United Statesist Christianity

We need a new name for Christianity in the United States. The contributors to this podcast at Christianity Today are still lamenting the turnout of white evangelicals for Donald Trump and so one of them called for more attention to what it means to be evangelical. Are you kidding? We’ve had almost four decades of scholarship on evangelicalism, and at least three of chanting the integration of faith and learning, and we still don’t know what evangelical is? Please.

Then comes the objection to calling Lee Stroebel, whose new film is drawing attention to the Bill Hybels-spawned apologist, a fundamentalist.

A note or two about Strobel, the legal-affairs journalist. He did his undergraduate degree at a top j-school, the University of Missouri, and then went to Yale University to get his law degree. That gives some clues as to his approach to research and writing.

Strobel converted to Christianity in 1981 and, after a few years, went into ministry – becoming a “teaching pastor” at the world famous Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburbs.

Now, WIllow Creek – led by the Rev. Bill Hybels – has for decades been known as, literally, a globel hub for the “seeker friendly” school of mainstream (some would say somewhat “progressive”) evangelicalism. Hybels, of course, became a major news-media figure in the 1990s through his writings and his role as one of the “spiritual advisors” and private pastors to President Bill Clinton.

Willow Creek is not a fundamentalist church.

From there, Strobel went west and for several years served as a writer in residence and teaching pastor at Saddleback Community Church, founded and led by the Rev. Rick “The Purpose Driven Life” Warren. In addition to writing one of the bestselling books in the history of Planet Earth, Warren has also received quite a bit of news-media attention through his high-profile dialogues with President Barack Obama, both during Obama’s first White House campaign and in the years afterwards.

Saddleback is not a fundamentalist church.

Fair points. I don’t think Stroebel is a fundamentalist either. But evangelical is increasingly meaningless even among Protestants who haven’t read (hades!, heard of) Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

So why not simply identify Christianity in the United States according to the degree to which its adherents adapt their faith (or pick and choose) to national norms? (Do remember that in 1899 Leo XIII identified Americanism as a heresy.) Once upon a time, Protestants came to North American and tried to transmit the version of Protestantism (works for Roman Catholics and Jews also) they brought to a New World setting. Some confessional Protestants still do this and triangulate their ministry in the U.S. according to precedents set in Europe whether at the time of the Reformation or when specific episodes upset national churches (think Scotland, England, Netherlands, Germany). Presbyterians in NAPARC still live with a foot (or – ahem – toe nail) in Old World Protestantism even as they have repudiated (except for the Covenanters) the political structures that animated their European predecessors.

But then along came awakenings and parachurch associations and increasingly Protestantism in the U.S. was known less for the fingerprints of its European origins than for those innovators (Whitefield and Moody) or structures (American Bible Society or National Association of Evangelicals) who were as independent of Old World Protestantism as their nation was of the United Kingdom. Once freed from European constraints, American Christianity used markets, earnestness, activism, and relevance as the basis for Christian identity. Evangelicalism was the kinder gentler version of fundamentalism. But neither showed the slightest bit of deference to the churches that came out of the Reformation.

Now, even the labels fundamentalist and evangelical make little difference. The gatekeepers won’t stand at the gate and even if they did the gateway has no wall to make the gate functional. Anyone can be a Christian on their own terms, with celebrities and parachurch agencies gaining the most imitators. But those instances of fame collect no dues, make no demands, and provide no institutional support. It’s like belonging to Red Sox Nation. Wear your bumper sticker. Listen to your Tim Keller sermon (now on sale for $1,500). Got to the next Gospel Coalition conference. You have Jesus in your heart and United Statesist Christianity has lots of proprietors to make your heart burn.

The good thing about United Statesist Christianity is that it allows its adherents to revel in exceptionalism. If America is a great nation, United Statesist Christianity is no less exceptional. Instead of a Pretty Good Awakening, United Statesist Christianity puts the Great back in Great Awakening.

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