Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Evangelical Crackup Considered . . .

I suppose I should start by saying that my claim to being an evangelical will depend on how the term is defined. To the extent that being an evangelical means "conservative Protestant": yes, I am a very conservative Protestant in a Calvinist niche denomination. And our goals have always been to get the theology both specific and correct.

But the broader evangelical movement, as represented by such as Hybels and Warren, have always had way too much postmodern sloppiness about what passes for their theology, and if this article is to be believed, that sloppiness is spilling over to their approach to public affairs:

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

A few thoughts:

1. I wasn't aware that evangelicals had ever been uninterested in "spiritual growth", although I will say that this particular formulation lacks specificity.

2. "Social justice" . . . somehow I doubt that the people using this phrase are complaining about the Kelo decision, for instance, or confiscatory taxation. No, social justice invariably means spending more of other people's money. So we're already in politically loaded territory.

3. "Problems where left and right compete to present the best answers" . . . So, basically, you want to run where everybody else is already going, yelling "Me too!" The temptation to be liked, expressed as the desire to appear socially relevant, this is what David Wells nails below:

Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.

Older evangelical traditionalists like Prof. David Wells of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston argue that the newer approaches represent a “capitulation” to the broader culture — similar to the capitulation that in his view led the mainline churches into decline. Proponents of the new evangelicalism, on the other hand, say their broader agenda reflects a frustration with the scarce victories in the culture war and revulsion at the moral entanglements of partisan alliances (Abu Ghraib, Jack Abramoff). Scot McKnight, an evangelical theologian at North Park University in Chicago, said, “It is the biggest change in the evangelical movement at the end of the 20th century, a new kind of Christian social conscience.”

More thoughts:

1. Here again the tendentious language: "contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world." There is a whole lot to unpack here about what a Christian's role in society should be, but let me pause to point out that those who campaign to, say, rid their communities of porn shops and strip clubs have at least as much claim to having "contributing to the betterment of their communities" as someone who simply votes for higher taxes imposed on other people.

2. "Abu Ghraib, Jack Abramoff" Let's count the conservative votes in favor of Abu Ghraib? Zero! How about Abramoff? Wow, same number! So . . . unless you already believe that somehow these were the deliberate policies of conservatives or the Bush administration, as opposed to one-offs where the perpetrators were punished, where is the moral entanglement?

Here's my problem: I have no idea who these people are! I go to church and see a lot of political conservatives and a handful of liberals. I do NOT see anyone advocating "a new kind of Christian social conscience". I do not see a groundswell of concern about "health care, race, poverty and the environment" as if nothing had happened since 1900. Yes, there are plenty of people disappointed in Bush -- I am among them -- but it is not because anybody believes that he is TOO pro-life or too pro-war or insufficiently committed to "social justice".

The reasons for the for the frustration is:

1. The sense that the Bush administration is going down in flames and taking us with him. The whole enterprise has acquired the stench of failure because of the Iraq war, and failure doesn't win many friends. The article pretty much acknowledges this, but doesn't give it sufficient weight.

2. Bush's commitment to the liberal worldview regarding the true nature of Islam.

3. Any number of other issues that are not specific causes of the religious right but are nonetheless important to conservatives, eg. immigration.

So it might be true that Hybels and Warren are attempting to lead their flocks toward a "new social conscience" . . . but eventually, the Iraq war will end, a Democrat will be elected president, and then we will see how many Indians the chiefs still have.

There is nothing to prevent the new evangelical churches from going the way of the mainline protestant denominations; indeed, with shallower institutional support, they are unlikely to last as long.

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