Leaders & Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

The future of evangelicalism in America


DENVER (RNS) If there is such a thing as evangelicalism, it has a pretty good future in America.

That was the upshot of the discussion we had (shameless self-promotion alert) at the American Society for Church History (ASCH) meeting about The Future of Evangelicalism in America, the first in a series of “future of religion in America” volumes I’m editing for Columbia University Press.

The existential question was raised most forcibly by Baylor theologian Roger Olson, whose chapter on evangelical theology documents the intellectual divisions in a tradition that has lost even the modest sources of authority and coherence it once had. There are Calvinists and anti-Calvinists, biblical inerrantists and interpretive pluralists, neo-traditionalists and paleo-fundamentalists. And that’s to say nothing about the huge differences in liturgical and spiritual style.

The most Olson would concede was a version of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous description of pornography. “I know evangelicalism,” Olson said, “when I see it.”

By contrast, Candy Brown of Indiana University, co-editor of the volume and the ASCH’s current president, was prepared to stick with historian David Bebbington’s now classic four-part definition of the thing: conversionism, biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism. But she allowed as how evangelicalism is more of an ethos than a religious movement or affinity group.

If politics is any indication, the ethos has been running pretty strong of late. On every social issue you can think of, (white) evangelicals stand well to the right of every other ethno-religious group in America, with the possible exception of Mormons. And in a figure now engraved in the minds of political analysts, 81 percent of them voted for the Republican presidential candidate in November — a higher proportion than ever before.

Despite innumerable reports of its demise over the decades, the religious right is alive and well, albeit more morally compromised than ever. The latest installment of presidential politics should be called “The Empire Strikes Back.”

White Christian America may be in decline, as PRRI’s Robert Jones argues in a recent book, but demographically, evangelicalism is holding its own. It has supplanted the Mainline Protestantism as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America.

Even if scholars are hard pressed to say what the norms are.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • I think that the data show that you can go farther with this statement. You wrote:

    “Evangelicalism … has supplanted the Mainline Protestantism as the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America.”

    With Catholicism dying nearly as quickly as Mainline Protestantism, this stronger statement is justified:

    “Evangelicalism… has supplanted both Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism as the normative form of Christianity in America.”

    It looks like in tomorrow’s world, and increasingly so today, “Christian” is becoming synonymous with “fundamentalist”.



  • About that, coming from you just now, Mark Silk:  Although “evangelicalism is … the normative form of non-Catholic Christianity in America … scholars are hard pressed to say what the norms are”?  Wait, I thought you’ve already told us what that norm is: “It’s immigration, stupid … Trump’s signature issue …  That’s the ancient piece of GOP DNA that Trump has used to incarnate his Jurassic Park candidacy (and) why so many white evangelicals have been drawn to Trump” (Mark Silk, Religion News Service, March 29, 2016).  So you write this present article, admitting what – that the-just-an-expression “stupid” actually is referring to someone else, for you really don’t know what you’ve been talking about after all, whether back then or even now?  How’s this, then, for the Evangelical norm of all norms that clinched it for Trump – even though it’s been in-your-face all this time of writing and re-writing?  It’s the decisive narrative that says, 81% of the Evangelical population in the States all “regarded him as the lesser of two evils” (ABC News Australia, Nov. 16, 2016), and so “the majority voted for Trump because they did not like Clinton” (The Gospel Coalition, November 15, 2016). There you have it.  That’s the only angle you should take on from here on when next time trying to pin down, then report on the Evangelical norm of voting this past election cycle.  Start by asking yourself the question pro-Clinton reporters and professors alike have all dismissed: not what was so bad-bad-really-bad about Donald J. Trump, but what was much worse-worse-really-worse about Hillary R. Clinton?  And you’ll see that the answer to that question clearly is all tied to Benghazi, her husband, pay-for-play channels, Wikileaks, email server, disease, DNC, Haiti.  Try that, for starters.

  • “And you’ll see that the answer to that question clearly is all tied to Benghazi, her husband, pay-for-play channels, Wikileaks, email server, disease, DNC, Haiti. Try that, for starters”

    In less wingnutty terms it means evangelical voters were more worried about manufactured issues of conscience as opposed to real ones such as supporting a serial fraud, sexual predator, adulterer, and incompetent.

