How many Protestant denominations are there?
That’s a question I’ve been hearing as long as I have walked the religion beat. People used to toss around crazy numbers like 32,000 or 23,000, but no one takes those numbers seriously anymore. At the same time, a number like 200 sounds way low to me.
Denominations — large and small, formal and informal — remain an important part of the religion marketplace, but they are not really where the action is these days. Have you been reading the Julia Duin posts (start here and here) exploring the post-Donald Trump arguments among the Pentecostal and charismatic “prophets”? Is the clout of these emerging doctrinal tribes limited by their lack of historic brand names?
Hang in there with me for a moment. I am trying to connect an important moment in January 6th hearings on Capitol Hill with an important piece that former Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore wrote just after the riot (and has not re-upped on Twitter). Here is the crucial passage from a Washington Post report describing a key moment in the hearing that, with good cause, has provoked some debate.
In emotional testimony that recounted the abuse he received while defending the Capitol on Jan. 6, D.C. police officer Daniel Hodges said he was struck by the flags carried by members of the mob, whom he characterized as “terrorists.”
“To my perpetual confusion, I saw the thin blue line flag, a symbol of support for law enforcement more than once being carried by the terrorists as they ignored our commands and continued to assault us,” Hodges said.
He nodded to the conflict between the beliefs represented by the flags, and the actions of those holding them.
“It was clear the terrorists perceived themselves to be Christians. I saw the Christian flag directly to my front, another ‘Jesus is my savior.’ ‘Trump is my president.’ Another ‘Jesus is king,’ ” Hodges continued.
No doubt about it, lots of those marchers and the rioters who attacked the Capitol (two different groups, in terms of the legality of their actions) can accurately be called “white evangelicals” — in large part because “evangelical” has become a term with almost zero historic or doctrinal content.
The question, from the start, is whether evidence would emerge in trials indicating that any of these lawbreakers were linked to powerful evangelical Protestant denominations, ministries, schools, etc. See these two GetReligion posts: “Early arrests after U.S. Capitol riot: So were there evangelical leaders in the attack or not?“ and “Evangelical ‘power’ and U.S. Capitol rioting: What about Franklin Graham and Falwell Jr.?”
Readers need to know if an “evangelical” who attacks a cop was from a tiny independent church in the hills or from the staff of a major parachurch ministry that, behind the scenes, conspired with other groups of that kind to plan an attack on the U.S. government. So far, I have not seen solid reporting that points to activity among actual centers of evangelical Protestant influence and power.
Have I missed something? Or, as GetReligion patriarch Richard Ostling wrote the other day (“Did January 6 attack on Capitol highlight ‘D.I.Y. Christianity’ as decade’s next big thing?“):
As investigations of the January 6 U.S. Capitol riot proceed, there’s an intriguing religion angle for the media to explore. Welcome to the emerging prominence of “D.I.Y. Christianity” (that is, Do It Yourself).
After some of the Capitol rioters uttered odd prayers and waved religious placards, The New York Times reported that they demonstrated “some parts of white evangelical power.” GetReligion boss tmatt then asked whether the mob included any representatives of actual “power” seen in the denominations, megachurches, parachurch ministries, schools or even the flocks of well-publicized Trumpite preachers.
(Despite the absence of evangelical leaders, freelancer Steve Rabey reports that several obscure Protestant pastors do face charges over January 6.)
This brings us to that earlier Russell Moore commentary: “The Roman Road from Insurrection.” This essay was written by a biblically conservative evangelical leader and is packed with references to evangelical history and, to the degree this is possible, “evangelical” doctrine.
Parts of it are dated, I admit. However, journalists need to read material of this kind and remind themselves that these people actually exist and that they represent flocks larger than D.I.Y. networks of people who, in many cases, have been pushed OUT of evangelical flocks because of their radical views.
Here is a large chunk of material near the end that is especially important:
Paul wrote, “Those of you who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Rom. 2:21-22). The lack of consistency is a lack of integrity, he warned, and that has consequences not just for one’s own conscience. “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:24).
People are watching. People are overhearing. Some of them are your children.
The sight of “Jesus Saves” and “God Bless America” signs by those violently storming the Capitol is about more than just inconsistency. It is about a picture of Jesus Christ and of his gospel that is satanic. The mixing of the Christian religion with crazed and counter-biblical cults such as QAnon is telling the outside world that this is what the gospel is. That’s a lie, and it is blasphemous against a holy God.
Look around us, five years into this experiment. Every family I know is divided over this personality. Every church I know is too. Friendships are broken, for almost everyone I know. And, most importantly, every survey shows that the church is hemorrhaging the next generation because they believe that evangelicalism is a means to an end to this political movement. You may say, “Well, we can’t make decisions based on what people want”: true. If I were speaking every week to people who are leaving because they reject the Trinity or the Incarnation or the bodily resurrection or sexual morality or whatever, I would agree with you.
But if people are walking away not because we believe too much for them, but because they don’t think we believe what we say we believe, what then? How can the witness of the church be rebuilt? What are the consequences? A start — a small but necessary start — is for the church to say, clearly, conspiracy theories and insurrections and riots and murders and incitement are out of step with the Word of God and we will not — not one of us — spend one second hemming or hawing about that. …
If the world rejects us because of Christ and him crucified, so much the worse for the world. If the world rejects us because they think Christ is just a mascot for what we would already be supporting or doing even if Jesus were still dead, then God have mercy on us.
Read it all.
File it away, in fact. I imagine that it will, alas, remain relevant for some time to come.
FIRST IMAGE: The famous Trump-Jesus flag, on sale at Amazon.com