What would Jonathan Edwards think of suburban Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church, where every weekend some 17,000 congregants arrive in their Chevy Tahoes and Toyota minivans to worship in the enormous brick-and-glass auditorium?

More specifically, what would the 18th-century Puritan preacher who penned the fire-and-brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” make of “seeker-friendly” services that use “drama, multimedia, and contemporary music” to serve “individuals checking out what it really means to have a personal relationship with Jesus”? Gazing across the packed rows, would Edwards recognize the modern face of the religious movement that he played such a key role in launching?

On the 300th anniversary of the great, famous theologian’s birth, the question is hardly academic. From Saddleback Church in Orange County, California to Bellevue Baptist Church outside Memphis, evangelical megachurches dot the American landscape like the Wal-Marts, Home depots, and other big-box stores that so many of them resemble. But this is only the most visible sign of the growing sway of evangelical Christianity, a tradition that includes both the Pentecostal and Southern Baptist churches, as well as an ever growing array of nondenominational and even some main line Protestant congregations.

From the White House and the halls of Congress to a vastly expanding spiritual self-help movement to the most vigorous Christian missionary effort in the developing world, the growing influence of evangelicalism is everywhere.

Today, years‘ end, 2003, according to a Gallup survey, roughly 4 out of 10 Americans identify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. And, as Boston College sociologist Alan Wolfe argues in his book The Transformation of American Religion, many characteristics of the evangelical style--------its strongly personalist and therapeutic tendencies, its market-savvy approaches to expanding flocks, and even a certain theological fuzziness----have permeated other faith traditions in America, including Roman Catholicism and Judaism. Wolfe says, only half facetiously, “We are all evangelicals now.” Even so, many outside the tradition still tend to reduce evangelicals, and particularly prominent leaders and televangelists, to a conveniently dismissible stereotype: Bible thumping, intolerant know-nothings. But when researchers focus on ordinary evangelicals, as University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sociologist Christian Smith does in his book Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want, they find “more diversity, complexity, and ambivalence than conventional wisdom would lead us to expect.”

Take Laura Camp, a 26-year-old aspiring opera singer in Cherry Hill, N.J. Strongly opposed to abortion and gay marriage, Camp doesn’t think the Gospel should be twisted to suit contemporary mores. Still, says the evangelical, who recently moved fro a United Methodist to a Baptist church: “It’s not my job to condemn—the Holy Spirit will take care of that. My job is to have a daily growing relationship with God.” Which is very close to what Jonathan Edwards wanted, too.

Yet, what exactly does an 18th-century New England Puritan have to do with a phenomenon that transcends denominational lines and emphasizes born-again conversion, Christ’s redemptive role, the unerring authority of the Bible, and as commitment to taking the gospel to others? The answer, quite simply, is - a lot! George Marsden, a University of Notre Dame historian and author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, put the matter squarely at a recent Library of Congress symposium: American history “recounted without its religious history or Edwards is like Moby Dick without the whale.

The chosen. As a major promoter of the First Great Awakening , the religious revival that swept through the Colonies in the 1740s, Edwards modified his own highly orthodox Puritan-Calvinist heritage and unintentionally launched a new and distinctively American strain of Protestantism. That tradition became the dominant religious force in American culture and politics in the 19th century and up through the early 20th . Along the way, it touched just about every major social movement , from abolitionism to Prohibition. “It is the glory of American Christianity.” Says Nathan Dame, provost of the University of Notre Dame and author of The Democratization of American Christianity “ and it is also the shame.”

Starting in the late 19th century, however, waves of new immigrants ans an assortment of intellectual challenges from Darwinism to “modernist” theological began edging evangelicals from their places ast the center of American life. In reaction, a core of faithful adopted a hyper-moralistic, biblical literalist, and anti-intellectual stance that came to be known as fundamentalism.

