(Here are my February 19 remarks at Perimeter Church outside Atlanta at the Areopagus Forum.)
Recently a Nashville area church pastor who professes to be evangelical made headlines by announcing his church’s acceptance of same-sex couples. There was more media for a Portland area minister whose evangelical denomination cut ties with his church after he announced his support for same sex marriage and LGBTQ affirmation.
Debates over same sex marriage and homosexuality were previously until fairly recently reserved for historically liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, who’ve had a 40 year conversation over Christian sexual ethics, having already liberalized theologically in the 1920s or earlier. Those debates have fueled accelerated membership loss and eventually schism for the Mainline Protestants, who have imploded from 1 of 6 Americans 50 years ago to 1 of 16 Americans today, making them no longer Mainline but more accurately oldline or even sideline.
But parts of American Evangelicalism, which has become America’s largest religious demographic in the wake of Mainline collapse, accounting for perhaps one third of Americans, is now succumbing to the same theological, ethical, cultural and political patterns that marginalized Mainline Protestants. Liberal hegemony over most Mainline Protestant denominations took about a century. But for some Evangelicals, the same process is unfolding far more quickly.
My own organization was founded in 1981 in the midst of the Cold War to challenge primarily Mainline Protestant support for Marxist revolution globally under the aegis of Liberation Theology, which manifested in moral and financial backing for Marxist insurgencies like the FMLN in El Salvador, Marxist regimes like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, plus silence about human rights abuses and persecution of Christians behind the Iron Curtain in favor of collaboration with the Soviet Union and its proxies.
It was a long road for the Mainline Protestants, founders of American democracy and free enterprise, to active support for totalitarianism in the name of Jesus Christ. But that road began with theological compromises early in the 20th century or before, when the Bible and Christian tradition were reinterpreted into metaphors, and the redemption story for lost souls was replaced by social reform under the banner of the Social Gospel. Mainline Protestant elites by the 1930s were opposed to the “profit motive” and backing state ownership of industry. The Kingdom of God was reinterpreted as a politically and socially engineered utopia where poverty and injustice are banished by state action. In the 1960s Mainline elites further radicalized, backing an anti-imperialist narrative that demonized America and the West while sanctifying Third World Marxist revolution and its East Bloc patrons.
IRD’s founders, which included evangelical theologian Carl Henry, aggressively responded to Mainline support for Marxism by declaring that the church is not primarily a political instrument, but when it speaks politically, it should side with democracy, human rights and above all religious liberty as principles in always imperfect human governance that best accommodate the Christian view of human dignity and transcendence.
The leftward drift of Mainline Protestantism, typically disguised behind vaguely phrased sermons that utilized orthodox language with often very unorthodox meanings, was largely undetected by most actual Mainline Protestant church goers, who were uninformed about the machinations of distant seminaries and church agencies operating in their name and with their financial backing.
IRD’s challenge and research led to major exposes of Mainline support for Marxist revolution by “Sixty Minutes” in 1983 and by several articles by Reader’s Digest in the 1980s, especially focusing on Mainline ecumenical organs like the National and World Councils of Churches. In many ways, Mainline Protestantism and especially its ecumenical expressions never fully recovered their public image for probity and as pillars of American spirituality and culture, which they had remarkably sustained for 350 years. But even more importantly, theological liberalism, which rejected or minimized the supernatural, personal redemption and the afterlife, negating the evangelistic imperative, had nullified the Mainline’s ability to gain new adherents, hence a half century of continuous membership decline, for which there is no end in sight.
