Is Evangelicalism a Secularizing Force?

Is Evangelicalism a Secularizing Force? January 13, 2016

I’ve thought long and hard about secularism and as I’ve done so I’ve come to wonder whether or not I am an unwitting agent of it.

I’m not thinking about that hobby horse of preachers, “practical atheism”. According to that thumbscrew of guilt our moral failures justify unbelief. It’s because I don’t give to the poor, or recycle, or whatever-the-thing-is-that-I’m-supposed-to-do-according-to-the-preacher, that people don’t believe in God.

I don’t really think I have that much power over what people believe. Instead I’m going a little deeper, down to the level of our presuppositions.

Presuppositions are difficult to think about because they are the very ideas we use to think in the first place. That’s why they are so powerful, not only do they stay out of view, they color the way we see other things.


When I was first introduced to Nominalism back when I took Introduction to Medieval Philosophy as an undergraduate, it made me vaguely uneasy. It didn’t appeal to me, but I didn’t rightly know why. I came to see over the years, with a growing sense of self-loathing, that I was a Nominalist. I’ve been working double-overtime to change that. It’s been doubly difficult because Evangelicalism is pretty much Christian Nominalism for the Everyman.

Most Evangelicals don’t have any idea what-in-the-world I’m talking about when I point this out. For Evangelicals a Nominalist is what those Catholics who only go to church at Christmas and Easter are. You know, they’re Christian in name only.

But Nominalism in philosophy basically says that’s the case for everything. A tree is a tree in name only, a man is a man in name only, and so on. The idea is the names we use to classify things don’t really refer to anything real.

Initially it may be difficult to see how this connects to secularism, so let me fill in some if the intervening space.

We’re all literalists now

To an older way of thinking, something called Realism, the world is a poem. It’s a meaningful place; it refers to something.

The word poem means “to make”, from the Greek, “poiein”. Poems must be interpreted, of course, and getting the meaning right can be tricky. But no one would say a poem is meaningless because people can’t agree to its meaning. That’s because poems are written by people and they refer to things.

Medieval Nominalists would have agreed with that. As a point of fact, they were concerned that God should be free to say whatever he pleased. They were reacting to the notion that God had to make the world the way it is by a force of necessity. So to free God, they had to cut the cords that tied the world to him. That freed him in our minds, but it has also left the world adrift.

Now, because the world doesn’t necessarily refer to God, the world can only refer to itself. And taken to an extreme, every particular thing in the world can only refer to itself. Why, even calling a leaf “a leaf” is stereotyping. Each leaf should have its own name. To call all leaves, “leaves” is almost unjust.

This is why we’re all literalists now. Even if we don’t go as far as giving a unique name to every individual leaf, we tend to think that the things in the world refer only to themselves. They don’t point to anything else, except, that is, by some arbitrary act by some person. And depending on what he’s talking about he can be said to be “creative” or “bigoted”.

The Secular Christian?

What Nominalism did for secularism is denature the world by cutting its meaning off from its creator. Instead of seeing a world of intrinsic meaning, most people, evangelicals included, think of it as neutral, just so much sweet cream to which we can add whatever flavor we’d like.

The influence on Christianity has been enormous, and Evangelicalism is one of the best places to see it. I’m going to limit myself to three of the more characteristic features of Evangelicalism to show what I mean.

Christ at Heart's Door
Christ at Heart’s Door

A Personal Relationship with Jesus

Nominalism has created a problem for everyone, not just Christians. In the world of philosophy the challenge was met by retreating into the self. Descartes’ famous, “I think therefore I am” established a new basis for truth and meaning. It wasn’t as subjective as it may sound, Descartes worked overtime to build a mental causeway back to the external world. But the point is truth and meaning were not encountered out in the world, they were discovered in the mind.

Evangelicals do much the same thing. Jesus is someone who is known inwardly, in the heart. Think of that old standard, “He Lives” with the line: “You ask me how I know he lives, he lives within my heart!”

That’s not how the Apostles put it. But now the idea that you would appeal to the witness of the Apostles to establish the truth of the resurrection seems unspiritual to many Evangelicals. And many can’t even see Christ in the sacraments. But it all began with downgrading the world from a poem to meaningless stuff. Now meaning only lives in our hearts.

Artless Bible Study

For many Evangelicals you must choose between facts and metaphors. Because Evangelicals don’t think that creation itself is a kind of metaphor, anytime someone brings up the idea that something in scripture may be a metaphor it is assumed that he is undermining biblical authority, you know, like liberals do.

(It’s true that liberals undermine biblical authority; but the problem with liberals is not that they see metaphors in scripture, their problem is the locate metaphors solely in the human mind).

But if creation itself is a kind of metaphor, then historical facts can refer to bigger things. Quick example: Jesus did indeed walk on water, but that says more than, “Hey, look at what I can do!” The sea in the Bible refers to death and judgment as well as to itself. So, when Jesus walked on the sea he was saying, “I am greater than death.”

Because Evangelicals can’t read the poetry of creation, they can’t read the poetry of the Bible. We’re artless interpreters.


