Ruth Graham’s latest in Slate is, to the surprise of no one who reads her regularly, a well-done, interesting take on the future of American Christianity. You should read the whole thing, but the excerpts below gets at the key idea well enough:
Look closer, however, and conservative evangelicalism is showing serious cracks, particularly as a political movement. Its leaders are in crisis mode over the candidacy of Donald Trump, with some begrudgingly supporting him as their best hope against Hillary Clinton and others deriding him as an immoral charlatan. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and the big new issue for conservatives is religious liberty, which presumes a subservient status for Christians—the onetime “moral majority” as a minority group requiring special protection. The future of conservative evangelicalism as the dominant expression of American Christianity looks dubious, if not doomed.
The cracking apart of evangelicalism’s influence is more than the end of an era. It’s an opportunity—for Democrats picturing a broad victory in November, yes, and for Republicans who think their party needs reinvention. But it’s also an opening for another “silent majority” within American society: liberal Christians, a term that for a generation has been relegated to an oxymoron. That Christian belief can coexist with, let alone support, left-leaning social and political views has so disappeared from living rooms and community halls that any public embrace of the idea elicits surprise. …
If liberal Christianity is ultimately going to thrive, however, it’s hard to imagine it doing so without reviving the local churches that have been shrinking over the decades. Conservative congregations ask for serious commitment; they expect their people to show up, and they ask them to adhere to a narrower set of beliefs and behaviors. There’s a cost associated with membership. The political economist Laurence Iannacconeobserved in the early 1990s that churches that ask more from their followers tend to be stronger. As an evangelical sociologist once told me, people are drawn to beliefs that make “demands of the flesh.”
Many progressive churches, by contrast, barely demand a pinky toe. Most of those I’ve attended regularly have been happy when I merely show up, in part because their populations tend to be small and elderly. They don’t pressure me when I skip; the sermons rarely suggest it matters whether I believe the creeds we recite on Sunday mornings. (The demands that small or struggling churches do make on members tend to be organizational and financial labor, so you get the draining obligations without the spiritual investment.) By contrast, when I visit conservative churches with family or friends, they feel alive: People are there because they think it matters, for their everyday lives and for their eternal souls. The 2013 Public Religion report found that only 11 percent of religious progressives say religion was the most important thing in their lives, compared with 54 percent of religious conservatives. The Christian left would benefit from Christian right’s urgency not just with politics but with religion itself.
Of course, to media obsessives this news is hardly a surprise. “Conservative evangelicalism,” (whatever that means) has been having something of an identity crisis for 15 years—that’s what all those liberal evangelical thinkpieces in 2008 were about, remember? We’ve had plenty of other evidence for this identity crisis, some of which Graham notes in her piece:
- the entire emerging church movement that ran from the late 1990s until 2010
- the rise of bloggers like Rachel Held Evans and Jonathan Merritt and prominent pastors like Nadia Bolz-Weber as well as the cottage industry that is millennial evangelical memoirs
- the shifting attitude on evangelical campuses toward LGBT individuals
- the general (and mostly unsubstantiated) noise about an emerging evangelical left
- the growing interest amongst some evangelicals in “high church” traditions (the quotation marks are not meant as scare quotes, but are rather intended to reflect the fact that though we use the term “high church” all the time, it’s very difficult to get a precise and useful definition of what that term actually means)
All of these things in various ways demonstrate that the old coalition of partisan conservatives and small-o orthodox Christians has been cracking up for some time. But Graham’s piece, helpful though it is as a chronicling of the change, fails for reasons strikingly similar to the likely reason for the religious right’s failure—a lazy collapsing of right-wing political ideas and theological orthodoxy under the category “conservative” and an equally sloppy collapsing of left-wing political ideas and theological heterodoxy (at best) under the category of “liberal.” (Aside from a brief mention of the black church, generally politically liberal and theologically conservative, Graham collapses political and theological conservatism and liberalism down into a single thing throughout the piece.)
Indeed, one of the great changes we’re seeing today is not that younger evangelicals are abandoning “conservatism” and embracing political liberalism along with theological modernism. There is some of that, of course, as the existence (and popularity) of Evans and Merritt demonstrates.
