Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Evangelicals: A Short Historical Write-Up

Evangelicalism is a long-running religious tradition in the United States which has had a huge impact on the American religious scene, on politics via activism, and on spirituality via revivals and evangelism. Evangelicals share many traditional Christian doctrines with other Christian groups but are distinctive in the especially strong emphasis they place on the Bible as an ultimate authority in religious matters, on the Cross (and Resurrection) as a central piece of devotion and theology, on activism in both missions or evangelism as well as in social justice and, to an extent, conversion or personal assurance of one’s place before God (which these days often takes the form of an emphasis on having a personal relationship with God).
Moving into the 20th century, there was an increasing battle in American churches between more traditional believers and those who were willing to sacrifice parts of traditional belief when they seemed to conflict with what was seen as rational or scientific or mature. Faced with attacks on traditional Christian beliefs, or what were believed as such, the Fundamentalist movement soon arose within the Evangelical fold. Unfortunately, this movement, whatever benefits or positive traits it may have had, also greatly hurt the Evangelical cause in the academy and in society. This separatist strain urged a separation from other believers who did not believe the same way (at times, even though they have been equally orthodox or even equally Fundamentalist) and, to some extent, from society as well, thus forming for many traditional Evangelicals in effect an intellectual, social, and religious ghetto. Who was outside, who inside was what often mattered most. Traditional doctrine and evangelism were seen as rejected by more liberal groups, replacing these with an almost-exclusive, it seemed, emphasis on social justice. The reaction, then, was a kind of guilt-by-association and separatist overreaction to these developments. To be distinguished fully from the liberals, fundamentalists gave the main emphasis to doctrine and evangelism and neglected social justice and activism as suspicious, liberal-like behavior, despite its key place heretofore in Evangelicalism.
Meanwhile, overreaction to excesses of some higher critics of the Bible and what was seen as a loose, symbolic use of Scripture by many liberals, drove fundamentalists beyond mere belief in the infallibility of Scriptures to a seemingly naïve, literalist interpretation of the Bible unfettered by scholarship, original (or, often, any) context, genre, or anything else seen as coming from outside. Instead, the Bible was treated as if it were a systematic theology handbook by a single author with a single point of view, answering all questions and doing so in a plain and straightforward manner admitting no ambiguity or difficulties, very often interpreted, ironically, through the theological lens of the 19th century dispensationalist theology which had become popular in the United States.
In the mid-twentieth century, however, there began a strong push-back within Evangelicalism against its Fundamentalist incarnation and a process began of reengagement and reentry into the academy, scholarly biblical studies, pursuit of social justice, openness to a diversity of views and increasing ecumenism, and so on. There is, however, still a stigma on Evangelicals as American popular culture, media, and other traditions have a tendency to see Evangelicalism almost exclusively through the lens of Fundamentalism and, often, the controversies between Fundamentalists and others in the early twentieth century. The stereotype of Evangelicals is pretty much how people see Fundamentalists and Evangelicals, in virtue of being such, are often labeled “Fundamentalist”. Evangelicals’ high views of Scripture, in particular, are often mistakenly all lumped together and treated as being all the same as the Fundamentalist take on Scripture, despite the sophistication of many Evangelical views of inerrancy and the acceptance of many of the tools of (as well as membership within) mainstream biblical studies. And this stigma persists despite the fact that Fundamentalism is merely the more separatist and militant right wing of the Evangelical family and not a paradigmatic representative of the whole – only one of the most well known.
Alternatively, Evangelicals are seen through the lens of particular evangelicals who are politically conservative (despite many, such as Billy Graham, not being so). Evangelicals, of course, tend statistically to side more with the Republican party than the Democratic, but this has stemmed in no small part (though there are other reasons as well) from the efforts of Ronald Reagan and those around him to woo Evangelicals and a comparative lack of interest on the part of Democrats in the early 1980s. Despite widespread Evangelical frustration with the Republicans, many still stick with them at least in part because Republicans at least pretend to take Evangelicals and their beliefs seriously or outright identify with them, creating the impression that this is the party Evangelicals are to be associated with, in contrast with the Democratic party which often either does not understand or care about Evangelicals or at least has had a hard time showing it. There is, however, a sizable minority of Evangelicals who are solid Democrats, in spite of general disagreement with the Democratic party over the issue of abortion.
The Evangelical tradition, then, both as it has been historically as well as how it manifests itself today, is a much more complex, diverse, and sophisticated movement than most people outside of it realize. Most simply do not understand or know about the distinctions within Evangelicalism that have been alluded to above and immediately associate Evangelicalism with the worst forms of Fundamentalism and political conservatism that they can think of.

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