Last of all, at least for today, Evangelicals are guilty of crude and artless uses of creation. Our music tends to be sappy and didactic. Our architecture is destined for the wrecking ball. And the reason this is so is we don’t see the meaning in our materials.

In all my years of pastoral ministry I’ve never had a person say to me, “How does music express the glory of God?” I’ve had people say things like, “We need a band in order to appeal to young people.” And I’ve never had anyone even remotely concerned with whether medium density fiber board says the same thing as quarter-sawn red oak. I’ve had people say things like, “It doesn’t matter what we build it out of, so long as our hearts are in the right place.”

Really? That’s all that matters? We need to get Real, to get back to the Real world and Real meanings. More on that another time.

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  • norman ravitch

    As Prof. Harold Bloom of Yale wrote some years ago, American Christians of most denominations are really not traditional Christians at all; they are gnostics. The idea that God/Jesus is a personal friend and really spends his time with you and your problems is pretty weird and not at all Christian.

  • norman ravitch

    I was at Princeton when it was still Presbyterian. Now it is Marxist. I don’t know which is worse.

  • norman ravitch

    What in fact are evangelicals? They follow the Gospels? So do all Christians supposedly. They have a a personal relationship with Jesus? Where in the Gospels is this announced as a desirable thing? Jesus is their personal saviour? I thought he was the Saviour of the World. In my experience evangelicals are just pains in the ass.

  • norman ravitch

    Presbyterians are God’s frozen people.

  • Politicalguineapig

    “Last of all, at least for today, Evangelicals are guilty of crude and artless uses of creation. Our music tends to be sappy and didactic. Our architecture is destined for the wrecking ball. And the reason this is so is we don’t see the meaning in our materials.”
    I’m not an Evangelical, so I may be getting this wrong, but isn’t the point of Evangelism that there is no beauty to be found in this world? As I understand it, people are punished by being born into the world and have to stay down here until they rack up enough points to get into Heaven. Finding beauty in the world (or even looking up, god forbid) will distract people from the important things. And for what it’s worth, I agree about Christian music;they can take my rock and roll from my cold dead hands.

  • EqualTime

    We may come to the same conclusion, but for different reasons. I think there’s a concept in physics, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. It seems to me, that some of the secular pushback against some evangelical activism, such as pushing for teaching creation as an alternative to evolution, or blessing our elected officials/candidates to be safe from witchcraft, or seeking to deny some of us rights because the Bible, which not all of us accept as authoritative, tells us so, arises because secularists see the action, and feel compelled to provide an opposite reaction.

  • cken

    All religions are based on a belief in the metaphysical. However, the sacred writings of religions relate time honored lessons on how to deal with the reality we can perceive and understand. Evangelicals who take the entire bible, except for the parables, word for word literally miss the meaning of the allegorical portions of the Bible. Taking the bible literally risks internal biblical contradictions and can obscure the intended messages. Literalists also tend to pick and choose which verses of the bible to believe and which not to believe. The quantum physicists say what we see is an illusion what is unseen is reality. We don’t understand the depths of metaphysical reality nor do we understand what God, the Holy Spirit, or the soul are. Who can really wrap their mind around Ephesians 4:6 “There is one Father one God who is above all through all and in you.” It is a verse we should take literally because it plumbs the depths of a metaphysical God we don’t and can’t understand. We need to have faith in, surrender our will to, and love something we can’t see or possibly understand – God. And yet that God is the essence of reality and more real than the illusion we can perceive with our five senses

  • Politicalguineapig

    “Last of all, at least for today, Evangelicals are guilty of crude and artless uses of creation. Our music tends to be sappy and didactic. Our architecture is destined for the wrecking ball. And the reason this is so is we don’t see the meaning in our materials.”

    Posting again, previous comment got eaten. Unless I’m really wrong, aren’t beauty and earthly materials supposed to be meaningless in an Evangelical context? So why shouldn’t evangelical churches be blocky? And God doesn’t like music anyway, no matter if it’s got a Christian brand on it or not.

  • Frances the talking mule

    Many of us who grew up in areas dominated by evangelicals who constantly railed against the biological processes of natural selection, equal rights for women, etc, found the premise of turning off one’s brain to be so revolting that it is easy to become secular- and to embrace an ethical view of life that rejects the damnation of otherwise well-meaning innocent people and is not particularly concerned with demon possession caused by rock music and movies.

  • robert hawthorn

    You can’t make a sow’s ear a silk purse. Christianity’s time is past, there is just to much knowledge available.

  • Torin Drake

    What drove the increase of the Nones is the Nationalistic Christianity that was developed by the Religious Right. The RR is the most anti-christian movement that this country has developed. When anyone hears the word Evangelical, they think a vitriolic hyper nationalist Republican bent on forcing their world view on others. Lost is Christ the Redeemer. Also, Evangelicalism allowed itself to be used by Governments to counter Communism in the 1980’s. With the RR and Evangelicalism as tool of the state to fight Communism. It was doomed. I don’t think it will ever recover.