During this Mainline self-destruction, evangelicals quietly but steadily grew in numbers, filling the void left by Mainline retreat and elevated by Billy Graham revivals, the founding of Christianity Today, the increasing stature of evangelical colleges and seminaries, and by an explosion in entrepreneurial parachurch ministries, especially on secular college campuses, many of which were previously Mainline Protestant institutions. Evangelicals captured two generations of spiritually seeking young people, while the Mainline failed to successfully retain any generation after the World War II cohort. Evangelical denominations, including even Pentecostals, who previously were viewed as socially marginal, grew exponentially, with the Assemblies of God enjoying 500 percent growth, surpassing the once unassailable Episcopal Church, the most prestigious of Mainline denominations, and now outnumbering the Episcopalians by over 50 percent.
Evangelicals were never wholly separationist or Anabaptist and were nearly always engaged good citizens and voters, their voting patterns not very different from Mainline Protestants. But Mainline implosion facilitated the collapse of American moral consensus starting in the 1960s, creating 40 years of culture war and polarization. Evangelicals began to politically organize as the Religious Right in the late 1970s, disturbed over secularization, abortion, radical feminism, pornography, and America’s receding place in the world as the Cold War seemed to incline towards the Soviet Union’s favor.
Backed by a growing subculture of large suburban churches, Christian radio stations, televisions ministries, and intersecting parachurch groups that were both spiritual and political, the founders of the Religious Right, embodied by figures such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, helped lead formerly Democratic southern voters in Ronald Reagan’s coalition in 1980. The Moral Majority was seen as its primary voice in the 1970s, succeeded by the Christian Coalition in the 1990s, sometimes supplemented by advocacy by James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, among others.
This generation of Religious Right leadership was bold, unashamed, outspoken, polemical, combative, anxious for political and spiritual trench warfare, truly distressed over the country’s direction and shaped by decades of their own struggle on the cultural and political margins, where conservative evangelicals were treated dismissively by an American society whose elites were liberal and to the extent they were religious, often Mainline Protestant.
Liberal critics of evangelical activism through the Religious Right in the 1980s claimed they were fueling the Reagan Administration’s confrontation with the Soviet Union and perhaps even hoping to precipitate a final apocalypse that would usher in Jesus Christ’s return. The Cold War’s end, and Bill Clinton’s victories, forestalled panicked secular and liberal reactions to conservative evangelical political advocacy. But Clinton’s personal scandals and advocacy of abortion rights and gay causes further provoked evangelical indignation and political organizing, whose power continued despite the receding of both the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition.
Conservative evangelicals enthusiastically backed George W. Bush in 2000, encouraged by Bush’s own Christian testimony and personal faith devotion, although Bush remained a Mainline Protestant. But it was the 2004 Bush reelection that most alarmed liberal and secular critics, who despised Bush and did not anticipate his victory, which was facilitated by nearly 80 percent support from white evangelicals, who comprised nearly a quarter of the electorate. A new dark narrative was alleged in which evangelical-Republican alliance would promulgate Christian theocracy in America, where women and gays were oppressed, along with all non-Christians, and which would pursue imperialist wars of conquest and conquest around the world, starting with Afghanistan and Iraq.
The 2004 election results motivated leftist philanthropies to take evangelicals seriously and to fund alternative evangelical initiatives that would pull evangelicals in politically more liberal directions. George Soros funding for Jim Wallis’ Sojourners began at this time, as did other outreaches and creations of new liberal Evangelical groups espousing more liberal perspectives on immigration, the environment, enhanced interrogation, nuclear weapons, drones, among many other issues.
New efforts to inflate an Evangelical Left arose as many central institutions of evangelicalism were already internally liberalizing morally and theologically. Partly this trend was sociologically inevitable, similar to Mainline Protestant schools and institutions liberalizing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, wanting freedom and independence. Partly it was a psychological reaction against the Religious Right by a new generation of Baby Boomer evangelical elites, who unlike Silent Generation Religious Right founders like Falwell, Robertson and Dobson, did not have to fight to gain social legitimacy, were not so shaped by the Cold War, were less confrontational and more therapeutic, and were more anxious for cordial relations with liberal and secular critics. Some evangelical academics especially chaffed at identification with the Bush Administration and were anxious for a new public and especially political identity. Naturally these Baby Boomer academics began to influence their students, who were increasingly Millennials.