  • “(Only) 41% of white evangelicals thought Trump was ‘a good role model’ …  55% thought he was ‘hard to like’ …  (Although) Trump’s shaky background on pro-life issues, awkward articulation of his personal faith, and reputation around women would turn away conservative Christians … party loyalty outweighed those concerns.” (Christianity Today, November 9, 2016)

    So the takeaway from that for you here, Spuddie, is: Yes, yes, yes, “wingnutty … manufactured issues” or no, notwithstanding (what with not a single proper investigation existing out there, that has bothered to prove that hypothesis to be wrong once for all and purely as a matter of fact), Evangelicals really are what they SEEM to be nowadays, politically, theologically, attitudinally, lifestyle-wise, etc., whether on the Right, Center or Left.  Or don’t you know by now how many “a serial fraud, sexual predator, adulterer, and incompetent” there are running (through) their religious, social, business and political organizations nowadays?  Are you kidding me?  That’s who they are and Evangelical churches are dead, don’t you know? – so just deal with it.  At least this’ll help you not to constantly and cluelessly change your take on them, like Mark Silk does.  … So, anyhow, you’re ready now to take on my challenge and give my proposal at least a try, by focussing instead on whom Evangelicals voted against, even given those allegedly “wingnutty … manufactured issues”?

  • At this point I am of the mind that at least 40%+ of the electorate are abject morons and that a large percentage of them are white evangelicals. [Mostly kidding here]

    “(what with not a single proper investigation existing out there, that
    has bothered to prove that hypothesis to be wrong once for all and
    purely as a matter of fact)”

    That is up there with the “prove me wrong” response when someone makes a claim which has no factual support. Not one of those issues you mentioned ever rose to the level of a substantiated charge. This is in contrast with the fact that Trump had more suits in Federal Court than in his closet. Most of which dealt with how he defrauded investors, stiffed contractors, violated labor laws with impunity, and in some cases committed sexual misconduct. For a man of his resources and belligerence, its telling that so many of those suits settled out of court rather than be contested. If there was nothing there, combative Trump would have not only contested them but been smug about it.

    “Or don’t you know by now how many “a serial fraud, sexual predator,
    adulterer, and incompetent” there are running (through) their religious,
    social, business and political organizations nowadays? ”

    Evangelical Christians tend to attract that crowd more than most. It has to do with the deferential attitude they have towards religious based authority. Couple that with a “circle the wagons” approach to outside stress. Rather than own up to faults as pointed out by outsiders, they defend their own, no matter how quixotic and hypocritical it gets.

  • Comparing Hilary to Trump is like comparing someone who swears at Chess camp to a guy hunting humans in the woods for sport.

  • I don’t know if you normally comment faster than you think, Spuddie, because going by your politics-savvy allegory, the original truth-claim statement

    – “the majority voted for Trump because they did not like Clinton” (The Gospel Coalition, November 15, 2016)

    now translates by you into this truly bizarre statement

    – “the majority of Evangelicals voted for ‘a guy hunting humans in the woods for sport’, because they did not like ‘someone who swears at Chess camp'” (Spuddie, January 9, 2017).

    Huh? – I mean, can I quote you there, buddy, for my term paper?

  • Trump didn’t win the majority vote so it is a very bizarre thing to say and a distortion of facts.

    Yep, evangelicals are easily led by nonsense. It is why they tend to vote against their economic interests. You aren’t actually refuting my statement. An appeal to credulity only works for people known for acting rationally. Evangelicals are not known for such sane behavior

    Quote me verbatim. Attribute it in my full name, Spudsworth Mosura Gojira PhD, LAc, JD, DDS, CPA, OBE,of Infant Island

  • Evangelicals are in for a complete re-centering as they come to realize how completely they’ve been coopted by the clever politicians. They have drifted far from their primary mission of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are living in an increasingly secular culture that dismisses the spiritual altogether, or one that only recognizes flaky “positive thinking” messages in an atmosphere of “anything goes.”

    To reach and minister to the spiritually needy, evangelicals will need to dump the politics and reclaim their territory as beacons of love and hope, which is the antithesis of divisive politics. Mainline Protestant churches are already in sharp decline. That pattern will be accelerated if another clever political huckster hijacks the mainline Protestant churches for political gain like Obama has during the past 8 years.

  • About that, what you said, “Trump didn’t win the majority vote”?  It’s obvious now your (mis)take on the election outcome is worse than Mark Silk’s.  Not only you have problem making sense of the electoral behavior of the Evangelicals, but you don’t even understand what’s even more basic than that.  Which is the otherwise no-brainer difference between Trump’s state-by-state majority popular vote results versus Clinton’s nationwide majority popular vote results.  4 words (for 3 states) for you: California, New York, Illinois.  That’s where – say again, where – not why, as you naively put it, “Trump didn’t win the majority vote” nationwide because of only these 3 states!  Not so wherever else, however, i.e. the rest of the (United) States (of America).  The last time you checked, even after the election, the country’s still USA, isn’t it?  Or has it always been TSA (Tri-State America) or DSA (Disunited States of America) or UNA (United Nation of America) all along, where the majority vote counts only in California, New York, Illinois – but not in all the other 48 States of America?  (In which case, maybe those sore-loser Snowflakey church friends of yours living in TSA have a point after all.)  Anyway, point’s made.  So kindly acknowledge, at least, that you’re slowly getting it now, as to how republic democracy works in the United States of America (USA) since soon after the year 1776.  Or is Hillary so worth it that you’re willing to de-American-Revolutionize all that?  Then why, pray tell, o why is this Killary hero of yours so worthy of this anti-revolutionary cause?

