In spite of the televangelism scandals and the failed presidential run of Pat Robertson, the evangelical right remained the political and cultural baseline for measuring the status of religion in American public life. The emergence of groups like Moral Majority, wrote theologian Richard John Neuhaus in the mid-1980s, “kicked a tripwire” in the ongoing church-state debate. Perhaps, as wise minds across the political spectrum once again argued, religion was vital to the health of American democracy. In the Age of Evangelicalism, “religion” was often translated, however inaccurately, as “evangelical Christianity.” Yet many evangelical elites saw themselves as an embattled minority even as they sought—and gained— public influence. In the 1990s, the audacious Christian Coalition and other born-again banes of President Bill Clinton shared the stage with a disproportionately prominent group of moderate evangelical scholars and public intellectuals. They, in turn, coexisted with (and chafed at) the booming evangelical music and entertainment market. Two metaphors profoundly informed discussions of faith and public life in the fin de siècle United States: the “naked public square” and the “culture war.”
• The Age of Evangelicalism
This excerpt from Steven P. Miller’s book on public face of American evangelical Christianity from the years 1970-2008 speaks to what happened in the 1990’s, after the rise and triumphs of the Christian Right in the 1970’s and 80’s. During this decade, evangelicals consolidated their power, engaged in spirited discussions about the role of religion in public life, and continued to participate in a process of reshaping historic alliances and loyalties. As Miller writes, “A nation that once thought in terms of Catholics or Protestants (or, more specifically, Polish Catholics or German Lutherans) had become a society of pro-lifers and pro-choicers. A conservative Southern Baptist now might have more in common with a traditionalist Catholic than with, say, Jimmy Carter. The new coordinates were easily politicized. Such divisions threatened to tear apart American society.”
The lines were drawn in the 70’s and 80’s. One scholar described the 1990’s as public evangelicalism’s transition “from revolution to evolution.”
As for me personally, this was the decade in which I served in an evangelical church in Indianapolis, a “community” church. It was a “daughter church” that had been planted by another congregation which was, at least in the context of our county, a megachurch. This group of churches was founded by pastors and missionaries in the Methodist and Wesleyan traditions. The congregations were intentionally non-denominational and independent of one another, based on a ministry philosophy of evangelism, discipleship, church-planting and missions, non-doctrinaire, non-liturgical, and elder-led with strong senior pastor leadership. Bible-based, they emphasized practical Christian living rather than in-depth study or theology. They were committed to church growth, and a great deal of that growth came from Christians who migrated from other congregations.
As a pastor in such a church in the 1990’s I tiptoed my way through the minefield called “worship wars.” The more I studied worship and read people like Robert Webber, the more I questioned what I was doing as a “worship leader” (now an official category of vocational ministry in evangelicalism) and whether we evangelicals understood much about worship at all. I spent countless hours in Christian bookstores. I went on mission trips and watched my children go on them as well. I coached Little League and developed a life outside the church and thereby realized more and more the “Christian Bubble” I and my fellow evangelicals were living in. Thankfully, the senior minister with whom I worked was more of a traditional pastor than a church growth practitioner or CEO, so our congregation was less “driven” than some others.
We were not a politically-obsessed people. Occasional remarks like, “No true Christian could ever vote for Bill Clinton,” were thankfully rare and not the focus of our conversations. But that had more to do with our pastor and the atmosphere of unity and focusing on essentials that he worked hard to maintain among us.
The 1990’s were good years for me. However, many of the seeds of later dissatisfaction with evangelicalism were planted and/or watered during that decade. They did not break the surface until the 2000’s.
The 1990’s were the years we became familiar with:
- The culture wars
- Influential writings by Richard Neuhaus (The Naked Public Square, First Things journal), James Davison Hunter (Culture Wars), Stephen Carter (The Culture of Disbelief), Mark Noll (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind)
- Pat Buchanan’s “culture war” speech at the 1992 Republican Convention
- The Fundamentalism Project
- Voices of “thoughtful” evangelical intellectuals: George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, Randall Balmer, Richard Mouw
- Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT), Neuhaus and Charles Colson
- The “commoditization” of evangelicalism: “The booming “Christian lifestyle” phenomenon took many forms, ranging from contemporary Christian music to megachurches and the rise of such Christian-friendly citadels as Colorado Springs and Branson, Missouri.”
