19 August 2005

hart on "evangelicalism"

The pundits have told us repeatedly that the victory of George W. Bush in the 2004 election was due, in large part, to the priorities of "values voters," in particular Bush's ability to garner 78% of the vote among white "evangelicals." Thus, in the ongoing analysis, we've been informed again and again about the beliefs and habits of American "evangelicals," what issues are important to them, how the Democrats have failed to reach out to them, and so on. "Evangelicalism," it seems, is a force in American life that must be reckoned with.

But is it really? What if it's all a mistake? What if, indeed, there is no such thing as "evangelicalism"?

The contention that evangelicalism doesn't exist is, in fact, the main one of Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (BakerAcademic, 2004) by Daryl G. Hart, a book I picked up several weeks ago, which had been recommended to me by a friend who wondered what I'd think of Hart's argument. Prior to his current position, Daryl Hart taught church history at two conservative Reformed seminaries (the two Westminsters, in Philadelphia and California) and so brings the perspective and tools of a historian to the question of the identity of that thing we call "evangelicalism."

In many respects, Deconstructing Evangelicalism is a continued, deepened, and more popular treatment of some of the issues that Hart raised in his earlier work, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002). In that book Hart argued that contemporary evangelicalism has its roots late 19th century trends that valorized the experience of a populist, individualized interiority as the core of Christian expression. In doing so, he argued, evangelicalism succeeded in undercutting its own commitment to historic orthodoxy by displacing the norms of church government, the ordered ministry of word and sacrament, and confessional articulation--the very means by which a orthodox faith was once preserved and passed along to succeeding generations.

But Hart's argument in Deconstructing Evangelicalism also shifts from that of his earlier book, now arguing that the term "evangelicalism," as we have come to use it since the middle of the 20th century, is a recent construction that ends up masking the reality it is supposed to describe and, in fact, fails to refer to any substantive reality at all. The point of the book, then, is to demonstrate the inadequacy of all this talk of "evangelicalism" in order that the chimera it represents might dissolve away.

Once upon a time, "evangelical" simply referred to those churches that descended from the magisterial Reformers and thus were Protestant rather than Roman Catholic or Unitarian-Universalist. In the 19th century, all Protestants, from German Lutherans to southern Baptists, were "evangelical" whether they worshipped liturgically, worked for the cause of abolition, or were ministered to by circuit riders. This is how the term is still used in many parts of Europe where, for instance, the German word "Evangelische" refers simply to the mainline Protestant churches, particularly Lutherans.

Even in the early 20th century, as the modernist- fundamentalist controversy was gearing up, the advocates of liberalism and the Social Gospel still embraced the term "evangelical" with reference to themselves. But then, in the wake of that controversy, things changed. Part of Hart's purpose in his book is to tell that story, to give a sort of genealogical critique of contemporary evangelicalism.

Hart's argument falls into two main sections, each containing three chapters, one section entitled "The Making of Evangelicalism" and the other "The Unmaking of Evangelicalism." In the first section Hart describes how the architects of (neo-)evangelicalism "built the evangelical edifice and how academics have maintained the facade of the building" until "evangelicalism" has become a major area of study, social analysis, polling, and so on (28). In the second section Hart examines how evangelicalism as a religious movement has failed to establish any cohesive identity and how, in its anti-traditionalism, evangelicalism has (not surprisingly) failed to construct any kind of sustainable identity.

The opening chapter surveys the emergence of "evangelicalism" as an object of study within (even the secular) academy over the past 25 years. Literature on the topic has been, in fact, a burgeoning industry, often providing many helpful insights into "trends and developments in American Christianity" (56). But the result was shelves of books studying an object that simply did not exist as an object of study 40 years ago, even though many of the studies trace the supposed phenomenon of "evangelicalism" back to the early days of the American experiment, even to the Puritans.

Hart notes, moreover, that it is no accident that this study of "evangelicalism" emerged at the same time that "the study of American Christianity shifted from church history to religious history," a shift from the study of the church, with its structures and patterns, to a study of individual religious experience and belief (58). Thus, the emergence of scholarship concerning "evangelicalism" was a reflex of the academy's "rejection of Protestant hegemony" in favor of a historiography that favored outsiders, diversity, and the marginal (59). It also came along with a shift in the study of history away from official structures, formal organs, and publications over to a social history that celebrated ordinary life--a perfect fit with the individualistic, egalitarian, and pragmatic character of evangelical piety.

In the next two chapters, Hart continues in a similar vein, turning to the social scientific study of religion in relation to the emergence of "evangelicalism." Evangelical leaders had attempted to position themselves as the rightful heirs of historic Protestantism, over against the mainline churches. And they did this despite the lack of any formal structures binding evangelicals together, while holding to only the barest of shared doctrinal content and all the time minimizing the kinds of patterns that once marked out and reproduced confessional Protestantism.

