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Evangelicals In Purgatory

Is US Evangelicalism splitting -- or simply purifying itself?

Ross Douthat sees signs that American Evangelicalism might be cracking up along pro- and anti-Trump lines. He makes his case, and then says:

If this is right, then the alienation of younger evangelical writers from Trumpism’s court pastors could indeed be a signifier of a coming evangelical crackup. In this scenario the label itself would become contested, with the kind of winsome and multiethnic evangelicalism envisioned by the anti-Trump Southern Baptist Russell Moore pitted against the nationalist evangelicalism of a Jerry Falwell Jr. or Robert Jeffress, and churches along the fault line internally embattled and dividing.

But it’s also possible that evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions, have underestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success. It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations — and that it is this group, not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed.

If so, then this would imply that white Christian tribalism and a very American sort of heresy, not a commitment to scripture and tradition, has kept evangelical churches thriving all these years. And if the God-and-country, pray-and-grow-rich tendencies sweep aside orthodox resistance, the evangelicalism that emerges might be more coherent and sociologically resilient, in the short run, for being rid of hand-wringers who don’t think Baptist choirs should set “Make America Great Again” to music.

Read the whole thing. I hope Evangelical readers will offer their analysis. Funny, but if you rewrite Douthat’s last two grafs to focus on political conservatism, not Evangelicalism, you might get this:

It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the conservative mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outliers — and that it is this group, not the majority who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real conservative penumbra, which could float away and leave conservatism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed.

If so, then this would imply that white tribalism, not a commitment to conservative principles, has kept conservatism thriving all these years. And if the Trumpian tendencies sweep aside orthodox resistance, the conservatism that emerges might be more coherent and sociologically resilient, in the short run, for being rid of hand-wringers.

But I digress. Today I received two very thoughtful e-mails from the same reader, who prefers to remain anonymous:

As a Southern evangelical reader of your blog, I’ve really been enjoying your BenOp dialogue with my brethren, as well as much of your commentary post-Trump and post-Roy Moore.  Having read enough of it, I want to venture an address towards a possible flaw in your thinking on the topic of “Evangelicalism,” a term I think I remember you using a few times.

You are very candid about most of your spiritual growth and development happening in Catholicism and Orthodoxy.  Both of these “isms” have well-developed and established magisterial, lines of hierarchy, and formal statements of doctrine.  Yes, especially within Catholicism there are huge ranges of doctrinal opinion, worship practice, etc., but fundamentally, there are documents–the catechism, papal pronouncements, etc., that Catholics can revert to to describe what a Catholic at least in theory believes and must follow.  Orthodoxy is similar.

But there is no such central authority, or even anything close to it, in Evangelicalism, or Protestantism more generally.  This is the fatal flaw of Protestantism, one which Alec Ryrie expounds quite well in his history “Protestants,” which BTW is fantastic and I recommend enthusiastically, at least as much as I’ve gotten through.  Protestantism, because of its grounding in the bible alone and the believer’s conscience as informed by scripture, is inherently fissiparous, and “evangelicalism,” which emphasizes even more personal FEELING, emotion, connection to Christ, is even harder to pin down.  So of necessity, “Evangelicalism” covers a far broader range of practices, beliefs, etc., than “Catholicism” or “Orthodoxy.”

My strand of “Evangelicalism” is not remotely like the faith you often describe.  I belong to the tribe Al Mohler mentioned in your interview with him, the kind that is very rooted in the reformation.  We are the closest thing to Catholics and Orthodox that “Evangelicalism” has, not in doctrine, but in continuity of practice and liturgy.  We subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is about 400 years old, we have an order of service based heavily on that from Calvin’s Geneva, we have very formal practices for ordination to the ministry, and very set doctrinal commitments.  We sing psalms and very old hymns.  We talk about Calvin, Farel, Knox, and Zwingli a LOT.  This comes with lots of flaws, but are miles and miles away from, say, charismatics, or Free Will Baptists, or many Black Church traditions–but that’s all “evangelicalism,” and we’d all seek to claim the term “Evangelical.”

You often use “Evangelicalism” in a way that makes me think that you are holding it up as a thing like “Catholicism,” but it’s much more broad than that, and that’s in its DNA.  So yes, I think the evangelicalism you describe–the shallow, emotion-based rock concert youth-group pop churchgoing, is going to die.  But that’s just one facet of what we’d call “evangelicalism.”

