Evangelicals and the Challenges of Modernity

HunterAs part of my book project, I’m tracing how sociologists have approached evangelicals from a theoretical rather than descriptive perspective. What follows is my treatment of James Davison Hunter’s American Evangelicalism (1983).


At the time that major newsmagazines discovered evangelicals in the late 1970s, sociologists hadn’t really devoted sufficient attention to this segment of the American religious landscape. In part, this was due to the belief popular in the 1960s that secularization was a dominant force within society and that religion would be less important going forward. With that presumption, the vitality of a conservative religious group like evangelicals didn’t fit the established theoretical framework. Perhaps, as Steven Warner observed at the time {Warner, 1979}, this could be explained by the biases present even in sociologists of religion — seeing evangelicals as lower class, as politically conservative, and as a historical throwback resisting the natural order of progress.  It should be noted that much of modern journalism, with the exception of religion reporters, suffers from the same biases four decades later. Warner writes:

Evangelicalism has heretofore not received the sociological attention that its intrinsic importance calls for. It is overlooked, or discounted, stereotyped and patronized (3).

One sociologist who responded to Warner’s call for better theoretical work on evangelicalism was James Davison Hunter. His American Evangelicalism {Hunter, 1983} did a deep dive into evangelicalism (although he included fundamentalists in his data set) and examined it from a sociology of knowledge format. To Hunter, the modern age — that earlier sociologists saw as feeding secularism — provided a critical challenge for evangelicals.

Hunter argued that the modern age individualized religion, presented it as but once choice among many, and removed religion from its connections to the broader institutional mosaic. Where faith was previously imbedded in community life, it became increasingly personal. For example, the Supreme Court has dealt with “sincerely held religious beliefs” as the screen used to evaluate religious freedom claims; a clearly individualized approach. In the face of the structural pluralism of religious life, a sense of equivalence is created between mainline churches, evangelical churches, mosques, temples, and yoga classes. Given the diversity of religious views present, and the constitutional protections arising from the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment, religion in general and conservative religion in particular, is removed from consideration of everyday political life.

The response to these challenges, Hunter suggested, occurred in the realm of “cognitive bargaining” — nurturing a particular mode of thought about things religious that stands in contrast to the forces of modernity. While some religious groups focused on how to incorporate the modern age into their religious self-understandings, not so with evangelicals. They adopted a strategy Hunter called cognitive intransigence, “ignoring the plurality by affirming the veracity of one tradition and the illegitimacy of the others (16-17).”

Key to the cognitive instransigence effort is the maintenance of a distinctive “worldview”. Evangelicals spend considerable effort to articulate a particular means of understanding the world in an effort commonly referred to as “apologetics”. Hunter provided a deep analysis of books written to evangelicals designed to maintain a distinct worldview. Interestingly, he observed that many of those books incorporated elements of modern rationality, reducing evangelical faith to a series of steps (“four spiritual laws”).

One of the distinctive elements of evangelicalism in this period was the development of significant parallel structures. Contemporary Christian music arises alongside popular rock-and-roll. Specifically Christian periodicals appear alongside popular newsmagazines. Religious broadcasting moves from being a fringe movement to a staple of American entertainment. Christian publising allows for a continual stream of appropriately supportive material in front of evangelical readers to be found in distinctly Christian bookstores.

Hunter argued that evangelicals were more removed from the forces of modernity given their social location within the broader structures of society. His data showed that evangelicals were significantly more likely to be Southern, rural, and working class. They were far less likely to be college educated.

The combination of parallel institutions and isolated social location allowed evangelicals to maintain their distincive worldview in the face of increasing forces of pluralism and secularity. Doing so, however, is an uphill battle. Hunter argued:

Cognitive survival in this climate will require the continued effort to build and maintain a sociocultural world in which the Evangelical view of reality is actively supported, even taken for granted. Stable institutions acting as plausibilty structures would be capable of reimposing their objectified meanings on a laity perplexed by the contrary realities of day-to-day life, of reassuring the doubter that things are all right after all (132).