In the 1940s , more open-minded carriers of the torch, including Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry (founding editor of Christianity Today), broke with the bunker mentality and attempted to reconnect with the larger culture. Abandoning the apocalyptic scenarios of the fundamentalists and much of their anti-intellectual baggage, they broadened their appeal, often reaching out to Christians in mainline Protestant churches and even to Catholics. Fundamentalists didn’t just disappear; many highly visible leaders and televangelists remain of that tendency. But it is now only one current within a much larger movement.

“We are back to a situation in which evangelicalism dominates our culture.” Says Wolfe. “But that doesn’t mean ‘fundamentalist.’ It means revivalist, personality, therapeutic, entrepreneurial-------the megachurch.”

Consider the political arena. In addition to George W. Bush, whose conversion experience is arguably what set him on the road to politics in the first place, evangelicals in prominent places include the attorney general, the Speaker of the House, and the House majority leader. Evangelical language and concerns, from faith-based social initiatives to altitudes towards abortion, same-sex marriages and America’s relations with Israel, shape both the rhetoric and many of the policies of the current administration. And particularly since 9/11, evangelical notions about God’s special covenant with the American people have contributed to a quasi-religious nationalism that casts America as the chosen nation engaged in a righteous struggle with evil.

The bottom line. Throughout most of American history, the evangelical constituency has tended to be, as Wheaton College historian Mark Noll points out, “more Democratic than Republican and relatively passive.” But Supreme Court decisions on school prayer and abortion began to change that. Today, thanks to three decades of organizing efforts by the Christian right, most white evangelicals have come to be aligned with the Republican Party. For instance, in the last presidential election, 40 percent of Bush’s votes came from religious conservatives.

But not all evangelicals have ended up at the conservative end of the political spectrum. Theologically conservative African-American evangelicals and a minority of white evangelicals combine to make the evangelical perspective a force to be reckoned with inside the Democratic Party. Martin Luther King, Jr. Continues to be a beacon of evangelically inspired liberal activism, and President Jimmy Carter was every bit as open about his personal relationship with Jesus as President George W. Bush is today.

Whether they identify more closely with Republicans ro Democrats, evangelicals are captive of neither party. “I am a registered Republican,” says Laura Camp, “but I will vote for a non-Republican candidate who I think is trying to make changes in a positive way.” One reason the last presidential election was so close, according to White House adviser Karl Rove, was a lower- than-expected turnout among evangelicals. And Gary Bauer, head of American Values, a conservative organization, provides what he thinks is the reason: “there are a disturbing number of people who feel that the [ Republican ] party is not fighting enough in areas like abortion and same-sex marriages.” To shore up that constituency, the administration has been particularly aggressive in responding to evangelical concerns, both in its domestic policies (through judicial appointments and support for ant-gay marriage legislation) and in foreign-policy initiatives that range from fighting AIDS to ending sex trafficking.

While most evangelicals would like to see Christian morality as the ruling ethos of the nation, the also believe American should be free to live the way they choose. “The bottom line.” says North Carolina’s Smith“ is that evangelicals subscribe to personal faith as paramount.....You can’t shove religion down people’s throats.”

It’s a common mistake to reduce evangelicals to their stands on political or social issues. Talk to individual evangelicals or their pastors, and you learn that they have higher priorities. Among his own, says Lon Solomon, pastor of the McLean Bible Church near Tysons Corner, Va. A megachurch that draws up to 10,000 people on Sundays, “abortion and homosexuality are minor concerns in our church. The bell we beat is that we must know Jesus. We are offering people a different and better way to live than secular America follows.”

Awakenings. Evangelicalism is, in a way, a counterculture. Everything from the success of Christian pop and rock groups to the phenomenal sales of the “Left Behind” series of novels by Tim La-Haye and Jerry B. Jenkins attest to its drawing power. Because the great commission of evangelicals is to bring the “good news” to others, the matter of drawing power is crucial. It explains why evangelicals put so much money and energy into extensive social-service ministries, and why so many evangelical pastors strive to create “seeker-friendly” megachurches with nontraditional, multimedia services that reassure and entertain as much as they edify. It also explains why evangelical churches, particularly Southern Baptist and Pentecostal, now send far more missionaries abroad than mainline churches, reversing the pattern of the early 20th century.

