The new evangelicals:

Does fragmentation equal change?

posted by James S. Bielo

Marcia Pally’s post tracks the important fact that contemporary American evangelical social and political engagement is fragmenting. She rightly observes that such fragmenting is not historically novel, and is a self-consciously critical response to the power of the Religious Right.

To read of “robust polyphony” among evangelicals was especially welcome to me, as I addressed this phenomenon in a recent ethnography, Emerging Evangelicals (NYU Press, 2011). As a cultural anthropologist, I explored the identities fashioned, practices performed, histories claimed, institutions created, and critiques waged among evangelicals influenced by the Emerging Church movement. Pally’s astute analysis returned me to a question I stopped short of fully developing: does fragmentation equal change?

While it is clear that evangelicalism is diversifying, it is unclear what this amounts to. We see voting blocs split, financial donations broaden, volunteer labor disperse, and moral-political agendas expand. But, do these fragmentations signal tectonic, hard-wired, all-bets-are-off cultural change? Or, is it more superficial (which is not to say unimportant or not deeply felt) social change? Do electoral politics and other shifting forms of activism amount to fundamental change, or merely changing patterns of action?

Briefly, consider one example: evangelical anti-human trafficking campaigns. This is not an example Pally cites, but it exemplifies her point about a diversifying consciousness. Evangelicals, in step with other faith-based and secular actors, are devoting increasing attention to the global problem of labor and sex trafficking. A thorough canvassing of evangelical anti-trafficking would be most welcome: how many organizations exist, how much money they raise, where in the world they work, and so forth. But, the more vital qualitative question is what cultural materials evangelicals use to conceptualize and conduct anti-trafficking activism. Consider a representative organization. Unearthed, a film ministry founded in 2009, culminates its lead documentary with: “Even if we were to rescue every victim of sex trafficking today, there’s still gonna be a demand for millions and millions and millions of new slaves tomorrow. Because at the root of sexual exploitation is a demand, and it’s driven by men. If we want to change this thing systemically, if we want to stamp it out at the root, what men want at the deepest level, like their hearts and their desires, have to be changed.”

Does this hint at a profoundly different evangelicalism? I would say ‘no,’ because the organizing cultural logic is individualist, moralist, and male-centered. Unearthed relies on a thin model of agency. If men stop masturbating to pornography, going to strip clubs, and paying prostitutes for sex, then human trafficking will grind to a halt. Females – and, strikingly, a wide range of females – have little to no agency: an adult exotic dancer and a 10-year old sex slave are imagined as much the same. Moreover, the structures that create the conditions for and reproduce trafficking are systematically undervalued in the discourse of organizations like Unearthed. Global poverty, hunger, labor demands, punitive and legal policy, and transnational migration routes are scarcely mentioned or completely absent.

The fragmenting of evangelical activism is undeniably important. However, we must be cautious in what we make of it. As the case of anti-trafficking suggests, it would be easy to mistake a “new” evangelical cause for a “new” evangelicalism. We need clear theories of cultural change to make proper sense of shifting ground. What kind of re- project are we witnessing: a re-organizing of existing evangelical culture, or a re-making?

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