There Never Was An Evangelicalism: In Dialogue with Russell Moore’s “Losing Our Religion”
Anyone closely following Christianity in contemporary America knows that an increasingly small percent of Americans either belong to a church or self-identify as Christian. These trends are precipitous and unprecedented, especially among younger people, and one of the most dramatic shifts has been in the percentage of young white Americans willing to identify as an “evangelical.” Alongside these broader trends, white evangelical thought leaders have sought to understand and explain why their particular brand of Christianity has metastasized from whatever it was into the Trump-worshiping, swamp of conspiracies it is today.
For me, these are not merely abstract issues. Baptized Roman Catholic and raised as a non-churchgoer, I became a born-again Christian in my teens, discovered philosophy in my twenties, and have deconstructed and reconstructed my theological commitments many times over since then. As a lifelong Democrat, I despise Trumpism on a visceral level. A Millennial and an evangelical both, I rotate between mournful sympathy, confusion, and even feelings of personal betrayal as peers deconstruct their faith commitments — occasionally our shared faith commitments — sometimes walking away from faith in Christ altogether.
As I’ve tried making sense of America’s rapidly shifting religious scene, I’ve found no evangelical thought leader more helpful than Dr. Russell Moore, former president of the Southern Baptist Committee’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and present director of the Public Theology Project at Christianity Today. Dr. Moore has admirably weathered considerable hardship as he’s taken a leading role in opposing racism and sexual abuse within churches and as he has boldly called on Christians to live out their faith.
This past April, Dr. Moore wrote an essay explaining the simultaneous de-churching of Americans and swampifying of Evangelicals with a compelling thesis: the reason the Church in America is bleeding members “is not that people think the church’s way of life is too demanding, too morally rigorous, but that they have come to think the church doesn’t believe its own moral teachings.”
While Dr. Moore also credits “liberalizing cultural norms, decreasing fertility, and increasing mobility” for the de-churching of America, he lays a large amount of the blame on evangelical moral failure, and he prescribes evangelical moral renewal as the tonic:
We are losing a generation — not because they are secularists, but because they believe we are. What this demands is not a rebranding, but a repentance — meaning, as the Bible does, a turnaround.
I largely agree with Dr. Moore’s diagnosis of the malady, and I eagerly endorse the perennial wisdom of his prescription. Where he seems to fall short is in his understanding of the proverbial patient: evangelicalism.
The Rot Runs Deep
Russell Moore’s central thesis is that the recent secularizing trends are due to young Americans newly believing the Church — particularly the evangelical church — is hypocritical and immoral. While he’s careful in his wording and quick to note the hypocrisies of the cultural evangelicalism he grew up around in the South, Dr. Moore sometimes sounds as if he thinks it’s evangelical hypocrisy itself that is new.
Take, for example, the following paragraph:
Where a “de-churched” (to use an anachronistic term) “ex-vangelical” (to use another) in the early 1920s was likely to have walked away due to the fact that she found the virgin birth or the bodily resurrection to be outdated and superstitious or because he found moral libertinism to be more attractive than the “outmoded” strict moral code of his past or because she wanted to escape the stifling bonds of a home church for an autonomous individualism, now we see a markedly different — and jarring — model of a disillusioned evangelical. We now see young evangelicals walking away from evangelicalism not because they do not believe what the church teaches, but because they believe the church itself does not believe what the church teaches. The presenting issue in this secularization is not scientism and hedonism but disillusionment and cynicism.
Contrast this with the account Dr. James H. Cone, author of The Cross and the Lynching Tree, who grew up in the 1930s and ‘40s:
Black people did not need to go to seminary and study theology to know that white Christianity was fraudulent. As a teenager in the South where white treated blacks with contempt, I and other blacks knew that the Christian identity of whites was not a true expression of what it meant to follow Jesus. Nothing their theologians and preachers could say would convince us otherwise. We wondered how whites could live with their hypocrisy — such a blatant contradiction of the man from Nazareth. (I am still wondering about that!) White conservative Christianity’s blatant endorsement of lynching as a part of its religion… placed [it] outside of Christian identity… For Ida B. Wells, Christian identity had to be validated by opposing mob violence against a powerless people, and no amount of theological sophistry could convince her otherwise.
Holding these two perspectives of conservative Christianity side-by-side, here’s my question for Dr. Moore:
Russ, when were evangelicals ever not hypocrites?
Was it in the 1920’s when conservative Christians gleefully took part in the lynching of 281 Black men and women, sharing with their friends and families pictures of themselves smiling in front of charred bodies?
Was it in the 1950’s and ‘60’s when the veritable Billy Graham insisted on integrating his crusades in the Jim Crow South while withholding his full support from the Civil Rights Movement?
Was it in the 1980’s when the so-called “Moral Majority’s” only words to the over 50,000 victims dying of AIDS were condemnation, when they tried pressuring surgeon general C. Everett Koop to ignore the epidemic because its victims were gay?
Was it in the 1990’s when born-again Christians raked Bill Clinton over the coals for marital infidelity and sexual abuse while nominal evangelicals were twice as likely as nonbelievers to beat their spouse?
These are merely a fraction of the sins and hypocrisies committed, often disproportionately and overwhelmingly, by those who would identify as an evangelical. There never was a pure evangelicalism, not even on a good day.
To understand just what there was, we need to ask ourselves a question too often unexamined…
What the Heck is an Evangelical?