- The widespread growth of Christian bookstores.
- Christian music artists “crossing over” into popular music and the development of “Praise and Worship” music.
- The rapid expansion and establishment of megachurches and the “seeker” approach. Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. The expansion of the Willow Creek Association. The Purpose-Driven Church.
- Founding of the Christian Coalition. Ralph Reed.
- The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the evangelical answer to the ACLU. Jay Sekulow.
- The rise of conservative talk radio and cable news. Rush Limbaugh.
- The Clinton Presidency, the Republican triumph in the 1994 mid-term elections, Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America.
- The Promise Keepers men’s movement. Their emphasis on racial reconciliation.
- Resurgence of the evangelical left: Habitat for Humanity, Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency, Tony Campolo.
- The Clinton impeachment hearings, led by independent counsel and evangelical Kenneth Starr.
At the end of his chapters covering the 1990’s, Steven Miller summarizes where we were with regard to evangelicalism in public life:
As the impeachment crisis revealed, the evangelical right held more power in the House of Representatives than in society as a whole. Public distaste for the impeachment process was a pointed reminder that, while evangelicals might occasionally form a moral plurality, a true majority was out of reach. That distinction became particularly important a few years later, by which time the Christian Right again was the talk of the Beltway. “We are going to have to invent a presidential candidate for the year 2000,” Ralph Reed declared after Clinton’s reelection victory in 1996. Four years later, Reed found his man.
• The Age of Evangelicalism
56 thoughts on “My So-Called Evangelical Life (2)”
> Oh, give my co-religionist Vladimir Vladimirovich half a chance, would you?
To end the world? No way, that wouldn’t be profitable. Ending the world requires real commitment to ideology. I do not believe for a moment that he is up the challenge. If you blow the world up then you have nobody to sell your oil and natural gas too.
> He already gave us quite a startle on Ukraine,
But nothing original. Another territorial squabble, another civil war. We have seen so very many of those – can anyone still read them as signs-and-portents anymore? I have forgotten the exact statistic, but a recent speaker I heard used it – something like four to six years of peace [no declared military actions] in the last 100. He suggested that Homo Sapien is a bad name for our specifies – we should be Homo Furious.
> and he is no friend of Israel
For the record neither am I.
> I wouldn’t put it past him to restore the Romanovs
I thought he already did that? 🙂 Russians do seem to love their oligarchies.
Embarrassed to say it was my state of South Carolina. Imagine our surprise to find out the Appalachian trail goes all the way to Argentina.
Tauno: The millenial/apololyptic thing became a lot harder to take seriously when the Soviet Union collapsed – which I watched on TV along with the rest of my senior class. There was Yeltsin standing on a tank while The Great Evil flailed about helplessly.
Meeting people after ’91 who still clung to [yet another revised] prophetic interpretation just seemed weird.
HUG:The Second Russian Revolution messed up a LOT of future histories.
And not just the SF kind.
Oh, give my co-religionist Vladimir Vladimirovich half a chance, would you? He already gave us quite a startle on Ukraine, and he is no friend of Israel. I wouldn’t put it past him to restore the Romanovs on his way out the way Franco restored the Bourbons in Spain.
Politics is small potatoes to God. But it ought not be to us. We ought do all we can do. But we can never tie the gospel to any political message.
How much time did Jesus spend trying to correct the ills of the Nazis of his day (the Romans)?
That said, we are free to follow whatever path we see fit towards the good of our neighbors.
Well, sure. But that came later.
Ah, well put.
I wasn’t appalled. The only difference between Clinton and most of his predecessors was that he got caught. People do what people do. That doesn’t shock me.
My Dear Wormwood,
I refer you to my previous epistle on Semantics, specifically the redefinition of words into the “diabolical meanings”.
Your Ravenously Affectionate Uncle,
Attack helicopters armed with chemical weapons and piloted by long-haired bearded hippies.
“IT’S PROPHESIED! IT’S PROPHESIED!”
I’ll throw this out: The 90s Christian Music Recovery Group — enjoy 🙂
The music could be great — or it could be like hearing your dad trying to rap. The stuff that was foisted on us always seemed to be the latter while it took some effort to find the former.
