To Evangelicalism! The Cause of — and Solution to — Most of Its Own Problems

In one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite TV series, the fictional town of Springfield takes a second shot at Prohibition and Homer Simpson becomes a bootlegger. As “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment” ends, with everything returned to normal, Homer stands on a pyramid of kegs, hoists a beer, and proposes a toast:

I thought of this line while reading two provocative essays on evangelicalism by historian Molly Worthen. In part because one mentions the key role played by evangelicals in the original prohibitionist movement, but more because I can’t shake the feeling that evangelicalism is the cause of — and solution to — most of its own problems.

First, Worthen’s Easter Sunday op-ed in the New York Times suggested that the current obsession with “post-truth” and “fake news” is nothing new to evangelicals:

Conservative evangelicals are not the only ones who think that an authority trusted by the other side is probably lying. But they believe that their own authority — the inerrant Bible — is both supernatural and scientifically sound, and this conviction gives that natural human aversion to unwelcome facts a special power on the right. This religious tradition of fact denial long predates the rise of the culture wars, social media or President Trump, but it has provoked deep conflict among evangelicals themselves.

“We all cling to our own unquestioned assumptions,” she admitted. “But in the quest to advance knowledge and broker peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world, the worldview based on biblical inerrancy gets tangled up in the contradiction between its claims on universalist science and insistence on an exclusive faith.”

FitzGerald, The EvangelicalsThen earlier today in The Atlantic, Worthen used Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals, as “grist for a much richer exploration of evangelicals’ affinity with [President Donald] Trump.” (An affinity that remains as strong as ever. According to the newest survey from the Pew Forum, 78% of white evangelical Protestants approve of Trump’s performance — double the national average.)

She starts with the American Revolution, a “founding moment of rebellion against big government [that] left evangelicals keenly aware of the fragility of personal liberty—and the capacity of centralized power to snuff it out. Over time, the conservative evangelical vision of spiritual liberty fused with free-market ideology.” Drawing on the work of scholars like Darren Grem and Kevin Kruse, Worthen puts evangelical support for Trump in the historical context of an emerging “Christian free-market mania.”

But that’s not all. With an eye to evangelical ecclesiology, she argues that Trump’s

authoritarian machismo is right in step with a long evangelical tradition of pastor-overlords who anoint themselves with the power to make their own rules—and, in the event of their own occasional moral lapses, assure their followers that God always forgives…. In a tradition that has always prized “soul liberty” and spiritual autonomy, American evangelicals have sometimes shown a strong preference for leaders who demand unquestioning obedience—and who, like Trump, consider disagreement a form of disloyalty.

So while some see evangelical support of Trump as a tactical alliance, Worthen offers ammunition for the view that evangelicals support Trump not in spite of their religion, but because of it.

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As ever, I have a hard time knowing what to do with interpretations like Worthen’s. I’m not enough of an actual historian of evangelicalism to verify or falsify them with any degree of rigor. But I am enough of an evangelical myself to wrinkle my forehead in confusion: what she’s describing bears little resemblance to the pietistic evangelicalism I’ve known firsthand in the Evangelical Covenant Church and at Bethel University.

So while I can’t shrug off the argument that evangelicalism is the cause of many of its own problems, I’m still persuaded that evangelicalism can provide some of its own solutions.

Worthen, Apostles of ReasonIndeed, I don’t think Worthen would disagree. In the Times op-ed, she speculates that “the best hope for [changing]” evangelical suspicion of empiricism may be “evangelical colleges themselves.” In fact, just last week I moderated a discussion among Bethel colleagues on the importance of “seeking truth in a post-truth age.” Not just here but at dozens of institutions in — and out of — the Christian college world, evangelicals engage in research, teaching, and learning not in spite of their religion, but because of it.

Noting suspicion of the welfare state among many American evangelicals in The Atlantic piece, Worthen also acknowledges that “Evangelicals in other countries, such as Canada, worked alongside secular Social Democrats to build a generous social safety net.” For that matter, Randall Balmer has pointed out that FitzGerald’s lengthy book makes little room for more progressive and even radical voices within the history of evangelicalism. Were these evangelicals — in this country or elsewhere — less committed than their more conservative brethren to the authority of Scripture, the reality of sin, the necessity of conversion, and the call to active engagement with the world?

Couldn’t those same evangelical commitments generate resistance — from across the political spectrum — to the excesses and corruption of the present administration?

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If so, evangelicals might start by recovering a more usable past for themselves.

Balmer regrets that FitzGerald seems never to have read Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, which starts with Donald Dayton finding that his own denomination — like many other evangelical groups — had opposed slavery in the 19th century. “I had been struggling,” he concluded, “with the wrong end of Evangelical currents that had once reverberated with vitality and reform activity, but had over the course of a century fallen into a form of decadence.”

If you feel like you’re wrestling with the same problem and looking to discover — or recover — a different evangelical heritage…

Well, I hope it’s not too mercenary of me to point out that you can now pre-order a book arguing that “the time has come for Pietism” — what Dayton, Balmer, Worthen, and other historians point to as a major source for evangelicalism — “to revitalize Christianity in post-Christendom America.”

Gehrz & Pattie, The Pietist OptionYes, InterVarsity Press is beginning to advertise my forthcoming book with Covenant pastor Mark Pattie, The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. It’s not aimed solely at fellow evangelicals, but that’s certainly a key audience we’re hoping to reach. Here’s a bit more of the publisher’s description:

In The Pietist Option, Christopher Gehrz, a historian of Pietism, and Mark Pattie, a pastor in the Pietist tradition, show how Pietism holds great promise for the church—and the world—today. Modeled after Philipp Spener’s 1675 classic, Pia Desideria, this timely book makes a case for the vitality of Pietism in our day.

Taking a hard look at American evangelicalism and why it needs renewal, Gehrz and Pattie explore the resources that Pietism can provide the church of the twenty-first century…

…With its emphasis on our walk with Jesus and its vibrant hope for a better future, Pietism connects decisively with the ideas and issues of our day. Here is a revitalizing option for all who desire to be faithful and fruitful in God’s mission.

As I write in the current draft of the manuscript, “I don’t want to make it sound like the only really important issues are those that Pietism happens to address most clearly.” But I do think that Pietism speaks directly to some of the problems identified by Worthen. Against evangelical cultures that are dominated by powerful pastors who preach the acquisition of power and wealth, for example, Pietism emphasizes “the common priesthood seeking the common good”: a church in which all are priests under the high priest, Jesus Christ, who models for us faith made active in loving service to others.

Stay tuned as we get closer to publication!