Religion Today

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is American Protestantism undergoing an Evangelical Transformation?

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation created new ways of being Christian. From it arose the Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Puritans, Quakers, and, later, Methodists and Baptists.
The area that would become the United States was settled by Protestants and remained almost exclusively under their sway until the 20th century when Catholic influence began increasing. Even as religious variety increased through the last century, the United States remained predominantly Protestant.
But Protestant Christianity is not monolithic and unchanging. It has undergone an "Evangelical Transformation" in recent decades. This new American Christianity is largely non-denominational, even anti-denominational, in both its institutions and its theology. It is entrepreneurial, rewarding individual energy, but it also shares key theological principles across the many evangelical organizations.
The Evangelical Transformation began in independent churches and small leagues of associated churches. In recent decades, many of these independent churches have grown to become large mega-churches. The leaders of some of them have risen to national prominence, such as T.D. Jakes and Rick Warren. These have developed almost exclusively outside the mainline denominations mentioned above, with the sole exception of the Baptists.
Alongside this movement have arisen religious organizations that are not churches, but to which members of these churches belong. These include Christian groups on college campuses, such as Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. They encompass men's groups such as Promise Keepers and women's groups, like RUTH. More formal institutions, such as Bible colleges and independent evangelical universities like Oral Roberts and Liberty, belong to the evangelical sphere.
We should not forget the radio, television and other non-denominational media ministries that have or have had a following. The most popular include Focus on the Family and the Christian Broadcasting Network, as well as Harold Camping's None are run by denominations.
The members of this increasing plethora of evangelical organizations share a common theology that consists of a few straightforward principles. While they may disagree over details, they are generally united in their primary beliefs. Some of the key ideas that distinguish them from the mainline denominations are:
First, true Christians are "born again." Each Christian has had a spiritual transformation in which they have recognized Jesus as their personal savior who has rescued them from their sinful life.
Second, they believe in the "literal" truth of the Bible. This means both that the Bible contains no errors of fact and that it should be understood literally. That is, evangelicals hold to what they consider to be the plain meaning of Scripture without any "interpretation" or resorting to metaphorical, symbolic or even historical explanations. Even though the theology of literalism denies biblical interpretation takes place, literalism actually constitutes an extensive set of rules about understanding the Bible which most evangelicals share.
Third, another common element is the belief that the Kingdom of God will arrive at the apocalyptic end of time. They believe that humanity is growing ever more evil and that the Kingdom will appear when humans are most depraved, probably quite soon. Most mainline denominations, by contrast, officially hold that God is gradually improving humanity as part of His salvific plan.
Of course, these three theological principles show up in mainline Protestant denominations, but Evangelicalism gives them a particular impetus. Biblical literalism enables evangelicals to accuse mainline churches of placing their distinctive theologies ahead of the Bible. In these denominations, they charge, the Bible no longer constitutes the sole source of authority. Instead, they are built on human ideas which the denomination cloaks as divine.
This has come to a head most clearly where science conflicts with a literal interpretation of the Bible. Evangelicals disagree with major conclusions of astronomy, geology and biology, especially human biology. Mainline denominations have often made theological innovations, by comparison, that enable them to accept the truths of science as well as Scripture.
Do these changes brought about by evangelicalism loom large enough to deserve a label such as "transformation?" Certainly. In the last 30 years, the mainline churches have lost their standing as the largest Christian movement in the United States to be replaced by the Evangelical movement. In the 1980s, the mainline churches were fully a third of the American populace, while the Evangelicals made up just 16 percent. By 2008, the Evangelicals had grown to 28 percent, while the mainline churches had fallen to 18 percent. Clearly, the Evangelical Transformation is already underway.
Note: The statistics used above come from the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey compiled in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.


  • When I was in my 20's and my dad was in his 40's he was so sure that the rapture was going to happen any day now that he told me I would never live to be as old as he was at the time. Now I'm 64 and he is dead. One more prophecy/prophet down the tubes.

    Actually, I'm glad they don't live their literal view of the bible; I would have been sold into marriage at 14 to Walt Attamanuck. Horrible thought!

    By Anonymous Jo Aelfwine, at 7/28/2011  

  • So I read your column in the CST today - and was pleasantly surprised to see some coverage of religion.

    A couple of points and some questions for you.

    First, I'm surprised by your comments about "Protestant" settlement on the eastern seaboard of what is now the US. Many early settlements were plainly commercial in nature, and specifically religious settlements came later. These included Catholics from England. Recall, too, that Santa Fe - the oldest capital city in the United States - was the center of a region that included no fewer than 25,000 Catholics of European descent by the time the US declared independence from Britain. By 1776, when the Spanish sailed into San Francisco Bay, Dominican missions had dotted the West coast from San Diego to Sonoma.

