Neoevangelicalism Reengagement With The Mainstream

The battles of the Second World War diverted American Protestantism from its internal feuds and set them in a not altogether unhelpful context. Once the war was over, new voices began to emerge within conservative Protestantism, urging fundamental changes of direction. The emergence of evangelicalism as a distinctive Protestant position dates to 1942 and the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals, with its principled attempt to distinguish evangelicalism from fundamentalism.5 In contrast to the dogmatic fundamentalist insistence on separation from modern culture, the "new evangelicals"—led by E. J. Carnell, Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, and Billy Graham—were committed to a positive engagement with culture in an attempt to transform it through the gospel.

Billy Graham is probably the best-known representative of this new movement on account of his worldwide evangelistic ministry, which began in the late 1940s. Graham came to regard traditional fundamentalist "oppositionalism" as a barrier to the preaching of the gospel. In 1956 the popular fundamentalist magazine Christian Life published an article entitled "Is Evangelical Theology Changing?" It argued that the fundamentalist old guard was committed to the slogan "earnestly contend for the faith," whereas the new generation preferred "you must be born again." A heated controversy resulted.

Three months later, the same journal published an interview with Billy Graham in which he declared that he was "sick and fed up" with such controversies and just wanted to get on with preaching the gospel. For Graham, fundamentalism led to interminable, sterile theological conflicts at a time when there was important evangelistic work to be done. The growing alienation of Graham from fundamentalism was publicly demonstrated when he accepted an invitation in 1955 to hold a crusade in New York City. The invitation came from a coalition of Christian churches, many of which were not in any way fundamentalist. By the time the crusade opened to massive publicity in the spring of 1957, fundamentalism seemed to be consigned to the past.6 Although Graham was unquestionably a conservative Protestant, that did not make him a fundamentalist.

Carl Henry (1913-2003) illustrates the character of the new movement particularly well, especially its attitude toward culture at large. In his Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947)—the "manifesto of neo-evangelicalism" (Dirk Jellema)—Henry argued that fundamentalism presented and proclaimed an impoverished and reduced gospel that was radically defective in its social vision. Fundamentalism, he suggested, was too otherworldly and anti-intellectual to gain a hearing with the educated public. It showed no interest in exploring the relationship between Christianity and culture and social life.

Yet Jean Monnet's admonition now came into play: without institutions, nothing survives. The new movement required institutions—in this case, both a seminary and a journal—to consolidate its influence. The founding in 1947 of Fuller Theological Seminary, which quickly (and controversially) aligned itself with the "new" evangelicalism rather than fundamentalism, ensured its institutional survival.7 Henry's experience as a journalist led to an invitation from Billy Graham and L. Nelson Bell to edit a new journal then being launched. As editor-in-chief of Christianity Today from 1956 until 1968, Henry did much to establish the profile, concerns, and credibility of the "new evangelicalism."

The success and possible downside of the forms of cultural engagement advocated by evangelicalism can be seen in the ministry of Billy Graham.8 Although Graham's relationship with President Harry Truman was tentative and uncertain, he succeeded in building a good working relationship with President Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower. His relationship with John F. Kennedy was ambivalent, but he consolidated his emerging role as unofficial pastor and spiritual adviser to the White House with Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and he would retain that role until the end of the Clinton administration. Graham thus enjoyed a privileged relationship with nine presidents over a period of nearly fifty years, virtually becoming a chaplain to the presidency.

Yet this high degree of political acceptance was not without its costs. Graham felt that he could not openly criticize those whom he served in this way, and as a result he failed to carry out the prophetic ministry many believed he was uniquely placed to exercise. He offered support for the Vietnam War effort under Johnson and was surprisingly un-forthcoming over the moral failures of several presidencies—most notably the Watergate scandal that engulfed Nixon and the sexual intrigues of the Clinton presidency. To its critics, the increasing social acceptability of evangelicalism was the reverse side of evangelicalism's increasing acceptance of wider cultural norms: through such acceptance, it had lost its moral cutting edge.9

One clear area of divergence between fundamentalism and evangelicalism concerned social action. The impact of earlier revivals had led to new interest in engaging with society. By the middle of the nineteenth century, it had become assumed that those who had experienced some spiritual renewal should straightway take part in the various efforts to help the less fortunate in the community. Yet in the 1920s and 1930s, fundamentalism turned its back on any attempt at social outreach. For reasons that are not entirely persuasive and rest more on imagined associations than on demonstrable convergences, many influential fundamentalists saw efforts to help the poor as betraying a commitment to liberal theology. After all, were not the proponents of the "social gospel" during the modernist controversy of the 1920s theological liberals?10 Until recently, fundamentalists tended to see Christian social action as limited purely to struggles for religious freedom and against abortion. For evangelicals, in contrast, the gospel clearly calls Christians to fight racism, sexism, and poverty as well.

Other changes and realignments taking place around this time were further altering the nature of Protestantism. Once more, those changes centered on Protestantism's relationship to culture.

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