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American evangelicalism is experiencing an identity crisis

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The champion among contenders for a “crisis” of experience and identity these years is American evangelicalism, which was born from the crises of the eighteenth century, and has been part of the Protestant package ever since. Polls, the press, and folkways have uncovered some current versions of this, onto which any sentient and informed citizen can throw light through empirical research. Start with an authoritative update by Mark Labberton, who is well poised to witness these issues from his post as president of the landmark Fuller Theological Seminary. Labberton edited the new book Still Evangelical?: Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning (InterVarsity Press, 2018). In his introduction, he writes: “In its current mode, Evangelicalism contains an amalgam of theological values, partisan political debates, regional power blocks, populist visions, racial biases, and cultural anxieties, all mixed in an ethos of fear. No wonder it can be difficult to know if one is still an evangelical.” Agreed.

In his chapter in Still Evangelical?, entitled “Evangelicalism Must Be Born Again,” Shane Claiborne—a “self-described liberal activist”—points to evangelicalism’s “image crisis”: “When people hear the word evangelical, it conjures up an image of folks who are anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-environment, pro-guns, pro-war, and pro-capital punishment.” He judges: “We often look very unlike our Christ.” Continuing their informal empirical research, curious citizens can check Claiborne’s claims simply by listening to and watching their neighbors down the block.

Adding to confusion over identity and belief is the blurriness and fuzziness that come naturally in a pluralist society. LifeWay Research of Nashville, an evangelical research ministry parented by the Southern Baptist Convention, has investigated and compared different versions of this crisis on the American landscape. Bob Smietana, summarizing the results of the LifeWay survey, reminds readers that what we might call “classic” or “enduring” evangelicalism held to beliefs like “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe” and “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.” These are not as prominent in the politicized and mass-marketed evangelicalism so prevalent in public life today.

One way of dealing with the evangelical blur is to look at the map and data accompanying Smietana’s report. Some quick statistics: Only 23% of citizens in the South are identified as “evangelicals by belief,” while 31% are “self-described evangelicals.” The West includes 10% evangelicals by belief as opposed to 18% self-described. Figures for the Midwest are 15% versus 29%, with 5% versus 13% for the Northeast. Leaders trying to make sense of all this can be seen as—but are not necessarily self-described as—evangelical “elites.” (Many may secretly aspire to belong to such, but who really wants to be typed there?) In his contribution to Labberton’s book, Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, owns up to identification with the evangelical elite. He was on a panel at the Evangelical Press Association discussing recent political choices among self-described evangelicals. Not one of the panelists there identified with the political candidate of “evangelical” choice during the last election. Someone pointed out that “it was odd for a panel of evangelicals to include no one who represented the views of most evangelicals.”

Christian Century editor David Heim, following Galli, also plays with the term “elite” in his review of Still Evangelical?, acknowledging the “class and education gap among [those called] evangelicals.” Identity crises? This exercise calls to mind a line of Emmett Grogan, from the hippie era and lexicon: “Anything anybody can say about America is true.” We could substitute a word: “Anything anybody can say about evangelicalism is true.” Labberton, Galli, Claiborne, the LifeWay people, and the essayists and reviewers who study and quote them, at least try to observe and cite and clarify, and they do the public a service thereby. Perhaps their work can throw light on, and diminish something of, the above-described “ethos of fear.”

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • The problem is, when I hear Evangelical, I think of a guy with a bunch of guns who does not want any assistance to go to poor people,and who wants to take Science out of schools. My perceptions are often backed up by the comments on this site.

  • I guess. More likely these guys are practical atheists. They may say they believe in a god but live as if He doesn’t exist.

  • American evangelicalism— lets call it what it is, a political ideology— is not experiencing any kind of an identity crisis.

    It’s coming out of its closet, and admitting it is all about what it has always been about— “otherizing” other people, power, money, dominion, and revenge for all of its imaginary persecution.

    This article is a perfect example of it. On these very pages, we have observed hyper conservative Christians complaining about the elites that they claim lead our country into perdition. And yet, what is this article about? What the evangelical elites are doing and what they want.

  • Just curious. Exactly how does one take science out of public schools these days? Specifically which public schools no longer teach science?

  • I guess you did not read what I wrote. I said this was my perception. You are verifying it. To your question about Science. In the last few years Texas, Louisiana, Kansas and many other states have tried to restrict the teaching of Evolution and Global Warming. The restrictions on teaching science almost always come from Evangelicals. For a good example of Evangelical Hypocrisy in Science go read the Judge’s Decision from the Dover Trial.

  • Not sure what you mean. Please clarify. Who are ‘These Guys’? How do they live that is not in keeping with their beliefs?

  • An Evangelical was originally one who preaches the Gospel. However the movement has devolved in the last 150 years and is practiced by those with very little deep theological training or education in general. It is now subject to the whims of those who have had little exposure to the greater world and is now a reaction to change as opposed to an instrument of change for the better.

  • The label “evangelical” is now useless. It is inexorably linked to extremism, hatred, and “giving Trump a Mulligan” in tony Perkins’ memorable phrase.

  • Perhaps “your perception” is, umm, mistaken.

    (For example, see the Louisiana Science Education Act. The ACLU has refused to file any lawsuits against it for nearly 10 years now. This law has successfully withstood all attacks by evolution zealots & shills. And the Dover Decision doesn’t affect or refute the LSEA in any manner. I don’t know if evangelicals invented the LSEA, but evolutionists are utterly helpless against it, all the same.)

  • Evangelicals have eventually followed fundamentalists in that they have become known more for their non-religious actions and views than for the contents of their faith.

  • Our fellow blogger wrote in relevant part, “…who wants to take Science out of schools.”

    You reply, “[W]hich public schools no longer teach science?”

    You did not address “Tervuren”s assertion. Our fellow blogger did not state that (your words) “public schools no longer teach science.”

  • So you admit that Evangelicals are opposed to Science? Then my perception is correct. Evangelicals ARE a group that is opposed to knowledge and Education. The point of the Dover Trial is that it points out the hypocrisy of the Anti-Science religious crowd. This law causes people to laugh at LA. If you want to be known as a bunch of ignorant rednecks, go for it. I would never let my grandkids go to school there.

  • Still waiting for clarification. Pronouns do not work well in these threads. Who are ‘these guys’? Not sure what you mean.

  • So the specific accusation that was lodged against evangelicals, can’t be supported by citing specific public schools that no longer teach science as a result of any evangelical efforts.

    Nor can any rational description be given of how evangelicals would even theoretically begin to accomplish such a feat of total censorship.

    That’s messed up, guys. Please start rationally supporting your extremely deficient perceptions or prejudices.

  • How does the text of the LSEA oppose science? How does it even oppose evolution or teach creationism at all?

    These ain’t like the old days, where evolutionists could get away with totally unsupportabe accusations.

  • Wanting to take science out of public schools is not the same as actually taking science out of public schools. Our fellow blogger made this distinction.