Nonetheless, academic social science came to the rescue, Hart goes on to suggest. Through polling data and other statistical methods, combining various forms of self-identification with voting patterns, distinctive beliefs, and so on, social science was able to provide the identity and continuity for evangelicalism that it otherwise lacked. Through these means, Hart contends, social scientists were able to provide seemingly hard data in order to "establish that born-again Protestants were the rightful heirs to Protestant orthodoxy" (83). The problem, of course, is that polling data is notoriously good at constructing the object it is purporting to report upon, particularly in areas as complex and varied as religious identity, faith commitment, and church life. As Hart notes, "Sound-bite questions end up breaking down profound religious truths into bite-sized portions to which those surveyed may respond positively with little reflection or conviction" (106).

In the second section of his book, Hart begins by noting how "evangelicalism" has a center of gravity that is not focused upon the church, with its ministry, doctrine, preaching, sacraments, and catechesis, but upon parachurch organizations and charismatic personalities. But such a center of gravity requires very little from its adherents and, as Hart suggests, tends "toward abstraction rather the concrete forms of give-and-take involved in congregational and denominational life" (125). The result is something ephemeral, lacking any discernable boundaries, and often shallow.

It's not that "evangelicalism" is devoid of any doctrinal content, of course. As Hart notes, there are some "fundamentals" passed along from an earlier phase of its emergence. In the end, however, the bottom line is, as Hart's fifth chapter's title puts it, "No Creed but the Bible's Inerrancy." His point is not that inerrancy is mistaken, but that, apart from a larger body of dogmatic theology, it provides no real basis for a cohesive identity or intellectual formation. Indeed, as Hart notes, "the doctrine that was supposed to distinguish conservative from liberal Protestants and would prevent...theological slippage" turned out not only to be "insufficient for an evangelical scholarly initiative," but also "turned out to be divisive" itself among those who identified as evangelicals (151).

Hart finishes out the second section of his book with a discussion of evangelical worship practices, noting the odd phenomenon of "evangelicalism" maintaining a kind of political and cultural conservativism--a conservativism that sets itself over against the varied liberalisms of mainline Protestantism--but nevertheless is itself undeniably liberal at the very heart of what it is to be the church: the worship of God. As Hart puts it, there is an "inability of born-again Protestants to see the inconsistency of standing for religious values that transcend time and place while packaging those truths in forms that are singularly disposable" (174). Or, to put it another way, how it is possible for evangelicalism to construct a stable, coherent, and ongoing identity for itself when those patterns that are best able to "unite believers across generations and cultures" are routinely set aside?

Hart concludes with a final chapter tying these various threads of argument together. Whatever "evangelicalism" might suppose itself to be, it's not clear there is any reality there. It certainly isn't a "tradition" in any normal sense of the term. It might be construed as a "coalition," but, if so, it is one with ever-changing constituencies, alliances, and leadership, with no real cohesive identity over time. The chapter ends by asking the question, "what would happen if Americans decided to give up the label" of "evangelical," to admit that it doesn't actually exist (187)?

Hart envisions largely salutary results. Perhaps, by no longer identifying with a nebulous collective identity, believers would be "encouraged...to recognize all the ways in which the local church...ministers to them and provides the real stuff of a Christian identity" (188). Perhaps "the search for minimal affirmations and warm sentiments" might give way to a greater appreciation for the fullness and richness of biblical teaching as that can emerge within a coherent, historic tradition (189).

So, what is one to make of Hart's extended argument?

As far as I can see, it is historically unassailable. My summary above does almost nothing to communicate the texture and wealth of historical detail that Hart weaves together, detail which is well worth reading the book. The contentious bit is how one interprets that history, whether or not it does incidate that "evangelicalism" is a mere ephemera, a facade constructed by cadre of evangelical leaders, historians, social scientists, and pollsters. It does seem to me, however, that much of Hart's account is fairly compelling.

But this doesn't mean that there are no question one can raise concerning Hart's argument.

First, my philosophical side wants to raise questions about the ontology of social objects, such as "evangelicalism," before we make the determination of whether or not it "exists." After all, is it really the case that ephemeral objects don't exist, objects where the main continuities over time are change, shifting coalitions, superficial appearances of similarity, and so on?

But I suppose asking such an abstract question is, in many respect, to miss Hart's point. For his argument to succeed, all that's necessary is that whatever evangelicalism might be, it is not what its proponents, expositors, and defenders have taken it to be--a mass religious movement constituting a definite tradition, carrying forward the mantle of historic Protestantism. Moreover, Hart does succeed in demonstrating both the sheer difficulty of solidly identifying "evangelicalism" and how the identity it does maintain is much more a matter of marketing and politics, of personalities and polling than it is anything churchly or theological.

Second, Hart's argument sometimes seems to suppose a too facile opposition between various kinds of Christian piety and practice. As Donald Bloesch points out in his review of Hart's book in The Christian Century (May 31, 2005), "Hart is especially critical of pietism, which he accuses of reducing faith to religious experience. Yet he does not see that formalism and ceremonialism can be as grave a threat to faith as pietism." Or, to put it more succinctly, "There is no inherent conflict between structure and ecstasy."

