Those impossible-to-ignore and hard-to-define white ” evangelicals” have, for decades, been the largest and most dynamic sector in U.S. religion. Are we finally witnessing an evangelical crack-up as so long anticipated — and desired — by liberal critics?
That’s a big theme for the media to affirm or deny.
To begin, The Religion Guy is well aware that millions of these conservative Protestants quietly attend weekly worship, join Bible and prayer groups, try to help those in need, fund national and foreign missions and are oblivious to discussions of this sort on the national level.
For years we’ve seen a telltale slide of membership and baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention, that massive and stereotypical evangelical denomination. At the same time, it’s clear (follow the work of Ryan Burge for background) that many of those Southern Baptists have simply moved to independent, nondenominational evangelical megachurches of various kinds.
But more than numbers, analysts are pondering insults to cultural stature, which greatly affect any movement’s legitimacy, respect, impact and appeal to potential converts, especially with younger adults.
The Scopes Trial to forbid teaching of Darwinian evolution nearly a century ago continues to shape perceptions of evangelicalism and its fundamentalist wing, especially due to the fictionalized 1955 play and 1960 movie “Inherit the Wind.” No doubt ongoing evangelical enthusiasm for Donald Trump has a similar negative impact among his critics, but this is not merely a political story but involves evangelicalism’s internal dynamics. The Trump era exacerbates divisions that already existed despite unity in belief.
Turn to former GetReligion writer Mark Kellner, who is already making his mark (pun intended) as the new “faith and family” reporter for the Washington Times. Here is an essential recent read: “After scandals, is evangelical Christianity’s image damaged?”
The immediate cause behind the question was an odd little incident that spoke volumes, the sacking of Daniel Darling as spokesman for National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). Realize that to a great extent trade shows for evangelical broadcasters and for retailers, plus events surrounding the Fellowship Foundation’s Presidential Prayer Breakfast, have functioned as the major gatherings for influencers and celebrities in the motley evangelical movement.
Darling’s sin was to tell MSNBC he got the COVID-19 vaccine and considers that a good idea for other Christians. The Guy caught that interview and confesses Darling’s words were so mild, and so respectful of evangelical anti-vaxxers, that there seemed to be no news. But then NRB handed Darling a demotion at lower pay — so he left. For background, see Darling’s recent interview (“Fired After Getting Vaccinated —And Encouraging Others to Do So”) with the always-interesting Emma Green of the Atlantic.
Whatever the back-and-forthing — such as debates about whether Darling ignored NRB policy on “neutrality” on vaccination — this certainly appeared to be an unpalatable example of conservative “cancel culture” and “political correctness.” As Kellner further observed, this followed unseemly scandals at such evangelical powerhouses as Liberty University and Willow Creek church. That’s but the beginning of the recent public squalor of evangelical hypocrites and sexual predators.
Then there’s the disillusionment of hyper-popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, and the remarkable private 2020 letter to Southern Baptist executives from the Rev. Russell Moore (no relation), leaked after he resigned as head of the SBC’s national Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore lamented the denomination’s moral failures on sexual abuse of youths and women, and also on treatment of racial minorities and immigrants.
Darling, a bit player in that protest letter, was formerly on Moore’s staff. Commenting on the NRB fuss in a recent email-only newsletter, Moore marveled that a life-saving medical advance “is now considered controversial in our subculture” and recalled hosting evangelical radio whose callers were far more interested in “scaremongering” than, say, how to make evangelism more effective. He sees great damage from evangelical media “marketers of rage” who inflame controversy rather than offer nuanced discussion of current moral problems.
In subscribers-only columns for TheDispatch.com, commentator David French also frequently grieves over evangelical trends and leaders. (Though he’s anti-Trump, it’s important to recognize that French is strongly old-style on evangelical theology and in his past strategic legal efforts defending religious liberty.)
As Kellner observes, the overriding issue has become “how evangelical Christianity is perceived in an increasingly secular culture” when its Gospel outreach faces far more resistance than in the Billy Graham days.
A final question: Aare the recent events transient hiccups or a new direction that demands substantial analysis? This is, of course, a question that has been asked several times in recent decades.
[Disclosure: The Religion Guy was the news editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today before covering the beat for Time magazine and The Associated Press.]