The newly emboldened, funded and confident Evangelical Left was enthusiastic for Barack Obama, who was himself a liberal Protestant, represented ostensibly a post-ideological and post-racial America, would focus on social uplift at home rather than wars abroad and whose election would it was hoped would atone for America’s past racial sins. In fact, white evangelicals as a whole voted for John McCain in 2008 at nearly the rate they had supported Bush in 2004, although McCain had no similar evangelical testimony or interest in evangelical issues, and illustrating that evangelicals remained steadfastly conservative politically, no matter the candidate. But about one third of young evangelicals supported Obama, giving hope to the Evangelical Left and liberal allies that evangelicals would not remain a political monolith.
As right and left over the last 20 years have contended for evangelicals, with much media attention, Mainline Protestants have become almost politically irrelevant, although polls still show that about 20 percent of Americans broadly identify with that tradition. Mainliners were never really a political voting bloc. Historically, they had been more Republican than Democrat, since they are almost entirely white, middle or upper class, and mostly live in the suburbs or small towns. Radical Mainline elites never spoke for their own constituency. Church going Mainliners were and are more Republican than nominal Mainliners. Mainliners remain mostly conservative on economics and foreign policy, at odds with their church hierarchies, but increasingly liberal on social issues, perhaps influenced more by secular culture than by their denominational policies.
Meanwhile, evangelical liberals, as they have increasingly replicated the Mainline Protestant experience, seem oblivious or indifferent to Mainline implosion and its causes. The Evangelical Left has become increasingly bold in departing from evangelical and Christian orthodoxy on sexual issues. Obama’s endorsement of same sex marriage effectively gave permission or provided retroactive political cover for some professing to be evangelical to follow suit. Jim Wallis did so. Popular blogger Rachel Held Evans has done so. Evangelicals for Social Action, a 40 year old liberal group that has long be pacifist and statist but also pro-life and pro-marriage, has embraced LGBTQ advocacy under its new leadership. Other older evangelicals like Tony Campolo have often walked up to the line, not wanting to lose ties to the evangelical mainstream but still nodding to the liberationist narrative that LGBTQ is the next natural step for civil rights progression.
More commonly there is a growing stratum of evangelical elites and activists who avoid marriage and hot button issues as unnecessarily contentious in favor of more feel good advocacy for victims of sex trafficking, environmentalism, lobbying for illegal immigrants and exertions on behalf of the poor. The annual “Justice Conference,” endorsed by major evangelical schools and parachurch groups, embodies this trend. Although focused on social justice, it carefully avoids debates over marriage and protecting the unborn, as well as the plight of persecuted Christians. All of those issues are associated with the traditional Religious Right and therefore to be avoided in pursuit of an new public identity for evangelicals that is more collegial with liberalism and secular culture.
Nearly every minor blip and bump by anyone who’s ever been evangelical who announces for the LGBTQ cause will be widely advertised as supposed proof of historical inevitability. But polls still show evangelicals remarkably unified for traditional Christian teaching, more so than any other Christian demographic. Likely evangelicals will remain so, even if they fall mostly silent politically on this issue, as the courts attempt to snatch marriage definition away from the democratic process.
Interestingly, evangelicals in their personal views, including among the young, are as pro-life as ever. But a significant number of evangelical elites prefer to avoid the topic or to emphasize ministries or government social programs that might reduce abortion rates, rather than discuss punitive laws restricting abortion.
Avoidance or downplaying of persecution of Christians globally by many evangelicals is another notable development, especially in light of recent atrocities by ISIS against Syrian, Iraqi and Egyptian Christians. Some evangelical elites, especially among the young, see focus on Christians as self-serving and prefer a wider generic advocacy on behalf of all persecuted persons everywhere.
