Tough diagnosis – US Evangelicals name their disease

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Summer came to the North East Coast of the US like someone flicked a switch, on the official marker – Memorial Day Weekend – the last weekend of May. It’s the summer that Billy Graham says might be his last stand, in New York City, 24 to 26 June. When he takes the podium, he will preach into an evangelical constituency vastly different to the one in which he rose to prominence.

Last summer out of curiosity I attended a national Christian Booksellers Association Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. I’d heard strange things about the culture on display there, its fascination with something called Americana – all things evangelical wrapped in the stars and stripes – and documented it in digital video.

Since then of course we have been through a revolution where the evangelical world is no longer regarded as something quaint to be observed.

A uniquely American religious group now wields the political power it’s sought for more than thirty years and it’s not just those outside of their tradition amazed at its ascendancy. One liberal response assessed the strange and complex convergence of political and religious right ideologies.

But two recent events within Evangelicalism capture the depth of alarm: The first during the snows of March this year, a conference in Philadelphia. Within this conservative world came historically astute warning voices about the trajectory of American evangelicalism.

The second event was the reaction to President Bush, as the graduation speaker for evangelical Calvin College, Michigan, during May. One third of the professors and students protested his appearance with ads in daily papers attracting media attention throughout the US.

In other words not all evangelicals support the Whitehouse.

I turn to the conference, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. Visiting from Wheaton College, near Chicago, was church historian Dr. Mark Noll – regarded by the New York Times as one of the twenty-five most influential evangelicals in the US and author of the 1994 imprint, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Complementing Noll, was Dr. Randall Balmer, a professor of American Religion from Barnard College/ Columbia University in New York City.

‘It seems to me evangelicalism in the United States is the only species of evangelicalism in the world that leans right, politically,’ Balmer began as he explored what has gone wrong with evangelicalism.

His reading of history suggested US evangelical leadership, even the Billy Graham Association, had lost the compass of classical Christianity, strayed from a great legacy, and missed addressing every significant issue in the 20th century. He detailed how, for more than a hundred years, US evangelicals, discarded the Sermon on the Mount buffeted by a range of ‘isms’ that have driven it into the maw of the Republican Party and reactionary politics: Dispensationalism, Anti-communism, Racism, Feminism, and Multiculturalism. Dispensationalism, the least familiar ‘ism’ outside the tradition, is a late 19th century theology now cleverly popularised in the best selling fiction of the Left Behind Series, and is a significant issue. For decades, American foreign policy journalists have required a working knowledge of this theology in order to make sense of US policies favouring Israel.

For Noll the tragedy was equally stark, though he was defensive of the tradition. He detailed the historical moments from the American Civil War in the 1860s where US evangelicals chose fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, which led down a path of individualism, and anti-intellectualism, and then a divorce from mainstream American life. This, he says, is why it has made few significant contributions to US institutions and built a subculture.

Currently researching in the Library of Congress, Noll admitted he was discouraged by his findings. For instance in the centuries before the 1800s evangelicals had promoted the good of the whole community, immigrants, slaves and the urban poor. But they retreated to the suburbs, and by degrees accelerating since the Second Word War became nationalistic, materialistic and partisan.

Noll detailed the career of Charles G. Finney, a slavery abolitionist and evangelical, and illustrated how he was seduced by the idea that individual commitment to follow Jesus Christ was the solution to every social problem, essentially abandoning social and political engagement. Thus began the reduced tradition that later defined Billy Graham and contemporary American evangelism. This has become the American tradition, which many Australians adopt as the only true form of Christianity.

The conference’s audience, mainly white and middle aged, with a sprinkling of students was very like the liberal conference I saw in New York, equally alarmed, equally aware of how small they were in the face of the Far Right juggernaut.

Only Balmer seemed to draw the hard conclusions of his research as if sentimentalism for tradition clouded the judgement of Noll and others, and prevented a change of direction.

Nonetheless, the plainspoken critique of these evangelical scholars gave me new appreciation for the phenomenon I’ve observed in a New York City Church, one that seems to counter the conservative evangelical culture and provide an alternative for American churches to recover their historical integrity, apart from the religious right.

Only sixteen years old, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in midtown Manhattan has grown from an original thirty people to over 4,500 attendees, average age thirty years, on any Sunday. These upwardly mobile, mostly single professionals, work in every major cultural endeavour of the city. They meet in a College auditorium on Park Avenue, and at two other rented locations around Central Park.

Noll’s and Balmer’s critiques of the US evangelical world seem redundant here, but that’s because Redeemer’s American senior pastor, Timothy Keller, teaches from theology that is largely European derived, requires robust intellectual commitment, and demands an engagement with urban culture to seek the best for the city. Its notable contribution to date seems to be the planting of more than eighty other such churches, with similar theological underpinnings, mostly in the greater New York area over the past ten years.

How different to the self-focused piety of the mega-church in Colorado Springs investigated by NYU’s religion watchdog Jeff Sharlett, so reflective of the conservative subculture abroad in the White House.

So some evangelicals here feel their faith has been hijacked and over this short American summer it will be interesting to see what kind of evangelical will emerge from the Graham crusade. And if anyone will even notice.

Greater New York Billy Graham crusade

Spirit Willing, One More Trip Down Mountain for Graham “ New York Times

US theocracy is rising and dangerous by Chris Gilbert, New Matilda , May 2005

Not All Follow Bush Gospel at Christian School Los Angeles Times

Judy Valente’s interview about America’s evangelicals with Mark Noll, historian and professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College

Kim Lawton’s interview about evangelicals and evangelism with Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College, Columbia University

Redeemer Presbyterian Church

The Revealer : a daily review of religion and the press

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.