The Years of the Evangelicals

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 15, 1989, pp. 171-174. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Evangelicalism, as described by Marty, is a grouping of diverse religious denominations and movements that have difficulty in defining "evangelicalism" to themselves. While not increasing in numbers of recent decades, they have grown in public awareness through aggressive moralizing on issues like abortion and school prayer. Marty outlines the evolution in various evangelicals’ theology and rhetoric, and suggests some of the hurdles they face in an increasingly religously-diverse nation and world.

Reporters who want to know something about evangelicalism -- or about "evangelicism" or evangelisticism" or "evangelism," as they sometimes put it -- often call on someone like me to do some defining. Once I had to spell out, literally, the difference between "evangelicalism" and "evangelism."

The culture at large has only somewhat less difficulty getting evangelicalism into focus. With good reason: the term has come into prominence only in the past dozen years (after Newsweek named 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical"), and evangelicals themselves fight over what the term does and should mean. Without settling their questions of boundary and definition, I want to comment on the current shape of evangelicalism from the vantage of a friendly critic or a critical friend.

Friendly as I am to evangelicals, they do not recognize me as part of the born-again camp. (We Lutherans like to say we are born again daily in a "return" to our baptism through repentance, but that does not count.) I often, and gladly, accept invitations to evangelical gatherings, think tanks and schools, where I am introduced as the participant-observer "nonevangelical."

I like then to point to a linguistic irony: I am often the only person in the room whose very denomination has "evangelical" in the title and whose confessional tradition was "evangelical" in dictionary senses (gospel-centered, German-Lutheran or Reformed, mainstream Protestant) before the Newsweek version was patented in America. Ironies aside, I welcome the chance to observe and participate, finding much that is admirable as well as some that is confusing on such occasions.

I would first locate evangelicalism in its generic societal context. In 1977 sociologist Daniel Bell, contemplating "the return of the sacred," suggested that societies like ours are not so much secular as they are made up of persistent religious subgroups. One group he called "redemptive," but described it in such a way that I would call it "traditional. " This group would include most Catholic, Jewish and mainstream Protestant traditions, few of them aggressive. In another group he included a diffuse expression of mythical and mystical thought, which I would call "mystical." It would include private and experimental spiritualities -- cultic and occult, Eastern and Joseph Campbellite, Old Age and New Age.

Between the two camps lies the moralizing religion of an evangelical and fundamentalist sort; call it "evangelical-moralist." This would be an appropriate term for assertive religious movements which insist on and provide experience and authority for their members. They also provide moral counsel, which they take seriously, and moral prescriptions, which they try to impose on society. Here evangelicals keep company with conservative Catholics, orthodox Jews, fundamentalists and Pentecostals. One expects, for example, to see them united in protest against abortion and new sexual morality.

It is in this societal sector that evangelicalism has had its years of prominence. Most nonevangelicals wouldn't know an errantist from an inerrantist, a pre-from a post-from an a- millennialist, and think being "born again" is a warm tingle in the toes. But they do know that the evangelical-moralist sector has made most of the news in the past 12 years, and that it includes much more than the evangelism of Billy Graham.

What was striking about the evangelical-moralist move was that it occurred in tandem with stirrings in the mystical sector at a time when the "traditional" religion was weakening: a crisis of legitimacy afflicted traditional sectors, and there was a "collapse of the middle" in American life.

The evangelical-moralist group represents not simply "old-time religion" but innovative, modern forces. Those who like ironies may note that whenever an old-time religion has adapted and turned aggressive in American history, it has come with the adjective "new," as in New Side, New Light and New Measures. Moderates, liberals and modernists have periodically been tagged as the Old Side, Old Light party attached to Old Measures or simply as the traditionalists.

The evangelical-moralist sector has gained access to the White House, the Supreme Court, the Congress; it has a near-monopoly on mass media religion news, popular religion, the production of religious celebrities; it makes clear its positions on what it calls social issues, and is engaged in calling for constitutional amendments and new laws and in protests in the public squares. Its members have arrived where their grandparents were often reluctant to go or opposed to going. Religion, for an older generation, was about evangelism and saving souls, not moralizing in the public sphere.

