In a well-known 1922 sermon, Harry Emerson Fosdick threw down the gauntlet to fundamentalism when he demanded whether “anybody has the right to deny the Christian name to those who differ with him.” In words that could have been lifted from the editorial page of today's New York Times, Fosdick lamented that “the fundamentalists are giving us one of the worst exhibitions of bitter intolerance that the churches of this country have ever seen.” John Gresham Machen responded a year later with the great popular defense of conservative theology Christianity and Liberalism, warning that “the great redemptive religion which has always been known as Christianity is battling against a totally diverse type of religious belief, which is only the more destructive of the Christian faith because it makes use of traditional Christian terminology.”
For those who came of age in the fundamentalist–evangelical subculture of the 1960s, Fosdick and Machen were still well known—their battle one of the defining stories of the age. Indeed, for Baby Boomer evangelicals, the conflict between fundamentalism and modernism was an oft-told epic whose moral provided clear theological boundaries and left little doubt that not all who use the language of Christianity are the true heirs of historic Christian orthodoxy.
Increasingly, however, I discover that this is no longer the case. For the past three decades, I have been busy teaching and working with evangelical college students, and one of the more interesting changes I have witnessed over these years is a gradual dimming of knowledge about the great modernist-fundamentalist battles. While there are exceptions, the younger generation of evangelicals appears increasingly disconnected from the people, events, and theological issues that gave definition and direction to evangelicalism.
This is certainly a good thing if one is looking for confirmation that American evangelicals have once and for all jettisoned fundamentalism and its myriad peculiarities. And yet a not-so-inconsequential casualty of this historical amnesia is a loss of interest in theology and an understanding of its importance. Apart from a superficial awareness of distinctive denominational and liturgical features, most young evangelicals know little about theology and, worse, see no reason theology should be an issue.
I suspect, for example, that a large majority of my evangelical students—many of whom are intellectually keen—would be hard-pressed to articulate the theological differences between liberal Episcopal presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and megachurch evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Indeed, for many young evangelicals the difference between evangelicals and liberals is simply a matter of differing priorities. Liberals call attention to the social side of Christianity, whereas evangelicals are more likely to highlight the centrality of individual pietism.Loss of historical memory, however, is not the only reason young evangelicals are less interested than their forebears in drawing lines in the theological sand. American evangelicalism itself has changed dramatically in the past several decades. One of the most significant of these changes has been the transformation in the way in which evangelicals worship. Size is certainly an important component of this change. In 1970 there were just ten evangelical churches in America that had congregations of two thousand or more. Today there are more than seven hundred churches with an average of 3,600 members.
But congregational size is not the whole story. Over the past thirty years, American evangelicalism has witnessed the homogenization of its theology and the convergence of worship content and style as denominational identities have been strategically de-emphasized. Almost all evangelical churches have the same look and feel on a given Sunday. Nondenominationalism has always been a big part of American evangelical ecclesiology, but even among those evangelical churches with old denominational roots—including Presbyterians, Wesleyans, Baptists, Pentecostals, and Brethren—historic patterns of denominational theology and worship are often overlooked or downplayed. This dramatic transformation finds empirical verification in recent survey research that suggests that as many as 70 percent of young evangelical adults have no denominational allegiance.
This indifference to denominational distinctions among young evangelicals goes hand in hand with their lack of interest in theology. Previous generations of American evangelicals were schooled in the history and basics of Christian theology in a way that most of today's a-theological young evangelicals are not. Sociologist Christian Smith has noted that “most religious teenagers aren't being well educated in the faith or given much practice in articulating their beliefs and why and how they matter.”
Without theological moorings, young evangelicals are without a spiritual rudder and thus at the mercy of the prevailing winds of personal feeling and the cultural zeitgeist. Indeed, as young evangelicals have drifted from denominational and theological moorings, it is no wonder that many have found haven in postmodern categories of the “emerging church” movement that, in the words of one of its enthusiasts, encourages “a new way of doing church and being the church, one that resonates not only with . . . the first fully postmodern generation.”
This new way of doing church finds its focus in the postmodern holy grails of tolerance, diversity, generosity, openness, inclusion, antidogmatism, and subjectivity. Traditionally understood, Christian theology is about drawing lines between truth and error. Postmodern Christian theology, however, is suspicious of line-drawing, emphasizing instead epistemological skepticism and relational integrity.
To be sure, the mosaic of contemporary American evangelicalism defies easy generalization. The research of Smith and others suggests that American young people remain religious and that predictions of the total secularization of American youth culture are premature. Nevertheless, the fading light of theological literacy among younger American evangelicals raises questions about American evangelicalism's century-long role as the bearer of Christian orthodoxy among American Protestants. Without a clear Christology and understanding of the Church, biblical authority, common grace, and soteriology, it is no wonder that young evangelicals are increasingly unable to articulate and defend the historic Christian worldview and are drawn instead to postmodern ways of thinking.
The damage done here is not only to theological fidelity but also to Christian apologetics. To a generation for whom being tolerant and tolerable is the sine qua non of social etiquette, there is little motivation to defend robustly a distinctive Christian theology. Pressing, as it does, absolute truth claims, traditional Christian apologetics is bound to offend the embracing postmodern sensibilities of open-ended theological hospitality.It should not be surprising that the faith commitment of these young evangelicals is so shallow. Though not always a reliable source, a 2006 Barna study concludes that 60 percent of Christian teenagers will most likely not continue their faith commitments into early adulthood. This sobering statistic will certainly appear accurate to Christian professors, at both secular and Christian universities, who all too often see bright Christian students leave the faith. A different response is found among young, and not so young, evangelicals, who are turned off by theology lite and hunger for a richer, more traditional theology. Their destination is frequently Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or more theologically intentional evangelical congregations.
In his 1923 response to modernism, John Gresham Machen wrote that “vastly more important than all questions with regard to methods of preaching is the root question as to what it is that shall be preached.” Machen understood that theology matters a great deal to the preservation of historic Christian orthodoxy. The modernist-fundamentalist controversies in which Fosdick and Machen were central characters are long over, but the same battle between two Christianities—a historic faith grounded in a supernatural biblical record and two thousand years of church tradition, and a modern Christianity redefined by the assumptions of Enlightenment anti-supernaturalism—rages on.
Remembering Fosdick and Machen is not irrelevant to this ongoing conflict or to the project of defending orthodoxy in the twenty-first century. Thoughtful Christians should understand that keeping alive the historical memory of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy is not an exercise in nostalgia or a call for a return to fundamentalism. It is, rather, a reminder that theological seriousness has always been, and remains today, essential to maintaining a witness to Christian truth.
Dean C. Curry is director of the College Honors Program and professor of politics at Messiah College.