Shit Happens: Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in America
Recently, we have heard that a significant majority of American evangelicals voted for and support the work of a president whose public and private behavior seems to be antithetical to the values and actions most valued by Christians. This was answered a few days ago by a meeting of apparently more progressive evangelicals at Wheaton College, a well-known evangelical institution just west of Chicago who loudly repudiated the president, and a subsequent candlelight march outside the White House, led by a prominent progressive evangelical spokesman and writer who had earlier established an independent church in the D.C. Area.
So, what's going on? Who are these evangelicals, and why do they vote for a misogynistic, racist egoist and then insist they don't want anything to do with him? As a person from an evangelical background who is, frankly, unsure about admitting to the few evangelical leanings I have left, I want to explore that much further than either the mainstream media or the partisan journals (primarily Christianity Today, about which more below) tend to go.1
The first thing, it seems, would be to define “evangelical.” Some years ago, Robert Webber, then a theology professor at Wheaton, wrote a book called Common Roots, in which he listed eighteen of what he called “Subcultural Evangelical Groups.”2 He himself was a product of Bob Jones University (BA '56); a rather fundamentalist sort of school, and a triad of seminaries: Reformed Episcopal, Covenant Theological, and Concordia (St. Louis). Eventually, he would end up as an episcopal priest and a specialist in worship methodologies.
What is interesting about Webber's book, in addition to his typologies of evangelicalism, is that it was a direct product of his participation in a small group of evangelicals who in 1977 wrote the “Chicago Call,” a document offering a desire, among other things, to rein in the unchecked divisiveness of the evangelical churches.
Earlier, in 1973, a similar group of youthful evangelicals had produced the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” which was pretty much what it sounds like. All of this—soon forgotten and largely ignored—in an environment that seemed, to many of those involved, mostly concerned with doctrinal purity and its own comfort level—the comfort of a movement that seemed, to its insiders, to have settled into place as the church to be reckoned with in the USA.
Had the young lions consulted their aging herd leaders, people like Bruce, Packer, Henry or Stott (only Carl Henry was involved in these meetings—the 1977 Call—they might have heard why evangelicals, however valid the concerns of the younger lions, weren't going to take them seriously. The herd leaders also had their “Chicago Call,” a 1978 document called “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” signed by nearly three hundred evangelical leaders, from William Ackerman to Ronald Youngblood. Why would a battalion of evangelical leaders happily sign off on a conference report presenting twenty-nine articles affirming and defining biblical inerrancy, but leave a handful of younger evangelicals hanging out in lonely witness? To understand that, we must return to the late nineteenth century, when American churches were facing what was known as the Modernist controversies.
Modernism, to most people, involved some particularly opaque strategies in art, music and literature. When Igor Stravinsky's ballet Rite of Spring produced a near riot in 1913 Paris3, or James Joyce's novel Ulysses4 was banned in his native Ireland (and, for that matter, the UK and USA), that was Modernism. When scholars of language history produced new analyses of biblical books, that was also Modernism, and that required theologians to rethink some of the traditional readings of biblical literature. For most Christians, this was not an issue. For some, it was catastrophe.
Traditionalists became increasingly shrill in their insistence that, for example, the earth was in fact created in seven days, as the first chapter in Genesis said; Moses wrote the Pentateuch (although the rabbis themselves regarded this as at best an interesting tradition, not a fact); Isaiah wrote all of his book, and accurately predicted future events around the Levant; and so forth. In England and then in the USA, a new interpretation of the Bible called dispensationalism or premillenianism alleged to preserve the traditional readings; in the USA, a 12-volume study called The Fundamentals not only insisted on what came to be called “biblical inerrancy,” but gave its proponents their name.
After World War I, the fundamentalists became argumentative and occasionally rather strident. While revivals and other evangelistic efforts continued, with Dwight Moody and Billy Sunday at the head of the class, Princeton Seminary theologians like Hodge and Warfield developed a systematic reading of scripture that fully supported the traditional view of the Bible as literally true in historical fact, among other things. When the seminary leaders began to lean away from the strict readings of Hodge and Warfield, a young lion named J. Gresham Machen5 led a breakoff movement that established Westminster Seminary and continued the fundamentalist mission.
As the second world war loomed, some evangelically minded leaders began to think of fundamentalist theology as a drawback to domestic missiology. Christians, they saw, should not allow themselves to be seen as angry, reactionary and intolerant. The answer was not to alter theological doctrines, but, in the best tradition of the successful businessmen who funded evangelicalism, to remake the marketing strategy. This produced what became known as neo-evangelicalism, practiced by the “new evangelicals.”6
The neo-evangelicals, led publicly by such people as Wheaton grad Billy Graham, and the new evangelical periodical Christianity Today, began to gradually wean themselves from the most confrontational aspects of “evangelicalism.” Graham, for example, eventually began cooperating with local Catholic churches in his crusades; second- and third-generation evangelical theologians began to seek ways to include some non-fundamentalist sounding ideas in their presentations.7 Nevertheless, evangelical theology continued to sound, albeit with an altered rhetoric, very much like the Calvinist fundamentalism of the Princetonians.
