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Read more of Judy Valente’s interview about America’s evangelicals with Mark Noll, historian and professor of Christian thought at Wheaton College:
How would you define an evangelical?
Historians usually use two ways of defining evangelical Protestant Christians. One feature is the things that evangelicals historically and traditionally have believed and practiced. Evangelicals usually stress conversion to Jesus Christ. Evangelicals stress the authority of the Bible as their chief religious authority. Evangelicals are activist in some areas of life, principally in trying to share the good news about Jesus. And evangelicals usually stress the death of Christ and his resurrection as the key, central Christian teaching. Historians trace back to the eighteenth century and the revivals that are associated with the Wesleys, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and other figures a continuous genealogy of ecclesiastical and voluntary association development that also provides some perspective on evangelicals. So to have the genealogy and the characteristics gives us a triangulation that is a good definition, for most purposes, of evangelicalism.
What are some of the myths about evangelicals?
To evangelicals themselves, they’re wonderful people that make everything nice when people listen to them. Often, to those who don’t appreciate evangelicals, they’re seen as rednecks, as crypto-fundamentalists, as people without education, as people without a brain. Of course, the stereotypes are there because they are partly true. And yet they are both stereotypes.
The truth would be?
The truth is that evangelicals are an American brand of Protestant Christianity, strongly influenced by revival traditions but moving in many different directions. One of the great difficulties for historians and sociologists is actually just to define what “evangelical” means. There are a lot more people that look like evangelicals, that use the term for themselves. Sociologists and historians think they have a category that many different groups fit into. Not all the time do these different groups actually want to talk to each other and are aware of each other’s existence. So it’s a nominal category. It’s not like the category Roman Catholic, or Presbyterian, or even Pentecostal; but it’s a category of observers who say, “These different groups share such-and-such traits; therefore, we should treat them together.”
What are some of the nuances people might miss about evangelicals, some of the surprising things?
Evangelicals tend to be not as political as they have often been portrayed. There is a very strong pietist tradition in evangelical Christianity, which means that evangelicals often focus upon their spiritual lives and on the good they can do in a community, rather than in mobilization for political life. There is certainly a tremendous amount of diversity in evangelical Christianity. By some definitions, the largest component of evangelicalism in the United States would be African-American Protestants. Usually, however, African Americans are not lumped in with Caucasian and Asian and Hispanic evangelicals, when the general category is used. There are segments of evangelicalism that prize higher education. There are segments of evangelicalism that make a great deal about professional standing and professional attainment, education. And these facts, I think, would be a surprise to some people who thought of evangelicals monolithically, or as just one group.
The diversity of evangelical Christianity is extreme. Evangelicals would include people with no time for higher education and a full roster of Ph.D.s, M.D.s, L.L.D.s. Evangelical Christians would be at home in some urban areas. There would be many concentrations of evangelical Christians in small towns and rural America and main city America. The concentration geographically of evangelicals is in the South and the Midwest, but there remain very strong concentrations of evangelicals also on both coasts and, of course, evangelical Christianity in the United States is related to evangelical-type movements of many sorts that exist around the world.
Is there such a thing as an evangelical worldview, a different way of seeing history than many other Americans do?
With all other Christian believers, evangelicals would believe that God rules over history, and that God’s mandate for individual life has been communicated through the scriptures and through religious traditions. There probably is a distinctive evangelical worldview in respect to attitudes toward evil, toward good in society. I think evangelicals might be a little bit more prone than others to see forces of good and evil, God and evil, combating in public life. But I think it would be dangerous to think that evangelical conceptions of the world were radically different from other Christian believers’, and then even radically different from other American citizens’ who are of other kinds of religion, or of no religion at all.
And the difference between “evangelical” and “fundamentalist”?
