February 4, 2014

How Evangelicals Sold Out To Politics And Lost Their Kids In The Process

I had an “aha” moment reading Eastern Orthodox theology the other day. Ok, so here’s a thesis (it’s just a thesis and I’m sure someone else has pointed to these things before): it’s doubtful that evangelicalism will ever have another Carl-Henry-era “center” again. In it’s desire for centralizing structural/cultural power, the Carl Henry-era/CT evangelicalism, with Calvinists, Arminians, Reformed and Dispensational working together, went from gathering various denominational communions fighting against theological liberalism to fighting primarily against social & political liberalism in the 1970s & 1980s. Evangelicalism allowed herself to be co-opted by suburban conservative Reagan/Bush era deistic God and country political operatives who used evangelical leader’s influence for votes & promised (fleeting) legislative and executive branch access and influence in return. That never happened. In other words, evangelical leaders sold their churches out for politics in the 1970s through the early 1990s and lost their kids in the process.

The result is that by the 1990s, evangelicalism had become the religious dimension of political/social community and had lost entire generations of Gen X and Millennials by 2010. Evangelicalism was a 1980s/1990s political/social community that adopted a suburban politically conservative posture toward those on welfare, low-income whites, inner-city blacks and Latinos, instead of one driven by the sacraments. A political/social community that wanted good, socially & politically conservative kids, and so on. But their children longed for intimacy (in a culture of divorce & constant moving from neighborhood to neighbor chasing the American dream) and community so they left to go be a part of some version of emergent church–McLaren/Bell/Driscoll–in order to experience community around the Lord’s Supper, Christian tradition (ancient/future), religious experience, worship, mystery, “brokenness,” vulnerability, and so on. Their kids wanted connection, their parents wanted to win the “culture war.”

By 2000, many evangelical “leaders” realized the misdirection an attempted a course correction. Too late. This has not worked because of the influence of non-denominationalism, celebrity Christianity, theological tribalism, etc. There is no longer a space where Arminians and Calvinists share a common theological enemy. In the end, this is a story of how evangelicalism lost Gen Xers and Millennials between 1990 & 2010 by lusting after political influence. “The Gospel” is not enough of a common mission because even that word is defined according to theological preferences. What’s next? I’m not sure but I’m pretty convinced that as long evangelicals do not have a common enemy (this is basic social psychology 101) don’t expect their to be an Arminian, Calvinist, Reformed, Lutheran, Dispensational, Pentecostal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican, non-denominational, etc. theologically conservative “center” in the near future if ever. Again, this is just a thesis. Thoughts?

14 response to “How Evangelicals Sold Out To Politics And Lost Their Kids In The Process”

  1. I think you’re on to something.

    It would also be instructive to ask why such alignments have seemed to be unique in the US and not with other Christians around the world. Is it the lack of a Kuyperian Christian Democratic movement in the US?

    Perhaps what our fathers have sown has come back to haunt us (and what we have sown will haunt our children). We (speaking as a white evangelical) wasted 2 generations of political capital trying to get Prohibition rammed into the Constitution while our black brothers and sisters were being treated as subhuman – as if drunkenness were the greatest evil confronting the nation. Our collective *eschatology told us that a lot of things were unimportant – taking care of the environment, the Palestinians, etc. and so we ignored them. We have ignored the biblical concept of collective guilt for so long that it’s no wonder that we look like we have our head in the sand when it comes to confronting injustice. As long as we, individually, aren’t repressing anyone we must be okay, right?
    *This is not to say that we were all teetotaling Premillennial Dispensationalists but that the collective action of the 20th century protestant church could be characterized as such. Many of our individual theologies were not weighed down by such commitments.

  2. Do you think that evangelical leadership did this while simultaneously pushing their membership to measure their worth by the number of converts they win? Was the success of the former also measured by achieving the latter? Did this lead to the establishment of, in practice, a false Gospel that preached behavioral and ideological revision over establishing the Kingdom of God as Jesus preached it (love, spiritual commitment, social justice, etc.)?

    As a 29-year-old attending a church three times a week where the median age is around 60 and all parties struggle to figure out how to become relevant while still preaching strict adherence to traditional behavioral precepts and focus on the altar-call above all else, this is what it *feels* like has happened.

