The new evangelicals:

What has been will be again

posted by Omri Elisha

Marcia Pally’s incisive essay on “the new evangelicals” highlights a relatively small but growing population of white evangelicals who appear to be embracing broader, less conservative visions of the common good, and public policy views (at least partially) more in line with Democratic politics than their recent forebears.  While her descriptions presumably are not limited to those who necessarily call themselves “new evangelicals,” she does invoke the work and ideas of public evangelicals who clearly self-identify as such. This points to an interesting observation worth considering here: to assume the mantle of newness is to make an ideological statement as well as a historical claim.

Newness is a fascinating, and very loaded concept.  It expresses ideas of innovation and progress, as well as rupture and substitution.  Whether presented in the form of prophetic revelations, revolutionary ideologies, or consumer branding, “the New” is always wrapped in a combination of promise and threat – it promises to improve upon the old, while threatening to eclipse and even replace it.  Newness inspires hope as well as fear, with a provocative power that sometimes borders on the messianic.

It is hardly surprising then that evangelical Protestants, for whom “authentic faith” is all about radical rebirth and regeneration, have historically placed so much stock in things new and improved, often against heavy resistance in their own ranks.  There were the “New Light” evangelicals, whose religious enthusiasm inspired mass conversions in the eighteenth century, but also led to historic schisms. In the nineteenth century, Charles Grandison Finney promoted “new measures” of revival, generating celebrity while drawing his own share of detractors. The 1940s saw the emergence of the “new evangelicalism” (version 1.0), a self-conscious effort by the likes of Carl Henry and Billy Graham to recover the evangelical brand from fundamentalists.  The “New Christian Right” of the 1970s was a reactionary juggernaut that redefined the arena where evangelical political and cultural activism took shape.

The point is not to downplay the actual newness or significance of growing evangelical centrism—or as I prefer to call it, plasticity—in contemporary US politics and public culture, but rather to think about this shift in relation to evangelicalism’s long and fraught history of constant renovation. This is important because every new movement and shift in the field of evangelical engagement stands in tension with its densely layered past, and this tension can be felt most acutely by participants on the ground. Exacerbating the tension further is the fact that virtually all known varieties of evangelical religiosity, whether they are branded as “new” or “old,” rely on the common (but conflicting) belief among participants that what they are doing is closer in spirit to the ministry of Jesus, and truer to the letter of biblical law.

Several years ago I did fieldwork among socially engaged evangelicals who sought to mobilize popular support for social outreach initiatives in predominantly conservative congregations. The resulting book, Moral Ambition: Mobilization and Social Outreach in Evangelical Megachurches, focused on individuals who would likely gravitate toward, or at least be sympathetic to the current “new evangelical” agenda. Yet my research also showed that socially engaged evangelicals occupy very complex positions in the wider milieu of white evangelicalism. They engage in ministry activities that many churchgoers admire and even valorize, but their efforts also bring out lingering disagreements, fears, and doubts about the future of evangelism, and intensify longstanding debates about whether the mission of the church is ultimately meant to be a proselytic or social one.

Rather than representing one side of that debate, the socially engaged evangelicals I observed often found themselves caught squarely in the middle of it, seeking to draw both inspiration and institutional legitimization from multiple strands of Protestant tradition, from the defense of strict biblical orthodoxy and personal pietism to the millennialist optimism of nineteenth-century social reforms and the prophetic justice orientation of Martin Luther King.

All of these influences make up an intriguing mélange of ideals and sensibilities that animate the moral universe inherited by today’s evangelicals.  They are the reasons we perceive evangelicalism as a field in constant flux, oscillating between paths of engagement and separatism, progressive reform and reactionary protest.  The reality is that much of the time these apparently polarized impulses are actually coexisting and overlapping throughout the evangelical subculture, even within the same denominations, churches, and small groups.

For those evangelicals who stand committed to one path of engagement over another, the matter of newness is often unambiguous—in with the new, out with the old, the only way forward.  But for others, perhaps a more reserved majority of non-activists, newness is a motivational framework that is at once extremely attractive and problematic.  This is because any tradition that thrives on newness must also seek to protect the continuity of tradition, paradoxical as all that might seem. As we evaluate the potential long-term effects of evangelicals gradually (and partially) moving away from the religious right, we should remain mindful of the historical, cultural, and institutional forces that will fuel their movements and at the same time restrain or subvert them.  This is not just about a pendulum swinging back and forth from right to left, though this will almost undoubtedly occur over time. In a grander sense, it is about agonistic and heroic quests for newness, and evangelicalism’s enduring struggle to be continually reborn.

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