Usually the terms “evangelical” and “fundamentalist” are used with distinctive meanings. Fundamentalist would be one variety of evangelical Christianity. Fundamentalists historically have been defined as those who are especially influenced by the revival traditions of the nineteenth century, especially influenced by the turn toward dispensational premillennialism as a theology in the late 19th century, and sometimes by their attitudes of separation and militancy toward the rest of the religious world and the rest of the world. Evangelical Christianity as a whole would include some fundamentalist tendencies, some fundamentalist groups, but probably most evangelicals would not want to be called fundamentalists themselves.
What about the emphasis on the Bible as the literal truth, as being literal rather than figurative? Do both groups share that? Or do fundamentalists have that alone?
On the question of the Bible, it’s probably the case that fundamentalists would tend toward a more literal belief in the scriptures, although that, too, is complicated, because the evangelical traditional position is that the Bible is true. There [are] not as tight evangelical parameters as to exactly how the Bible is true. There is immense debate within the Christian world as a whole, and certainly within evangelical Christianity as a whole, as to how to interpret the truthful scriptures.
Why do you think evangelicals have become so much more prominent in recent years than they were 50 years ago?
I think it’s possible to suggest that evangelical Christians have become more prominent in public space over the last 30 and 40 years because of signal events, turning points, as it were. Certainly, the presidency of Jimmy Carter was important. Here was a Southern Baptist who said that he was born again and tried to live by his faith. This was nothing new in the South and in many parts of the rest of the country, but it was new for a public speaker to talk like this. Certainly, the debates that have taken place over moral issues — the debate that has taken place over abortion on demand, for example — led to a certain kind of militancy in public life by a certain kind of Protestant that seemed new, although it actually went back long in American history with many traditions. And other issues that have been part of what are sometimes called “the culture wars” have drawn more attention to groups of Protestant Christians that were there all along, but now have surfaced in the public. It is also true that, since World War II, the proportions of churchgoing Americans have shifted. In very rough terms, one used to be able to speak of roughly about the same number of Roman Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelical Protestants taking part in church activities and being active religiously. Since the end of the Second World War, Catholics have grown somewhat, mainline Protestants have declined, and the number of evangelicals (however defined) has increased quite dramatically. So the demography of church participation has changed in the United States over the last 50 years, with various evangelical groups doing better in that demographic situation and the population as a whole.
What do you think has fueled that growth?
Evangelical Christianity is a tradition of religion that is adaptable. Evangelical Christianity began in the 18th century with people who were willing to preach out of doors at a time when that was a very radical step. In America, evangelical Christianity was promoted most dramatically in the early 19th century by Methodist circuit riders and by Baptist lay preachers. Both were innovative techniques for church organization. In the 20th century, evangelicals were pioneers in the use of radio for religious purposes. Since World War II, evangelical churches have adjusted, have adapted to current culture in ways that other groups have been slower to do. That adaptability is, I think, one of the reasons why [the] evangelical type of Protestants do better in the modern world than some other types of Protestants. We evangelicals would like to say that it is the faithfulness to the message of salvation and Jesus Christ, seen in the scriptures. As an evangelical Christian myself, I think that’s actually a very important matter to draw attention to. But as a historian, I know that sometimes in history groups that look like they’re right go down, and sometimes groups that look like they’re wrong go up. And so explaining exactly why it is that we have an increase in attention to evangelicals — and probably actually a true increase in evangelical Christians — would be a very hard thing to do in simple terms.
You mentioned that evangelicals were able to adapt to culture and to new technology. In what ways did they adapt that others did not?
Evangelical Protestants have been leaders in the use of modern musical forms in church. This is actually quite offensive to some traditional evangelicals and some traditional Protestants of other sorts, but it has been an adaptive strategy. It’s been a way of using the musical language of television and of the modern mass media, to bring it into church, to sanctify it, to baptize it, and it has been attractive. Evangelicals have pioneered in the outreach of Christianity in suburban areas. Some of the new megachurches around the country, most of which are evangelical in one way or another, look a little bit like shopping malls. They are able to put people at ease who are used to going into shopping malls and are not perhaps used to going into traditional churches. In attention to small groups, some of the newer evangelical churches realize that people need identification with a small group — auto mechanics or Alcoholics Anonymous or youth clubs. Evangelicals have innovated in all of these matters, and in many more in trying to provide a religious interface with people where they actually are living and hurting and feeling and taking their day-to-day existence.
