Tag: evangelicalism

How Evangelicalism Changed And Why It Needs To Change Again

Evangelicalism has thrived in America because of its ability to adapt to its culture, according to Randall Balmer in his book, The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond.

Balmer, professor of American religious history at Columbia University and a contributing editor to Christianity Today, writes in this brief book published in 2010 by Baylor University Press, that five historic shifts have shaped evangelicalism uniquely as “America’s folk religion.”  These shifts are:

1.  The shift from state church to free church.  Balmer contends that the First Amendment, which guarantees that the government shall not establish or impede religious expression, set evangelicalism free from state influence to flourish or die on its own.  Unlike Europe where acts of toleration permitted dissenting groups to exist in the shadows of the state-sanctioned church, the First Amendment assured that American churches would be allowed to “compete” among themselves for the attention of the American public.  This freedom was not only a freedom to worship, but also a freedom to freelance the Christian faith by any person or group who chose to do so.  Balmer notes, The genius of evangelicalism throughout American history is its malleability and the uncanny knack of evangelical leaders to speak the idiom of the culture…”

It is this freedom to change that has enabled evangelicalism to flourish and adapt to the culture around it.  However, there are dangers associated with adapting to the culture, which Balmer addresses in the book.

2.  The shift from Calvinism to Arminianism.  Balmer illustrates this important theological shift by describing the differences in the First and Second Great Awakenings in America.  The First Awakening was dominated by a sense of helplessness expressed by Jonathan Edwards in his “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.  Revival and salvation were God’s work, and sinners were at the mercy of God as to their eternal destiny, according to Edwards.

But by the time of the Second Awakening, preachers like Charles G. Finney believed that revival was “man’s work.”  Finney published a manual telling how others could hold revival meetings and included details about location, songs, and even the mourners’ bench.  This shift from hyper-Calvinism (“God’s work) to hyper-Arminianism (“man’s choice”) changed the ways in which the gospel was presented, and changed the focus of evangelical life.

Balmer explains the recent renaissance of Calvinism among those who believe in a person’s ability to “decide for Christ” (an Arminian belief) as an attempt to reclaim the intellectual high ground despite the shifting history of evangelicalism’s theology.

3.  The shift from postmillennialism to premillennialism.  How could one’s view of the millennial reign of Christ, a rather esoteric theological doctrine, influence the practice of evangelicals in America?  Balmer points out that the evangelicalism of the nineteenth century grappled with some of the great social issues of its day.  Evangelicals were on the forefront of the battle to outlaw slavery, clean up the effects of alcohol, create public education opportunities for poor children, and secure the right for women to vote.  Great institutions were founded to care for the sick, educate the illiterate, feed the hungry, care for the homeless, and rehabilitate the fallen.

Balmer believes that this urgency to reform society and cure its ills came from the postmillennial idea that Christ would return after a 1,000-years of peace and righteousness.  However, with the twin horrors of the Civil War and then World War I, the hope of a 1,000-years’ of righteousness brought in by human effort faded from the evangelical imagination.  Evangelicals turned their attention to the salvation of “souls,” separating spiritual souls from the harsh reality in which those souls struggled.

J. N. Darby provided the theological impetus for this shift with his doctrine called premillennial dispensationalism.  Darby’s theology explained neatly the epochs of God’s dealing with mankind.  It also freed Christians from creating the millennial kingdom because believers would be taken out of the world until Christ came to establish that kingdom himself.  One of the results of premillennialism was a disregard for creation.  This issue is still with us today.  In 2008, Richard Cizik resigned under pressure from his position at the National Association of Evangelicals.  Although not the immediate reason for his resignation, Cizik had drawn criticism for advocating care for the environment as an evangelical issue.

4.  The shift from engagement to disengagement and back again.  Facing the twin pressures of attack on their beliefs from the scientific community via Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the academic community via higher criticism of biblical texts, evangelicals sought to define themselves by enumerating an indisputable list of “fundamentals” to which they subscribed.  This differentiation between evangelicals and “liberals” in both academia and science played out in the famous Scopes “monkey trial” in the small town of Dayton, Tennessee.

