Understanding our Exilic Missional Context: Evangelicalism and Liberalism in Twentieth Century America

Most historians and religion scholars now agree that by the twentieth century liberal Protestantism had led to a mainstream Protestantism that was vague, theistic and excessively nationalistic. In a profound sense, concludes British Christian Studies scholar Linda Woodhead, “liberal Protestantism’s triumph can be said to lie to some extent in its disappearance; it dissolved into the blood stream of American culture” (An Introduction to Christianity, 261). I think this is one of the most important single sentences in all that I’ve written in my recent posts about the growing unimportance of Christian faith to most Americans, especially the youngest Americans.

In contrast to this shrinking of Protestant faith the evangelicalism of Moody and Sunday gave rise to a more combative counter-cultural movement that was built on opposition, opposition to liberalism. These more conservative and populist movements produced battles over science in the first half of the century and then battles over political control of the nation in the second half, but I get a little ahead of myself.

booksLinda Woodhead begins her chapter on twentieth-century Christianity, in her most readable and compelling socio-religious history An Introduction to Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 2004), by writing:

Though a final verdict will be possible only when the passage of time allows us to take a longer perspective, the final part of the twentieth century may be judged one of the most momentous in the history of Christianity. For in just three decades, between 1970 and 2000, Christianity collapsed in parts of the northern hemisphere, and gained new vitality in much of the south (333, italics mine).

I do not think there can be any serious doubt about Woodhead’s conclusion. There is widespread agreement that the church has not only changed in the West but the world has changed with it. This change has been a rather radical break with what went before thus it has elicited various descriptors such as “post-modern,” “post-industrial” and “post-Christian.” These hotly debated terms may not be entirely accurate, or even useful in popular contexts, but no one can deny that the last half of the twentieth century witnessed the erosion of long-established social and moral orders. But what is happening in the global south is nothing short of astonishing regardless of what has happened in Europe and America. This is why some Christian writers refer to all of these developments as a 500-year development that is a new “great emergence.” (Again, terms like “emergent” and “the emergent church” are not widely useful so I am avoiding them on purpose, even though they all tend to reflect something close to what I am saying.)

The power of the individual has taken a definite subjective turn, toward the uniqueness of each human person. Power from above has been challenged by power from below. In the West the power from below is winning, if it has not already won, at least in most of the non-American West. But these turns are not new, which is part of what I’ve been writing in these posts. As we saw in previous blogs changes in Europe were already beginning in the eighteenth century and in America they came in the nineteenth. Enlightenment rationalism had produced a significant change in previously Christian lands and the bitter fruit of this intellectual fruit still impacts much (all?) of what we believe and do. We swim in this ocean of thought.

In America we often look back to the 1960s as the time when huge change began to show itself in our culture. But the change had been there all along. It was in the 1960s that the old authorities lost their power to tell those beneath them what they should do and why they should do it. A “mutually reinforcing” system of morals and authority “now collapsed like a house of cards” (An Introduction to Christianity, 335). Those “below” were no longer willing to go along or get along. The younger generation rebelled in the 1960s and then became the baby-boomers (1946–1964) who led the way to our present moment. Individuals now felt themselves far more important than existing structures of power and institutions. What truly mattered was not duty but personal integrity – above all else be true to yourself. Conformity was out and authenticity was in. Prescribed roles – wife, mother, student, worker, etc. – were openly challenged as individual men and women wanted to express their unique lives in their own unique ways. You see and feel these changes in the award-winning television series on the 1960s ad culture called “Mad Men.”

What was involved in this great shift was not just a subjective turn in the sense of the empowerment of the individual agent, but a great subjective turn in which self-development  and inner well-being become the main focus of concern. Whereas the former has to do with the individual’s becoming autonomous and self-reliant (external power), the latter has to do with each person’s experiencing, understanding, integrating, enhancing and enriching his or her unique experiences, feelings, bodily sensations, dispositions, hopes, desires and moods in his or her own unique way (inner power). Subjectivism, in the first sense, has more to do with the Enlightenment values of freedom, self-determination and individuation. Subjectivism in the second sense has to do with Romantic values of affectivity, self-expression and harmonious relationship within oneself and with others. Since both forms of subjectivisation treat the self as sovereign, and authorize each individual subject to become the highest authority in the living of his or her own life, they do have a common basis (An Introduction to Christianity, 335).

There are numerous social factors that have brought about these considerable changes in American society. With these social changes there has now been a massive change in religion. In American we are no longer tied to the land. Further, our economy, like it or not, is now global. Widespread affluence empowers consumers to spend as never before, at least until the 2008 bubble burst. As affluence spread the majority of us no longer feared for our economic future. The baby-boom generation experienced the luxury of becoming “post-materialists.” The last twenty-five years has seen an unprecedented growth of a new global capitalism, a capitalism which now impacts millions around the globe. In addition, massive changes took place with regard to women – their roles, their freedom, their work, their legal equality – and gender/sexuality. The post-Reformation ideal of the patriarchal family, in which men and women occupied separate spheres and carried out different functions, has been decisively challenged and changed, particularly in the West. Finally, the post-1960s revolution resulted in political changes that nothing short of astonishing. It is not longer possible for whole societies to be controlled by a handful of white males. The supreme superiority of “Western civilization” is no more and there is clearly nothing on the horizon that will change this new arrangement of culture in the early twenty-first century. We had best prepare the church for the “long haul” if we are serious about the next generation and what the church will look like in our new missional reality.

 

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