I will return to this analysis in the next chapter, but I can give a preview here. Some Christian bookstores, like Family Christian chain closed {Merritt, 2017}. Of those that remain, it has become harder to maintain a consistent worldview as evangelical authors raise new perspectives; some of these have begun dropping certain authors. The presence of online book sources like Amazon and Barnes and Noble render these efforts at control limited at best. The percentage of Christian young people opting to attend Christian universities has declined, especially among denominational schools. Christian universities have had to broaden their generic appeal to maintain enrollment. As we will see later, the impact of social media on those attempting a pristine Christian worldview cannot be overstated.

The social location of evangelicals has changed since Hunter first wrote, exacerbating the breakdown of the worldview perspective. For example, Hunter found that only 24% of evangelicals had more than a high school education. The 2014 Pew Religious Landscape survey, in contrast, showed that 62% of evangelicals had some post-secondary education and 13% had graduate or professional degrees. Similarly, Hunter had found that 44% of evangelicals lived in rural areas. Research by Ryan Burge in 2016 {Burge, 2016 #681} estimating evangelical location using county level data showed that 47% of evangelicals lived in major metropolitan areas or their suburbs. Finally, Hunter’s data showed that only 38% of evangelicals were middle or upper class (according to his measures). Adjusting his categories by the rate of inflation in the Pew data shows taht fiugre increase to 52% (roughly a quarter of respondents fall in each of Hunter’s four class categories).

If we take the worldview and social location issues together, then, evangelicals have struggled with “the quandary of modernity” precisely as Hunter suggested. As the worldview dynamics weaken while evangelicals are mingling more in contemporary secular society, it creates fissures in what might have been a more coherent perspective in past decades.

This has two predictable outcomes. One is increased innovation within the evangelical camp with less coherent boundaries. The other, paradoxically, is an increased defensiveness of those who hope to protect those boundaries. Christian Smith’s American Evangelicalism {Smith, 1998} is helpful in explaining this latter phenomenon.


The Failure of Deterrence and Asylum Seekers

When I took criminology as an undergraduate over 40 years ago, we read this book by criminologists Frank Zimring and Gordon Hawkins. The short version of their argument is that deterrence seems like it should work from a conventional wisdom standpoint but in fact there is very little evidence that it does. Their finding has been consistently replicated over the intervening years.

They repeated an old story, which I’m paraphrasing (I don’t still have the book):

A man comes upon his friend on the sidewalk of a city street The friend is snapping his fingers every few seconds. The man asks what the friend is doing. “Keeping away tigers”, the friend replies. “That’s stupid”, says the man. “Do you see any tigers?” replies the friend.

The logic of deterrence assumes that people consider potential punishment and than coordinate their behavior accordingly. If we declare War on Drugs, people will stop dealing or using in order to avoid the new harsh sentences. If we declare a “no tolerance” policy on border crossings, even for asylum seekers, they will think twice about coming to the United States. If we tell them that we’ll separate their children from them if they commit the misdemeanor of undocumented crossing, they won’t try it.

Deterring RefugeesThis is precisely the logic the Trump administration is using. As this story from Philip Bump reports, they have been very explicit about it.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told NPR that the point was to keep people from trying to enter the country.

They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason,” he said. “But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.” He added that separating children from parents “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent.”

Data suggest that it hasn’t been.

So why doesn’t deterrence work as expected?

First, deterrence theory (and all rational choice views of criminality) assume that people are hedonistic; weighing potential gains against expected costs. But a great deal of criminality occurs by individuals who aren’t considering the implications of their actions. They get in a fight, they need a drug fix, they have mental illness challenges, they have family histories that encourage them to act out of established and dysfunctional scripts. After the fact, they will see that the cause (action) and effect (punishment) are related but not in the moment. They know their current situation is untenable and will do anything to get out of it.

Second, deterrence theory is often stated as an attempt to control a single action rather than seeing the available choice as one among a set of choices. In this regard, people decide that the risk of the current choice is preferable to the alternatives. Perhaps the drug dealer doesn’t see other opportunities that will provide him with economic sustainability within his community. He knows dealing is wrong and carries the risk of strict punishment but compared to the alternatives, perhaps it’s a good choice. (We’re currently reading Fr. Gregory Boyle’s Barking to the Choir in my Sunday School which connects these themes very well.)