  • And in response to their eroding power in government and society they have made a deal with Trump in order to stop this decline. I would expect a more militant and even violent element to arise in this holy battle. Their fate and future is now tied to Trump.

  • “… coopted by the clever politicians” … but worse, by their own church leaders who went as far as preaching Trump’s a born-again Christian, when in fact, by his own testifying, he’s a mainstream Presbyterian and truly not an Evangelical by definition.  I mean, weren’t they scared of Jesus for falsifying Trump’s respect-deserving religious beliefs?  For this is what he said:

    “Paula White … has a significant message to offer anyone who will tune in and pay attention. …  Read this (All That: Understanding God’s Design for Your Life) and you’ll be ready for great success.” (CNN, Nov 26, 2007)

    “I believe in God. I am Christian. I think the Bible is certainly … ‘the’ book. …  I’m a Protestant, I’m a Presbyterian. …  I think religion is a wonderful thing. I think my religion is a wonderful religion.  …  we keep all of the Bibles …  I’m a Sunday church person. I’ll go when I can.” (Christian Today, 12 April 2011)

    “Mr. Trump will tell you, ‘I’m … a firm believer in the power of positive thinking. …  I refused to be sucked into negative thinking on any level, even when the indications weren’t great.'” (Ken McElroy, The Sleeping Giant, RDA, 2011)

    “I love God …  I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.  … When I drink my little wine (‘in Holy Communion’) — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed'” (CNN, July 18, 2015)

    “(As to) favorite book of all time …  Do you know what my first is? The Bible! Nothing beats the Bible.” (Washington Post, August 11, 2015)

    “I’m not sure the number of times going to church …  My schedule is a killer. But I go as often as possible. …  I grew up in Sunday school …  I’m a big believer in the Bible. …  There’s an assault on anything having to do with Christianity …  I will go so strongly against so many of the things, when they take away the word Christmas.” (The Hill, August 21, 2015)

    “Donald Trump: ‘… God is the ultimate. I mean God created … and here’s the Pacific Ocean right behind us. So … there’s nothing like God.'” (CBN News, 09-23-2015)

    “I still remember (Norman Vincent Peale’s) sermons …  He was the greatest guy.” (Politico, October 06, 2015)

    “I am a religious person …  (People) see me with all the surroundings of wealth, so they sometimes don’t associate that with being religious. That’s not accurate.  … He (Norman Vincent Peale) would instill a very positive feeling about God that also made me feel positive about myself” (Great Again, Threshold, 2016)

    “(Norman Vincent) Peale ‘… was an amazing public speaker,’ Trump said.  ‘He thought I was his greatest student of all time.'” (Michael Kranish & Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed, Scribner, 2016)

    “I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. …  (So) I try to do nothing that is bad.” (Business Insider, Jan. 17, 2016)

    “I hear this (at Liberty University) is a major theme right here, Two Corinthians, 3:17 …  I think that’s the one you like, because I loved it. … ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit.'” (Telegraph, 18 Jan 2016)

    “Jesus to me is somebody I can think about for security and confidence. Somebody I can revere in terms of bravery and in terms of courage and, because I consider the Christian religion so important, somebody I can totally rely on in my own mind.” (Cal Thomas, Trump Interview – The Transcript, Tribune Content Agency, 6/8/2016)

  • Metaphor. But an incredibly accurate one. By all means, quote him. Unless it’s for a class at Bob Jones.

  • That goes back to the “Millerites” of the 1840s which gave up their worldly goods thinking the world was going to end. What was left of the Millerites became on of the falsely-labeled “Great Awakenings” or somesuch.

  • -15 for word salad. Plus Megametropoli are offset by Appalachia and Podunkvilles which had 80-15 Trump majorities, a bristling meth trade, and no jobs. Also, -50 for bad Alex Jones ripoff, “Killary,” which is even stupider than it sounds. If HRC orders murders, why is Anthony Weiner still walking free?

  • That assumes the self-identified “evangelicals” don’t like their present condition of having been coopted by clever politicians or that they aren’t clever politicians themselves. Franklin Graham sure is.