(not that the mainstream world that gave us The Macarena and Limp Biskit was a fountain of creativity either)
I’m pretty sure Lieberman was not only floated for the VP candidate for the Dems, I’m pretty sure he WAS the VP candidate for the Dems. He and Gore ran as a team.
I thought that was South Carolina. And he gave a whole new meaning to the term “Hiking the Appalachian trail”.
Hitler exploited the dislike of Jews that was so common among German people, most of whom were Christian by culture and baptism, and their fear of communism and capitalism. The surrender to anti-Semitic fascism of the German nation, and German Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, was a tragic failure of Christian culture, a Christian culture built not on the evangelical model, but rather on the sacramental model of traditional Christianity. There can be no doubt that the two kingdoms strand in Lutheranism contributed to this failure, but Catholics also surrendered partly on the basis of the much older words in the Epistles about submitting to governing authority.
I can recognize a lot of what you say. I graduated high school in ’91.
> but it seemed less over-produced and mass-marketed back then.
Agree. It was not great. But the sin of early Michael W. Smith, etc… was more a desperate level of earnestness than anything else. Yes, we non-church children sneered at that a bit, which the true church children didn’t get. But of all sins – that is pretty trivial. Now that I’m older I appreciate something that sounds like honest earnestness now, as one hears it rarely; that in contrast to carefully engineered attempts to manipulate me – which have all the subtlety and kindness of a missile silo.
> turns out to be, um… flexible.
Ah, I see what you are saying. That does seem like straight-up hypocrisy.
But I also suspect everyone involved in this Dance Of The Labels is consciously aware that they are acting out a coding ceremony; that the words have little to nothing to do with their face-value meanings.
I thought the giant locust were attack helicopters?!?
“Is there an implied issue/problem with this?”
Merely that what we are told is vitally important, by persons claiming the moral high ground, turns out to be, um… flexible. It is very important, we are told, that a candidate be Christian. Not merely that, but the right sort of Christian. (After all, those other sorts of Christians aren’t really Christians at all, are they?) Until someone not in that hallowed circle gets nominated, at which point the party line changes and the range of acceptable beliefs gets enlarged to include the candidate, even as it swerves around the other side’s candidate, who still is not the right sort of Christian and is therefore unacceptable.
Hal Lindsay missed it, all right. But not before his End Time locusts ate several years of my life, and I was far from the worst hit.
“PROPHECY IS BEING FULFILLED EVEN AS WE SPEAK! WE MIGHT NOT HAVE A 1978!!! OR EVEN A 1977!!!!!” — example of the preaching from that era
The Second Russian Revolution messed up a LOT of future histories.
And not just the SF kind.
I really wish Lieberman & Gore had switched positions on the 2000 Dem ticket. Lieberman sounded like a LOT better man for the job. But AlGore had the blessing of his patrons House Clinton and his own ambition. I would really like to have seen what Lieberman would have done with the position.
I only put them in one category because they both played to my mental project to find the One Right Answer for EVERY question, whether political or theological.
It is obvious that I am an old guy, hence my my name, but I have also seen many of these purveyors of the last days stuff pass away. Camping is dead. Chuck Smith is gone. Multiple others have disappeared. Actually Calvary Chapel was founded not only to reach the JP’s but also because time for the harvest was running short. I guess Hal Lindsey missed it. Despite all of the talk and rhetoric, an old mentor once told me, “live today as if Jesus is coming tomorrow, plan your life as if he is not returning for a thousand years
One of my sentences was rather clunky. This might work better…
“By riding into a town on a donkey and letting himself get hung on a cross, Jesus got IN the septic tank so that ultimately we’d be saved out of the toilet.”
No fight necessary. I think ultimately, yes, Hitler led Germany into the septic tank. But when he came into power, the nation was in the toilet, with something like 30% unemployment, perhaps even higher. So he came and gave a nation hope and a purpose, and soon they were “thriving.” Takes a lot of discernment to look at a person who is helping your physical needs and see the bad that’s coming along with it. After all, look at when our churches thrive. “God is pleased, this is God’s will.”