But many of these young evangelicals who embrace political liberalism seem to simply leave the church entirely rather than changing their membership in a more liberal congregation—or at least that’s what the Pew data, which shows a sharp uptick in religious unaffiliated and an equally sharp decline in the Protestant mainline, suggests.
Rather, the shift we are seeing amongst evangelicals, and younger American Christians in general consists of two things:
- First, a sharper and more pronounced interest in the life of the local Christian community. If there is a thread that ties together the radical activism of a Shane Claiborne, the current thinking and writing being done by prominent leaders amongst the Southern Baptists, and the ongoing BenOp conversation, that is it. All of these various movements are in various ways attempts to better justify, protect, and understand the existence of local Christian communities. If you think of the theology of Stanley Hauerwas as being something of an estuary where neo-Anabaptists, southern Baptists, Orthodox and Catholic Christians, and even a growing number of reformed Christians meet, debate, and shape one another then you probably have the general idea.
- Second, and related to the first point, is a greater reluctance to link Christian faith to specific partisan political organizations. Whether it’s the hostility to all partisan politics you see in the neo-Anabaptist crowd or the hostility toward the GOP that you see more and more in denominations like the SBC and PCA, in both cases you’re seeing an increased aversion to linking individual congregations or denominations too closely with conventional political organizations and especially national political parties. Instead, we’re seeing the emergence of groups like the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (which has always existed but has attracted far more attention under the leadership of Russell Moore) as well as less prominent groups dedicated to promoting racial reconciliation, economic development, protecting religious liberty, and other political ends that are generally more local or narrowly defined than those interests of the two major parties. The key thing to note here is that no one I’ve described as drifting away from the GOP is drifting away from traditional theological orthodoxy.
What we’re seeing, in other words, is not a movement from Team Conservative to Team Liberal, but something far more fundamental and radical—the cultural reorganization of American evangelicalism (and orthodox Christianity more generally). For this reason, Democratic overtures to younger evangelicals will almost certainly fall on deaf ears, not because younger evangelicals are opposed to all facets of the Democratic platform (they aren’t) but because they have become more suspicious of close relationships with national political organizations.
The best case outcome is that young orthodox Christians in the United States would both reinvigorate the American church and adopt a more properly and explicitly Christian approach to politics that treats both the GOP and the Democratic parties as tools to be used when useful and necessary but also to be ignored or even fought when their agenda is at irreconcilable odds with our own. But that’s the best case.
The worst case, is not that these young Christians would simply become a Religious Left that in all ways but specific policy ideas is a mirror of their parents’ religious right. The failures of the religious right have sufficiently inoculated us to that disease. But our great temptation still likely resembles the temptation of our parents, though it is more cultural than political in nature. If there was a characteristic and besetting sin of boomer evangelicalism, it was the tendency to simply adopt the dominant cultural norms of their preferred class and attempt to co-opt those for the advancement of the Gospel.
Many baby boomers did that with attractional churches that were overwhelmingly suburban, middle-to-upper class, and white and, more importantly, traded a traditional Christian liturgy for a kind of liturgical performance from highly trained entertainers that implicitly shaped us in mostly disastrous ways. Our temptation, in contrast, will be to desperately grasp after the acceptance and approval of the sophisticated social elites on either coast. This will be, mostly, a fool’s errand because at some point a conflict will arise and, even if we have a record they otherwise approve of, that will not be enough. When that point comes, we’ll be forced to choose between the approval of the elites we have been desperately pursuing and a commitment to orthodoxy—and our behavior up to that point will leave us radically unprepared to make the necessary choice.
This temptation may cause us to look more left wing but the substance of it actually has very little to do with specific policy debates and far more to do with the typically craven disposition that has plagued evangelicalism in different ways for much of the post-war era. If evangelicals maintain their commitment to orthodoxy, which includes holding the line on sex ethics, and also, en masse, become supportive of certain left-wing policy proposals, such as the abolition of the death penalty, higher corporate taxes, or single-payer health care, that will not be reflective of a general leftward drift, but rather of something different and far more interesting. Even so, it will still do virtually nothing to stem the tide beating against orthodoxy in America.