Deconstructing or Condemning Evangelicalism

Deconstructing or Condemning Evangelicalism April 20, 2018

As a historian and believer keenly aware of the gap between my own convictions, Reformed Protestantism, and born-again evangelicalism, I have long tried to argue that Presbyterians are not evangelical because they don’t believe the same things, don’t worship the same way, and have different conceptions of the institutional church (ordained ministry). I made that case in a 2004 book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism. Back then, reactions to the book were tepid at best. Most were skeptical or hostile. The response was generally an assertion that evangelicalism cannot be that bad (this was before fatigue with George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism emerged from the follies of the Iraq War).

Now it seems the Trump presidency and evangelical support for the POTUS has roused any number of Protestants from their go-along-to-get-along attitude to evangelicalism. James Bratt, retired historian at Calvin, in fact, went precisely where even I was unwilling to go 15 years ago. He invoked the subject of my first book, J. Gresham Machen to argue that much like the Presbyterian fundamentalist’s critique of liberal Protestantism as a different religion from historic Christianity, so someone needed to write a book that showed evangelicalism’s antagonism with real Christianity:

Let’s return to a foundational text from the evangelical past—indeed, the text which helped define the present-day movement’s Fundamentalist parent in the eyes of its devotees and outside observers alike. I mean J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

In that book Machen argued that the “orthodox” and “liberal” parties then warring for the future of American Protestantism were not, as the second party claimed, carrying on a family feud within the big tent of Christianity. Rather, he insisted, they represented two entirely different religions. The orthodox side held to the historic, apostolic faith; the liberals were parading a combination of philosophical naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism behind the garments of Christian terminology. Their pose was dishonest and dishonorable, Machen continued, and the sooner they dropped it, the better for all concerned. At least then the real issues could be discussed more intelligently and profitably.

So, my modest proposal. Let the next bombshell book on the subject take a hint from Machen and be entitled Christianity and Evangelicalism. Its author could be more charitable than Machen (one could hardly be less) and treat white evangelicalism as not a totally different religion contrary to Christianity but as a deeply corrupted version of the faith whose name it claims.

Perhaps a more charitable way (Bratt will undoubtedly chuckle my attempt at the high ground of charity) of treating evangelicalism is not to condemn as a different religion from Christianity but to identify it as simply the creation of Protestants who hoped to form a movement that could influence the United States (post-World War II evangelicalism was implicitly political way before Bush or Trump). Here’s how that argument might go (actually, how it went):

The theological critiques and historical soul searching of the 1990s raised important questions about how to fix evangelicalism. For some like (David) Wells the solution resides in more and better doctrine. For others like (Mark) Noll evangelicalism needs to abandon restrictive and simplistic theological formulas. Greater zeal and faithfulness, along with greater discernment about evangelicalism’s recent past are also factors some believe crucial to the movement’s recovery. The one response that few have considered is perhaps the most radical and it is the point of this book. Instead of trying to fix evangelicalism, born-again Protestants would be better off if they abandoned the category altogether. The reason is not that evangelicalism is wrong in its theology, ineffective in reaching the lost, or undiscerning in its reflections on society and culture. It may be but these matters are beside the point. Evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, is it the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Behind this proboscis that has been nipped and tucked by savvy religious leaders, academics and pollsters is a face void of any discernible features. The non-existence of an evangelical identity may prove to be, to borrow a phrase from Mark A. Noll, the real scandal of modern evangelicalism. For despite the vast amounts of energy and resources expended on the topic, and notwithstanding the ever growing literature on the movement, evangelicalism is little more than a construction. . . .

Of course, the assertion that evangelicalism is largely a constructed ideal without any real substance is highly debatable. Part of what makes such a point contested is almost sixty years of publications, organizations, and Protestant leaders from an evangelical perspective, cheerleading for the cause. How can anyone reasonably state that evangelicalism is the creation of certain beholders’ imaginations when magazines such as Christianity Today and Books & Culture, schools such as Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Fuller Seminary, and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association not only exist but thrive? If evangelicalism is not the best way to describe these institutions, some may ask, then what is? What is more, if these agencies are evangelical then evangelicalism, ipso facto, must be real; it must stand for a certain strand of Christian faith and practice.

Yet, the central claim of Deconstructing Evangelicalism is precisely to question the statistics and scholarship on evangelicalism. The reason is not simply to be perverse or provocative. Good reasons exist for raising questions about whether something like evangelicalism actually exists. In the case of religious observance, evangelical faith and practice have become increasingly porous, so much so that some born-again Christians have left the fold for more historic expressions of the Christian faith, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. At the same time, in the sphere of religious scholarship, evangelicalism has become such a popular category of explanation that it has ceased to be useful. Better reasons, however, may also be offered for looking behind the evangelical facade to see what is really there. As the following chapters attempt to show, evangelicalism has been a religious construction of particular salience during the late twentieth century. The general contractors in building this edifice were the leaders of the 1940s neo-evangelical movement who sought to breathe new life into American Christianity by toning down the cussedness of fundamentalism while also tapping conservative Protestantism’s devotion and faith. Yet, without the subcontractors in this construction effort, the neo-evangelical movement would have frayed and so failed much quicker than it did. The carpenters, plumbers, and painters in the manufacturing of evangelicalism have been the historians, sociologists and pollsters of American religion who applied the religious categories developed by neo-evangelicals to answer the questions their academic peers were asking about Protestantism in the United States. The emergence of evangelicalism as a significant factor in American electoral politics did not hurt these efforts and, in fact, may have functioned as the funding necessary for completing the evangelical edifice. Especially after the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 and the formation of the so-called Religious Right, religious leaders and religion scholars had a much easier time than before convincing skeptical academics, policy wonks, publishers and pundits that evangelicalism was a given of American life, a thriving movement, and therefore important.

. . . This book offers an explanation of why evangelicalism as currently used became a useful category for journalists, scholars and believing Protestants. But it is more than simply an account of a specific word’s usage. It is also an argument about the damage the construction of evangelicalism has done to historic Christianity. As much as the American public thinks of evangelicalism as the “old-time religion,” whether positively or negatively, this expression of Christianity has severed most ties to the ways and beliefs of Christians living in previous eras. For that reason, it needs to be deconstructed. (16-19)


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