Here’s his second e-mail:

Sorry to be filling up your inbox here, but I’ve been kicking your posts over in my head and thinking about how multifaceted the Evangelical world is.  I wonder if your experience as an observer dovetails any with this–this is how I, a Southern evangelical, see the evangelical world dividing, with implications for the future:

First, the two groups I suspect you have in mind when you think of “Evangelicalism”

“Country and God” Evangelicals

Mostly but not exclusively Southern Baptists.  This would be your First Baptist Dallas/ Jerry Jr./ Franklin Graham crew.  These guys fought nominalism when nominalism meant easy divorce and liberal pieties during the 60’s and 70’s, but now they’re the new nominalists–these are your older Christians, your classic religious right, the ones who have been captured by Fox News and latent racism.  Stars and Stripes during church services, etc.


Lots of cultural capital


Hypocrisy on Trump, etc., alienating young, total failure of catechesis, trapped in the 1950’s.  Rapidly boiling down to white resentment at prayer.

Seeker-Sensitive Evangelicals

You know the type.  Churches in big southern and midwestern suburbs with names like “Radius”, “Newspring,” “Ascend.”  Pastor in jeans and an open-collar shirt and hands-free mic, band on the stage, smoke and lights.  Hip.  Largely free of doctrine, very heavy on the emotional experience of worship/ praise


None that I can see


No catechesis, no liturgy, nothing PERMANENT.  Heavily based on emotion.  This is the group that will go over on same-sex marriage, etc., first.  This is the Rob Bell/ Perry Noble model.

Next, the less visible strands


Dating to the Azusa Street revival in the early 20th century.  These are the guys who speak in tongues, etc.  Doctrinally all over the place, churches range widely (as do Baptists) in doctrine/ organization/ formality, etc.  Lots of immigrants and latinos, fastest-growing Protestant denomination, largely overlooked by the culture.


Used to being culturally marginal/ overlooked, full of the genuine poor.


Young tradition, not much focus on catechesis/ scripture/ written word.  Too heavily emotional.

The Black Church

“Evangelical” in the media really means “White Evangelical,” which is infuriating.  The Black church has a huge evangelical tradition.  AME Church, nondenominational, charismatic, Baptist, and Reformed.  Many Black churches have a distinct set of political concerns and vary widely in doctrinal commitment, etc., but these people are not the republican party at prayer, trust me.


Deeply rooted in a lived cultural experience, many Black churches still retain a centrality to community.


Young Black people are leaving the church just as fast as White ones in may ways.  Look at the contempt the BLM movement has for the church, despite it being the institution that midwifed the civil rights movement.

The Reformed

Closest thing self-identifying “Evangelicals” have to Catholicism.  Denominations rooted strongly in conservative theology (Calvin, Luther, Knox) and liturgical worship.  Biblical literacy is highly valued and conservative confessions (Heidelberg, Westminster) guide denominations.  Very traditional seminary-style formation and ordination of clergy, etc.


Deep historical roots, commitment to orthodoxy, widespread biblical knowledge and grounding.


A history of racism in denominations, but most critically, these churches tend to be full of the (relatively) wealthy and comfortable.  These are the doctors, lawyers, engineers who will have the most to lose when the squeeze comes, and often our faith is very intellectual and academic.  Not sure we’re ready to suffer.

I feel like I’ve left out a lot of middle-ground Baptists.  I keep waiting for someone to frame this as the Battle of the Moores–Roy vs. Russ.

Honestly, I think the best way to see the most successful one in the future is one simple metric: Who’s having babies.  This is why I fear for Poland.  We went there this summer as part of a Reformed mission trip to a missionary we support there and we arrived at the feast of Corpus Christi.  It was WEIRD.  Giant open-air masses, Polish military officers taking the eucharist in their uniforms….very “Christendom.”  But for all the talk of renewal there, Poles have babies even less than the other western europeans.

There are two reasons I think babies are the indicator.  One is simple math–more babies equals more believers, more people to share with, more margin for error when kids leave the faith.

Second though, is that having babies in the modern west is profoundly counter-cultural, especially more than two.  Sacrificing income, the pleasures of travel, meals out, bespoke cocktail bars, big city living.  Being cool.  Pouring your sweat, blood, and tears into raising kids.  Especially plain middle-class people, who are neither getting much government support for their kids nor blessed with million-dollar paychecks that help them hire two nannies.  Being looked down on by smug journalists who say having kids is bad for the planet.  Changing diapers instead of going to Davos.  Going home at 5:30 to see the family instead of climbing the corporate ladder.

That’s why I feel good about my tradition (reformed).  I’d say the median family at my church has 4 kids and home schools.  This can breed all sort of unhealthy pathologies and idolatries, of course, but it’s a sign of people willing to put their money where their mouths are.




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