12/26 Flashback: Revival vs. reform

12/26 Flashback: Revival vs. reform December 26, 2022

From December 26, 2020, “But if any one of us should interfere

… “Changing hearts and minds” — conversion — has long been the foundation of white evangelical theories of politics and social change. On some level, for example, Billy Graham believed that his mass-evangelism was working in parallel with the mass-protests led by his Baptist contemporary Martin Luther King Jr. Billy was confident that if everyone got saved and thereby dealt with the sin in their own lives, society as a whole would be transformed, and that this would actually be a more effective approach than all the unnerving, unsettling things MLK was doing.

Young Sheldon

Graham and the white evangelical world he represented, in other words, believed that personal salvation was the key — that it was both necessary and sufficient as a response to any given social ill or injustice. He believed that no reform was possible without personal salvation, and that personal salvation would, by itself, produce every needed reform. You say you want a revolution? What you really want is a revival.

This approach has long, deep roots in white evangelicalism. Consider, for example, Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps — the WWJD? book that became a runaway best-seller a generation before Billy Graham. Sheldon was both an evangelical and a Social Gospel socialist, but he envisioned socialism sweeping the nation as an after-effect of mass conversion and religious revival. This idea of reform-through-revival held sway among white evangelicals throughout most of the 20th century.

I’d point to the examples of the first and second Great Awakenings as evidence that this theory simply doesn’t work. And I’d further suggest that folks like Billy Graham and Charles Sheldon were exceptional in their apparent good-faith belief that it would work, skeptically pointing out that many others likely embraced this theory not because they hoped to bring about reform/revolution through revival, but because they preferred to distract from reform/revolution by shifting the focus to otherworldly revival and opiating the masses. But that’s beside the point here.

The point here is that white evangelicalism in the 21st century appears to have abandoned its former belief (or former pretense) that mass-revival would bring about a better world. Their actions can no longer even semi-plausibly be explained by such a belief. Their actions are no longer consistent with a religion or a political movement that believes what Graham and Sheldon once did. But their actions are entirely consistent with a movement of militant white nationalism driven by a fearful need to maintain and expand white patriarchal hegemony and to put women, religious minorities, and all non-white people back in their place as subordinates.

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