Is Evangelicalism America’s New “Religious Establishment?”

Is Evangelicalism America’s New “Religious Establishment?” January 9, 2017

Is Evangelicalism America’s New “Religious Establishment?”

This past weekend I’ve attended and participated in the annual meeting of the American Society of Church Historians. I served on two panels. One was composed of the editors and some authors of a book I reviewed here earlier: The Future of Evangelicalism in America edited by Candy Gunther Brown and Mark Silk (Columbia University Press, 2016). I contributed the chapter “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology.” All the other authors are historians or sociologists of religion. The other authors present were: Michael Hamilton, Candy Gunther Brown, and Timothy Trent. The volume has stellar promotional statements on it from Philip Jenkins, Mark Noll and other well-known scholars of evangelicalism. The volume is now available in paperback. I highly recommend it.

We (the editors and present authors) formed a panel to discuss our chapters and the book in general. One theme that kept appearing–both in questions and comments from the audience and from panelists–was whether “evangelicalism” is America’s new religious “establishment.” According to some surveys as many as eighty million Americans claim to be evangelical or “born again.” Some sociologists and political scientists are almost in shock over the resurgence of cultural and political influence of this religious tribe. Common wisdom in the 1970s was that America would become increasingly secular and “evangelical Christianity” would lose influence.

So, a word of historical background will help set the stage here. What does “religious establishment” mean? Well, that was never clearly defined, so I have to make some assumptions about what I think it means to sociologists of religion.

Sometime in the 19th century some British pundit referred to the Church of England as the “Tory Party at prayer.” (The Tory Party was the conservative party in England.) In other words, according to that pundit (and many sociologists and historians agreed), The Church of England functioned as the religious establishment in England when the Tory Party was in power. And when it wasn’t in power the Church of England helped it regain power. There was no serious religious competition to the Church of England in terms of political and social influence.

I think when contemporary sociologists of religion refer to (what they call) evangelicalism as America’s new religious establishment they mean it has no serious religious rival for influencing American political life.

Historians claim that evangelicalism was America’s religious establishment up until about 1870. Sometime after 1870 it was surpassed, if not completely eclipsed, by so-called “mainline Protestantism.” What’s that? Well, it eventually took shape in the Federal Council of Churches later renamed the National Council of Churches. The main denominations included in that American religious establishment were relatively liberal and often helped liberal politicians get elected or at least “spoke” to American politicians and government on behalf of American Protestantism. For much of the 20th century American evangelicalism thrived “underground,” as it were. It was largely ignored by the movers and shakers of American culture and political life.

I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when that was largely the case. We were evangelicals and we felt embattled. We were by-and-large of H. Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ against culture” type.

All of the above is generalization, of course. But I plunge on in the same vein.

According to the narrative I heard on the panel (and read in the book), something utterly unexpected and unpredicted happened and is happening in the United States: evangelicalism has largely replaced “mainline Protestantism” as American’s new religious establishment. It is, many scholars think, “the Republican Party at prayer.” It has no serious religious rival for the label of America’s religious establishment.

Now for my response. I seriously question whether eighty million Americans are authentically evangelical. Sociologists TEND (notice the soft claim) to believe someone when he or she answers yes to the question “Are you ‘evangelical’ or ‘born again’?” I don’t–without further evidence (e.g., right answers to at least a few theological and spiritual questions).

Also, sociologists of religion TEND to exclude blacks and Hispanics from the category “evangelical.” While it’s true they often shy away from the term or label, I think many of them are authentically evangelical in MY SENSE of the word (which is theological and spiritual, not political).

So, IF a researcher simply ASSUMES that a person is authentically evangelical if they are white and claim to be evangelical or “born again,” regardless of any other markers, perhaps something then called “evangelicalism” is today’s American religious establishment in the sense of the most influential religious tribe.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, sociologists of religion and many other observers and commentators on the state of American social and political life, lack theological and spiritual acumen. So, I am skeptical if not cynical about all this. In my opinion, authentic evangelical Christianity is a much smaller tribe than the eighty million who claim to be evangelical or born again. And it includes most black Christian Americans and many Hispanic and Asian Christian Americans (most of whom are not politically conservative).

Do not ask me why sociologists of religion exclude black, Hispanic and Asian Americans from being “evangelical.” The only reason I have heard from them is that few black, Hispanic and Asian Americans use that label for themselves. I would respond that far too many white Americans use that label for themselves. It seems there is a gulf fixed between sociologists of religion and theologians about this matter.


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