Other notable political trends aligned with the Evangelical Left include a growing assumption of some forms of neo-pacifism, opposition to American patriotism as a form of nationalist idolatry, and increasing hostility or at best ambivalence about Israel and American support for it. These issues are interrelated and are often influenced by neo-Anabaptist thinking and maybe unconscious Marcionite tendencies that minimize the Jewish Scriptures.
The pacifism among evangelical elites and young people owes partly to the school of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, partly to anxiety over inconclusive U.S. military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which evangelicals are perceived to have championed, partly to traditional post-Vietnam War rhetoric long touted by older activists like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, and partly to an understandable desire for Christians to seek reconciliation over conflict.
But this pacifism, which is typically not based on traditional Anabaptist beliefs that affirm the state’s vocation for violence even as some communities are called to non-participation, is often absolutist, demanding the state renounce violence, or at least demanding that all Christians renounce participation in the state’s violence. Shane Claiborne, the Philadelphia activist who was in Iraq to stand against overthrow of Saddam, and who recently tweeted against both ISIS and U.S. police violence, is a prominent and no doubt sincere pacifist advocate among some younger evangelicals. One of his slogans has been “more ice cream, fewer bombs,” in an initiative funded by Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream.
This pacifism among some evangelicals is also typically anti-American, with much critique of “empire” that compares America to Ancient Rome or perhaps even the Third Reich. It does not often if at all concern itself with the violence of tyrannical regimes that are hostile to America. The pacifist absolutism inspired by Yoder/Hauerwas/Wallis/Claiborne, which portrays any agents of violence, whether soldiers or police, as anti-God, is of course a stark rejection of classical Christian teaching rooted in the New Testament about God’s vocation for the state to wield the sword to avenge evil. It assumes that across history and cultures almost all of Christianity has been in error on this issue, and only a select prophetic few have been aligned with God’s favor. And except for occasional reluctant admissions from Hauerwas, who when pressed says he would allow his family to be slaughtered before physically intervening, exponents do not admit the consequences of their advocacy and, as such, offer a utopian and not Christian much less evangelical view of the world.
The evangelical rejection of American patriotism, which stereotypes the Religious Right as handmaidens to American empire, also slips into utopianism by asserting that Christians are to have no national loyalties or presumably ties to any community other than the church itself, in effect asking Christians to behave almost as disembodied spirits, without earthly ties, despite a traditional Christian that God appoints the nations, and that Christians are to serve the communities where God has placed them. This perspective almost always accepts and repeats as Christian truth a post-1960s New Left critique of American foreign policy that fantasies, as does Shane Claiborne’s 2004 book Jesus for President, that nearly all evils in the world were born in America, ignoring the wars, barbarities and genocides of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and countless others, whose tens of millions of victims apparently don’t register.
Demonizing America is closely related to the anti-Israel animus of the new Evangelical Left. Israel is seen as an extension of the American “empire” and therefore merits resistance. There is also acceptance of Liberation Theology’s narrative that Christians are called to automatic solidarity with perceived oppressed Third World persons against wealthy Western imperialists, with Israel in the latter role and the Palestinians in the first role, while ignoring history and geo-strategic circumstances. Old Religious Right enthusiasm for Israel, often perceived to be motivated by end times Dispensationalist scenarios, is to be countered with an even more zealous activism for liberation, regardless of consequences.
Of course many evangelicals prefer a so-called “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine, pro-peace” stance that is ostensibly impartial. But its goal and consequence, an end to evangelical and American alliance with Israel, are hardly impartial. Yet many well intentioned, especially missions minded evangelicals, often funded by World Vision, or hosted by groups like Telos, are escorted on biased Mideast trips or hosted at slanted conferences that portray Israel, and not other obvious actors, as the primary regional villain and persecutor of Christians. In many ways these evangelical exertions eerily resemble the Mainline Protestant tours that escorted U.S. church people to propaganda visits to the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua in the 1980s, where they were solemnly instructed that Reagan Administration aggression, and not Marxist dictatorship, was the primary threat to the Nicaraguan people.