Asylum seekers have been traveling for months to flee the harsh conditions of their homes. They consider the “critical fear” that they faced in their host country as a poor choice for their family. They have already dealt with smugglers and harsh conditions. Having decided not to stay at home or to stop along the way, they want to make their case for asylum to see if they can get residency in the US where their children don’t live under threat.

This is the problem with deterrence. Once you’ve bought into the false logic that punishment is the key to controlling behavior, you just keep ratcheting up the punishment.

If arrest doesn’t stop asylum seekers from trying to enter the US, then separate the children. If separating the children doesn’t act as a deterrent, put people in tent cities in isolated parts of Texas. If putting people in isolated parts of Texas doesn’t work, figure out some more public and humiliating punishment.

Whatever you do, just keep snapping your fingers or we’ll be overrun by tigers.

The Mainlining of Evangelicalism

I’m currently working on the theoretical chapter for my book, tracing how sociologists (and others) have examined evangelicalism over the last four decades. There have been shifts in their theoretical formulations which explain quite a bit of the changing nature of evangelical perspectives.

QuebedeauxIn this review, I went back to an early book by a non-sociologist. Richard Quebedeaux’s The Young Evangelicals was written in 1974. It is surprising in its analysis in that it describes much of what I see among those Permeable Evangelicals who are the focus on my book project. Quebedeaux describes their commitments as follows:

1) An interest in human beings not simply as souls to be saved but as whole persons;

2) More active involvement by evangelical Christians in sociopolitical affairs;

3) An honest look at many churches’ idolatry of nationalism;

4) Adoption of new forms of worship;

5) An end to judging spiritual commitment by such externals as dress, hair style, and other participation in cultural trends, including rock music;

6) A new spirit with regard to ecumenical or nonecumenical attitudes;

7) Bold and, if need be, costly involvement in the revolutionary struggles of our day; and finally,

8) A reappraisal of life values.


Quebedeaux’s analysis raises a key question — what happened to these people and how did we get such a different popular understanding of evangelicalism?

I want to suggest that there were some significant changes in evangelicalism that occurred shortly after Quebedeaux’s book came out. In December of 1977, Time magazine declared it to be “The Year of the Evangelical”. Jimmy Carter had been elected president as the first professed “born-again” candidate, even giving his infamous “lust in the heart” interview with Playboy. Time‘s cover story was titled “That Old-Time Religion: The Evangelical Empire”

The Assemblies of God showed tremendous growth just as the Presbyterians and Methodist were facing monumental membership declines. Dean Kelley had just written Why Conservative Churches are Growing and church leaders jumped on the bandwagon arguing that this was true religion (every conference I attended in the 1980s has session debunking Kelley but that didn’t seem to matter).

Two other changes are of import. First, conservative religion became increasingly a private affair. This is why we talk about bakers with “sincerely held religious beliefs”. The individualization of religious belief and behavior grew dramatically.

Second, there are the twin phenomenon of non-denominationalism and megachurches (clearly related). The increased visibility of large church plants, broadcast ministries, and evangelical celebrities brought visibility to evangelicals where mainline churches became invisible and subject to dismissive analysis of places where “people don’t believe anything”.

So evangelicalism went from being marginal (although it likes to think it is) to being mainline. Journalists don’t write stories about the formerly mainline churches (even though the majority of mainline church attenders voted for Trump, they aren’t seen as important).

I have a number of friends who are excellent religious historians. They have written wonderful books defining the pedigree of evangelicals and how they organized over time. These are important books that tell key dynamics of the evangelical story. It’s hard to hold out just some of these but recent books by Frances FitzGerald and Molly Worthen are excellent examples of this scholarship.

And yet I’m coming to think that evangelicalism as a social movement doesn’t necessarily share a heritage with those early evangelicals. It became an entity unto itself in the 1980s with its own definitions and parameters. This is why it’s so hard to use contemporary data to make sense of evangelical positions on policy and politics.

But Quebedeaux’s Young Evangelicals of the 1970s, like my Permeable Evangelicals today, have a hard time figuring out where they fit within these assumptions about mainline evangelicalism. Quebedeaux’s description of their religious dilemma seems absolutely apt over four decades later.