Deriving from euangelion, Greek for “Good News,” and first used in 1531 by William Tynsdale to describe proclamation of the Christian Gospel, identifying when a person can be described as “evangelical” is surprisingly complicated and context-dependent. For the purposes of the questions Dr. Moore raises in his essay, I’ll posit a threefold taxonomy:
The 3 Kinds of Evangelicals:
1. Theological Evangelicals
2. Historical Evangelicals
3. Cultural Evangelicals
While the taxonomy is intended to be all-inclusive, it is not mutually exclusive: there are times when someone or something could be characterized as belonging to any 1, 2, or all 3 types of evangelicalism. To better understand the picture, let’s dig into each of these types and their origins.
In 1989, British historian David Bebbington formulated a quadrilateral characterizing recurrent upswells of Christian faith. Describing these Christian revivals as “evangelical,” Bebbington argued that they are characterized by: Biblicism (i.e., regarding the Bible as uniquely authoritative), Crucicentrism (a focus on Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the cross), Conversionism (personal and emotional experience of God), and Activism (expressing the gospel through verbal proclamation and humanitarian social reform). While Bebbington located theological evangelicalism’s origin in England and the United States during the Great Awakening of the 1730s, I’d argue its antecedents trace back to Jesus’ first disciples (see: Acts of the Apostles). Using the Bebbington quadrilateral as the rubric, theological evangelicals span geography, race, gender, denomination, and chronology. I’d posit those examples include William Wilberforce, Ida B. Wells, St. John Chrysostom, C.S. Lewis, Bakht Singh, Corrie ten Boom, Gil Seon-Ju (of the Pyongyang Revival), and many Christians in the Global South. I suspect this definition is what most evangelical thought leaders have in mind as their lodestar.
After the fundamentalist-modernist controversy within white western Protestantism in the late 1800s through early- to mid-1900s, theologically conservative white American Protestants sought to leave behind fundamentalism’s most rigid dogmas, its anti-intellectualism, and its antagonistic and self-isolating relationship to the broader culture. Catalyzed by the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942 and spread with evangelistic fervor by Billy Graham, this religio-historic movement may be the reason why the term “evangelical” is widely known today. While the founders of historic evangelicalism were generally theological evangelicals, they and their movement were influenced by culturally-specific, extra-Biblical assumptions including political conservatism, strictly delineated gender roles, anti-Black prejudice, cultural individualism, the primacy of capitalism, and the international promotion of democracy. (Note: Most of these things aren’t necessarily bad, they just are not points of orthodox dogma.) Historical evangelicals are distinct from Christian fundamentalists, but their leadership became intertwined during the rise of the Christian right and the boundaries between their membership have always been blurry. Predecessors of historical evangelicalism would include Dwight L. Moody and Charles Spurgeon, while paradigmatic examples include Franklin Graham, Wheaton College, Christianity Today, the Jesus People Movement of the late-60s & 70’s, Bill Hybels, the Lausanne Movement, Rick Warren, the Young Restless and Reformed, Ravi Zacharias, most Christian student ministries (Cru, IV, YL), and Russell Moore himself.
If Bebbington’s evangelicals are defined by their theological commitment and Billy Graham’s evangelicals are defined by their historic pedigree, cultural evangelicals are simply anyone who self-identifies as evangelical. Cultural evangelicals include the stoutly historically evangelical, Pentecostals, fundamentalists, non-churchgoers, and increasingly those of any religion who are merely politically conservative. More than three-quarters believe the heresy that Jesus is created and not co-eternal with God (viz., Arianism). Based on Americans’ greater willingness to identify as “born-again” but not “evangelical,” this category likely excludes some portion of historical evangelicals. It has always excluded large swathes of theological evangelicals. In short, many self-described evangelicals are merely culturally evangelical. Examples of cultural evangelicals include Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, the creators of the Left Behind series, Glenn Beck, and Donald Trump.
There isn’t now and there never was a single, unified evangelicalism. Instead, evangelicalism has always had different meanings and factions, each with their own faults and glories.
Treating the Patient
As I type this, I realize I’m risking a sleight of hand: if we simply define out any unsavory types from the term “evangelical,” it would seem “real” evangelicals don’t have a problem after all.
That would be selling short the failures of historical evangelicals.
If a large fraction of cultural evangelicals are not — perhaps never were — meaningfully theologically evangelical, what does that say about the historical evangelicals who defined the movement?
Why exactly is the boundary between historical evangelical and merely cultural evangelical so permeable and muddled?
How do people who value theological evangelicalism reach those who have gone so far down a rabbit hole we may have been complicit in sustaining?
How could historical evangelicals have been so willfully blind in the many ways they fall short of theological evangelicalism?
If evangelical hypocrisy has existed throughout history, why is it only now that young people see Christians as hypocrites?
Under what conditions is theological evangelicalism even a meaningful compass?
I have few answers, but still a lot of faith. My hope is that by asking these sorts of questions — recognizing our longstanding failures and looking at the evangelical ecosystem in a more finely grained way — others and I myself can more effectively heed Dr. Moore’s potent call for repentance. Perhaps in so doing, those of us who have called ourselves “evangelical” may become more who the God of the Gospel calls us to be.
Addendum (1/3/22): Just last night I heard an interview Dr. Russell Moore held with Calvin University Professor of History Kristin Kobes Du Mez predating this post in which they explored similar arguments and frameworks. Listen here.