it was not an unforeseen one.

    It was condemned by many popes at the time. Pius VII in a letter to the Bishop of Troyes (1814); Gregory XVI in his encyclical Mirari vos (1832), wherein he called it “madness”; Pius IX in his encyclicals Qui pluribus (1846) and Quanta cura (1864) and in the famous Syllabus of Errors accompanying the latter; and Leo XIII in his encyclicals Immortale Dei (1885) and Libertas humana (1888).