You say evangelical adaptability has been a positive influence in some ways. But others these days are raising the question: Have evangelicals become too much a part of the culture around them?
Throughout evangelical history, the strength of evangelicals in adapting to cultural change has always been marked with a weakness in being able to adapt to cultural change. When a religious tradition adjusts to new conditions, there is always the chance of having a great appeal for that religious tradition, but there is also a chance that what had defined that religious tradition can be given away. An example would be that traditional evangelical preaching customarily accentuated the notion of human sinfulness. People were alienated from God. God was holy; humans were sinful. God judged sin. Because God judged sin and provided redemption through Jesus, it was possible for people to be reconciled with God. In the modern world, we are more diffident about sin. We are more reluctant to point the finger and say, “You are a sinner who needs to turn to God.” Some evangelical churches, traditions, denominations have adjusted an awful lot. Some critics say they have adjusted too much and have, in fact, lost the message of salvation, because they have lost the sense of human sinfulness. This would be an issue where adaptation has taken place, and it would be a judgment call as to whether that adaptation has truly undermined the religious tradition or whether it has been just an adjustment to be able to communicate, still, with modern people.
In this effort to adjust to modern culture and appeal to larger groups of people, particularly the unchurched, has the evangelical message been watered down? Is this a concern to you?
It is a concern. Perennially in the history of evangelical Christianity, there has been an effort to reach out, to draw new people in. The evangelistic motivation is very strong in the history of evangelicalism. It remains very strong to this day. The positive side of that motivation is that the Christian message is brought to newer groups of people. In our day, the negative danger is that a thin kind of Christian message will be brought that is adjusted more for popular cultural norms than by the norms of the Christian gospel. I think, however, as an outsider, from any one individual church or Christian activity, it’s very hard to judge whether or not the adaptation has gone too far. What is necessary is long-term observation about whether lives are actually changed, whether people are actually reconciled to each other, whether works of mercy are actually done. This is a hard set of questions to answer if a person does not remain an observer for a long period of time. It is a major concern, but it’s a concern, I think, more in general Christian terms than as a historian of evangelicalism. I think the Christian faith is always a faith that calls people away from themselves, toward God, but always attracts people because it offers something from God. It is the maintaining of that balance, of what God gives to Christian believers and then what God expects from Christian believers, that is the critical matter for all varieties of Christian faith.
How would you assess the influence, in politics and culture at large, of evangelicals?
Evangelicals are certainly more evident in politics and public life now than had been the case, say, in 1950. Actually, our situation now is much closer to what the United States had experienced from, say, 1800 to 1880 or 1890, when evangelical Christians were a large and vocal part of public life, including political life. Certainly, since the 1960s and 1970s, there has been an obvious move of people called evangelicals, identif[ying] as evangelicals, toward the Republican Party. This has taken place particularly in the South, but also in other parts of the country. And when you have a movement like that of religious allegiance and political allegiance, then it draws the attention of the media of various sorts. It has become, I think, a legitimate matter for journalists’ reporting.
What role do you think evangelicals will play in the upcoming presidential election?
I think it’s easy to overestimate the impact of any one religious group in a political election. Obviously, the popular wisdom, which I think is right, is that evangelicals certainly lean toward the Republicans, lean toward President George Bush. But the mistake, I think, is sometimes made to consider every part of the Republican platform as an evangelical issue, which is simply not the case. I think some of the good polling, which would include polling by John Green, would show that on issues like health care and the economy, evangelicals are far less polarized politically than they are on some of the moral issues, like the question of a constitutional amendment concerning gay marriage, or abortion on demand, and other issues that touch individual morality more than public morality.