One example of the new evangelicalism was an Oklahoman turned California candy maker named Bill Bright. Bright, a member of then mega-church and evangelical center Hollywood Presbyterian8, wrote a small booklet called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” and began a very successful enterprise called Campus Crusade for Christ. Bright, with a smattering of seminary education (he matriculated at both Princeton and Fuller seminaries, but did not graduate from either), evidently spent enough time around the charismatic movement to hear about the idea of God being bound by his “spiritual laws” and around Princeton to hear about “permanent grace.” This resulted in a program that taught young college students the basics of sales, with the idea of convincing their peers to make a prayer of conversion, thus “saving” them.9
Today, the most liberal evangelicals, sometimes called the “Evangelical Left,” seldom bother to deal with theology or doctrine, except to argue about otherwise evangelical/doctrinal hobbyhorses as abortion or LGBT rights. Still, evangelicals remain largely bound by their nearly two-hundred-year-old theology of inerrancy and its consequences in dealing with contemporary social and political issues.
Today's evangelicals, as Pacific Lutheran historian Seth Dowland writes in Christian Century10, find themselves not only trying to market a saving faith while either pushing their theology into the background, or avoiding its anti-modernist implications, but also remaining increasingly trapped into positions that align themselves with the very fundamentalists the neo-evangelicals sought to escape.
This is the result of many factors—regional animosities about slavery, the inability of white evangelicals to recognize their own racism (and anti-semitism), the refusal of fundamentalists to stay quiet and uninvolved—but most of all it may well be that neo-evangelicals, while leaving behind the blue-collar, agricultural roots of much fundamentalism, found a comfort level that precluded any sort of prophetic, perhaps confrontational religious activity.
The postwar America of the neo-evangelicals was, despite involvement in Korea and a short recession, a triumphal, booming, prideful country. Challenges—communism, the space race, housing and education—were easily managed by American technology, know-how, and determination. Where mainstream (or in fundamentalist terms, liberal) Christians found the first world war a shock to their visions of a world continuing to evolve upwards in God's plan, the post-second war evangelicals grew into their marketplace. Evangelicals built inter-denominational publishing houses, upgraded bible schools into colleges, started evangelical ministries and...oops! Stuff happened.
Martin Luther King, Jr. happened, Playboy magazine (and a dozen cut-rate imitators) happened.11 Vietnam happened. Timothy Leary happened. 1968 happened. Hippy “happenings” happened. The Jesus people happened. America started on its way to becoming something that would eventually be identified as “post-modern.” Re-fighting the modernist battles, as the baby boomers grew into adulthood and their parents segued into retirement, seemed pointless. But like good, if oblivious, post-modernists, the baby boomers and their successors did not continue to experience a nation unified by triumphalism and union wages. The old, modernist divisions reclaimed the country.
The Falwells, Sr. and Jr., were reborn as funda-evangelicals. As Billy Graham passed, his brother took up the funda-evangelical torch as a Muslim-scorning, gay-bashing throwback. And, instead of Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump became a weird, scary, village-hunchback version of The Conservative.
If polls show a significant majority of evangelicals supporting him, it may be because nobody at the polling centers no longer knows how to define an evangelical. Or it may be because the Christian church—that catholic church identified in the creeds—is in the midst of an identity crisis, in which the fundamentalist theologies grow in the Southern Cone, and the churches of the old Reformation and Counter-Reformation either grow closer or develop a new, post-modern identity. The ultimate expression of post-modernism may be a well-worn, but still viable bumper sticker:
1This is partly based on my own experience, but also on the excellent work of church historians George Marsden, Mark Noll (both evangelicals), Kate Bowler, Sydney Ahlstrom, evangelical theologian Stanley Grenz, evangelical (Left) writers Rodney Clapp and Brian McLaren, the African-American churches' theologian and apologist Cornel West and the last great Princeton theologian, J. Gresham Machen.2Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1977/2009, pp.56-57.
3 Kelly, Thomas Forrest. First Nights: Five Musical Premieres. New Haven, Yale UP, 2000, pp. 292-4.
4McNichols, Melvin D. Ulysses: Style and Mind. Unpublished dissertation, Univ. of So. Calif., 1991.
5Machen, in his classic study of the book of Romans, revealed an anti-semitism that was a sort of accepted, if not openly acknowledged, accompaniment to Fundamentalism. The dispensationalists manage the difficult task of combining anti-semitism with support for Israel.
6See especially George Marsden's Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1987).
7Regent College theologian Stanley Grenz, in 2000's Renewing the Center and 2001's Beyond Foundationalism, makes frequent reference to postmodern ideas, but ultimately rejects postmodern theologians like Frei or Lindsey, and cannot criticize doctrine based on biblical inerrancy.
8One of Hollywood Pres's best-known members was athlete-turned-evangelist Don Moomaw.
9I joined Campus Crusade briefly in the late 60s, but became disillusioned by just this approach.
10American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness, July 19, 2018. Retrieved 6/26/18.
11Interestingly, the son of Playboy's founder recently suggested that the magazine may no longer publish nude photos.