We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Monday, June 6, 2011

Whither Evangelicalism?

     In 2006, E. J. Dionne wrote an article entitled, "Evangelical Evolution," which put forward the thesis that evangelical Christians were, if not becoming more liberal, at least "mellowing" in their religious attitudes.  In 2006, evangelicals were taking more of an interest in some mainstream issues such as pollution and climate change.  Some leaders were less aggressive and closed-minded.  Dionne focused largely on events in the Southern Baptist Church although he did include general developments as well.

     It is an interesting thesis.  Recent polling conducted by the Pew Research Center including the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggests that Dionne may have been correct, at least to a degree.  We saw here just a few days ago that the evangelical pundit, Chuck Colson, is upset by the finding of one Pew poll that some 57% of self-identified evangelicals agreed with the statement that,"Many religions can lead to eternal life."  That is a striking figure given the emphasis evangelical churches usually place on an exclusive salvation restricted to the born-again.  Another intriguing bit of data has come to hand in just the last few days.  A Pew poll studying the current state of American presidential politics including  the traits of potential candidates claims there is much greater acceptance of the possibility of a homosexual candidate now compared to four years ago—including among evangelical Protestants.  In 2007, 71% of white evangelicals polled stated that they would be less likely to vote for a homosexual candidate while today 65% responded in the same way.  That is a drop of 6%, which doesn't seem like much until we consider how vehemently opposed to homosexuality the evangelical establishment has been over the years.  So-called mainline Protestants dropped from 37% objecting to a homosexual candidate to 30%, a drop of 7%.

     Perhaps one of the surest signs that "something" is afoot is the appearance of articles online denying that there is any leftward trend among evangelicals, including (or even especially) among young evangelicals.  Byron Johnson's, "The Good News About Evangelicalism," is a case in point. Drawing largely from data gathered by the Baylor Religion Survey (2006) Johnson argues that evangelicals are holding steady in their conservative beliefs.  It's interesting that his data is five years out of date, but his arguments remind us to be cautious in buying into the idea that evangelicals are moderating their views on various subjects.  Still, the highly reputable Pew Center did find that 57% of evangelicals agree to an inclusive rather than exclusive view of salvation, and if did find that as much as one-third of evangelicals would not be disinclined to vote for a homosexual presidential candidate.  What does this mean?   Are we seeing a quiet but potentially significant trend toward moderation among evangelicals?  Or, perhaps what we are seeing is that evangelicalism has grown so large and so diverse that it includes many more voices and perspectives than it did in the "good old days" when it was a smallish minority group on the American religious stage.  That, at least, is the view taken by John Ortberg in his article entitled, "Who Speaks for Evangelicals?"  So, then, where is evangelicalism headed—towards moderation or not so much?