Fed up with being portrayed negatively after the Scopes’ trial, evangelicals began to withdraw from the wider culture, establishing their own schools, colleges, seminaries, and other institutions to counter the encroachment of “modernism” and “liberalism” on their families and churches.   But in 1947, Carl F. H. Henry published his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, and a group of evangelicals founded Fuller Theological Seminary.  Both events marked the re-engagement of evangelicals with American culture.  Billy Graham’s Christianity Today became the journalistic voice for an active and thoughtful evangelicalism.

5.  The shift from the marginalized to the powerful.  Re-engagement was to take a right turn after the election of Jimmy Carter as president in 1976.  Carter, initially the darling of conservatives, soon became their whipping boy.  With the IRS threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of the ultra-conservative Bob Jones’ University, the rise of the Religious Right began.  Denominations and churches which had begun their ministries to the lower classes and the marginalized of society, shifted to embrace the power of politics and the prestige that went with it.  Balmer sees this shift as the “capitulation” of evangelicalism.  But he believes that the Religious Right was dealt a “mortal” blow with the election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Balmer may or may not be correct about that, but what he does hope for, in his own words, is…

“…an evangelicalism for the twenty-first century that takes seriously the words of the Hebrew prophets who called for justice, an evangelicalism that honors the teachings and the example of Jesus, who asked his followers to act as peacemakers and to care for “the least of these.”  Such an evangelicalism, I am confident, would look rather different from that of recent years.”

Perhaps evangelicalism will remember its 19th century accomplishments of setting at liberty those who were captive, of healing those who were sick, of visiting those who were in prison, and of caring for those who were in despair.  If we as evangelicals are adaptable as Balmer contends, then perhaps we can adapt again to the crises around us, and again share the love of Christ with those at the margins of society.

A Must-read Conversation With Rick Warren

You need to read The Future of Evangelicalism:  A Conversation With Rick Warren over at The Pew Forum.  It’s long, and covers a lot of territory, but in it Rick talks about how megachurches do the small church thing (my words, not his).  Here’s a quick excerpt:

WARREN: For example, our church, while we have the big services on Sunday, we meet in homes during the week in small groups of six to eight people. We have over 4,500 small groups. They meet in every city in Southern California.

CROMARTIE: How many again?

WARREN: Four-thousand-five-hundred. They meet in every city in Southern California from Santa Monica to Carlsbad. It’s a hundred miles distance in our small groups. So on Sunday morning they’re coming to Saddleback or they’re going to Saddleback San Clemente or Saddleback Irvine or Saddleback Corona, but during the week they’re in small groups.

And it is in that small group – when you get sick, you’re visited in the hospital. When you’re out of work, the people help you out. There is a real tight-knit community. There is a longing for belonging in our community, and large churches have figured out it’s not the crowd that attracts; it’s the stuff under the surface that attracts.”

Bingo!  I love that line….“it’s not the crowd that attracts; its the stuff under the surface that attracts.” Of course, Rick points out that the largest churches in the world are not in the US, but in Asia, Africa, and South America.  Read the entire interview.  It’s good stuff about issues of interest to us all, no matter what size church you serve.

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Part 3

jeff_sharlet3Jeff Sharlet, contributing editor of Rolling Stone, is author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism At The Heart of American Power.  His book about the group best-known for sponsoring the National Prayer Breakfast has gained renewed interest since its hardback publication in 2008.

With two of its members confessing to marital infidelity — Senator John Ensign and Governor Mark Sanford — interest in the Family and its multiple mansions in Washington, D. C. and abroad is at a new height.  Most recently, Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee, commenting on the scandal of his Family housemate John Ensign, refused to discuss his housemates or their living arrangements in the Family’s house on C Street in D. C..

This is the 3rd and final installment in my 3-part interview with Sharlet.  Part 1 and Part 2 round out the interview.

Chuck Warnock:  A) Do you believe the influence of the Family is increasing or decreasing?  B) How do you view President Obama’s remarks at the 2009 National Prayer Breakfast where he mentions the history of the national prayer breakfast beginning in Seattle?  C) Do you know if your book has had any influence on how the Obama administration relates to Doug Coe, or any of the other organizations or leaders of the religious right?

