Pastor’s Article 5/31/2022
In last weeks’ article, I wrote about the rise & decline of Christian fundamentalism in the United States.
Christian fundamentalism had “saved” Christianity from theological liberalism in the early 1900’s, but then itself, went into steep decline. Fundamentalists were perceived as ignorant, intolerant and angry people. In response, they largely withdrew from the public square, thus ceding power and influence to theological liberals.
Following World War II
Following WWII, many Protestants were dissatisfied with their choices: either liberalism (which was really no choice at all for serious Christians) or fundamentalism. They yearned for a third option.
The person who spoke most powerfully to this yearning was Carl FH Henry. In 1946, Henry wrote a book with 2 major arguments:
- Fundamentalism was too withdrawn from society. In order to be “salt and light,” the church needed to be more engaged.
- Fundamentalism had little concern for social issues, such as racism and poverty. He argued that addressing social problems was part of the Christian mission as well.
Henry’s book was extremely influential and, in 1948, he issued a call for a “New Evangelicalism.” He envisioned a church that would speak intelligently to the modern world (and be engaged with it), but without compromising commitment to the core doctrines of the Christian faith.
His call birthed a number of parachurch organizations, including Young Life, Campus Crusade and Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.
However, the New Evangelicalism needed a public face, somebody to epitomize and represent it to the broader culture.
Enter Billy Graham
Billy Graham became the public face of the New Evangelicalism. There were 2 key moments that set the course – both for Graham, personally, as well as the evangelical movement as a whole:
- Beginning in 1953, audiences at Graham’s crusades would no longer be segregated by race; and
- Beginning in 1956, any church could participate in his crusades. (Previously, only fundamentalist churches were involved.)
Graham’s winsome and cooperative spirit made him extremely popular and, for the next 30 years especially, evangelicalism was a powerful force in American life.
However, within evangelicalism, there’s always been a tension over this question: How far should the church go to be relevant to the culture?
Of all the major branches of Christianity, evangelicalism is probably faring the best in the US. Churches that maintain a strong commitment to the fundamentals of the faith are at least holding their own.
However, a watershed moment for evangelicalism occurred in 2015-16 when evangelicals turned out in droves for the candidacy of Donald Trump, widely perceived as an arrogant, corrupt and immoral person. In terms of evangelical reputation, this was a seismic event (not unlike the effect of the Scopes trial for fundamentalists).
Moreover, since Trump’s defeat in 2020, evangelicals are increasingly perceived as the fundamentalists were in the late 1920’s; namely, as ignorant, intolerant and angry people.
The challenge of the next few years will be to find “the sweet spot” of staying engaged with the culture, but without compromising the core doctrines of the faith.