The Young Evangelical, then, dissatisfied with the position espoused by his Orthodox church, and unhappy about the artificial role he must assume therein, is faced with a dilemma not easily resolved. On the one hand, he can always turn to Liberalism. But what does mainstream Ecumenical Liberalism in its present state have to offer him? And, if he remains faithful to the authority of Scripture, the necessity of conversion, and the mandate for evangelism, he will probably be an unwelcome guest in most Liberal churches and a threat to their ideology. On the other hand, he can withdraw from the institutional church altogether. Yet, in so doing, he may lose the fellowship of like-minded believers he so desperately needs for his own spiritual development, and he will most certainly forfeit an important dimension of his commitment to the Church universal. It is not easy to be a Christian alone. The other option of course, is for the Young Evangelical to remain in his own church – and fight!

Not Quite a Masterpiece

I was hoping to work on research for my book today, but the Supreme Court had other ideas.

This morning, the Court released their decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The 7-2 decision, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy (who also authored both Windsor and Obergefell) ruled against the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Experts are calling this a limited decision, not because of the vote but because of certain factors unique to the case.

The plaintiff, Jack Phillips, refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing his religious beliefs and that making a cake was an expressive act in line with his free speech rights. The couple filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission. The dispute occurred in 2012, when same-sex marriage was not yet recognized by Colorado law and three years before the Obergefell decision would open the door nationally by striking down anti-gay marriage legislation.

The timing of the dispute is one of the limitations of the decision. The Justices were relying on law as it existed at the time. It’s an open question how such a case would be treated post-Obergefell.

KennedyJustice Kennedy focused on a particular aspect of the Masterpiece case: the perception of religious bias on the part of one or two members of the Civil Rights Commission. During one hearing, Phillips was simply told to keep his religious beliefs out of the public square. In another, a commissioner made the following statement quoted in Kennedy’s ruling:

“I would also like to reiterate what we said in the hearing or the last meeting. Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others.” Tr. 11–12.

This is the other major limitation of the Masterpiece case; the presence of apparent bias against religious expression as a legitimate value to be considered. Kennedy concludes his argument with the same kind of hopeful language he provided in Obergefell.

The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.

Today’s decision is hard to use as a guideline because it is essentially a negative argument — it defines how governmental groups must not act. But it provides little guidance on how that might work.

As I’ve written before, the 1990 Smith decision provides that religious expression cannot trump “generally applicable law” as long as the law does not provide an “undue burden” on the citizen or religious group. Curiously, today’s decision draws heavily from another Kennedy decision from 1993: The Church of Lakumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah.

In all my amateur explorations of religious freedom jurisprudence, this one had escaped me entirely. A syncretistic religious group, Santeria, practiced the sacrifice of chickens as part of their religious practice. The City of Haileah, Florida thought this was a bad idea and passed an ordinance criminalizing animal sacrifice (with some exemptions). But key to the case, and key to its use today, is that city council members denounced the religious group in particular calling it unAmerican, abhorrent, and uBiblical. It seems the public prejudice against this group as expressed by the council and citizen comments, suggested that the decision was prejudicial against a legitimate (although deviant) religious expression.

So Justice Kennedy tells us that in our search for accommodation of religious expression and non-discrimination, we have to be searching for resolution without prejudicing one side or the other.

This will likely prove quite difficult in practice. We have already seen strongly worded state legislation protecting certain traditional religious values that do so with prejudice toward LGBTQ individuals. We certainly see comments on social media about religious bigotry that sound a lot like comments made by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Kennedy’s closing paragraph (above) suggests lots more court cases as groups err on either side.

While Justice Ginsberg felt the Commission’s actions should not be limited by comments from one or two members, I tend to side with Justice Kennedy. If others on the Commission had spoken out against those comments, or at least provided a more balanced approach, then one or two outliers wouldn’t be a problem. In the absence of any record to the contrary, it’s reasonable to argue the Commission was less than fair in their review.

This lack prevented the Commission (and thereby SCOTUS) from addressing the freedom of expression part of Phillips’ claims. Does a baker “own” the words put on the cake as a matter of identity?

