Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 5
Protestantism split in two, and the Fundamentalist branched morphed into evangelicalism in the mid-to-late 20th century. Broadly speaking, evangelicalism has always been a mixture of two sub-groups: populist and reformed.
The populist group is comprised mainly of the groups who were largely supportive of the revivalist practices of the Great Awakenings. The populist evangelicals would include broadly speaking most Baptists, Dispensationalists (large overlap with Baptists), and other difficult to categorize groups like Focus on the Family, Liberty University, DL Moody (the person and the institution), Billy Graham, the Christian Right and Campus Crusade for Christ and other Parachurch ministries.
The Reformed group was much smaller, comprised mainly of conservative Presbyterian denominations and a handful of Particular/Reformed Baptists. The Reformed group was rather quiet during this period. The Presbyterians were by-and-large dealing with internal conflicts resulting from some sub-groups going liberal (see this chart to look at the history).
The evangelical populist group had more of an outward impact, but not necessarily for the better. The populist group abandoned cultural transformation in academia, the arts, media, and other realms, yet embraced involvement in the political arena. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, Robert Grant’s founded Christian voice, Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition, and James Dobson threw his weight around with Focus on the Family. The net result was the broad formation of the Christian Right. At first glance, it seems strange that the evangelical populists would elect to disengage from all but one cultural arena. However, the premises behind the strategy are simple:
1. America has always been a Christian nation with a manifest destiny
2. Influence flows from top down
3. Politics is at the top of American culture and exerts the most power over the culture
4. America has a clear cultural center and that center is politics
5. Politics is the horse that pulls the cart of American culture
6. Because politics is influential and drives culture, and politics lies at the center of American culture… Politics is the best investment for cultural engagement for evangelical influence.
There are other reasons also for this engagement, for example, Dispensationalisms’ influence strongly encourages Zionism, which inherently involves political engagement. The problem with the evangelical populist’s game plan is that most (or some would argue, all) of its premises are incorrect. In my estimation, influence is always a both/and combination of power exerted top-down and individuals working grassroots bottom-up. In my estimation, America has no coherent cultural center, instead rather hundreds of overlapping sub-cultures of varying sizes and influences. In my estimation, politics follows the culture, not vice versa. The evangelical populist political gameplan was steeped in modernistic assumptions about culture combined with a Nietzschean view of power. Further, I am not sure who has been exerting influence over who, the Christian Right or the GOP?
Up next, a look at the last two decades and the resurgence of the Reformed group within evangelicalism…