At a recent town hall meeting, Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, took questions from an “evangelical” man named Tim. Tim started the conversation by stating that he loved America and Americans but was disheartened by what he viewed as a “bombardment” from Democrats “demonizing” his political and religious beliefs as “bigoted and intolerant.” Furthermore, he did not feel his beliefs were getting “the respect and honor” that were due them. (1)
There are reasons evangelicals like Tim feel this way. Society is changing, and depending on one’s perspective, either it has always been changing, or the change is a dramatic harbinger of the “end times.”
“Where conservatives and liberals differ, of course, is in interpretation. To liberals and secularists, America has always changed, and if it is changing for the more multicultural and less religiously homogeneous, the better.
But for conservatives, these trends are signs of, depending on one’s point of view, the approaching end-times (over 75 percent of American evangelicals say they believe the Rapture will take place in the next 50 years); the possession of the United States by demonic entities (Trump’s closest religious adviser believes this); a ‘war on religion’ by secular elites and government; a conspiracy by Hollywood and media moguls; or at the very least, a dangerous loss of our moral center.” (2)
But where conservative American Christianity is concerned, Tim’s concern is not new, but has a history dating back at least to the beginnings of the 20th century. Part of the problem stems from the perception of loss, another is the tendency to wear rose-colored glasses when longing for the past.
Prior to the American Civil War, the American governance and White Protestant ethos went remarkably well in hand. Like Protestantism and Catholicism in European countries, the status quo of society assumed a certain parallel between religion and society, church and state. However, in Europe that glove in hand relationship was dissolving as secularism gained ground. With the rise of German “Higher Criticism” many conservatives felt the previous assumptions of Biblical authorship were under attack.
What followed the rising secularism and critical studies of scripture was the development of fundamentalist Christianity. In the succeeding decades until WWII, among these fundamentalists, there was a rigorous rejection of secularism and critical study as well as a general rejection of society’s trajectory. All of those distractions were “worldly” and the church needed to separate herself from them. Following WWII, a more nuanced conservatism arose, breaking ranks with fundamentalism. It was called evangelicalism. This is the story of the attack on that evangelicalism.
In the fundamentalist telling of the story the attack came from a myriad of things: humanism, secularism, movies, dances, communism, liberalism, feminism, the list is long. In reality, though, the attack on evangelicalism was from within. It would be “friendly fire” that would eventually topple evangelicalism. Tim, as with most 21st century evangelicals, is unaware of the war that ensued in the last 20 years of the 20th century. Most experienced it but were deceived as to its real nature, and where the shells were coming from. The battle was fought over how the church was to understand and define itself. As such, it was an internal affair, and as with most wars, the victor rewrites the history of that war.
Many of the conservative evangelical denominations such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of God or the Southern Baptist were, and could be argued, still are, fundamentalist denominations. Dispensationalism and end times eschatology are rather new developments within the last 150 years, and tend to define fundamentalism. Along with that is the belief in the “inerrancy” of scripture, one of the fundamental tenants of fundamentalism. While it has been argued that fundamentalism is a smaller subset of evangelicalism; since fundamentalism arose from the modernist debate in the early 20th century, and evangelicalism, as is known today is post-WWII, I consider modern evangelicalism as a subset, or outgrowth of fundamentalism.
This is apparent when observing the development of the term evangelical in the late 20th century by preachers such as Billy Graham and the development of evangelical institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals. While evangelicalism existed prior to the 20th century, it differed markedly from what would become fundamentalism because of its emphasis on social reform. This would be revived with the new post-war evangelicalism of the 50’s. These new evangelicals came from fundamentalist backgrounds but wished a more socially engaged experience than the separatism of fundamentalism.
Adding more confusion to the matter is that many of the most vocal evangelical leaders in the news today, like Jerry Falwell and his son, as well as Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, are, actually fundamentalists. The vitriol and harsh judgmental expressions of Franklin Graham or the ultra Calvinism of John Piper track more closely to fundamentalism than evangelicalism. It is understandable that the News Media and even evangelicals are confused, as I believe the confusion between fundamentalism and evangelicalism is intentional. But more on that in part two.
To be continued.