Let’s talk a little about evangelicals and their faith. How do you and others share your faith with people you meet who are not Christian?
The way in which evangelicals evangelize, or share their faith, would be as varied and as different as there are evangelicals. There are vociferous, and even militant, street-corner preachers. There are diffident people who share with family and close friends the meaning of the gospel in their lives. There is an emphasis with some upon literature, sometimes very high-toned literature, sometimes very basic tracts and simple literature. There is certainly a use of artistic media by some, music by others. I don’t think it’s possible to talk about one predominant way in which evangelical Christians try to live out the Christian faith. I think the variety is as broad as the evangelical network is broad itself.
Is there any concern that the habits and practices of evangelicals are becoming too much a part of the secular world, particularly young people? It’s hard not to be swept up in the culture that you live in.
Certainly, leaders of Christian churches, including evangelical churches, worry that their ability to communicate in public also will compromise what they have to say in public. This certainly has been a perennial theme in religious history, and it’s a concern today. When young people think only of what religion brings to them by way of self-fulfillment, there is a danger of creating a religion that centers around “me.” All the traditional religions call that idolatry rather than true religion. By the same token, evangelical leaders would say, I think, that it’s necessary to communicate, to use the idiom of the day, in order to make the Christian message known. That is a fine line that evangelicals have always walked — attempting to be communicative, to be persuasive in public and, at the same time, always being threatened by losing the punch, the sting, the offense of the Christian gospel.
How much of a sense do you have, or do evangelicals still have, that they are outside the mainstream? Or are they not becoming more and more a part of the mainstream?
The question of whether evangelicals are becoming part of the mainstream, feel themselves still as outsiders, as marginalized people, I think, has a lot to do with geography. In many parts of the country, it probably is the case that evangelical Christians are, in fact, becoming part of the visible mainstream. In New York City, San Francisco, much of the West Coast, much of the Northeast, it would not be the case. Those parts of the country have a much more plural religious situation. It would not be new in the country for various religious groups to feel strength in one particular region. What probably has happened, over the last 30 and 40 years, is that more centers of the country have witnessed more visible and more vocal presentations of evangelical Christianity than was the case immediately after the Second World War.
Do you think they are losing somewhat that outsider status — that status as people standing apart from secular culture, almost in judgment of secular culture?
The question of whether evangelicals are feeling themselves as insiders or as those still who stand apart in judgment on the secular culture is one that takes some historical sophistication. In the years before the American Civil War, evangelical Protestants in general were very deeply involved, very strongly committed, to different aspects of American culture. From the 1920s to the 1950s, there was more of a standoffish atmosphere. What I think we’ve seen in recent decades is a return to earlier patterns in American history and a pullback from the self-understanding as marginalized people that probably did characterize many segments of the evangelical world from the 1920s into the 1950s.
So you have seen that change?
I think it is a change, but it is a change that is not a new thing in American history; it’s a return to some old patterns, but in a new environment, which is much more pluralistically religious than was antebellum America in the early 19th century.
Do you think that, as evangelicals get close to political power and influence in government, they have to compromise too much?
It is a really good question whether, as evangelicals gain political influence, they will be forced to compromise their principles. Politics, by its nature, is an arena of compromise. It’s an arena where you get something, you give something. Evangelicals do not talk as if they engage in that type of activity, but of course they always have as they’ve taken part in public life. I think skilled politicians of whatever ideological stripe know how to maintain their principles and to get along with those with whom they must work in politics. We have, I think, had some exemplary evangelical political leaders of that sort. I think of Mark Hatfield, a longtime senator from Oregon. I think perhaps of Dennis Hastert, the current Speaker of the House. These are people with firm convictions — firm religious convictions, firm political convictions — who yet have a pretty good reputation of working with colleagues, even colleagues with whom they differ on important issues. The difference, probably, in the evangelical community and other religious communities is that public influence, political clout, is a relatively new thing. I think it’s only to be expected that there would be some missteps and some overstatements and some zealotry run amok in the evangelical leadership that would not necessarily be there with groups that have been in the public eye longer. But skill is learned over time. I actually think evangelical public spokespeople do better today than they did 10 years ago. And I hope they’ll do better 10 years from now than they do today.