While such acomplishments would have pleased Edwards-----and fulfilled his optimistic predictions about the spread of Protestant Christianity----there is much that would have alarmed or simply puzzled him. Indeed, one way to make sense of contemporary evangelicalism is to consider how it has hewed to and strayed from the path laid down by one of its most brilliant founding fathers.

Thanks to Marsden’s authoritative new biography, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, that path is now more clear. Running down its center is Edward’s overarching concern with the authentic religious experience. As a Calvinist born in 1703 into a family of Congregationalist ministers, he struggled mightily through his own conversion experience while attending Yale College. Like many who were exposed to Enlightenment ideas, he was really troubled by his creed’s insistence on a God whose sovereign will alone determined the eternal salvation or damnation of every human creature. After toying with other theological alternatives, Edwards was suddenly seized by the conviction that God was fair in “eternally disposing of men, according to his sovereign pleasure.” It was the turning point of his life, leaving him forever convinced of the need for the “experiential” validation of faith.

In 1729, Edwards inherited the North-Hampton, Mass., pulpit of his widely revered grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. But from the beginning he felt uneasy about his grandfather’s lax requirements for church membership. For that reason, Edwards found special value in the revival that he instigated in and around Northampton in 1734. His published account of this spiritual renewal became a major catalyst of the First Great Awakening of the 1740s, but Edwards had a more personal reason to value the 1734 revival: It provided an alternative means of establishing the spiritual authenticity of his congregants. In his later Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Edwards would caution , however, that intense experience alone was insufficient, even dangerous, unless accompanied by reason, a close regard for Scripture, and a disciplined and regular church life.

Eventually, many of his own parishioners began to chafe under Edward’s strictness, and they finally rebelled and dismissed him from his post. Unbowed, Edwards joined an Indian missionary community in Stockbridge, Mass., and for seven years, while preaching to the Mohawks, penned some of his greatest works. In 1757, Edwards accepted the presidency of the College of New Jersey, as Princeton was then called. But soon, after his installation, his life was cut short by a smallpox inoculation that went bad.

Excesses. Had Edwards lived to witness the birth and early years of the American republic, he would have seen the excesses of the First Great Awakening become even more pronounced in the Second Great Awakening. Along with the demographic explosion that saw America grow from 2 ½ million in 1776 to 20 million by 1845 came a huge expansion and transformation of the religious landscape, with the number of ministers per capita more than tripling. But these ministers belonged mainly to the upstart and aggressively evangelizing churches, the Baptist, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and assorted African-American churches of those and other denominations.

All these new shared Edwards’s conviction that revival was a central part of the religious experience. But all were populists, democratic, antielitist, and, yes, even anti-institutional to an extreme that would have horrified Edwards. This democratic revolution in American Protestantism established the lastingly populist character of evangelical Christianity. And its broad, folksy appeal is probably the single greatest reason that America became and remained the most religious of all modern industrial nations.

But Edwards was almost uncanny in anticipating how enthusiastic religion could go astray. Above all, he saw how certain developments could end up placing the individual (or worldly agendas), and not God, at the center of the religious experience. For Edwards, born into a clerical family, the existence of a genteel, well-educated, and authoritative clergy was almost an indispensable element of an orderly religious life and society. The Second Great Awakening shattered that ideal, opening the doors of the ministry to people from all rungs of society and often to people without any particular education or training for the ministry.

The anti-institutional tendencies of the awakening created other problems as well, including proliferating sectarianism. The Protestant Reformation had itself been a sectarian movement dividing European Christendom into two major camps. Protestants attacked Catholicism for institutional excesses and shifted the focus of religious life towards individual experience. But the leaders of Reformed Christianity-----Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their heirs in America-----believed their new churches required what Nathan Hatch calls the “ecclesiastical walls of liturgy, governance, theology, and instruction.”

The evangelical explosion of the earlier 19th century threatened to bring down those walls. As denominations subdivided into new denominations, offering frontier Americans an expanding menu of possibilities, the old, quasi-established denominations, Anglicanism and Congregationalism, lost their authority and following. And ministers of the new, upstart churches often behaved like shameless hucksters in their efforts to win over spiritual consumers.

