What Has Happened To Evangelicalism? The History of Church Growth Offers A Clue

Image result for jerry falwell jr

In recent days an evangelical twitter tempest has reemerged, this time over the question of whether Jerry Falwell, Jr. is an evangelical leader. This is a more specific variation on the perennial question of who is an evangelical, and the Trump-era twist on it: what has happened to evangelicalism?

On one side are some evangelical elites and evangelical scholars who continue to insist on a theologically-defined evangelicalism rooted in David Bebbington’s work. The upshot of this definition is that you can make a distinction between “real” evangelicals and evangelicals in name only.

But other scholars, including sizable numbers of evangelicals, have come to see this theological definition as analytically unhelpful. To some critics, it smacks of contemporary movement boundary policing more than serious historical inquiry.

Among the more notable examples of this critique in recent years is Timothy Gloege’s 2018 Religion Dispatches piece, “Being Evangelical Means Never Having To Say You’re Sorry.” Basically, if a so-called evangelical is behaving badly, you can just write them out of the movement and rebrand it. Sorry, not sorry.

When Gloege’s article resurfaced this week, Baylor historian Paul Putz replied,

Calvin College historian Kristen Kobes Du Mez added this important question:

In a small and suggestive way, I’d like to take up Du Mez’s question. My argument is that we need to think more carefully about how whiteness has structured the evangelical ecclesial experience. I’m going to focus on this simple proposition, with the understanding that reality is not so simple. For one thing, we should not pretend that the shaping effect goes in one direction. If we need to think more carefully about white evangelicalism, we definitely need to give more attention to evangelical whiteness.

At a glance, it might seem that historian Seth Dowland tackled this last year. In a great piece on “American Evangelicalism and the Politics of Whiteness,” Dowland wrote:

Over the course of the 20th century, the evangelical coalition entwined theology, whiteness, and conservative politics. The histories we tell about that movement demand attention to all three aspects. By using theological markers to define evangelicalism, we miss the ways cultural and political forces have shaped the movement. To identify as evangelical in the early 21st century signals commitments to gun rights, the abolition of legal abortion, and low taxes. It’s next to impossible to understand these commitments through the prism of theology alone. But when we understand evangelical as an identity forged in the contexts of Jim Crow segregation, a struggle against second-wave feminism, and fears of a tyrannical federal government, the origin of these commitments becomes clearer.

Evangelicals are not any whiter, demographically, than mainliners or Mormons. But they have rallied around Trump to defend a white Protestant nation. They have proven to be loyal foot soldiers in the battle against undocumented immigrants and Muslims. The triumph of gay rights, the persistence of legal abortion, and the election of Barack Obama signaled to them a need to fight for the America they once knew. The history of American evangelicalism shows us a group of believers who find the most in common when it comes to race and politics.

Notice that though Dowland is paying attention to whiteness, the mechanism by which the ecclesial and political may be related is not at all clear. In other words, Du Mez’s outstanding question remains: what is the connection between devotional life and practice, identity, and these “hot-button” issues?

To offer a suggestive answer to this question, I offer this proposition: what if we think about whiteness in ecclesial contexts as crucial religio-racial grounding for the attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that we commonly recognize as political? What if evangelicals learn whiteness in their churches and then enact it politically?

Here I would like to submit a brief for the importance of my work on the Church Growth Movement (article forthcoming in Religion & American Culture, January 2020!).

The CGM taught quite explicitly that racial integration was a threat to church growth. More broadly, the CGM was a distillation of an evangelical mainstream that often equated success with faithfulness. But what does it mean to be successful in a racist society? What does it mean to grow your church in an era of white flight and racial reaction? When major white evangelical leaders deliberately launched their churches in fast-growing wealthy suburbs, they weren’t just expressing their faith in the power of the gospel. They were making a solid investment in the advantages of whiteness.

In 1991, a Christianity Today cover story described the Church Growth Movement’s successful conquest of evangelicalism. If by the 1990s it no longer seemed to have the institutional heft of its heyday, that was because its basic ideas had become so widely diffused and adopted. It took a while, CT explained, for evangelicals to “become comfortable with success.” But the CGM had helped evangelicals become part of the “successful mainstream,” and they were now getting used to it. “Outright critics,” CT said, “are now hard to find.”

They had become comfortable with success, and critics were hard to find. The first claim was true; the second was false; the phenomenon linking them both was race. For decades, black evangelicals criticized the CGM, and the evangelical mainstream writ large, for pursuing success at the expense of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Critics were not hard to find. It’s just that they were black.

For our purposes, what’s crucial about these black critiques is that they came from an ecclesial context. The problem, as many black evangelicals saw it, wasn’t necessarily political conservatism as such. The problem was the overt investment in whiteness within churches and other evangelical institutions. At the height of the Church Growth Movement’s influence, John Perkins blasted the evangelical mainstream for “not bothering with breaking down racial barriers, since that would only distract us from ‘church growth.’ And so the most segregated, racist institution in America, the evangelical church, racks up the numbers, declaring itself ‘successful,’ oblivious to the…dismemberment of the Body of Christ…” This was theological and ecclesial critique, not a hit against the Christian Right.

And similar critiques have continued ever since. In Bryan Lorrit’s 2018 book, Insider Outsider: My Journey as a Stranger in White Evangelicalism and My Hope for Us All, he writes:

To maintain its seat at the head of the table, white evangelicalism must be in control; it needs power. If white evangelicals are not in power, they won’t choose to be present in any substantive measures. They won’t join our churches or go to conferences historically attended by different ethnicities. They must be in power.

I can’t emphasize this enough: Loritts is talking about the dynamics within evangelical spaces. He’s talking about ecclesiology. A movement that lives or dies on success, and that has been unwilling to divest itself of power within the church, has not responded well to losing cultural and political power outside the church. The white evangelical movement acts politically as its historical ecclesial behavior has conditioned it to act.

Historian Steven Miller has argued that the late-20th century saw America’s “born again years,” a time when evangelicalism successfully entered the mainstream. But as my suggestive little story is meant to illustrate, this was a story of white evangelical church success. A movement that put so much stock in outward signs of success seemed to be thriving as long as the broader cultural and political environment was trending in its direction.

But the new millennium brought the gay rights revolution, rapid racial change, declining church attendance, and all the other hot button issues we talk about in our politics. These put white evangelicals back into a defensive posture. Their moment of success seemed suddenly brief. With shocking speed they found themselves again an embattled minority against a hostile culture.

The urge to lash out and grasp for power, the urge we see embodied in a figure like Jerry Fawell, Jr., is not a case of politics getting the better of white evangelicals’ theological commitments. It’s an expression of the movement’s ethos and history as it has been structured by investments in church growth and mainstream success. This is white evangelicalism. This is evangelical whiteness.

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