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Twilight Time for Evangelicalism?

Despite its numbers, its reputed political power, candidates elected to office, wealth, and organization, the "evangelical movement" has not succeeded in making America a noticeably more Christian country.

Lee Duigon
  • Lee Duigon,
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it …

—Psalm 127:1

In 1996, the United States has millions of evangelical Christians. Those over 18 in age who said that they were born again and believe the Bible from cover to cover has grown to c. 91 million persons, very much more than the numbers of 1968. In the years since 1968, abortion and homosexuality have been legalized, and euthanasia virtually so. The impotence of these church peoples is startling.

—R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law. Vol. III, pp. 97–98.

The Rushdoony quote indicates what has been wrong with the “evangelical movement” from the beginning. Despite its numbers, its reputed political power, candidates elected to office, wealth, and organization, it has not succeeded in making America a noticeably more Christian country. If anything, the country seems to be going in the opposite direction.

The Bible quote explains why this should be. This movement was never a house built by the Lord, but by man.

Now the house seems to be on the point of collapsing, as reported by Michael Luo of The New York Times in his April 16 article, “Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of ‘Evangelical.’”[1]

Luo, who regularly covers “religion news” for the Times, reports that the evangelical movement seems likely to split into at least three parts: “traditionalists” (“characterized by high affinity for orthodox religious beliefs and little inclination to adapt them to a changing world”); “centrists” like Rick Warren, author of the best-seller The Purpose-Driven Life, and other “megachurch” and “emergent church” leaders; and a small minority of “modernists” (who say the Bible is “not necessarily accurate”).

Writes Luo, “But like any dominating force, evangelicalism is not monolithic, and it seems that now, at a time of heightened power, old fissures are widening, and new theological and political splits are developing.”

The Political Angle

The thing that makes “evangelicals” interesting to the news media is that they are the focus of an ongoing debate over political strategy and tactics.

Polls taken after the 2004 elections indicated that “evangelical Christians” voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush. Since then, Democrats have been discussing ways to get a share of that “Christian vote,” while Republicans ponder how to keep it. Thus we have all heard politicians not otherwise known for their religious rhetoric — most recently, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi — peppering their speeches with references to Jesus and the Bible.

Luo makes much of the clout of the evangelical movement (“they are part of a movement that has never been so powerful or so large”). But others say the evangelicals’ power has always been overstated.

Colonel V. Doner, a Christian Right activist at the time, helped elect Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. Doner was rewarded with an advisory position to the new president — who, as Doner recalls, “immediately surrounded himself with moderates, technocrats, liberals of all shapes and sizes, astrologers, effete social climbers and assorted half-wits.”[2]

Thoroughly disillusioned, Doner wrote in 1998, “When we elect a Ronald Reagan, we (and our agenda) are locked out” by professional politicians whose only concern is to win elections — not to carry out a Christian agenda for America.[3]

Robert Knight, with Concerned Women for America, sounds just as disillusioned today. Knight, whose duties included lobbying Congress for more family-friendly legislation, recently wrote of the price Christians are expected to pay for “a place at the table” of politics: “You can be part of the process, so long as you don’t step on certain toes … [Y]ou will learn to shut up.”[4]

What Is an Evangelical?

What is an “evangelical”?

Joseph P. Braswell bases his definition on the word itself. The Greek word evangel refers to the gospel; so an “evangelical” would be someone for whom the gospel of Jesus Christ is central to his life and thought. But the term, Braswell writes, is frequently “misapplied” to persons whose Christianity is based on emotionalism and faulty doctrine.[5]

Christian demographer George Barna doesn’t ask people if they are “evangelicals.” Instead, he asks several questions, the answers to which determine whether the respondent is an evangelical (see

For Barna, an “evangelical” is a Christian who believes (1) his faith is important in his life today; (2) he has a responsibility to share his beliefs with others; (3) Satan exists; (4) salvation is obtained solely through God’s grace; (5) Jesus led a sinless life while on earth; (6) the Bible is “totally accurate”; and (7) God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, the creator and sovereign ruler of the universe.

Based on respondents’ answers to his questions, Barna estimates that “evangelicals” constitute roughly 9% of America’s adult population.

Barna records what people say about their faith; but he also studies what they do. Time and again, he has been unable to find much difference between the everyday activities of “evangelicals” and non-Christians. Whether it’s music piracy, divorce, or choice of favorite movies and television programs, “evangelicals” tend to conform to the rest of America. Evangelicals talk a good game, but often don’t play one.

Doner has accused evangelicals of “shrinking the gospel” down to a narrow focus on “world-denying” personal salvation.[6] Rev. William Einwechter criticizes evangelicals for getting involved in politics and accepting compromises that actually undermine the Christian influence on American life.[7] Certainly large “evangelical” organizations — like Focus on the Family, and the Christian Coalition — have sometimes been accused of that very thing.

R.J. Rushdoony traced evangelicalism’s descent from fundamentalism, chiding Billy Graham for “his congenial spirit of compromise” and evangelicals in general for compromising on Biblical inerrancy. “The new evangelism begins with man, not with God,” he wrote[8] — surely a description of a “seeker-friendly” church.

Rather than concern itself with how to live by God’s Word and keep God’s laws in their personal, family, and public lives, the evangelical movement has concentrated on worldly things. It has set up large organizations that raise money efficiently but can’t seem to hold back the tide of “gay” rights, animal rights, feminism, and atheism. It elects political candidates who are equally ineffective. For the sake of “a place at the table” — a mess of pottage, if you like — it accepts compromises for the sake of “practical politics.”

How Big a Tent?

One would think that with only one God as their Lord, and only one Bible as His Word, evangelicals would be more monolithic, theologically. But that has never been the case.

Luo’s article focuses on evangelical responses to the issue of “global warming.” “Earlier this year, more than 80 evangelical leaders, many of them pastors who would likely be classified as centrists … signed an evangelical call to action on global warming,” he reports.

But many didn’t — including “conservatives” Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. Luo quotes a public statement by Focus on the Family that Dobson didn’t sign “because the group questioned the validity of the theory and believed that it put plants and animals above humans.” Other conservatives criticized the signers for getting “worked up in a lather” over global warming while neglecting “core concerns like abortion and gay marriage.”

Evangelicals’ theology runs the gamut from the orthodox, Reformed thinking of Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to the dispensationalism (and sometimes outright theological inattentiveness) of the “emergent church” movement, to a kind of works-based “liberation theology” promoted by the “modernists.”

Mohler has accused the “modernists” and some of the “centrists” of playing fast and loose with Christian doctrine. Brian McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church, a “megachurch” near Baltimore, has accused conservatives of “hijacking theologically, as well as politically,” the whole evangelical movement.

“These charges are nothing new for evangelicalism,” Luo writes. “Today … many in the movement are even discussing whether the label ‘evangelical’ should be jettisoned completely” (quoting from David Neff, editor of Christianity Today).

Rushdoony understood that the popularity of evangelicalism, and its constant quest for more popularity, was the movement’s greatest weakness. The bigger the “tent,” the more divergent its theologies; the more divergent its theologies, the less its intellectual coherence. The bigger the evangelicals’ “place at the table,” the higher the cover charge, in terms of compromise.

The evangelical movement, Rushdoony wrote, “ignores man’s fallen state” and, in 1998, he predicted that “In due time, these new ‘evangelicals’ will discard the term as having served its purpose.”[9] If Michael Luo’s reporting is accurate, it looks like Rushdoony’s prediction will come true.

Lee Duigon
  • Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at

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