Evangelicals Today: In-house Critics

Ever since Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants active in the pro-life movement discovered each other, hopes have been raised that a new cultural alliance between these kindred spirits might go a long way in resisting the encroachments of secular culture in the United States. While the prospects of this new alliance are unclear, observers like sociologist James Davison Hunter—whose Culture Wars declares that the alignment signals the new defining cleavage in American society—are taking it with utmost seriousness.

Catholics may find encouragement and hope with the back-up troops evangelicals may represent in the culture war. Yet recent reflection on evangelicalism by some of its movers and shakers may suggest that this element of the alliance may not prove to be the kind of support that cultural conservatives need to mount an effective challenge to the secular age. This may surprise some, because evangelicals—who emerged from their cultural ghetto as recently as the mid-1970s—seem to represent a potent force for change in America. They have resources, money, institutions, growing churches, ideas, and boundless energy.

Still, to judge by three books published in the last two years by evangelical publishers, and from a fourth volume soon to appear, a number of prominent evangelical thinkers are increasingly nervous with what evangelicalism has become. While evangelicals normally exude great confidence in themselves, these books uncharacteristically raise questions about the movement’s theological integrity, while expressing grave doubts about the ability of the movement to challenge the spirit of the age. The books’ titles say it all: Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism; Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church?; No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age; and No Place for Truth: Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? That the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago, an evangelical institution not known to take risks, published two of these volumes, says even more.

In the first title, Made in America (Baker, 1991), Michael Scott Horton, a young and relatively obscure California minister, contends that evangelicalism is largely a product of American culture and therefore may be ill-suited for challenging the culture with which it is so closely associated. Horton provides the interesting observation that secular culture and evangelical religion are not necessarily antithetical, and may even be complementary realities. To him, evangelicalism contributes to and reflects the very forces of modernity and secularism over which cultural conservatives, including evangelicals, so frequently lament.

Horton is not alone in his assessment. Before the ink was dry on Made in America, he enlisted several senior evangelical leaders to produce Power Religion (Moody, 1992), a collection of essays lamenting evangelical obsession with power, success, and respectability. Evangelical leaders including Charles Colson, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and James Montgomery Boice confirm Horton’s conviction that the current state of evangelicalism is problematic. One of the essays, written by Hortin’s associate, Kim Riddlebarger, provides a riveting appraisal of the massive subculture created by evangelical radio, television, music, and publishing industries. To Riddlebarger, this subculture represents a mere shadow of—not a thoughtful alternative to—the larger culture that evangelicals fear.

As if Power Religion weren’t enough, Moody Press almost simultaneously released another impressive collection of essays with a similar theme, No God But God, edited by Os Guinness and John Seel, former directors of the Williamsburg Charter Foundation. While Power Religion focuses on evangelical obsession with power, No God but God goes one step further by challenging evangelicals to avoid the temptation to idolatry. This book has less of an edge to it, perhaps because its contributors, including Guinness, Thomas Oden, Paul Vitz, and David Wells, represent a more seasoned scholarship and perspective. But, together, the two volumes—representing 23 authors—reflect a level of critical self-examination of which evangelicals seemed incapable even ten years ago.

When No Place for Truth is released by Eerdmans later this year, it may do more than simply confirm the apprehension shared among evangelicalism’s best and brightest. Given the stature of its author, David Wells (a contributor to No God but God) the book may be a bombshell. Wells, a Congregational minister and professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary near Boston, is no upstart writer seeking to build a reputation, but one widely known and respected among evangelicals. One reviewer of the manuscript commented that Wells comes close to declaring that contemporary evangelicalism has become the new liberalism.

Perhaps these four books could be viewed in a more positive light. Their publication suggests that evangelicalism finally is maturing and will benefit from self-criticism. Whatever the case, before Roman Catholics get in bed with evangelicals to mount any cultural initiatives, they need to be aware of the concerns raised by these in-house observers—and they need to challenge their evangelical brethren to be faithful to the gospel, not to the spirit of the age.

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At the time this article was published, Robert W. Patterson, formerly associate to the executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals, was pastor-elect of the historic Covenant-First Presbyterian Church of Cincinnati. His articles had appeared in Christianity Today and The Christian Century.

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