Why American evangelicalism is a contradiction in terms
By Richard Kyle
American evangelicalism is a large, dynamic and growing movement. By most tangible and worldly standards it is successful. Still, it is a complex religious movement with significant problems, especially as it relates to American culture and Anabaptism. So it is fair to describe American evangelicalism as a paradoxical movement.
Evangelicalism is a large, diverse movement that is very difficult to pinpoint. But at the onset, it must be said that evangelicalism is a type of Christianity, not the only kind of Christianity. God has many faithful followers in the mainline Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Far too often, when some evangelicals say a particular person is a Christian, they mean he or she is an evangelical.
Evangelicalism can be defined both theologically and sociologically. The theological core of contemporary evangelicalism can be identified by its adherence to the belief in the authority of Scripture; the belief in the divinity of Christ; the belief in the efficacy of Christ’s life—his death and physical resurrection for the salvation of the human soul.
Behaviorally, American evangelicals can usually be characterized by an individual and experiential orientation toward spiritual salvation and religion in general. The Christian faith is experiential. Individuals must be born again. They must have a personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior from sin and a commitment to him as Lord. Following such a conversion, an evangelical, in one way or another, usually seeks the conversion of sinners to Christ.
Who are evangelicals?
Contemporary American evangelicalism is highly diverse, drawing elements from several theological traditions. Evangelicalism is a movement in the sense that it cuts across specific denominations and embraces all people who have had the “born again” experience. Evangelicals can be found among Presbyterians, Methodists, black churches, Nazarenes, Baptists, Episcopalians, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Lutherans, fundamentalists, holiness bodies, dispensationalists, various Reformed groups and charismatic bodies.
While evangelicals come from no one social class, overall they are most widely represented among the moderately educated lower and middle income groups. In respect to their relationship to society at large, there is also diversity, ranging from extreme separatism to considerable involvement. The recent trend, though, is toward an accommodation with society.
What is the relationship between evangelicalism and fundamentalism? Are they the same? Both are expressions of orthodox Christianity and both emphasize the “born again” experience. So it is easy to lump the two together.
Fundamentalism is the right wing of the evangelical movement. It tends to embrace a militant opposition to modern values, separation from the world and a literal interpretation of an inerrant Bible. Being a subgroup within evangelicalism, all Christian fundamentalists are evangelicals but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. Evangelicalism has its moderate and left wings.
For much of the 20th century, mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism dominated the American religious landscape. Today, in the early 21st century, the story is different. Mainline Protestantism is declining and can hardly be described as mainline anymore. Catholicism faces many staggering problems, including an acute shortage of priests plus charges of sexual abuse by the clergy. Thus, evangelicalism, as diverse as it is, can be regarded as a “third force” that is on its way to becoming the prevailing form of religion in America.
As Alister McGrath projects, “There is every indication that (evangelicalism) will soon become—if it is not already—the dominant form of Protestantism in North America.” He points out that of the currently growing churches in the United States, 89 percent were found to be evangelical.
By the early 21st century, evangelicalism has much to brag about. Evangelicals now wield considerable political, economic and cultural influence. Their numbers are significant and growing. Evangelical churches are the largest and most dynamic in the nation. They have established numerous parachurch organizations, some with budgets greater than many denominations. Hundreds of colleges with an evangelical orientation dot the American landscape.
These churches and institutions have won people to Christ and have shaped many lives. Most foreign missions have been established by evangelicals. In general, evangelicals have succeeded in being culturally relevant and achieving considerable numerical success while maintaining the timeless essentials of the old-time gospel.
Moreover, while evangelicals do not generally want the government promoting social welfare, on the private level they run organizations that have helped the poor and needy. Furthermore, evangelicals have moved to the highest levels of American society, including the corridors of economic and political power. And they are no longer considered ill-educated, having respected scholars.
The price for success
Evangelicalism’s success has come at a price—it has confused American culture with the Christian faith. And in doing so, it has accommodated the faith to cultural trends, perhaps more than any other religious body in America. Evangelicals have attempted to create a Christian America. Instead, they have developed an Americanized Christianity, and they cannot tell the difference between the two.
Evangelicalism faces a problem that confronts all religions: how to be relevant to the surrounding culture without being absorbed by it. In a free religious market, most religious groups desire to grow. The key to growth is to connect with the surrounding culture and to offer people what they want.
Evangelicals, however, have stepped over the line. On the whole, they still proclaim the old-time faith, but in order to spread the good news, evangelicals have indeed “become all things to all people.” Consequently, evangelicals have baptized aspects of secular culture.