That’s the beauty of Jesus. He didn’t come to lead us out of the toilet, only to ultimately end up in a septic tank. He got IN the septic tank so that ultimately we’d be saved out of the toilet by riding a donkey into town and letting himself be hung on a cross.
I think that’s why one of my favorite people in the Bible is the thief on the cross next to Jesus who ultimately decides the guy dying next to him is someone special.
I can see I best keep my mouth shut…LOL. 😉
>The 90s were when the shift away from the gospel occurred…
The roots of that shift were well established by the 90s. The 1980s were plenty ugly in terms of this kind of thing. Generally the 1980s were ugly all around.
The millenial/apololyptic thing became a lot harder to take seriously when the Soviet Union collapsed – which I watched on TV along with the rest of my senior class. There was Yeltsin standing on a tank while The Great Evil flailed about helplessly. And nobody I new maintained their bomb shelter supplies after that – at least not until Dobson whipped up the Y2K frenzy [based on a book written by someone with no Computer Science or Software Development background….]. I never heard of a bomb drill after ’91 [yes, I can remember a bomb drill].
Meeting people after ’91 who still clung to [yet another revised] prophetic interpretation just seemed weird. It may be the change of my social circles but I just do not hear the same Worlds End kind of talk I remember as a youngster. The disaster talk on Evangelical radio is more about black helicopters, invasion, and the imminent implementation of Sharia law in Oklahoma than it is millennial.
Context: I am Left
> he discussion at the time was that he was a “person of faith” and that was good enough
Is there an implied issue/problem with this? Serious question. Judaism is a faith of the book; people sharing a part of your religious heritage does [theoretically at least] define some common ground – I’m not sure that is an illegitimate consideration in electing a leader. This represents a larger umbrella based on like convictions – it seems a progression by the Right, not a regress.
I know that some on “The Left” jump on “The Right” about this… but it seems reasonable to me.
> Democrats are assumed to be heathen or worse,
Meh, I am getting pretty used to that. None of those people are ever going to support any of my issues/positions anyway, so why bother about them? That I believe is the greatest hope – people will just get bored with this everything-by-compare-and-contrast.
Politically (and sadly), lying and adultery are OK, if the liar and adulterer is one of “ours.” Witness the ex-governor of North Carolina and now congressman, who certainly was not on a hike, as claimed (to put it rather gently). .
> So were the 90s the beginning of the “partisanship uber alles”
> mindset that now seems so prevalent?
> The fact is that EVERYONE (Christian or not) should’ve
> been appalled at Clinton’s behavior
Why? if this is true I am doomed to spend the majority of my life being appalled at the conduct of innumerable people. I’ll just take a pass on that, it seems like a waste of energy.
And, no, I do not feel this way because I am Left; Clinton was a louse and a creep. It is just because I cannot be bothered to care, there are greater – more effective – concerns. Moral outrage is almost always pointless.
Are you disagreeing about the existence of the trail of dead bodies, or that this is more serious than getting a blow job in the Oval Office?
I see your point, though I might disagree with your conclusion. We tend to “like” people in our camp, don’t we…
I kinda agree with you, CM. There was a “blood in the water” sense to the furor. So were the 90s the beginning of the “partisanship uber alles” mindset that now seems so prevalent?
I, too, found myself liking many aspects of Clinton’s presidency and was annoyed at both his behavior and the response to his behavior.
Joe Lieberman’s name was floated for a while for Republican V.P. candidate (not to be confused with the earlier time when it was floated for Democratic V.P. candidate). The discussion at the time was that he was a “person of faith” and that was good enough. It is understood, of course, that this only applies to Republicans. Democrats are assumed to be heathen or worse, regardless of the facts.
Not to pick a fight, but it seems to me that Hitler put Germany into a septic tank. And certainly the public in general should have been aware, but Christians are called to a higher level of awareness. I personally doubt that a “clear” preaching of the gospel would have prevented his rise. However a clear preaching of the gospel should have been present anyway. And on some levels it was.
I agree that all of our political thinking can become muddled by propaganda. However when hate against a group of people is a doctrine of the state or a party, then that should be a sign of evil.
“The fact is that EVERYONE (Christian or not) should’ve been appalled at Clinton’s behavior. The problem was that a lot of people just plain LIKED Clinton (or supported him aka were Democrats) and were willing to give him a pass.”