Justice Gorsuch, concurring with the main ruling, spends quite a bit of time on this  by drawing upon an amicus filing by someone who was refused when asking bakers to bake anti-gay cakes. (It’s a surprisingly poorly argued opinion!) Because bakers who baked anti-gay cakes would be held accountable for what the cake said, so should Phillips, Gorsuch argued.

So Justice Kennedy encourages us to 1) resolve disputes with tolerance, 2) not disrespect sincerely held religious beliefs, and 3) not expose LGBTQ citizens to indignities. The first of these points seems paramount. You cannot find the balance between 2 and 3 without 1. As chair of the City of Jackson Human Relations Commission, I have a natural interest in trying to think through how Kennedy’s balance might be achieved.

Kennedy seems to create an expectation that SCOTUS, at least as long as he remains on the Court, would anticipate some level of compromise between service providers and LGBTQ clients. Perhaps bakers will provide cakes that simply say “congratulations on your wedding” and leave off the names and the figurines. Maybe florists will serve all customers but make clear that they can’t be expected to set up the flowers in the wedding venue. In other words, if there is a way to provide the service without in some way participating in the actual ceremony, that accommodation should be found. (Ministers and photographers/videographers would therefore be in a different category).

Such accommodation would work very differently in terms of pharmacists or doctors denying service or a county clerk signing a marriage certificate. Their actions do not constitute a direct participation in activities they see as opposed to their strongly held religious beliefs.

The Court should be crystal clear that such accommodations do not extend to issues of hiring, termination, pay, or rental status. Even though many states have yet to pass these important civil rights safeguards, these exclusionary actions are in a very different category than bakers and florists.

On balance, then, the Masterpiece decision is important as an illustration of what not to do. It is only another step in what is going to be a long journey. It’s important for all sides in the debate to avoid the temptation to score wins and losses. We have a lot of work still in front of us.



The Sabbatical Book Project: Permeable Evangelicalism

Last week I turned in my grades, drove us to Kansas City for the meeting of the Association of Nazarene Sociologists and Researchers (ANSR) where I received a lifetime recognition award and presented a paper on the sabbatical project, and then drove to Denver so we can spend a couple of weeks with the granddaughter and her parents.

So this week, my sabbatical actually began.

The project is an examination of the changes in evangelicalism, characterized by but not limited to millennials. If you’ve followed this blog over time, you know that I’ve been exploring this shift for the past four years under different labels. My current labels distinguish between Bounded Evangelicalism and Permeable Evangelicalism.

Bounded vs Permeable

My original plan was to examine the points of conflict between the frames: John Piper vs Rob Bell, the Christian Establishment vs Jen Hatmaker or Rachel Held Evans. But I have recently realized that this is the wrong story.

It reminds me of a conversation with my major professor about dissertation topics. I told him I wanted to explore the social networks of denominational leaders to see if  whom they went to school with, whom they married, or where they had served made a difference in how they gain positions of authority. Ray responded, “of course that’s true” and we quickly moved on to better topics.

The better story is how the Permeable Evangelicals are redefining their approach to culture without abandoning what we would consider as orthodox Christian doctrine. I’m excited because the story becomes about the future dynamics of religious expression in a pluralistic culture rather than a micro-version of culture war arguments.

The paper at ANSR was well received by both sociologists and denominational leaders. They confirmed that the Permeable group is active and valuable. My research suggests that they make up nearly 40% of Nazarene clergy surveyed.

As it stands, I plan to review the sociological treatment of evangelicalism as a way to begin. The two frames represent the move from Christian Smith’s 1998 American Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving to the Faithful Presence of James Davison Hunter’s 2010 To Change the World.

Two other components of the book project involve exploring the thought processes and faith development of those in the Permeable Frame. Looking at a series of millennial evangelical memoirs, I’ll explore common themes across their stories of faith, deconstruction, and reintegration. In October, I’m attending the Evolving Faith conference in Montreat, NC (sorry, sold out) where they will be about 400 attendees exploring similar themes.

Conflict will still be treated in the book, but it takes a lesser role. I have planned chapters on issues of sexuality, politics, and epistemology to track how the two frames approach these critical topics and why resolution between the frames is so challenging.

Finally, I will make some assertions about where things might be headed. It is unclear if the Permeable Frame will ever be comfortable with the Evangelical label, especially as it’s bee seen over the last 15 years.