Jeff Sharlet:  A) I don’t know; B) with dismay; politics and opinions aside, that was just shoddy history; C) I don’t know about the Obama administration, but at least one religious right organization bought bulk copies of the book for distribution to its supporters with the caveat that while I’m not a Christian, they think the story I tell is an important one. This group happens to have a lot of first-hand experience with the Family, so they’re in a good position to know.

CW:  Finally, many of the evangelical leaders you mention are now either dead, or moving off the public stage due to age.  What is your opinion of how a younger generation views the blending of religious devotion and political power that you write about in The Family?  Will the Family survive another 75 years, or is it a vestige a fading era?

JS:  That’s the question of the new millennium, isn’t it? The Family may, indeed, be fading — I don’t think they have anyone of Coe’s charisma or leadership talent to succeed him. The current day-to-day leaders, Dick Foth and Richard Carver, are uninspiring. David Coe, Doug’s son, is, in the words of one Family insider, kind of like the Joaquin Phoenix character in Gladiator. But I think the ideas of the Family will prosper. Indeed, I think they’re well-suited to the moment — ostensibly bi-partisan, diplomatic in tone if not in substance, relentlessly amiable, even in the cause of murderous regimes. Reminds me of Rick Warren — not a Family man, but heir to a certain style of politicized religion, much more the descendent of Abraham Vereide, Family founder, than of Jerry Falwell. I’m heartened by the expanded vision of a lot of young Christian conservatives, thinking more seriously about global poverty than had previous generations; but I’m disheartened by their responses, naive at best and dangerous at worst, as in their support for authoritarian governments in Rwanda and Uganda.

Beyond that, I can’t say. You’re a pastor — you tell me.

_____________________

Read my review of The Family at Amicus Dei.  A YouTube video of NBC’s reporting on the Family features footage of Doug Coe, then leader of the Family, referring to Hitler and Mao as role models of leadership and commitment.  It is very disturbing.

Note: I purchased my copy of The Family and received no inducement to read and review the book, or to interview Jeff Sharlet.  I believe Sharlet makes a compelling case for more transparency in religious life, especially as it intersects the public square.  Whether you agree or disagree with Sharlet, he has produced a comprehensive book on a previously almost-secret organization that bears reading as a cautionary tale about the seduction of power.

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: Part 2

imagesThis is Part 2 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. This week, The Family is  #5  in Amazon.com’s sales rankings.  If you’d like to catch up, Part 1 of the interview is here.  My review of The Family is at my blog, Amicus Dei.

The Family tells the story of a secretive quasi-evangelical organization, founded in the late 1930s, which has insinuated itself into the halls of power in Washington and other countries around the world.  In the U. S., the Family is the behind-the-scenes sponsor of the National Prayer Breakfast each February in Washington, D. C..

The Family organization operates several residences, one of them “the house at C Street,” where several United States senators and congressmen live when in Washington, D. C..  Two Family members have recently been in the news for marital infidelity — Senator John Ensign of Arizona, and Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Sharlet says The Family “is a story about two great spheres of belief, religion and politics, and the ways in which they are bound together by the mythologies of America.” — The Family, p.2

Interview with Jeff Sharlet, part 2:

CW:  You report that Doug Coe and others in the Family make repeated references to Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and other totalitarian leaders as examples of the kind of effective leadership the Family aspires to.  Did this strike you as odd, and how do you account for the use of these ruthless dictators as role models for the Family?

JS:  Um, yes. And I said as much when I was spending time with them, then again during interviews with Family associates such as Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Frank Wolf, and former Bush White House special aide Doug Kuo. Kuo, whom I like a great deal, insists that Coe uses these killers simply as metaphors. To which the only response I can think of is, You can’t think of a better metaphor for Jesus than Hitler? I make clear in the book that Coe is not a neo-Nazi. Indeed, he cites fascists and communists and even Osama bin Laden. It’s not their ideology he admires, it’s their methods. The Family fetishizes strength. Or, as Coe put it in an interview with my colleague Tor Gjerstadt of the Norwegian Dagbladet (a large daily there), power.