Replace “Clinton” with “Reagan” and “Democrats” with “Republicans” and the statement is just as true. The difference is that Clinton’s failings were personal: of great import to the parties directly affected, but not really relevant to his office. Reagan’s failings were political, tending to leave a trail of dead bodies behind them.
Though Clinton was certainly guilty of lying, the fact is that much of the animus against him had little to do with his specific sins. It was a blood in the water moment for culture warriors on the right. I was embarrassed not only by our president’s behavior and lying but also by the ferocity of hatred shown by the opposition, many of whom had less than stellar moral track records themselves.
I still maintain that Clinton, with all his faults and foibles, was the most effective president, politically speaking, in my lifetime, especially with regard to domestic policies.
I found it difficult during those years to say that among my evangelical friends. It was not a time when people appreciated nuance and complexity.
One RPG site used Clinton as an example of the D&D characteristic “Charisma”.
“Even when you know the guy’s a crook, it’s impossible NOT to like him!”
…the “Obamanation of Desolation” was enthroned in the White House.
And we got LOUDER and more shrill.
1) The original IMonk had an essay on “The Rush Limbaughization of Evangelicals”:
2) Mormonism gained acceptance when That Mormon won the 2012 GOP nomination, after a series of God’s Anointed POTUSes of the Week flashed and burned out (to a chorus of “NOT THE MORMON! NOT THE MORMON! NOT THE MORMON!”) while Romney steadily wrapped up primary after primary. Then when he went over-the-top in primaries, suddenly Oceania has always been at Peace with Eurasia, Mormons ceased to be a CULT CULT CULT, and Romney became The Great White Hope. It was surreal.
This is why I scratch my head at the people who seem so intent on signs of the end times. The fact is, Jesus WILL come in my lifetime…if not while I’m “alive”, then when I transition from this physical life to whatever the next life looks like.
It just occurred to me that EVERYONE in Germany should’ve had a problem with Hitler, not just the Christians. Do a Christian’s beliefs make him more culpable than a non-Christian? Perhaps. But what about all the other people who “should’ve known better”? Do they get a free pass?
The fact is, we’re all human. When my life is in the toilet and someone or something comes along that gets me OUT of the toilet, it’ll take a lot of discernment and soul-searching to cut ties with that someone or something. Hitler lifted Germany out of the toilet. He was a master at propaganda. A whole nation that should’ve known better became willing to do Hitler’s bidding. Yes, Christians should’ve known better and done better, but so should have every German person. Not only were basic Jesus teaching ignored, but so were basic human tenets.
I guess the question is, had the Gospel been preached clearly during Hitler’s rise, would the outcome have turned out differently?
The 90s were when the shift away from the gospel occurred…you know, that makes sense. The antichrist had arisen and was known, the world was coming to an end, so things changed. The 2000s up to about January 2009 were the Millennium Kingdom. Christ was here and reigning, the church triumphant! But then post, let’s say late January 2009 for no reason, the Beast has been released and is terrorizing us all again…and we find ourselves here and wondering how could this be, did we miss the Rapture, we were in charge, what happened?
So in the span of most Christians lifetimes, Jesus was coming again, Jesus came back and reigned, and then…Jesus disappeared and Satan is reigning again. What’s next? There may not be anything next…we’ve already lived all of prophecy in 20 years…
I became a Christian in the mid 80s, so a lot of my “formative” Christian years were in the 90s. Looking at that list and reflecting back upon the time, I wonder if the 90s are when the greatest shift away from the Gospel occurred, when Christianity became more about right and wrong, about “we are Republicans, the enemy are Democrats,” about programs and books and money, about becoming better and bigger, about taking stands and rallying the troops and defending “truth”…and in the process Jesus began getting lost in all the controversy and battles, and the Good News of the gospel began yielding to the “wars we must fight.”
I wonder, then, if the 90s began the slide in which Christians began being defined not by a belief in Jesus, but by morality and political parties and such, and in which we’re still defined more by what we are AGAINST (homosexuality, etc. etc.) than for who we ARE (broken people saved by God’s grace).