    There was/is more religious diversity in the early history of this country than your column might suggest. You describe the country as "predominantly" Protestant, but I'm wondering what you mean by that. Are you talking about politics? Social institutions?

    I'm curious to know what impact or importance you ascribe to the growing bifurcation among US Protestants .There have been multiple points in US history when religion has taken a turn toward non-traditional denominations. The revivals of the 1830s in upstate New York gave us a whole slew of religions and religious movements that profoundly changed the course of the country.

    Do you see something similar happening here?

    If not, why should this transformation of American Protestantism hold the attention of non-believers (and I'm presuming you are directing your thoughts at us, as you chose a secular newspaper.).

    Thanks again for the article.

    By Blogger Patrick, at 8/01/2011  

  • Dear Patrick,

    You are certainly correct about the importance of Catholics in the American Southwest and on the western seaboard in the early (earliest?) settlement of the area that is now the USA. However, that area did not connect with the eastern seaboard that defined this country's religious and intellectual attitudes until much later. And it was not until the Irish Catholic population increased enough in the late C19 that Catholicism began to have a significant impact on this country's social institutions and governance.

    The question is not whether Catholics were in North American early or that they had large populations in the southwest, but to what extent did they participate in, guide and shape the religious, intellectual and cultural fervor that guided the early formation of the USA. Indeed, the First Amendment (about the freedom of religion) was probably written with Protestants in mind, not Catholics, and certainly not the variety of other religions in our country today. Of course there were representatives of many religious groups early in American history, but they did not contribute extensively to the country's intellectual or cultural character.

    And I am certainly not saying that everyone was religious, the Pilgrims were not even the majority of the people on the ship that brought them here, or the most successful in their early years.


    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 8/01/2011  

  • Dear Patrick,
    With regard to your last question.

    My point is not only that there is a bi-furcation but that the Evangelical side of the split seems to have gained the upper hand. It is using a capitalist/ entrepreneurial approach that is transforming the character of Protestantism. That transformation privileges charismatic individuals over denominational approval. Those individual are appealing to direct interpretation of Scripture as their authority (a la Mr. Camping) and eschewing generations of debate and study within denominations over correct Bible interpretation.

    You point to the burned-over district in Upstate New York as a comparison. It may be that a more appropriate comparison is the Reformation itself.

    Why should we all care? For starters, how about the fact that the Evangelicals have a dominating influence on one of our political parties?

    Hope that helps,

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 8/01/2011  

  • Thanks for your response Paul. I appreciate the thought you put into discussing how religion impacts our contemporary world.

    I think you may be underestimating the impact of catholicism in the East in two ways. First, many Catholics emigrated from England - and many were landholders at the time of the country's independence (e.g., Maryland). While numerically inferior to protestants, they were among the governing class during independence and in the early federation.

    Second, at the time of the first commercial colonies (which preceded any religious immigration by at least a generation), Queen Elizabeth's intent was to found a permanent base for anti-Spanish privateers. Spain was on the brink of invading England and was organizing plots that would eventually send Mary Queen of Scots to her death and Raleigh to exile in Ireland. England's defense included sending insurgent protestant groups to live in Spanish-ruled Holland. These groups would later come to the US as "pilgrims."

    That is, a Protestant versus Catholic conflict was central to the British crown's politics, including the foundation of American colonies. While the Protestant versus Catholic political conflict diminished considerably in Britain in the late 17th century, the colonies inherited the anti-catholic zealots that England had encouraged a few generations prior. They were no longer needed in Holland, and they were certainly unwelcome in England.

    In that light, the First Amendment is a rejection of the colonial politics of religion, including the religious politics of the very "pilgrims" who have entered national myth as archetypal Americans. At the time, such religious zealots were perceived as bearers of an outdated and dysfunctional political orientation, one that no longer made sense in the metropole and only served to hinder the organization of the newly formed American nation.

    Independence, and the insistence upon freedom of worship effectively marked US protestants as fundamentally distinct from their British and European peers. While the US has had its share of anti-catholic sentiment over the centuries, it in no way compares to the protestant vs. catholic tensions that persist to this day in the UK, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France or Switzerland.

    The term "protestant" isn't the same on both sides of the Atlantic, or between the 16th and 18th centuries.

    In this light, couldn't we see the notable rise in political influence of ultra-right wing evangelicals as being a revival of colonial protestantism? There may be as much continuity as discontinuity.

    Would it be out of bounds to compare evangelical mega churches - or politicized evangelical protestantism more generally - to medieval catholic cults of the virgin Mary? Both seem to rise up in moments of profound political and social change, and die down as new orders emerge. Both are anti-establishment by nature and privilege personal experiences of faith over institutional continuity or authority.

    Thanks for maintaining the blog and providing a space to think about these things. I think you're right to take the religious influence of the tea party as an opportunity to think about the relationships between our system of governance and our collective experience of faith.

    By Blogger Patrick, at 8/03/2011  

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