Bloesch is correct, I think, in many respects. Certainly a ritual spirituality devoid of any true faith and piety is a perpetual danger (as much as any) and, moreover, there is nothing about true biblical piety that is in the least tension with structure, tradition, and inherited practices. But Bloesch also seems to miss the point of Hart's argument, which is not directed against "piety" per se or Christian spiritual experience, but against "pietism" as that has emerged within American Christianity, with its embodiment of peculiarly American values of individualism, egalitarianism, pragmatism, and anti-traditionalism.

From the standpoint of this kind of spirituality, the big dangers will always appear to be formalism, externalism, and ceremonialism, especially tied as they are in the popular conservative Christian imagination with theological liberalism. Inasmuch as conservative American Christianity has taken up the patterns and values of such pietism, it does engage in a sort of myopia or distorted vision that tends in an unchurchly direction, undermining (if not inimical to) the kinds of traditional means of preserving and inculcating the faith, which Hart at one point delineates in terms of "birth, baptism, catechism, and worship" (82). If this is so, then "evangelicalism" does have an undercurrent that renders it inherently unstable.

None of this is to say, of course, that finding effective ways of communicating the Gospel to our contemporary world is unimportant. But there is a necessary, even if difficult balance that must be maintained in proclaiming the faith to a lost and broken world and in passing it along to new generations of converts and covenant children. This is a balance between, on one hand, the missional character of a church that humbly and lovingly speaks the Gospel to people within all the various situations where they find themselves and, on the other hand, not allowing the culture to dictate the form that Gospel proclamation must take in a way that undermines the integrity of the message and the identity of God's people through the ages.

But this balance need not presuppose an opposition between missiology and ecclesiology. It is precisely when the church maintains itself as an alternative polis--a community of faith and love gathered together out of the world for the world around the word and sacraments--that the church is at its most effective. As Hart puts it, the local congregation of believers and such congregations working together,

...are sites of real, though flawed, Christian ministry, where members gather together every week in the presence of God to offer praise and petitions and to receive the good of the gospel through preaching and the celebration of the sacraments. These churches are also places where diaconal assistance is provided, the advice and warnings of discipline are rendered, and fellowship among the saints is available. (188)

Thus, the central message of Hart's book is, in the end, a plea for the priority of the local church, embodying the traditional and biblical "ordinary means" of Christian discipleship.

Finally, in evaluating Hart's book, one is faced with the question of where we go from here, assuming that he is essentially correct in much of his analysis. Again, in Bloesch's review he suggests that perhaps we should not be so ready to jettison the category of "evangelical." Rather, Bloesch submits, we might do better to "redefine the term 'evangelicalism'" so that it becomes "more closely related to the Protestant Reformation, which is its basis in history" and points to the efforts of Karl Barth, P.T. Forsyth, Alister McGrath, and others in this direction (and one could add here figures such as Newbigin, Torrance, Braaten, Jenson, and so on). Or, as in the case of the Alliance (ACE), we might adopt the terminology of "confessing evangelical."

I have my doubts about the ability of the term to be retrieved, at least in the present context, but perhaps Bloesch is correct. If, however, the "evangelicalism" of Bloesch is one that is rooted in history and in the shape and content of the Protestant Reformation, then I think we must also recognize that much of what today goes under the banner of "evangelicalism" falls short of the fullness and integrity of that reformational faith.

What's more, with a redefined and retrieved sense of things, much of what one might recognize as "evangelicalism" will, it turns out, still be found largely within the churches of mainline Protestantism, as the examples of Barth, Braaten, and Newbigin indicate. Thus, the onetime boundary between "mainline" and "evangelical" will blur, particularly in this era of post-liberalism, and our identity as Presbyterian or Methodist or Reformed will have to more readily embrace those from whom we may find ourselves separated by a common tradition. While I, for one, am comfortable with porous boundaries and while we are increasingly in an era in which denominational identities are held very loosely, such boundary breaching may not sit well with some who identify as "evangelicals."

If we do undertake such a retrieval, however, perhaps we might even draw from a history that extends back even further than the Reformation, recognizing that the "evangel" is one that is rooted in the Gospels, proclaimed by the apostles, and shaped by the life of the early church of the Fathers and Councils. In that light, being "evangelical" might also embody a kind of catholicity, perhaps even with a nod to the "evangelical counsels" of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as virtues that, in analogous ways, should characterize the life of reciprocity among God's people. Such developments are already apparent within the emerging church, the recovery of Reformed liturgy, and the various sorts of intentional Christian communities that have sprung up in recent years, whatever shortcomings and historical eclecticism such developments might represent.

At any rate, I can't claim to have the answers for the quandry that Hart sets out in such an unsettling and provocative way. But his book does have the virtue of afflicting those who find a too easy comfort in the trappings of evangelical identity with all its cultural and political baggage, while also providing some comfort for those of us afflicted by an identity that runs up against deeply held convictions regarding the centrality of God's ecclesial people in his plan to save a broken world.