The fact is that EVERYONE (Christian or not) should’ve been appalled at Clinton’s behavior. The problem was that a lot of people just plain LIKED Clinton (or supported him aka were Democrats) and were willing to give him a pass. The guy was a master at the art of image, making appearances on Letterman, playing his saxaphone, etc. etc. So the issue became less about what was right and wrong, and more about his likability.
I remember having a discussion with a friend who supported Clinton. I asked, “You do think he lied, right?”
“And you don’t have a problem with that?”
I was a teenager during this period (graduated high school in ’97), and while I had been raised as a little child in Catholic and Episcopalian circles, my family was firmly Evangelical during most of the 90’s. I spent a lot of my allowance on cassettes, CD’s, and T-Shirts at the Christian Book Stores (remember the little stamps that came on the cassettes and CD’s where you could trade four stamps for a free cassette or five stamps for a free CD?).
All of my friends had the NIV Student Bible. We all listened to the same Christian Rock and Rap groups. We all spent our weekends with the youth group and our President’s Day Weekends at the Baptist retreat compound in Glorietta, NM for conferences. We all assumed that the Republican Party was on Christians’ side. We all volunteered at Crisis Pregnancy Centers from time-to-time.
While I certainly look back on those days and shake my head at a lot of our naivete, I also look back on them with nostalgia. Especially the music. I think the 90’s were the hey day of Christian Rock, before the Big Labels bought up all the Christian ones, back when most Christian bands were more about evangelism than praise and worship. Sure, some of it was shallow, but it seemed less over-produced and mass-marketed back then.
On the other hand, I’ve very careful to not listen to too many of those bands now, lest I completely destroy my nostalgia!
Steve, there is a good chance I am not understanding what you are saying. However it seems to me that you are saying that nothing we do in this world is important as far as politics is concerned. We can believe and do whatever we choose. We can follow the agenda of a man like Hitler without a guilty conscience because what we do in this world is of no concern to God. There were plenty of baptized followers of him in the Nazi Party and in the public who carried out his orders seemingly without guilt.
This seems to ignore many of the basic teachings of Jesus.
As I said, I probably fail to understand your logic.
Not just the appearance of Rush Limbaugh, but the appearance of his books in Christian bookstores. That to me signaled a definite redefinition of evangelicalism. You are right that commonality was now based on political opinion, not upon a common faith and creed. Suddenly, Mormonism also gained acceptance based upon the new mores as dictated by the cultural war.
I wouldn’t throw Horton and Rosenbladt in with Sekulow and Limbaugh.
The “two-kingdoms” perspective is a must, IMO, otherwise (because we are inveterate ‘doers’) it will be almost impossible to separate politics from the Christian life…on either side.
Thank you, Dr. F.P..
But I think you are approaching this with the advantage of a “two-kingdoms” perspective. My own parents were sort of neo-Jesus-people (about 10 years too young to be real JPs), and totally lacked any kind of “long view” of history. I think we have covered this recently, but politics and world events became signs of the times. The lack of Armageddon resulted in a shelving of the Prophecy Wars for most people, but they never did seem to get away from the politics thing. Fwiw, I find your words a breath of fresh air.
The 90s were my formative years in many ways. I was exposed to two differing streams of Christian thought, and for over a decade and a half, tried to straddle both –
1) the thoughtful, ecumenical, apolitical, trending towards “post-evangelical” folks (Richard Neuhaus, Robert Webber, Mark Noll, and especially the dear departed IMonk);
2) the Culture/Theological War party (Sekulow, Limbaugh, White Horse Inn, the Anti-ECT gang [MacArthur, Sproul, Kennedy], 9 Marks, etc.)
It took 15 years and several fantastical screw-ups on my part for the former party to finally triumph in my thinking and behavior – and I still have flashbacks. Hopefully the next 15 years will be less of a heartbreaker…
does not ‘amount’ (should have read)
What Ralph Reed failed to realize was, that “true Christians” have every right to be appalled and disgusted at President Clinton’s sexual escapades in the White House with Monica Lewenski and Kathleen Willey and his lying in a civil court proceeding…
and that “true Christians” have every right to say that it does not matter to them.
The fact that President Clinton was impeached does not about to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of God’s plan for us, or for this world.