In some parts of the country, particularly the South, evangelicals are the mainstream. So then why, with their numbers and their influence, do many evangelicals still feel like a misunderstood minority in a hostile culture?
This is an important question, because it draws together the way in which local circumstances interact with national circumstances. I think evangelicals may still feel marginalized and as minority members in a hostile culture in large part because of the national media, because of the national systems of higher education, which do tend to reflect less of the ordinary religious perspective of the country than actually exists on the ground. Television is not a particularly religious medium in the United States, even by comparison with some of the European countries, where there are far fewer religious practitioners. The movies are not a particularly strong domain for religious expression. The movies and television, much of what is present in the popular national press, have a local effect as these media come into localities. So it’s entirely reasonable that a region where there is a strong evangelical presence may still feel put upon if the national media that they participate in, that they read or have some awareness of, do not reflect what they experience, day by day and week by week, on the ground.
Do you find any conflict between observing the conventional standards of critical and intellectual scholarship on the one hand and being an evangelical Christian on the other?
I myself do not feel conflicted by being an academic and an evangelical. In my view, good academics and good scholarship [are] rooted in the series of practices that share a great deal of general Christian traditions, as well as some traditions coming from the 18th-century and 19th-century Enlightenment. There are certain things that academics need to do as academics, certain things that Christians need to do as Christians. I think, for the most part, those requirements can exist pretty well together.
You wrote an entire book called THE SCANDAL OF THE EVANGELICAL MIND about being both an intellectual and an evangelical Christian. To what extent have the issues that you brought up in that book been overcome?
Evangelicals do still have difficulties with the intellectual life. I myself do not think these are intrinsic to the Christian faith. There are scores of examples over the last two and 300 years of very solid artists, writers, intellectuals who have had no difficulty at all internalizing the realities of the Christian faith. For reasons that I have tried to explain, in books and articles that are fairly complex, the American situation is sometimes different. I happen to think that varieties of evangelical anti-intellectualism are as much a difficulty with evangelical appropriation of the Christian faith [as] they are with the Christian faith itself.
Evangelicals do sometimes show anti-intellectual traits, or traits that use the intellect in an unsatisfactory way. I see this as a problem not with the intrinsic character of Christianity, but with the history and development of this one strand of Christianity as religion. In other words, I see problems in the use of the intellectual life not as Christian problems, but as local, American, haphazard problems that have developed out of a particular history.
The basic reason why it seems to me not a problem to think about evangelical intellectuals is because evangelicals worship the God who made the heavens and the earth and all things in them and also made a way for them to fit together. When Christians of all sorts aspire to be intellectuals, what they are aspiring to be [are] students of what God has done in the world. That seems to me to be an entirely fruitful and appropriate Christian vocation. Obviously, in the modern world, there have been clashes between certain ideas, certain intellectual movements, and historic Christianity. But I see these as the normal product of human development and not as any intrinsic commentary on the way in which God has made the world, or made it possible for people to understand the world.
Fifty years ago, the prevailing wisdom among many scholars was that Christianity would slowly die out as it has, to some degree, in Europe. Why didn’t this happen in the United States?
The main difference between religion in the United States and religion in Europe is that, since the late 18th century and early 19th century, religion in the United States was voluntary. It was a people’s movement; it was democratized in ways that were simply unknown in Europe. In the 19th century, European religion lost the allegiance of the lower classes, the working classes. That loss of allegiance never took place in the United States. In the 20th century, European religion lost the allegiance of much of the upper classes. That has taken place, to some extent, in the United States. But underneath, in the lives of middle-class, working-class, [and] some upper-middle-class Americans, there has been no reason to abandon religious traditions. The long-standing patterns — the more democratic, the more voluntaristic patterns — of American religion help to explain the contemporary differences between Europe and the United States.