One result of this new social stance is that evangelicalism is learning about the limits of power. Maybe there is to be no mainstream again, no established set of religious norms by which deviance is measured, no bloc of votes to enforce religious clout (as there was in the days of Prohibition or the defeat of Catholic Al Smith). Many in the evangelical camp were disappointed in Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist from their own sphere, and many others have learned that they got little but illusion from Ronald Reagan. The president of their dreams, who identified with them, gave them little and took much so far as their historic norms were concerned. Close enough now to running the show that they can no longer blame a single other camp for misrunning it, they have entered a period of disarray and sense a need for revising goals.

Evangelicalism should also be viewed in its popular religious, as opposed to its civil, context. "Popular" here refers to people's self-description. In American Mainline Religion (Rutgers University Press, 1987) Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney graph responses to such questions as: "What is your religious preference-Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?" and "What specific denomination is that, if any?" With a bit of forcing and necessary overprecision, the General Social Survey data distinguish seven religious families. For instance, 25 percent of the populace "prefers" to be Catholic, and 24.2 percent are "Moderate Protestants. " "Conservative Protestants" come in third, with 15.8 percent, representing roughly every sixth American.

Conservative Protestantism includes Southern Baptists, Adventists, evangelicals/fundamentalists, Nazarenes, members of the Churches of Christ, the Pentecostal Holiness churches, the Churches of God, and others, and we should raise the percentage some by also including Christian Reformed and Missouri Synod Lutherans. One remarkable feature in this poll is that the conservative sector accounts for only 15.8 percent. We lack precise data for comparison, but I'd venture that if the General Social Survey folk had interviewed people in 1942, 1952, 1962 or 1972 they would have found about the same percentage as in 1982. Despite the prosperity of almost all the denominations in the group, there has been little growth, one must surmise, in the popular camp of those who "prefer" it. We all know a secular person or three who converted, a Jew for Jesus, a Catholic who switched, a mainstream Protestant's child who was Campus Crusaded and is born again, but there seems to have been no move of a cohort, no mass migration into evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism. (Might the move of many Hispanics into Pentecostalism, fundamentalism and sometimes evangelicalism represent that rare thing in American religion, the move of a cohort into a new camp? We must wait to see.)

What has happened is astonishing growth as conservatives move into the middle class in morale, efficiency, visibility, technique, group identity and expressiveness. But this growth seems to be occurring largely among those who "preferred" conservative Protestantism all along. While liberal and moderate Protestants and Roman Catholics were seeing boundaries and identities erode and their young moving from belonging to merely preferring, the evangelicals and company were gathering in, building and providing boundaries.

Besides noting that evangelical growth has occurred under a relatively low ceiling (the 15.8 percent figure), one should also observe that the movements within that boundary have caused great internal strain. More denominational news of the past two decades has been made in or at the edges of this sector, with schisms or near schisms among Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans and southern Presbyterians (who were closer than other mainstream groups to this camp), than in any other sector.

Disputes over boundaries, standards and who's in and who's out are far from over for conservative Protestants. It is a sort of compliment to them that they regard their denominations as important enough to fight over. Evangelicalism cannot have an easy task in defining itself. It was unable to use the "inerrancy/limited inerrancy/other-kind-of-authority" issue as a way of setting bounds. It has settled for many kinds of millennial visions, for a number of philosophical contexts for theological endeavor, and for varied attitudes toward feminist and liberationist hermeneutics. It includes various justifications for diverse social programs, from Sojourners, The Other Side, Jacques Ellul, John Howard Yoder and Mark Hatfield to the Quite Far Right. What one prefers when one prefers conservative Protestantism will be even less clear in the next generation.

