The New Old-Time Religion
Evangelicals defy easy labels. Here's why--and why their numbers are growing
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 theologian's birth, the questions are hardly academic. From Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., 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 mainline 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, 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 the flock, 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 from 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 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 a 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."