What do you consider American evangelicalism’s greatest strengths for the years ahead?
For the years ahead, the greatest strengths of American evangelical Christianity have to be the bedrock qualities of Christian faith. The ways in which evangelicals adjust to society may be good, may be bad, may be indifferent, may be questionable in some ways, but to be a Christian of any sort, and certainly to be an evangelical Christian, is to remain confident in the work of God and Jesus Christ. So long as evangelicals are secure in that confidence, then whatever happens, they will be secure in the future. If evangelical Christians lose the confidence of their faith in Jesus Christ as the revelation of God’s full truth for humanity, then whatever their worldly success, evangelical Christianity will be in real trouble.
How is the tide running in this country between religion and secularism? Is one or the other winning, in your view? Are the extremes gaining ground and the middle declining? Or are both evangelicalism and secularism becoming stronger?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. The question as to whether the currents of religion or the secular currents run more strongly now is a very difficult question to answer. It’s difficult, in part, because at least some Christian people would have to say that some of the things that religious people do are wrong, [and] some of the things that secular people do are right. So that’s a complication from the beginning, as it were. My own sense is that the cause of the Christian gospel is always active where people are trying to practice their faith. Now, whether that cause advances or contracts, whether it seems to be doing better [or] seems to be doing worse is a very difficult matter to measure. The Christian gospel says that people are to take heed when they think they are succeeding, lest they fall. And the Christian gospel is full of injunctions — when things look worse, to trust in God. So I’m not going to commit myself to a judgment as to whether things are getting better or worse in Christian view, because the Christian gospel says that we don’t always see things the way they are, and that over the long term, for humanity as a whole — not necessarily the United States — the word and work of God will prevail.
What about whether the extremes are winning in religion and in the secular world and it’s the middle perhaps that’s declining?
It certainly is legitimate to ask whether the extremes are becoming more visible, more powerful, than the various middles — the moderates in the religious traditions who try to maintain the integrity of their religious traditions, but with some kind of communication to the broader world. It probably is the case, given especially the modern media and the focus upon short, pithy, vibrant statements, that it’s easier to be an extremist in a media-driven age than it is to be a person who says, “On the one hand, this; on the other hand, that.” It may well be the case that extreme positions — and we are talking about extreme religious positions, extreme secular positions — probably do receive more attention than maybe they’re worth; probably do receive more attention than would have been the case in an era before the widespread prevalence of television in American civilization.
What do you sense about this generation of young people? How do you compare their interests and the depths of the faith of their generation with, say, your generation?
Questions about the faith of the rising generation of evangelical Christians are quite legitimate. I see a lot more worldly experience with our students. Many more of them have traveled overseas. Many more of them have experience in other cultures. This, to me, is a positive sign, because of the strength of Christian faith as it grows in other parts of the world. I also see amongst our students more tangled family histories, less stability in local lives, less stability in their family lives. These, of course, are worrying trends, but they are also trends that are shared widely in the culture. The Christian faith, as many people have said, [is] one generation away from extinction. The means that God uses to keep the Christian faith alive vary from generation to generation. I think the generation that’s coming along now has tremendous potential, but also faces great difficulties as well.
What can you tell me about the Vineyard movement? Where does it fit in on the spectrum of evangelical churches?
The Vineyard churches are usually associated with the pioneering work of John Wimber, who was associated with a number of mainline evangelical groups, but who had a distinctive gift — certainly a distinctive emphasis upon [a] charismatic understanding of Christianity. John Wimber was a pioneer in the use of a new kind of music that was designed to appeal to contemporary tastes, as opposed to traditional tastes. The Vineyard churches, like many things in America, are weak on tradition, strong on personal experience. It may be that their success is keyed to these developments in American culture more generally.