And yet, a recognition that people can differ in terms of strategies of cultural engagement while remaining Jesus followers who want to see others come to Him and his Kingdom come to earth is an important story to tell.

I’m pretty excited to tell it.

(If you’re interested in either the ANSR paper or my chapter summary document, drop me a note at john.hawthorne@arbor.edu.)

Animals and Criminal Justice

Last week, social media feeds exploded with reports that President Trump had called immigrants “animals”. Later reporting clarified that he was speaking in response to comments from a sheriff about MS-13 gang members. It was only some immigrants who were animals.


MS 13

Today, the White House posted a webpage titled “What You Need to Know About The Violent Animals of MS-13“.  The page vaguely identifies five horrific crimes that police suspect were MS-13 related. In doing so, it uses the word animals as often as it uses the phrase “gang members”. It also claims that 40% of murders in Suffolk County, NY between January 2016 and June 2017 were related to MS-13. It’s hard to know exactly what that means. There were 55 cases of murder and manslaughter during all of 2016 and 2017. A fair assessment would be about 44 of those happened in that time period but the county crime statistics don’t separate the two crimes. So the 40% figure might sound alarming but could be a relatively small (but awful) number of crimes.

Fordham law professor John Pfaff had a series of tweets today trying to put the MS-13 data in context. He noted that while MS-13 members were charged with 207 murders between 2012 and 2016, there were 76,000 murders over those four years. He points out that MS-13 accounted for .3% of US murders over that time period.

E.J. Dionne wrote this morning that “it’s never right to call other humans beings animals.” He observes:

Here’s what’s insidious about this: Throughout his presidential campaign and since, Trump has regularly blended talk about all immigrants with specific attacks on immigrants who committed serious crimes — particularly those who belong to the murderous MS-13. Even assuming that Trump was, in fact, limiting himself to MS-13 in his reply to Mims, he has spent years creating rhetorical links between the foreign-born as a whole (especially those here illegally) and the bloodshed perpetrated by the few. By playing fast and loose with language, Trump avails himself of escape hatches, as he did last week, and can then go on to cast his critics as defenders of criminality.

In my opening lecture of my criminology class, I always spend time talking about Spiderman and Dick Tracy (I have to explain this one). Not because the heroes are compelling but because the villains share something in common: they are noticeably different from “normal” people.

In Spiderman movies, there is an accident that creates the bad guys. In Dick Tracy, there are identifiable by character defects: Mumbles, Wrinkles, Flat Top (why didn’t he change his hairstyle?). With a simple glance, you could tell who was the bad guy and know something of their malevolence.

I go on to explain that nearly all theories of criminal behavior are based on a notion that something is wrong with that criminal. There was a failure in development or personality or social control. Because they aren’t like us. They’re broken.

On the drive to Colorado, I was listening to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Hearing the beginning of her argument, I was intrigued by the states that ban convicted felons from ever voting again. Why would we do that? Because they are animals. Even though they’ve served their sentence, we still don’t think they are “fixed”.

It reminds me of that great psychological study by D.L Rosenhan, “Being Sane in Insane Places“. A series of confederates got themselves committed to asylums claiming to hear voices. After admission, they soon told the staff that the voices were gone now. Upon their release, their files read “schizophrenics in remission“.

We too often operate with the implicit assumption that people who commit crime (of any type) are flawed characters. While they may not be doing anything bad at the moment, it may only be a matter of time until they do. That’s why they are seen as a job risk or why they can’t vote.

I’m not defending MS-13 members. I’m not even that upset with President Trump (although I agree that he excels at conflating factors and ignoring complexities). More concerning to me is that his comments are not that far away from our general assumptions about criminal behavior.

This is why I don’t watch shows like Criminal Minds. They feed that dualistic understanding of human behavior. Law and Order (the original) was always great because it was usually everyday socially mobile folks who committed crime for very normal motives. And we never thought they were animals.

The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: An Update

Nearly three years ago I was invited to contribute a post to a Patheos series on The Future of Evangelicalism in America. My focus, which is the primary theme of my sabbatical book project, was the splintering of what we think of as evangelicalism.  Here’s how I ended that post:

The next decade of evangelical life will be hotly contested within the group we’d consider as convictional Christians. The question, as Baylor theologian Roger Olson wrote this month, is whether the evangelical tent is large enough to handle the discussions and differences.