Many evangelicals contend that America’s political and economic systems are divinely inspired. In theory they reject big government but readily accept it when it enforces their moral views. Evangelicals are among the most patriotic of Americans, advocating a strong military and a go-it-alone foreign policy. They are also staunch supporters of the market economy, viewing any kind of government involvement as akin to socialism.
Evangelicals have even Americanized salvation. To be sure, salvation entails a personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ. The new birth is not gradual. While an individual may not know when it occurs, the new birth begins at a moment in time.
But many evangelicals believe that they must be able to identify when they invited Jesus into their heart or responded to an invitation. Moreover, some evangelicals make a shallow commitment to Christ. They accept him as Savior while largely ignoring his lordship over their lives. By focusing on the one-time experience and cheap grace, many evangelicals have in effect “McDonaldized” salvation. They like their salvation like their fast food—quick and cheap.
In part, evangelicalism’s problems have arisen because the movement is unabashedly populist. Evangelicals have championed the spiritual superiority of the common person against the elite or learned clergy. In doing so, they have reduced serious religious thinking to its lowest common denominator. Evangelicalism’s obsession with numbers since the mid-20th century has caused the movement to pander unashamedly to the popular tastes of American culture.
Thoughtful worship has degenerated into showmanship, often with a circus atmosphere. Evangelicals view America as God’s chosen nation and feel that they (and the nation, too) have a corner on divine truth and righteousness. They have sanctified large segments of American culture, especially its consumerism and middle-class values.
Worse yet, evangelicals do not gather around doctrines or church organizations but tend to follow charismatic leaders. American evangelicals have indeed embraced the cult of personality.
What about us Mennonite Brethren?
How do we Mennonite Brethren relate to this large dynamic movement? For much of our history, the Mennonite Brethren have been ambivalent in our attitudes toward mainstream evangelicalism, ranging from a strong sense of kinship to one of near contempt. On one hand, many of us have bought into generic evangelicalism. On the other hand, Anabaptism is an essential aspect of the Mennonite Brethren heritage, and many of its principles run counter to popular evangelicalism.
Given any standard definition of evangelicalism, we Mennonite Brethren must be regarded as evangelicals. Theologically, we are orthodox and embrace the historic Christian faith. We embrace the core theological beliefs of evangelicalism, as already noted.
In our spiritual life, Mennonite Brethren resemble the average American evangelical. The “born again” experience is alive and well in Mennonite Brethren circles. A high percent claim to engage in daily private prayer and attend church on a regular basis. Moreover, Mennonite Brethren strongly support evangelistic efforts including foreign missions.
As we U.S. Mennonite Brethren are becoming assimilated into popular evangelicalism and American culture, we are seeing a breakdown of Anabaptist characteristics. The traditional emphasis on discipleship, social justice and the lordship of Christ is receding. In fact, only about half of the U.S. Mennonite Brethren currently uphold our historic peace position. Many of us have bought into values so prevalent in popular evangelicalism: mindless populism, subjectivity, personal feelings, self-improvement, pragmatism, materialism and rampant individualism.
This erosion of Anabaptist qualities has resulted in two extremes. A small number of us Mennonite Brethren with strong Anabaptist leanings have distanced ourselves from American evangelicalism, even denying that we have a place in the movement. A larger group of us have uncritically bought into popular evangelical trends. Some have even embraced the excesses of fundamentalism—nationalism, militarism, sexism, anti-intellectualism, an excessively literal interpretation of Scripture and viewing the world in black and white terms.
Both positions are incorrect. Mennonite Brethren are evangelicals, by nearly any definition. We are part of the kaleidoscope that makes up American evangelicalism. But Mennonite Brethren are not generic evangelicals. We occupy a specific place on the evangelical spectrum, being evangelical Anabaptists.
As such, we need to assert the historic Anabaptist attributes—namely, the lordship of Christ, discipleship, social justice, the believers’ church, peace, separation of church and state and community as an alternative to rampant individualism. Instead of distancing ourselves from American evangelicalism, we Mennonite Brethren can make a healthy contribution to the movement and serve as a corrective to its less desirable traits.
Richard Kyle is professor of history and religion at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college in Hillsboro, Kan. He has written nine books, including Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity, published in 2006. Kyle has received numerous awards and has twice been selected as a Fulbright Scholar. His love for travel and interest in seeing college students grow has led him to take more than 580 students on 25 international study trips.
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