Evangelicalism must also be considered in a specific ecclesial, churchly, triad -- the company of fundamentalisms and Pentecostalisms. Doctrinally and cognitively, insofar as worldviews and belief systems or patterns of biblical interpretation are concerned (though not always stylistically), evangelicalism cannot yield its ties to these two sets of cousins, being closer to them than to other forms of Christianity and ecumenically committed to their advance. Yet in many respects serious evangelicalism -- and what evangelicalism is not serious? -- during the past dozen years has suffered more stigma and shame through these links than it has enjoyed favor and prosperity.

On the single front of sexual scandal, the only one that holds much public interest (well, include fiscal scandal, too), these years have seen the fall or compromising of Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart and a host of slightly lesser-known figures. Recent weeks have seen the Religious Fall of the Week of one after another of the big-time big-city big-church pastors (in Dallas, Costa Mesa and Detroit, for starters). They are all Pentecostal or fundamentalist, though the public lumps them all as evangelicals,

Serious evangelicals know that such public scandals were neither caused nor reported on by mainstream believers, nor were they discovered by the public media. They were disclosed because conscientious or competitive fundamentalists and Pentecostals blew the whistle. Evangelicals also suffer for the countless fundamentalist and Pentecostal pastors and members who suffer guilt by association. They regret their own accidental tainting under the public glare, but are inclined to regard the scandals as warnings lest they also trip. They consider the purges as finally healthy for the ecclesial triad and for themselves. Expect more, not less, distancing by evangelicals from the high-risk fundamentalists and Pentecostals. Watch, also, for more fundamentalists to take creative cover in more evangelically styled identities in the years ahead.

As for theology, these years have been generally positive ones for the evangelicals. They are major participants in groups within the American Philosophical Association, the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion. They teach in a thousand college religion departments and a score of graduate religion and theological, schools. They do not dominate, perhaps because no one does, and certainly because academic modes of reasoning determine the rules by which evangelicals must play alongside Catholics, Jews, mainstream Protestants, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. No evangelical theologian, however, has made his or her way among the titans -- though, titans in theology have been hard to come by in any tradition recently. Carl Henry wrote a Summa, but the academic evangelicals tend to read Karl Barth and Karl Rahner more than Henry Francis Schaeffer tried to erect an apologetic edifice, but most of those I meet think he did so on a woeful, metaphysically condemned site. C. S. Lewis was an effective literary apologist, but had philosophical limits.

Evangelicals have borrowed tools for heuristic purposes and made the beginnings of a theological synthesis from storehouses other than the ones used by scholastic evangelicalism--Baconianism, Ramism, Scottish common sense realism.

Evangelicals demonstrate increased sympathy for theological experiment and ease in the secular and religious academy. In the writing of American religious history, a few once-lonely seniors like Timothy L. Smith have been joined by a younger group that shines: Harry Stout at Yale, Grant Wacker at North Carolina, Nathan Hatch at Notre Dame, Mark Noll and Joel Carpenter at Wheaton, George Marsden at Duke are only the first that come to mind. Similar developments are occurring in most disciplines, though the evidence is murkiest in biblical studies, because experiment there is still the touchiest subject in evangelicalism. To summarize: the Years of the Evangelicals have been good to evangelical scholars, partly because those scholars have helped. give substance to the years.

The years ahead? Problems of self-definition will increase, not lessen. One element of evangelicalism remains in continuity with 19th-century evangelicalism (then mainstream Protestantism), and has never passed through the narrow valley where fundamentalists fought modernists. Its partisans have never needed an enemy or bogey to define themselves; the world, the flesh and the devil give them enough to fight without inventing or exaggerating the Secular Humanist or the Modernist Protestant.

A second element is made up of bruised, repentant, and sometimes embarrassed grandchildren of the bruising, unrepentant and unembarrassable trench-fighting fundamentalists of the '20s. This wing chose to moderate and change their manners back in the early '40s when the National Association of Evangelicals was formed. They continued to moderate and change through the career of their best-known leader, Billy Graham, and through most of the years of the journal he helped found, Christianity Today. But they have long relied on a clear set of enemies to define themselves.