The jury that will have to judge, in some future generation, about the integrity and the success of the Vineyard movement will have to ask: Did this stress on personal experience undercut some traditional Christian matters that were of necessity? It’s too early to say now. Certainly, the Vineyard churches have been a very interesting new phenomenon, a new way of adaptation by evangelical groups at the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century.
In your view, is it a good or a bad thing — the emphasis on personal experience?
Emphasis on personal experience has been a main feature of evangelical history since the mid-18th century. Even though some of the early leaders of evangelicalism, like Jonathan Edwards or John Wesley, were first-rate intellectuals, they communicated a message that said that personal experience of God was a key matter. So to have new varieties of emphasis upon the personal experience of God in our time is only what one should expect in evangelical movements. Always, however, when you stress personal experience, the risk is run that you, rather than God, will become the center of religion. Does this risk exist now? Yes. Has it existed before? Yes. Has God brought people through this risk before? Yes. Can he do it again? Yes. Will he? We don’t know.
What are the important trends or issues that Max Lucado’s Oak Hills Church brings up about evangelicalism?
The Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas would be, I think, representative of several important trends in modern evangelicalism. Although this is a church that comes out of the Restoration movement — the Churches of Christ or Christian Church — [it] has chosen to call itself a community church or just Oak Hills Church. Its pastor, Max Lucado, is a very effective communicator in person, a very effective communicator through print. People come to the church not because it is part of the Restoration tradition, but because of its skillful presentation of the Christian message and its efficient organization of Christian worship and Christian practice. This would be a trend, I think — that denominational tradition means less than the ability of pastors, spokespeople, local churches to organize effectively to reach out to their communities. And this has obviously been one of the most effective churches in the country in doing that.
Is it a good trend? A worrisome trend? Or is it too early to know?
As a historian I am, of course, worried when traditions are given up without good reason. And yet, as a historian of evangelical Christianity, I know that evangelicals have made adjustments to their religious traditions throughout the centuries. So to give up traditional denomination loyalties in order to reach out more broadly to the public seems to me to be a trade-off that could be positive and could be negative. If the end product is to be wishy-washy and unsettled, without an anchor, tossed about on every wind of contemporary culture, then, of course, that would be a negative situation. If something genuine and filled with integrity from the Christian tradition is maintained, then this is probably a good thing — to reach out more broadly with that kind of message.
You’ve written a lot about the Protestant hymns. What is their significance for the evangelical tradition in America and for evangelical churches?
Music has always been important to evangelical Protestants, right from the days of Charles Wesley, the great hymn-writing brother of John Wesley. “Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing” has been the “Marseillaise” hymn of Methodism since the 1740s. Hymns for evangelicals, I think, fill several functions. They fulfill a teaching function. They express what is important at any one time and era for evangelical Christians. Evangelicals do not, generally speaking, emphasize the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And so singing — something bodily — becomes quasi-sacramental in evangelical churches. Music also reflects very profound changes. There was a new style of evangelical hymnody in the 18th century with Charles Wesley, with John Newton’s “Amazing Grace,” with many other hymns that are still sung in Protestant — and now today, Catholic — churches: Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of my soul,” and hymns by the American Presbyterian Samuel Davies — “Who is a pardoning God like thee? Or who has grace so rich and free?” — and hymns like William Cooper’s “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian as he sings.” These are all great statements of Christian faith that, at least in some traditions, are still used today. But one of the constant features of evangelical history has been new music for new times. So at the end of the 19th century, there was a great quantity of what we call now gospel music that was written. Fanny Crosby’s hymnody was a very important addition to America and to worldwide Christian music in the second half of the 19th century. Her hymn “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying” was an appeal to reach out to the new urban masses in America who were not as well churched as had been the case in Protestant America. And now, in the last 40 and 50 years, we’ve had a great boom of song — praise song, worship song, Scripture songs — connected, I think, pretty strongly at first to the charismatic movement, but now broadening out to all sorts of churches. These would be the kind of tunes heard probably most broadly in American churches. I think some of them are fine. I think some of them are terrible. As a historian and a lover of hymnody, I worry that some of the older, very good hymns are simply being turned aside because they’re not now fashionable, don’t have a strong enough beat. But as a historian, it’s obvious that at different times the music expresses new things. And evangelicals are amongst the first to jump on the bandwagon and use the new kinds of music.
