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The future of evangelicalism in America

DENVER (RNS) It's actually pretty good -- if you can figure out what evangelicalism is these days.


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.

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