    I love the attachment of the wowsers of today to the 1934 Cole Porter musical even though Porter himself was a kweer and he made fun of other topsy turvy mores besides secks.

  • http://www.politifact.com/wisconsin/statements/2016/nov/21/reince-priebus/despite-losing-popular-vote-donald-trump-won-elect/
    Despite losing popular vote Donald Trump won in ‘electoral landslide,’ GOP’s Reince Priebus says

    What part of the concept “despite losing popular vote” do you have trouble with?

    Evangelical electoral behavior makes perfect sense from the POV that they are manipulated to get poor and working class people to vote for politicians who attack their economic interest. Mostly by making phony promises of enacting a religious reactionary agenda. I say phony promises because their agenda is by and large unconstitutional and wildly unpopular to the majority of Americans. It has zero chance of lasting success. So in the end they vote for people who promise to keep wages down, remove regulations which protect the general public, and to attack civil liberties of others.

    “Then why, pray tell, o why is this Killary hero of yours so worthy of this anti-revolutionary cause?”

    I think you have to fix the autocorrect on your phone? You misspelled Hillary.

  • The Millerites did emerge in the Second Great Awakening, it’s not so much that they became a great awakening themselves. What they became is Adventism, most notably the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

  • This is a very good assessment of the current state of American evangelicals. It will take time for the phrase “American evangelicals” to regain respect, but I hope it happens.

  • Eh. Technically you’re correct. My problem is the term “Second Great Awakening” is nebulous sorta like how “The Holy Roman Empire” was not Holy, not Roman and not an empire. The 2GA was not second, not great, and not an awakening.

  • Killary, as in the “Killary! Killary! Killary” chant at Trump’s rallies, is short for Killer Hillary Clinton per:

    “Teens spray-paint ‘Killary Clinton’ on Meridian hotel”, Mississippi News Now, Nov 4, 2016

    “Reasons to not vote for ‘Killary'”, New Jersey Herald, Oct 27, 2016

    “Trump Supporters, Killary And Me”, Huffington Post, 08/09/2016

    “US Marine: Don’t Put Me and Fellow Marines At The Mercy of ‘Killary Clinton’”, WCBM, April 29, 2016

    “‘Killary Clinton’ PAC creates trouble for Ohio high school students”, cleveland.com, Dec 14, 2015

  • “Killary … The Butcher of Bengahzi … Killary left those men to die in Bengahzi … #killary #hillary #clinton #bengahzi … by Wolfe44mag August 24, 2016” (Urban Dictionary, retrieved January 13, 2017)

  • Not only Conservatives and pro-Trump voters call Hillary Clinton “Killary”:

    (1) Even TYT (The Young Turks) Politics’ own “Jordan (Chariton) just called her Killary Clinton” (TYT Politics, December 20, 2016)

    (2) “Progressives on social media are … extreme, calling Clinton, ‘Killary’ or ‘Shillary,’ calling for jailing her and routinely predicting that she will bring on World War III, if elected.” (Lost Coast Review, November 4, 2016)

    (3) Paul Craig Roberts calls her “President Killary” (Institute for Political Economy, April 13, 2016; and CounterPunch, APRIL 13, 2016)

    (4) Sott.net/Signs of the Times calls her “President’s elect Killary” and “Killary Clinton” (Sott.net, 18 Nov 2015, Aug 26, 2016, Sep 7, 2016 and 16 Sep 2016)

  • “Even if scholars are hard pressed to say what the norms are.”
    Simply list their presuppositions (aka faith)
    1. God(s) is/are 2. They demand you declare their authority 3. The Bible, not the Church, is our foremost authority of God’s other specific demands. 4. Heaven or hell await everybody.
    If you have any doubt, jus ask the folks who show up at uninvited at your front door.

  • And this coming from a person who, from the start of this thread, said, “You misspelled Hillary”, to me and, therefore, by the same token, to all these people who call Hillary Clinton “Killary” – whom you blindly thought were only “Trump supporters (who) are either mostly illiterate or have lisps (or) are ignorant and vocal”. You honestly think TYT Politics’ Jordan Chariton, and the Progressives on social media, and Paul Craig Roberts (man, if you only know his credentials, way up there) and Sott.net editors, they’re all “illiterate or have lisps (or) are ignorant and vocal” because it so happened that they, too – yes, like those “Trump supporters” scapegoats of yours – have been calling Hillary Clinton “Killary”?! That’s way past “refuting”, my friend! OK, that’s it from me, and believe me, I wasn’t trying to set you up or anything like that. So have the last word, next; goodbye and thank you very much.