CW:  Your book, The Family, weaves a tale of religious intrigue based on political power that sounds like the latest, far-fetched conspiracy theory.  How do you answer the critics who say that you see conspiracies where none exist?

JS:  First, by pointing out that I don’t see conspiracies. I don’t think the Family is a conspiracy. I’m not sure how I could have made my view any clearer than this, on page 7 of my introduction: “This so-called underground [their word, not mine] is not a conspiracy.”If that’s too vague, there’s always this, later in the book, referring to founder Abram Vereide: “Abram’s upper-crust faith was not a conspiracy.” And this, in response to current leader Doug Coe’s documented decision to “submerge” — his word, not mine — the profile of the organization: “The decision was not so much conspiratorial, as it seemed to those among Abram’s old-timers who responded with confusion, as ascetic, a humbling of powers.”

Is The Family secretive? Yes, by its own declaration. Does that make it a conspiracy? Not in any court of law I know. Rather, as I argue in the book, the Family represents a strand of religious activism that has clearly been influential among some of America’s most powerful Christians and yet which to date has never been subject to any kind of in-depth study. That’s a more modest claim than the critics’  tin-foil caricature, yes, but one that I think would withstand scrutiny if they bothered to review my book rather than their own assumptions about my political views.

CW:  What, in your opinion, are the most objectionable beliefs or practices of the Family?  On what do you base your evaluation of these beliefs and practices?  In other words, what is your particular background or experience that qualifies you to write a book like The Family?

JS:  Beliefs are a matter of conscience; but practices, especially those of the powerful, can be a matter of public concern. The Family has facilitated support for dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, Siad Barre, General Park, and even a Central American death squad leader convicted of torture in the U.S. This, to me, is objectionable, as it is to many Family members who learn about it. I’m inspired by the example, for instance, of the Rev. Ben Daniel, deeply involved as a young man. But he quit when he learned that the Family leaders he’d looked up to were using their access to the powerful to represent the interests of the most murderous elements from countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador. Or there’s Cliff Gosney, a longtime participant, a deeply Christian man, who quit when he realized that the Family was using him and the foreign leader for whom he was the Family’s point man, South Africa’s Mangosuthu Buthelezi, for political gain rather than spiritual development. I’m concerned, too, by the practice of secrecy. “The more invisible you can make your organization,” Doug Coe has preached, “the more influence it will have.” He cites the mafia as a good example, and Family members like to refer to their movement as the “Christian mafia.” That’s just not a good model in a democracy like ours. I have the highest respect for citizens of all beliefs who make their arguments openly in the public square, fundamentalists included. I’ve been heartened by the support the book has received from self-professed fundamentalists who are as bothered by these anti-democratic practices as I am. We may not agree on much, these fundamentalists and me, but we agree that democracy depends on us engaging in our arguments in good faith, with plenty of sunlight.

As for my background, I’m not sure what you mean. You want my professional credentials? Or are you asking me for my religious beliefs? If it’s the former, I think they qualify me: I’ve been a working journalist for sixteen years, have written for a large number of mainstream national publications, have focused on religion for about 14 years, have taught graduate level religious studies at New York University and lectured at colleges, universities, and churches around the country, have been positively reviewed by both conservative and liberal critics, have won prizes and been a finalist for prizes, etc., etc. I’m proud of the fact that Ann Coulter wrote that I’m one of the stupidest journalists in America, and even prouder of the fact that she did so based on her own clumsy misreading of scripture.

But if it’s the latter — my beliefs — my first answer is, What does it matter? The facts are the facts. And then my second answer is contained within the last pages of the book, in which I write openly of my own beliefs, particularly my commitment to the Book of Exodus as inspiration for thinking about the role of faith in public life. I’m not a Christian, though half my family is. But I’ve written for Christian publications and published many Christian writers. I’ve been engaged in that conversation for a long time. I think it’s one of the most important conversations in America.

All of the above is a long-winded way of saying I’m a citizen.

__________

Part 3 of my interview with Jeff Sharlet will appear on Thursday, July 16.  In Part 3, Sharlet comments on the continuing influence of the Family, and his thoughts on the future of the Family and evangelicalism.