A third group, becoming ever more visible, thanks to historians like Timothy Smith and Donald Dayton, reminds us that much of the social, experiential and even theological background of today's evangelicalism never was Reformed scholastic, as in the Princeton school, but derives from Arminian, Wesleyan, holiness and Keswickian sources.

Confusion arises on other fronts, too. Evangelicals of Manichaean bent who want to divide the world into God's and the Devil's, Christ's and the Antichrist's, Christian's and secular humanist's, evangelical's and modernist's, are not so sure of the enemy. The Soviet "evil empire" has certainly not come into the kingdom, but the Christian presence in Russia and in China, the example of Billy Graham, the late moves of their hero Ronald Reagan in the age of glasnost, the prospect of government dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (Israel being a favorite of this camp), will surely alter the evangelicals' public stance.

Evangelicals have also begun to learn that the real secularizing force in our society is capitalism gone extreme -- into simple service of Mammon, mediated through advertising that has to be called postpost-Judeo-Christian in its symbols, pagan in its intentions, and subversive of Christian morality while supportive of simple consumerism and commodification.

To find foils on the church front, evangelicals have to exaggerate the power of the World Council of Churches and almost invent power for the National Council of Churches. They find the pope too frequently being an ally for him to be the Antichrist. Are they running out of enemies from the right where fundamentalists take their shots at Billy Graham? It was easier to devise negative strategies in 1925 or at almost any time before the Years of the Evangelicals than it is now.

In the face of a constituency that has not favored paradox or ambiguity, evangelicals now seem poised around polarities, forced to be dialectical. For instance, they are largely in the Reformed camp marked by what H. Richard Niebuhr called a "Christ transforming culture" motif. They would, somehow, bring in the kingdom. Yet increasingly, especially after some punishing public encounters, they are aware that, while their power is to be reckoned with, they will not run the show. They are also being reminded, as Niebuhr's category of "Christ and culture in paradox" reminds us, that transforming the public realm can be compromising and tainting. They are relearning, in more or less evangelical Lutheran terms, that the demonic pervades the structures of existence, and that they had better reckon with profound setback and defeat (what would look like total defeat, apart from the presence of the cross of Jesus Christ).

As they move toward what they thought was the center of culture, which turns out to have no center, they have become recognized partners in the conversation that passes for civil discourse. They have learned, as an older fundamentalism did not bother to, that they must be civil to be heard. Yet they would not be evangelicals if they were not evangelistic. Taking lessons from Christians who stopped inviting people to convert or join would be fatal. Today, no one comes uninvited. And if evangelicals stop trying to convert others, they will be rather lonely, for advertisers, New Age pitchpersons and advocates of every other therapy and worldview are aggressively making their pitches. Yet combining civil conversation and evangelicalism is a difficult and delicate art.

Prosperity will present more problems. Evangelical-fundamentalist-Pentecostal people, especially whites and Orientals among them, have moved into the prosperous classes. Will they have to learn that "it's bad to be bourgeois," as mainstream Protestants and Catholics have been told for a half-century, and thus lose a hearing? Will they teach that "it's good to serve Mammon," as many conservative Christians do today? Will they learn that God has a preferential option for the poor and for everybody else, along the way? Built-in strains within what was once called the Protestant ethic remain to haunt evangelical Protestants.

The Years of the Evangelicals find them poised to engage the Poor World, the Third World, the Southern World, the nonwhite world. These worlds have become the dominant ones in the Christian world, and will shape much of history in the third millennium after Christ. How will evangelicals mediate between their secure North American white base, with theologies born of Western philosophy, to Asian and African matrices?

A dozen more dialectical situations could be listed that call for clarity of thought and expression. The next 12 years cannot be the Years of the Evangelicals in the same way the previous ones were. A period has ended. The evangelical renewal did not lead to general revival, and harder times may be coming for all institutional forms of religion. But unless history ends, one can be sure that 12 years from now, when that 21st century, the third millennium, begins, evangelicals will be around enjoying and pondering their ambiguous circumstances.