  3. I read this when you first posted it two days ago and then was doing some reading today that reminded me of your hypothesis. It’s a chapter in “The Preacher and Preaching” edited by Logan and the chapter is by J. I. Packer “Introduction, Why Preach?” pg. 19
    The context is Packer arguing that Preaching focuses the identity and clarifies the calling of the church as no other activity does. He says:
    “In every age the church has had an identity problem, and in some ages an identity crisis. Why? Because the world always wants to assimilate the church to itself and thereby swallow it up, and is always putting the church under pressure to that end; and to such pressure the church, at least in the West, has constantly proved vulnerable.”
    He further says:
    “The problem is perennial, and there is always need to proclaim the Bible, its gospel, its Christ, and its ethics, in order to renew the church’s flagging awareness of its God-given identity and vocation.”

    So two things these quotations made me wonder in regards to your hypothesis. First, how unique really was this sell-out process you describe. It seems to me as Packer also suggests that this really is a perennial problem throughout Church history and maybe not so unique to late 20th century American Evangelicalism (though I admit I’m not terribly familiar with the Carl Henry-era “center” you mention). The second thought is that perhaps Packer’s argument that the consistent proclamation of “the Bible, its gospel, its Christ, its ethics” is actually the better answer to renewing and uniting American Evangelicals in their crucial role as the salt and light of American culture, rather than a need for a common enemy.

  4. It seems Christ would want us to bring people to repentance and the gospel and then let society change one person by one person. The church’s role is to enrich it’s people with the Word and help them surrender their lives to Christ on a daily basis. I have often wondered about good political changes that one could work toward. It seemed bad for evangelicals to not vote in major elections. There is a balance here. I think Christians should make themselves aware of politics and should vote their values, but it isn’t the church’s role to try to motivate them. I have much to learn about all the denominations and what they stand for. Each pastor needs to follow Christ, and they should preach repentance before offering God’s gift of salvation. Jesus always did.

  5. Brother Bradley, I think you hit the bull’s eye. As a Baby Boomer with evangelical roots and a member of an evangelical Presbyterian church, I have found myself reading more Orthodox and Catholic thinkers. I think we evangelicals have so absorbed American culture that we actually think the Bible preaches capitalism, radical individualism, and social progress. Maybe the only hope for the church is for local churches to work jointly with other local churches and organizations for a common cause without worrying about the effect on attendance and membership. The leadership of my church is committed to this community and to the whole company of saints. During every worship service, we pray for another church in the city, across the whole denominational spectrum. We’re working in partnership with many other churches to serve the community in Christ’s name. This is not a huge national effort, and it is not publicized outside of this town, but it’s making a difference and I’m honored to be a part of this mission.

  6. I am a retired “old-fashioned” holiness preacher. I lived through, and ministered in, a lot of what you are talking about.Yes! Let’s get back to the church being the Church, and the gospel being the Gospel. There are still quite a few of us “oldies” (I am 83), who still have good fellowship with those of other theological stripes but who are straight on the Bible and salvation.

  7. Bradley has previously written several insightful articles, published by the Worldview Church. This is not one of them. The flow of thought sounds like the unreflected musings of someone who is trying to make sense of a massive (evangelical) movement over many decades into a few short paragraphs. Massive generalizations and conflations result. In addition, the actual writing has a number of fragments and spelling errors that just look amateur. Some editing and time for reflection before posting would be advised. Previous posts show the potential for a higher quality.

  8. Capitol Commission is winning legislators and their staffs back to the Bible and Christ. Packer is right. “The problem is perennial, and there is always need to proclaim the Bible, its gospel, its Christ, and its ethics, in order to renew the church’s flagging awareness of its God-given identity and vocation.”
    Our mission: “Capitol Commission, in partnership with the church, is committed to making disciples of Jesus Christ and promoting the Biblical mandate to pray for those in authority in the Capitol communities throughout the United States and around the world.”

  9. There are some good points here especially with identifying as a problem the association between conservative politics with conservative Christianity, an association that still exists and is so strong that many Christians still confuse criticism of Conservative politics and economics with criticism of Conservative Christianity.

    But there are some things to which the Conservative Church has not adjusted. One is the diversity in friendships by Christians in the not old generations. This diversity has, for example, contributed to the acceptance of same-sex relationships in society. In addition, even when where there is no association between Conservative Christianity and politics, there is still complicity from the Church for not publicly criticizing the system, especially the economic system, that maintains the status quo. These two come together when the Church does not join nonChristians who are challenging the system. Not that Christians have to agree with leftist solutions, but they need to identify systemic sins of our current economic system. I make the point about complicity because of my many conversations with fellow leftist protesters many of whom expressed a desire to see theologically conservative Christians join them. In the meantime, some Christians begin to doubt some of the relevancy of the faith because of the Church’s silence.

    Thus, for as long as we are searching for an enemy amongst those outside the faith, we might be missing some of what the younger people are saying. We can disagree and identify people as nonChristian without having to label them as enemies.