The utopian vision of the world offered by a new generation of evangelicals, who profess to base their policies on what Jesus would do, also resembles the Mainline Protestants who cheerfully visited Bolshevik Russia in the 1920s, confidently they were seeing the future, as God ordained it. After all, didn’t Jesus favor a classless society?
Nearly all of the troubling emphases of this new form of evangelical activism, which invariably defaults left, are rooted in deeply theological error, primarily an assumption, again like the early years of liberalizing Mainline Protestantism, that the world and its peoples are essentially good but tormented by corrupt and often wicked systems, like imperialism, capitalism, environmental degradation, greed, nationalism, or even Christian Zionism and homophobia, from which liberation is urgently needed.
The new evangelical activism rejects or minimizes that people as individuals are sinners needing personal redemption that is uniquely available through Jesus Christ, a message that has always been, is now, and will always be the most important, most controversial, most appreciated and most resisted message in the world. Much of the current evangelical reaction against old style conservative evangelical witness asserts that the world rejected both America and Christianity because of Bush era policies and wars that idolatrously nationalistic evangelicals unwisely supported. But Christianity, like its Founder, who was murdered for His message, will always be hated and resisted by many. No amount of strategic messaging can avert the scandal of the Gospel. As to American prestige and popularity in the world, opinion polls don’t always accurately measure influence and success, and great powers, to retain their power, must often inspire more fear than love. The vocation of the state, American or otherwise, is not the vocation of the church, which evangelicals too often forget or decline to understand.
There is also in this new form of evangelical social witness a postmodern cognitive dissonance, which imagines that a government may simultaneously be disarmed and pacifist, ensure peace in the world, feed and clothe everybody, regulate the environment, eliminate crime, collect ever higher taxes, while never resorting to force or coercion, relying on good will by all. Such an immaculate society will exist in Heaven, but not in any temporal society this side of the Eschaton.
The patience and perseverance required to work for incremental and approximate justice while accepting that no society reaches social perfection until Christ’s presides directly is increasingly alien to the new form of evangelical activism. It is increasingly revealing itself in the sexual liberalism emerging on the fringes of evangelicalism, which accepts the postmodern and gnostic assertion that individuals can escape physical reality and the communal needs of marriage and family by claiming ever more exotic sexual and gender identities, with all disapproval to be suppressed, even by the coercive hand of the state, despite its being pacifist.
Evangelicals who veer in this utopian direction of course have, by definition, left evangelical and orthodox Christian belief. They have become liberal Protestants, essentially like Episcopalians, but lacking their liturgy and good taste. Much of this emerging problem is self correcting. As with the Mainline Protestants, liberalizing post evangelicals, as they leave orthodox Christian teaching, will lose their evangelistic zeal and their audience. Despite their egalitarian rhetoric, they will become elitists, with less and less capacity for large market share.
Mainline Protestants have declined for decades yet survive however diminished because they had 350 years of history and often generous endowments, with extensive institutional networks. Evangelicalism is mostly a modern American phenomenon and, for better or worst, lacks Mainline ballast. Liberal post-evangelicals likely will not endure for many decades, unlike liberal Presbyterians and Congregationalists.
But before their demise, liberalizing egalitarian post evangelicals may wreak a lot of damage in the church, mislead a lot of people, inflict spiritual harm in society, and portray a disfigured face of Christianity to the world far more erroneous than any of the mistakes of old style rambunctious conservative evangelicals. For this reason, we are all called to avoid the passivity and silence of orthodox Mainline Protestants 80 and 90 years ago who were mostly too polite to resist the subversion of their venerable church institutions. The sad Mainline Protestant trajectory has already evinced the fruits of compromised Christian witness. Let’s work hard to protect American evangelicalism, even its fringes, from a similar fate.