You all know what a cultural pessimist I am, so you must know what a big deal it was for me to come away from the day I spent in Nashville among the Southern Baptists (at the conference on the Gospel and politics, sponsored by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) so optimistic about the future of the church and orthodox Christianity in this country. It’s a Russell Moore thing, I guess. The newish head of the ERLC is a refreshing combination of realism and optimism, which is something you don’t often see in my circles. He is quite realistic about the condition of American culture in this de-Christianizing era — none of this old-line Religious Right, “take back our country” rhetoric from him — but optimistic in that he really believes that losing our illusions about the character of America is a good thing for Christianity. Though a social and religious conservative, Moore is happy that the days when his tribe could be considered the Republican Party at Prayer are over.
To be sure, it’s not that religious conservatives won’t vote Republican in reliable numbers. It’s rather that the 1980s-era model of the Religious Right is dead or dying, and with it, the nationalism that too often became a form of idolatry for religious conservatives. I’ll have more to say about this here soon, but I want to point out something that I learned while in Nashville, something that shows how much things have changed for the Southern Baptists and for religious conservatism in the past 30 years.
In talking with various Southern Baptists in Nashville, especially younger Gen Xers and Millennials, I met some who are conservatives, but who came out of an extremely strict, suffocating fundamentalism. I pointed out again and again that I have no experience of fundamentalism, and this explains the disconnect I have with many Evangelicals when talking about the Benedict Option. As I put it to one man, “My experience of organized religion has always been loosey-goosey, which is why I seek doctrinal rigor and a deeper experience of ritual and practice.” The Southern Baptists with whom I spoke in Nashville also seek the same thing, but warned me (by telling about their histories) about how far in a destructive, unhealthy direction that kind of thing can go. I greatly appreciated their perspective, and know for sure that when I write the Benedict Option book, I’m going to have to devote a chapter to talking about the fundamentalist dead-end, and why we should avoid it.
My wife, who was raised in First Baptist Dallas, often cautions me about how Evangelicals hear my Ben Op talk. If they’ve been burned by fundamentalism, it sounds like what they ran away from, she said — an insight that was confirmed over and over for me in Nashville.
As it turns out, First Baptist Dallas also revealed something to me about how both the Southern Baptist Convention, the Religious Right, and Evangelicalism have changed since my youth. Again, I had no direct experience of the world of the Reagan-era Religious Right, but this 1988 documentary about that world, as seen through the world of First Baptist Dallas, taught me a lot about where the Southern Baptist Convention is today, and how it got there.
I came to the documentary after having a brief conversation with someone in Nashville about W.A. Criswell, the late pastor of First Baptist Dallas, and an enormously influential figure in his day. It’s fascinating, really fascinating, to watch that two-part documentary. Follow the link, and fast-forward to the 45 minute mark; the First Baptist Dallas portrait is part two. My wife, as a young teenager, was part of the First Baptist world then, and has confirmed to me that the documentary is accurate, but incomplete; for all the faults the documentary reveals, it must be remembered, she said, that the people of that community were (and are) good men and women. I believe that. It’s far too easy for outsiders to demonize folks like this. Like most churches, or groups, there is good and bad present.
That said, it was genuinely shocking to me to watch the documentary and see the pageantry, the money, the Republicanism, the Americanism, and the fundamentalist triumphalism present in that community — which was emblematic of the Religious Right. When I finished watching it in my hotel room, I thought, “So that’s how we got Russell Moore.” The difference, both stylistically and substantively, between the SBC (and conservative Evangelicalism) of the Criswell era, and of the Moore era, is striking. Again, anybody who doubts it really should watch the documentary.
Contrast it with this passage from Moore’s new book, Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel:
And, congregationally speaking, Protestant liberalism is deader than Henry VIII. If adapting to the culture were the key to ecclesial success, then where are the Presbyterian Church (USA) church-planting movements, the Unitarian megachurches?
