I still believe the best days for Evangelicalism are ahead, not behind. But I say this well aware that Evangelicalism in the United States is experiencing a multi-faceted crisis of identity. We cannot reduce God to a movement, but our attempts to do just that are being exposed in the current crisis. So let’s be clear about the crisis, even as we figure out how to hope. Let’s not hope in Evangelicalism, but for a better future where evangelical Christianity has renewed integrity and prophetic witness.
Hope can only exist with its hand firmly on the truth. So let’s consider the truth of this crisis from inside and outside.
The US evangelical crisis is internal. The largest US Protestant evangelical denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is currently facing a massive crisis of polity between its executive leadership and democratically elected messengers. The cause of this crisis? Its purported mishandling of sexual abuse allegations. This inner rot of evangelical culture is significant, and points to agreements with capital, business, consumerism, and materialism. The rot has manifested not only in issues of abuse, but also in race and gender. This rot is only matched in its danger to the movement by the conforming pressure of its outer agreements with political power.
Evangelical political alliances have worked on Evangelicalism for generations. After one Trump presidency, the label signals more of a political meaning, not an ecclesiastical one. A recent PEW research study found that more white Americans adopted the “evangelical” label than dropped it during the Trump presidency. Without diving into the varying ways historians define the label, this — at the very least — points to an increasing political association with the term. The question is not whether or not these new “evangelicals” are born again in a theological sense. What matters is that “evangelical” now signals a political new birth.
A truly evangelical expression of Christianity in today’s America would, I believe, do more to disrupt the status quo in the United States than reinforce it.
So with the facts in hand, why hope? With sex abuse scandals, denominational corruption, and political hijacking of the evangelical label, what could possibly gained by continuing to align with the evangelical movement?
What is commonly referred to as “Evangelicalism” in the United States is decidedly not very evangelical. Even still, US evangelicals have been complicit in both forming and being conformed by an American culture with prevailing notions of white supremacy, American exceptionalism, and individualism. This reduction and amalgamation has worked its full affect for generations.
Now, a truly evangelical expression of Christianity in today’s America would, I believe, do more to disrupt the status quo in the United States than reinforce it. The problem has been, and continues to be, that what passes for “evangelical” in the US context displays marked discontinuity with “evangelical” in a historical, theological, and global sense. Here’s where the hope rests.
Like Wendell Berry says, “be joyful though you have considered all the facts…practice resurrection.” In our assessments of the challenges and crises that constitutes US Evangelicalism, we must not neglect the explosion of evangelical Christianity around the world. In fact, it is precisely in these contexts among global evangelicals where the solutions to the US reductions of evangelical faith rest.
We evangelicals in the United States have a work of repair ahead of us. And on either side of this path are ditches of cynicism and idealism. We must not be so cynical so as to think that life cannot come from death. We must not be so idealistic so as to think the crisis can be faced in our own strength. Instead, we need hope for Evangelicalism, even as we repent of the ways we’ve placed our faith in Evangelicalism, rather than the God of the evangel.