Modern Pensées

Reconsidering theology, philosophy, culture, economics, and politics

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 3b

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evangelicals ought to take a good hard look in the mirror

evangelicals ought to take a good hard look in the mirror

One of the aims of this little blog series is to help other evangelicals understand that many of the things that frustrate us about America, we not only did nothing to stop but are actually culpable in creating.   There are too many ironic consequences of the Second Great Awakening to warrant only a single post.  We need to take a hard look in the mirror and like the Escher drawing, things aren’t necessary as we thought they would appear…

Consider these quotes:

Americans of the early Republic experienced an epistemological crisis as severe as any in their history… Truth itself seemed to be shattered, and everything was left to the individual-the voter, the buyer, the religious believer-to make decisions strictly on his own.    Gordon S. Wood in Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 275.

Instead of critically challenging the emerging culture of modernity, populist evangelicals were reshaping Christianity to fit the categories of modern experience.  Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 285.

An Arminian message and a free-church ecclesiology fit with their experience as independent, autonomous actors in a democratic polity and an expanding capitalist economy.  Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 285.

“The Puritan ideal of the minister as an intellectual and educational leader was steadily weakened in the face of the evangelical ideal of the minister as a popular crusader and exhorter”… Theological education began to focus more on practical techniques and less on intellectual training.    Nancy Pearcey and Richard Hofstatder in Total Truth, p. 286.

The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism… the leaders of the populist evangelical movement made an end run around denominational structures and built movements based on sheer personality-on their ability to move people and win their confidence… “the ‘star’ system prevailed in religion before it reached the theater…”  Today we rail against the celebrity system within Christianity, thinking it was imported from Hollywood culture… but when we look back historically, we find that the star system began in Christian circles.    Nancy Pearcey and Richard Hofstatder in Total Truth, p. 287; 292.

One of the dangers of personality cults is that they lead easily to demagoguery.  The revivalists were often strong-willed leader who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced…  John Nevin, argued that the revivalists’ “high-sounding phrases” of liberty and free inquiry were merely masks for a new form of domination.  Though they called loudly for “liberty,” he said, most evangelical groups pressed every member into “thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles…” “so many wires that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.  Thus, ironically, the magnetic leaders who encouraged people to break away from traditional theological structures often ended up becoming authoritarian leaders within their own groups, sometimes verging on demagoguery…  Most of all, perhaps, evangelicalism still produces a celebrity model of leadership-men who are entrepreneurial and pragmatic, who deliberately manipulate their listeners emotions, who subtly enhance their own image through self-serving personal anecdotes, whose leadership style within their own congregation or parachurch ministry tends to be imperious and domineering, who calculates success in terms of results, and who are willing to employ the latest secular techniques to boost numbers.    Nancy Pearcey in Total Truth, p. 289; 290; 292.

Alexander de Tocqueville wrote concerning America:

Meet a politician where you expected to find a priest.   p. 306-307.  (Reminds me of much of the Christian Right)

David Wells on post-revolutionary Americans:

The person for whom democracy is not simply a political system but an entire worldview and for whom, therefore, culture and truth belong to the people… in America, the love of freedom, from which individualism arises, is as fierce as the love of equality, from which conformity arises.    David Wells in No Place for Truth, p. 189-190.

Calvinistic orthodoxy, which looked to be unhappily anchored in the older world of hierarchy and privilege and hence appeared to be decidedly undemocratic, was put to flight before Arminianism.  The church-centered faith that had been favored before the Revolution retreated before itinerant revivalism, reasoned faith retreated before exuberant testimony, and theological confession retreated before axioms of experience.    David Wells in No Place for Truth, p. 206.

Nancy Pearcey hits the nail on the head when she says:

Evangelicalism did not provide a critical stance from which to evaluate the new developments in politics and economics, but was itself in many ways a powerful force of modernization. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 286.

For the most part, evangelicals in America have not considered their heritage and the things they have cause willingly and inadvertently:

-Celebrity culture – culpable

-Enlightenment Project – culpable

-Modernism – culpable

-Democritization of knowledge – culpable  (implicit in this is also culpability in post-modernism)

We shall look next time at the split of Protestantism…


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  1. […] We looked at its historical roots in the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and its ties to celebrity culture, democritization of knowledge, and modernism.  Then we looked at the roots of liberalism, the Protestant split and suburbanization, and defined […]

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