That said, the older generations are mistaken if they assume the next generation will be more of the same, just with even more prayer for “revival” and “Great Awakening” in the land. The typical younger pastor is less partisan than his predecessor, less likely to speak from the pulpit about “mobilizing” voters and “reclaiming Judeo-Christian values” through political action and economic boycotts. This is not because he is evolving leftward. It is because he wants to keep Christianity Christian. As a matter of fact, the center of evangelical Christianity today is, theologically speaking, well to the right of the old Religious Right. It’s true that the typical younger pastor of a growing urban or suburban church doesn’t look like his cuff-linked or golf-shirted forefather. But that doesn’t mean he’s a liberal. He might have tattoos, yes, but they aren’t of Che Guevara. They’re of Hebrew passages from Deuteronomy.
His congregation’s statement of faith isn’t the generic sloganeering of the last generations’ doctrinally oozy consumerist evangelical movements, but it likely a lengthy manifesto with points and subpoints and footnotes rooted in one of the great theological traditions of the historic church. This pastor might preach forty-five minutes to an hour, sometimes calling out backsliding Christians from the pulpit with all the force of hellfire-and-brimstone revivalists of yesteryear. He is pro-life and pro-marriage, although he is likely to speak of issues like homosexuality in theological and pastoral terms rather than in rhetoric warning of “the gay agenda.”
Unlike the typical Bible Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of evangelical church has strict membership requirements, both in terms of what it takes to enter the believing community and what it takes to stay there. There aren’t likely to be four-year-olds baptized after repeating sinner’s prayers in a backyard Bible club, and the unrepentant often face what their parents never seemed to notice in their red-and-black lettered Bibles: excommunication. If this is liberalism, let’s have more of it.
These churches are often deeply culturally engaged, in terms of music and the arts, with often a more theologically-rich understanding of how to analyze common grace in cultural artifacts than the Christian subcultures of Bible Belt past, which too often replicated contemporary popular culture, at a lower level of quality, affixing Jesus at the end of it all. But they are often unsure of how to think of political engagement. Again, this is not due to liberalism but to theological conservatism. [Emphasis mine; where have you heard this kind of thing before? — RD] They have seen social gospels of the Left and the Right try to package a transcendent message for decidedly this-worldly, and sometimes downright cynical, purposes of pulling the levers of political power.
I encourage you to read Onward, even if you aren’t an Evangelical, and to connect with the ERLC. I’m reading it now, and I find myself underlining passages, and saying, Yes, that’s how it is. Reading the Moore book, and meeting all these bright, engaged, young conservative Evangelicals in Nashville this week, gave me the feeling that we may well be at the beginning of something new and vigorous in American Christianity. It is widely recognized that the model of Christian engagement represented by the late Richard John Neuhaus, Chuck Colson, and their Evangelicals and Catholics Together circle — the only example of culturally and politically engaged religious conservatism I’ve ever known — is dead. But we don’t know what comes next. I could be wrong, but I think I saw what’s coming next. Russell Moore is the closest thing we have to a new Richard John Neuhaus, and a very different Chuck Colson. Whatever is coming next is going to be worked out among Catholics and Evangelicals drawn to Moore and his orbit. Patrick Deneen, Chad Pecknold, and some of my other new-generation Catholic friends need to break bread with Moore and his circle.
Talking in the hallway at the convention center with Denny Burk, he asked me how the Benedict Option differs from the church community he pastors. He described the way his congregation works, and from that description, I concluded that it sounds like I imagine the Benedict Option would work among Evangelicals. “When I get started on this book, I want to come visit y’all and see how you do it,” I said to Denny. Part of the Benedict Option book will be visiting different communities and learning from them. This Wednesday in Nashville was an excellent start for me, and I’m really encouraged by meeting and spending time with so many new friends who are working toward the same goal, in fidelity to their own traditions.
If this resonates with you, come to the October 10 Benedict Option conference at Georgetown. It’s great simply to meet people who see the world as you do, and to learn from them. It gives me hope.