There continues to be sober reflection on what the Trumpian moment means for the future of evangelicalism, and rightly so. We are in a time of reckoning for the churches. As with all reflection on evangelicalism, however, conclusions are necessarily fragmented. I become more convinced that the best we can hope for is a cubist portrait of the movement, even though we try for some form of expressionism. Of course, any portrait depends on how the lines are drawn, and the lines of the evangelical world are more like clouds than clocks. I thought about this recently, after reading columns by Ross Douthat and Alan Jacobs on evangelical intellectual life and the evangelical crisis in the age of Trump.
Though I have made this point before, it bears repeating that the evangelical world is divided into various constituencies that overlap one another. What these constituencies are depends on the baseline being used. In terms of denominations, there are a Presbyterian and Southern Baptist wing and a Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal wing. Smaller denominations tend to fit under one of those larger wings. Employing theological distinctions, one finds a Reformed-Baptist axis and a Wesleyan-Holiness axis. A broader version of these theological distinctions reveals a confessional wing and a pietistic wing. Turning to sociological models will take one into gender issues, which run from complementarian to egalitarian. Ecclesial models run from denominationalism to non-denominationalism (including network churches). Or one could simply follow Pew, and define the movement in terms of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, so that “evangelical” becomes a negative category (not the Black Church, and not Mainline Protestant).
There are no liturgical and non-liturgical wings, even though some members of liturgical churches identify as evangelicals. There simply are not enough Anglicans or Lutherans who self-identify as evangelical to create a significant liturgical wing of evangelicalism. Robert Webber’s 1985 Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail seems a world away now. With the current crisis in the global Anglican Communion, evangelical conversions to Anglicanism proceed at a slow pace. The Anglican Church in North America continues to grow steadily, but at just over 100,000 adherents it remains marginal. The continued attrition in the Episcopal Church speaks for itself. The Lutheran groups most likely to identify as evangelical are small and functionally free-church (the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ). Evangelicals continue to move into the Catholic and Orthodox churches, but this remains a minority movement, consisting largely of high-profile converts and university students exposed to those theological traditions. If there is any significant evangelical turn toward liturgy, it will take the form of experiments in worship among non-liturgical evangelicals. Webber himself implicitly acknowledged this and created the Institute for Worship.
Evangelicalism’s overlapping constituencies function like a cloud whose boundaries continue to shift. One consequence is that there are perpetual crises and continual calls to abandon the central identifying marker of “evangelical.” When there were still around seventeen Republican presidential candidates, Roger Olson was announcing the death of American evangelicalism as a coherent movement. Olson, who grew up Pentecostal and then became Baptist, continues to self-identify as an evangelical because he believes in a spiritual ethos centered upon the so-called Bebbington quadrilateral of crucicentrism, activism, Biblicism, and conversionism. Olson knows very well how difficult it is to maintain the coherence of the movement when evangelical pastors and scholars so love a good debate. Evangelicals talk about battles, crises (present or future), and scandals of mind (real and otherwise), conscience, and politics.
Douthat asks whether there is a crisis in evangelicalism. The simple answer is, “Yes. In fact, there is more than one.” There are usually multiple crises within evangelicalism. This is what happens when multiple constituencies compete to define the identity of the movement.
Douthat’s second question is more important. He wonders whether the movement’s ability to gain more converts than it loses will outlast the age of Trump. My answer is in the affirmative, because of evangelicalism’s ability to harness the language of crisis to facilitate renewal. Usually it is the evangelical mind that invokes the language of crisis or scandal to begin with. But a win for evangelicalism as a movement does not translate into a win for every constituency in the movement.
Coalitions within evangelicalism either implode or reinvent themselves in the wake of a crisis, only to be surpassed by a new coalition or coalitions created as an answer to the same crisis. The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals made its public debut in the 1996 Cambridge Declaration, which suggested that evangelicals had capitulated to the spirit of the age, and proposed a recovery of the confessional traditions of the Reformation to proclaim the gospel faithfully. Just nine years later, The Gospel Coalition came into existence largely for the same reasons. Both coalitions are Reformed, though TGC has succeeded in expanding the Reformed umbrella, in a way ACE has not. I predicted that the Religious Right would die a slow death last year because of this phenomenon in evangelicalism.
One could ask another version of Douthat’s question: What crises has the age of Trump spawned? Closely related is a second question: What coalitions will be formed or renewed in the wake of these crises? I don’t think you can answer these questions with overarching analyses of the movement. You have to think in terms of the various constituencies, and the effect on them of Trump’s rise. This is something I hope to do in another post. For now, I’ll simply note that evangelicalism will move forward because it is constantly breaking apart and reforming itself in new or renewed coalitions and organizations.
And it is the evangelical mind that drives much of this renewal. More than ever, evangelical scholars should not abandon the identity as hopelessly marred by Trumpism, but, in the words of an evangelical theologian who did this well, revision evangelicalism and renew the center.
Dale M. Coulter is associate professor of historical theology at Regent University.