Finally, changes in the character of the ministry and sectarian splintering both contributed to a growing vagueness about the bedrock principles of theology. In addition to the widespread rerjection of Calvinism, perhaps the most radical challenge to theological authority was the democratic notion that the Bible could be read without help from established interpretive traditions. The danger is that the faithful could easily fall prey to any powerful reading of the Bible put forth by any charismatic minister or charlatan—or simply go with any reading that suited a believer’s interests. Adaptable and improvisatory, emotionally engaging and sustaining, American evangelical religion has provided a most accessible spiritual home for a highly individualistic, egalitarian, and mobile people .But that doesn’t mean that the kinds of things that worried Edwards in his day don’t continue to present real and present dangers to the spiritual health of evangelicalism.

Evangelical scholars and intellectuals especially lament the decline of the evangelical mind since the generation of Edwards. During the last century in particular, says Wheaton College’s Noll, “Christian reasoning as a whole, through use of the Bible, theology, and doctrine, simply hasn’t measured up. The scandal of the evangelical thinking is that there is not enough of it, and that which exists is not up to the standards that Edwards established.”

The fundamentalists turn in evangelicalism, in Noll’s view, is a well-intended but inadequate response to challenges Edwards would have met more thoughtfully, with intelligence and religious conviction. In fact, if evangelicals had heeded Edwards’s criticism of Enlightenment science and philosophy, they would have been less frightened by later scientific theories, like Darwinian evolutionary theory. More theologically informed readings of Scripture might also have discouraged the fundamentalist’s use of biblical prophecy as what Noll calls “a complete and detailed preview of the end of the world”-----often for dubious political purposes. Most evangelicals, for instance, have sensible reasons for their support of Israel, including respect for its democratic institutions. But fundamentalists zealots who base their uncritical support on end-timers scenarios are so mechanistic in their use of Scripture that they even view President Bush’s effort to negotiate a peace settlement as a betrayal of prophecy.

Unique. A little more Edwards-style caution might also temper the view of America as a redeemer nation with a special mission in the world, says Yale historian Harry Stout. Edwards believed that Christians worldwide, and not just Americans, had a unique place in the unclosing history of humankind’s redemption. To the extent that Edwards acknowledged America’s collective covenant with God, says Sang Hyun Lee of Princeton Theological Seminary, he believed that it was contingent upon the nation’s actions-----and particularly upon whether they were godly or not. Edwards did believe in evil and would have understood why President Bush uses the word to describe terrorists. But any attempt to ascribe high moral purpose to all of America’s actions would have invited the theologian’s cautioning words.

For all the faults Edwards might have found in them, however, contemporary evangelical Christians continue to exhibit a quality that he would have considered paramount: they are real serious about their religion and seriously concerned about the authenticity of their faith. Listen to Nick Giordano, 46, a pork-industry lobbyist who lives in Northern Virginia and is a member of an evangelically oriented Episcopal congregation. This father of three prefers not to quibble about the label “evangelical” but says there is something about his practice of Christianity that demands taking the example of Jesus (Christ) seriously.

“It’s impossible to do that if you don’t hang out with him, and you can’t do that unless you read the Bible. And you surely don’t hear from him through the Holy Spirit if you are selectively cutting things out of your Bible.”

Such seriousness about the business of faith may be one reason why evangelical churches are expanding daily while many other mainline Protestant churches shrink. “I think that is happening within the Christian world,” says Solomon of McLean Bible Church, “is that going through the motions of being a Christian is something that is passe, outmoded, and no longer necessary. Increasingly, there is evangelicalism and secularism, and if you’re not going to be evangelical, why play the game at all?”

Evangelical scholars such as Noll and Marsden find no fault that seriousness. They would just like to see their fellow evangelicals play the game a bit more thoughtfully----and with a little more mindful of where they came from.

By: Jay Tolson
Source: U. S. News & World Report,
December 8, 2003
Special Report. Pgs.38-44

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