It would serve evangelicals well in the coming decade to return to David Bebbington’s definitional criteria for evangelicalism: high regard for scripture, the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and the need to share God’s Good News.

If evangelicalism can focus on affirming these core principles, even while disagreeing on broader issues, its impact on society will be substantial. If evangelicalism can’t build a big enough tent around those central pillars, it will mire in conflict and fade into irrelevance.

Little did I know three years ago that the 2016 election would substantially accelerate my prediction. In just the last few months, we have seen the following groups begin to emerge as public expressions of evangelicalism.

The Pro-Trump Evangelicals: This group, originally formed as then-candidate Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council, has provided vocal support for nearly all of the president’s policies and general apology for his character failings. They are motivated in large measure by a vision of a Declining America that must be redeemed through “any measures necessary”. Which is why they’ve latched onto the Cyrus metaphor (although I argued the Nebuchadnezzar was a better metaphor). John Fea’s new book on the “court evangelicals” (which I haven’t read) explores this group in depth.

Billy Graham CenterThe Wheaton Gathering:  This week, a group of non-Trump evangelicals met at the Billy Graham Center on Wheaton’s campus to discuss evangelicalism in the age of Trump. The attendees differed demographically and stylistically from the Pro-Trump group — more females, less white, less combative, more culturally engaging.

The fragmentation is evident in the fact that the first group criticized the “evangelical thought leaders” gathered at Wheaton for not including voices like Franklin Graham or Richard Land. More extreme and fringe criticism even suggested that Tim Keller was an avowed Marxist!

The Lynchburg Revival: The week before the Wheaton meeting, Shane Claiborne and a group of progressive evangelicals (generally overlapping with Sojourners, Red Letter Christians, and Moral Mondays movement) met in Lynchburg, VA — home of Liberty University — to have a series of meetings about issues of poverty, race, peace, and community. Historian David Swartz was there and gave a great report on both the Claiborne group as well as sharing reactions to Liberty.

Evolving Faith Conference: In late March, a group of religious bloggers and pastors — that I would put clearly in the evangelical camp– announced a conference to be held in Montreat NC in October. Advertising itself as “a two-day gatherin for the wanderers, wonderers, status quo upenders, and spiritual refugees to discover you are not alone”, the speakers fit Bebbington’s characteristics of evangelicals, even if they reject some of hte political and social trappings that go along with that label. They may not all be currently attending evangelical churches, but are evangelical nonetheless. (Some of my work with Pew Religion Data showed that a quarter of self-identified evangelicals were in mainline churches).

Millennial Evangelicals: As a professor at a Christian University, I can attest that things are changing in the young generation. While it is true that a larger number of their peers have no religious affiliation, their commitments to core faith principles are vibrant (if at times underdeveloped). Their commitments to diversity are strong and they want to make an impact on the world around them. But they are less politically partisan and more pragmatic. This is seen in their higher commitment relative to older generations to issues of LGBTQ inclusion, gender expectations, and racial equity. The percentage of millennial evangelicals supporting same-sex marriage, for example, is remarkably close to a majority (45%) according to the most recent data.  As David John Seel argues in The New Copernicans, millennial evangelicals are approaching the world using a different frame than their older counterparts.

The 81%: I have written extensively about how hard it is to characterize the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. They are still the demographic most supportive of his policies. It may be that religious motivations are strong with this group, but it is equally likely that other co-variants are playing a role. We know that not all of these folks regularly attend church and Barna recently learned that 40% of church-going evangelicals cannot tell what The Great Commission is.

What do I make of all this?

Clearly, what it means to be “evangelical” is contested terrain. It is likely that many of the groups that I have listed (and I haven’t said anything about Black or Hispanic evangelicals) would argue that their group is on the right path.

I remain optimistic in the long run that evangelicals can find ways of accepting some core principles and grant each other enough grace to focus our conversations on those rather than looking for the distinctions that would allow one group to claim the mantle of Truly Evangelical.

The short run, on the other hand, is going to get very messy.