The Death of Evangelicalism
The current presidential election has made the serious rifts within evangelicalism embarrassingly obvious. For instance, reactions to Donald Trump vary widely. Some, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., have declared him a Christian, while others denounce him as something akin to the Antichrist.
At one time, evangelical meant a clear commitment to biblical authority and historic Protestant doctrine, but now the term is applied to a wide range of people, from bizarre TV faith healers to religiously affiliated social justice warriors. Evangelical no longer represents any consistent body of beliefs or even political commitments.
Some blame recent secular trends for this change, such as leftism and postmodernism, but the evangelical world has been committing slow suicide for a long time. Forty years ago, my own evangelical seminary had already opened its doors to the forces that would one day seriously undermine its own basic beliefs, and today the doors of evangelical institutions are open even wider to the same corrupting influences.
Others could be mentioned, but perhaps the greatest factors in evangelical decline are psychology, sociology, and politics. Binding them together is an overarching pragmatism that readily accepts modification of the structure and content of Christianity in order to make it more attractive to the onlooking world.
The greatest force to remold evangelicalism may be psychotherapism. In the past, many evangelical institutions slammed the door shut on humanistic theological liberalism. Ironically, they then let the same way of thinking in by the back door, in the shape of humanistic psychology. As early as 1993, in No Place for Truth, David Wells lamented the ascendency of psychology over theology in evangelical seminaries, where counseling courses and psychology-based programs had already become more popular than theology.
Evangelical institutions largely abandoned an emphasis on Bible exposition, doctrine, and moral living in favor of promoting therapy for practical problems and emphasizing self-actualization. The result of all this has been the proliferation of mega-church and mega-media personality cults, where the message frequently contains more psychobabble than Bible. The charismatic leaders piloting these institutions are often poor at explaining scripture and doctrine.
However, by jumping on the psychotherapeutic bandwagon, evangelical organizations made a grave mistake. Many popular psychotherapeutic concepts, such as self-esteem and repressed memory, have been discredited by contemporary psychological research. If evangelicals had held fast to traditional, scriptural notions like inborn human depravity, they would now be in the strong position of being able to say "I told you so." Instead, evangelical institutions have become havens for debunked pseudoscience. Moreover, the therapeutic orientation has encouraged the current epidemic of religious narcissism.
Besides psychotherapism, ideas from secular sociology have also radically transformed the evangelical landscape. Sociology gave birth to the Church Growth movement (which later morphed into the Seeker-Sensitive movement), articulated largely by former Protestant missionaries like Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner. This movement maintained that human behavior stems largely from groups, not individuals, and applied that insight to gaining converts. Before that, the Protestant Christian world had conceived of conversion mainly in terms of individual spiritual encounters with God, not as a sociological product of groupthink.
The Church Growth movement promoted sociological and marketing techniques to advance Christianity through clever organization and appeal to homogeneous social groups, with dynamic pastors at the helm. The result: churches dominated by celebrity-pastors and the transformation of churches into corporate hierarchies aiming at numerical growth rather than the cultivation of mature believers. Mega-church attendees often behave more like the fans of a sports team or an entertainer than followers of Christ. The power of conformity operates more conspicuously than any moral, devotional, or doctrinal factors, and woe to those who dare to question the Dear Leader in the spotlight. Naturally enough, this kind of situation lends itself to abusive, exploitative behavior at the top.
Excessive attention on the world of politics and fixing America's woes also had harmful effects. Of course, for Christians there is nothing at all wrong with political involvement and even in applying religious convictions to political issues. The problems came when many confused the culture wars with the battle for souls. The Religious Right deserves a lot of credit for helping to elect a great president, Ronald Reagan, but at the same time, that victory duped many into thinking America was undergoing a significant revival of Christianity. In Blinded by Might, Thomas and Dobson recount their sense of betrayal and disillusion following Reagan's appointment of pro-abortion justice Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court. They were forced to admit that they had placed too much trust in political power.
Even worse, political activity helped to promote aberrations within evangelicalism, such as the theocratic Theonomy movement and its offspring, Dominionism. Since they became allied politically with respected evangelical leaders such as Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell, Sr., these movements were much more than just the lunatic fringe. Consequently, academia and the mass media were able to caricature the whole Religious Right as a theocratic threat to personal freedom. Dominionism continues to thrive and find its way into politics: Ted Cruz's father belongs to a Dominionist movement, and Cruz received a lot of support from those circles.
In a stunning 180-degree reversal, much of the evangelical intelligentsia have now come to embrace the abstract, fashionable leftist mantra "social justice" rather than focusing their efforts on the massive problem of abortion on demand. Political correctness has made great headway in the evangelical world, with the result that a number of evangelicals have even expressed support for the violent Black Lives Matter movement. For all its faults, at least the Religious Right confronted concrete sins like abortion and sexual immorality; the Evangelical Left and even much of the mainstream choose to engage the imaginary sins of academia and the mass media.
In sum, evangelicalism has been slowly dying, mainly from its failure to let divine revelation and the message of salvation in Christ take precedence over contemporary thinking and cultural relevance. Evangelicalism doomed itself when it put its faith in social science and political success rather than in the God of scripture. The sad truth is that much of evangelicalism does not now offer an alternative voice; it offers the same voice as pop culture and the mass media. Rather than being a light to the world, much of it is merely a mirror of the world.
The problem facing evangelicalism appears to be similar to that of academia in that it is difficult to discern any unique value in either of them nowadays. Only by being different from the outside world can some entities justify their existence. Real Christianity has always been something different from everything else, and it will continue to be so among its genuine adherents, regardless of the fate of one movement. As Jesus himself put it in Matt. 24:35, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away."
Bruce W. Davidson is a board member of the Jonathan Edwards Center, Japan and a contributor to the upcoming Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (William Eerdmans and Yale University).