We have talked to evangelicals around the country about their faith and about beliefs, behavior, and belonging. How do you think evangelicals fall into those three categories? Why are those three things so important, particularly to evangelical Christians?
Some of the best surveys by political scientists and sociologists stress the three Bs in defining evangelicals: beliefs, belonging, and behavior. These three categories are really important for all religious groups, all political groups, all groups in society as a whole. But they are especially important for defining evangelicals and defining their practice. The beliefs of the evangelicals are, by and large, traditional Christian beliefs, probably simplified somewhat, adapted somewhat for American culture. Belonging is important. The churches, the church traditions of evangelicals are quite significant. And behavior is quite important: how people act individually, how they act in society. The new intellectual, academic interest in evangelicals and the new political awareness by the American public of evangelicals has to do, I think, with the linking of beliefs, behaviors, and belonging. It is a time of mobilization of people whose beliefs they think are expressed in behaviors, and who are linked to groups in which they belong, that has made evangelical Christianity in the last 20 and 30 years more visible in American public life.
What about global evangelicalism?
One of the interesting aspects of evangelical history today is the awareness that what takes place in the United States is really now only a small part of what could be considered a broader evangelical history for the world. Tens of millions of Africans, in West Africa, South Africa, East Africa; tens of millions of Chinese, tens of millions of Latin Americans, both Catholic and Protestant in Latin America, practice forms of the Christian faith that look pretty similar in many ways to what we define as evangelicalism for the United States. The way in which evangelicals in the United States interact with these evangelical-type groups around the world will, I think, be a very important factor in the future of world Christianity as well as just the future of evangelical Christianity.
The most rapidly growing Christian movements in the world are Catholic and Pentecostal movements in the two Third Worlds. The Philippines is the country with the most Roman Catholics in the world; Nigeria is the country with, far and away, the most Anglicans, Episcopalians, in the world. The largest Pentecostal church in the world is in Korea. The Pentecostals in Brazil are two and three times as numerous as the Pentecostals in the United States. These illustrations could go on and on to suggest that the strand of Christianity that begins with the German pietists, the British evangelicals, [and] the American colonial evangelicals in the 18th century has now broadened out to the world. What American evangelicals will do in responding to this new world situation will tell whether American evangelicals are increasingly isolated from Christians around the world or whether they take part in common witness, common sharing, common doing of good with these new groups of believers around the world.
Are you involved in any of the debates on the same-sex marriage question? Where do you come down?
I haven’t been myself. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than I thought it was. You get educated by your children. We have children who have lived all over the world, East Coast and West Coast. So they’ve told me, “You don’t know. Slow down. Make sure you know what you’re talking about.” I would be certainly toward traditional views of marriage. I think my question would be to what extent the state should enforce traditional views for anyone. I think that’s an issue I’d like to explore a little more myself.
So you make a distinction between what the civil law can do and what churches can or can’t, should or shouldn’t do?
Should we make that distinction? Yes, although I think it’s been the case in the West, particularly in Catholic tradition, people who have been very expert arguing a natural basis for what churches affirm from [the] base of revelation. I think that could be done here, but it needs to be done with a great deal of respect for everybody and understanding of just the way things are. Your question about extremes earlier is a good one, because I do think, by the nature of the case, extreme voices grab public attention. Folks who want to say, “Let’s work this out and see what is actually the case and what actually the case entails,” may get less attention than the ones with the very simple, straightforward, dogmatic position on one side or the other. I do think it would be better for legislatures to legislate than for courts to make the decision. I did approve and do approve of judicial intervention on race issues. But those interventions grow out of four centuries of problems and then 40 years of altered circumstance.