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