Will Success Spoil Evangelicalism?

By Marty, Martin E. | The Christian Century, July 19, 2000 | Go to article overview

Will Success Spoil Evangelicalism?


Marty, Martin E., The Christian Century


WE'RE IN THE MONEY!" announces the cover of Christianity Today (June 12). "How Did Evangelicals Get So Wealthy, and What Has It Done to Us?" the subhead asks. Michael S. Hamilton's lead article defines the "us" as the parachurch organizations which, by Hamilton's estimate, have combined budgets of $22 billion. Both he and, in another article, John Stackhouse Jr. wrestle with the meaning and ethics of having such wealth. Still needing to be assessed, however, is what having so much money means not just for evangelical ministries, but for evangelicals themselves.

The importance of evangelicalism in the nation's spiritual economy is clear when one considers the self-identified religious "preferences" of U.S. citizens. One-fourth are Catholic; slightly less than one-fourth are mainstream Protestant; one-fourth are Jews, Muslims, Mormons, African-American Protestants, Orthodox Christians, "others" and "none" or "no preference"; slightly more than one-fourth are evangelicals.

Evangelicalism includes self-described evangelicals, Pentecostals, fundamentalists, Southern Baptists and conservative Protestants such as Missouri Synod Lutherans, Nazarenes, the Christian Reformed and the Salvation Army. Variations between and among these groups are enormous, of course. Numerous social and economic classes and endless theological diversities are represented. But taken together, evangelicals make up a distinctive and evolving cohort.

Evangelicalism has generated its own chroniclers and critics, and may not need much help from outsiders like me. At evangelical gatherings, which are universally hospitable, I am introduced as "our guest nonevangelical." I have to remind my hosts that I am probably the only person in the room who belongs to a church body with the, word "evangelical" in it; that we Lutherans (and Anglicans. etc.) had the original patent on that word; and that many of us are borderline or crossover sorts. Still, I speak as an outsider. Yet outsiders can ask important questions. We would like to know how evangelicalism's drastic shift in what its self-critics call "cultural accommodation" has affected the lives and souls of evangelicals and the soul of evangelicalism(s).

To launch such an inquiry, I present 11 "from's" and "to's" that evangelicalism has traveled--all of which admit exceptions but, I believe, are substantiable over all. These might form a framework upon which further attention and research--some of it to build on studies already begun--can be erected.

* From the religion of the disinherited and ascetic Protestantism to prosperity

What has happened as those who made up what H. Richard Niebuhr in 1927 called "the religion of the disinherited" entered the economic mainstream and rose within and, often, above it? Recently a British visitor asked me to guide his tour of American religion. Knowing that much of historic evangelicalism had represented what the classics called "ascetic Protestantism," he asked me where to find examples of it today. In turn-of-the-millennium evangelicalism, I could show him only "nonascetic" Protestantism.

* From otherworldliness to this worldliness

Marxists and capitalists alike used to write off evangelicals for being other-worldly--advocates of deferred benefits, of "pie in the sky by and by." It would be bad faith to suggest that contemporary evangelicals' profession of faith in a life to come or in another world is bad faith. But otherworldliness takes on new coloration when those who profess it are among the worldliest citizens around.

* From truth claims based on unpopularity to truth claims based on popular success

The "infusion" (if you like it) or "infection" (if you don't) of wealth- and success-mindedness has produced a transvaluation of values. At midcentury, culturally beleaguered evangelicals often made the claim that "you can tell we represent the truth, because Jesus spoke of a little flock and Paul spoke of the despised of the world, and we are little and despised. …

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