Growing up in a Southern Baptist church in the 1970s and ’80s, I heard quite a bit about “the Rapture.” This was the dispensationalist apocalyptic teaching that some day, some day very soon, born-again Christians would be secretly whisked away to heaven, right before seven years of dystopian hell on earth. Evangelical gospel tracts, films, and even comic books depicted the confusion on earth as everyone else looked around at the empty sets of clothes lying about and realized that the one common denominator behind all these missing neighbors wasn’t UFO enthusiasm or mob ties but a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Perhaps, we were told, they would remember the warnings and realize they’d been left behind. And here comes the Antichrist.
Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square. In an era of tumult over sexual revolution and threats to religious liberty, will social conservatives turn around to find the empty clothes of the Evangelicals all around them and realize they’ve been left behind to face the spirit of the age?
On the face of things, there is not much to worry about here. After all, Evangelicals are still pro-life and pro-marriage. But there is reason to wonder where Evangelicalism will go after taking leave of the religious right, whether into suspended political animation or into the sort of political activism that avoids the points of greatest tension with the ambient culture. Some social conservatives have criticized in recent days a large gathering of young Evangelicals for speaking on sex trafficking, global poverty, and orphan care with little mention of abortion, homosexuality, or threats to religious liberty. As some Evangelicals worry that Pope Francis is going wobbly where John Paul II stood strong, some observers both within Evangelicalism and without worry that it is already running from the most heated forms of engagement and is waiting for Francis to catch up.
Even some older veterans of the old Moral Majority feel that all their political efforts have changed nothing and that it’s time to retreat from the public square. Evangelical church planters don’t want their churches “mobilized” to fight marriage initiatives in their states. Pastors want their churches to “move beyond” the culture wars and treat abortion as one issue in a “holistic” witness focused on other issues. Some young Evangelicals shrug off concerns about religious liberty because they believe this sort of rights talk doesn’t match up with Jesus’ ethic of self-sacrifice. Other young Evangelicals insist that “engaging the culture” is more important than public action, that politics changes nothing.
Does this mean that Falwell’s warrior children are giving up? Some of the older ones, yes. Others of the older generations and most among the next generation of Evangelicals aren’t walking away from public engagement, but they do hear a trumpet sound in the eastern skies that gives them pause. As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture—especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt—it grows increasingly committed to the “strangest” aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed “political” isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. Evangelicals want to conserve a supernatural gospel without sacrificing its social, cultural, and political importance, a gospel they saw often negotiated away in previous generations in a ploy for social and cultural acceptability and political success.
It’s true that the newer generations of Evangelicals are often interested in more than just the culture-war issues of the past. They work on orphan care, ecological stewardship, human trafficking, racial reconciliation, prison reform, economic inequality, and poverty as well as abortion, economic freedom, and marriage. But those who work most on these issues at the congregational level do so with decidedly conservative motivations and strategies—and theologies. Evangelicals concerned about poverty, for instance, rarely mirror the thinking and policy of the Great Society, even when they deviate from the talking points of the Republican business class. They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability, family accountability, and personal responsibility. They are as committed as ever to the sanctity of all human life and to marriage as a one-flesh union between a man and a woman.
Indeed, often the “broader” agenda items reinforce their social conservatism. Evangelicals working with the poor see the devastation of family breakdown, substance abuse, predatory gambling, and so on. Not that this changes the way they’re spoken of in public. When Evangelicals adopt, the secularist Left accuses them of “stealing” children for “Evangelism,” though if they didn’t the left would accuse them of caring about “fetuses” without providing them homes.
These Evangelicals actually go to church and so represent the future. The problem is that “young Evangelical” is a confusing term, especially for a media culture that often defines the concept in terms of marketing rather than theology or ecclesiology. It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak in with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic. As one wag once said of Al Gore, that he is “an old man’s idea of a young man,” these Evangelicals are usually an Episcopalian’s idea of an Evangelical, just as the “nuns on the bus” are secularizing America’s idea of a Catholic.
But these sorts aren’t, demographically speaking, where the future is, among those who are actually filling and building churches. The “red-letter Christian” who speaks as though the Sermon on the Mount is a pretty good Galilean first draft of the 2024 Democratic party platform isn’t likely to be launching an Evangelical church-planting movement. Or an Evangelical adoption agency, soup kitchen, or halfway house for people just out of jail. The pop-left of Evangelicalism usually has quite little to do with Evangelical churches and is usually ephemeral even by the standards of Evangelical faddishness. Rob Bell once pastored a megachurch; now, last I heard, he was talking about starring in his own reality show.
Of course, much of the perception is fabricated. A study by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution suggested—to much press fanfare—that religious progressives will soon outnumber religious conservatives, and that the new “moral majority” will be a liberal one. The Christian religion, after all, isn’t an ideology but a body. A lot of people saying to a pollster that they identify as Christians hardly represents a movement. The question is, “Who goes to church?” Congregationally speaking, Protestant liberalism is deader than Henry VIII. Where are the Episcopalian revival movements, the Unitarian megachurches?
Evangelicals who feel reluctant to engage socially and politically don’t usually feel that way because they, much less the whole movement, are moving leftward. Evangelicals may want to transcend “Christian politics,” but that’s because they want to retain Christianity in its fullest, not because they want it to “evolve.” Even those squeamish about culture-warring still want to be culture-making and culture-preserving—and culture-changing.
As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right. It is true that your typical pastor of a growing, large urban Evangelical church often doesn’t look like his cuff-linked or golf-shirted forefather. But he is hardly in line with what the ambient culture would call “progressive.” He has tattoos, yes, but they aren’t of Che Guevara; they’re of Hebrew passages from the Bible. His congregation’s statement of faith isn’t the generic sloganeering of the last generation’s Evangelical doctrinally oozy consumerist movements but is a lengthy manifesto with points and subpoints and footnotes rooted in the Calvinist wing of the Reformation and the Augustinian legacy of the historic Church. His church doesn’t sing vapid “Jesus is my boyfriend” praise choruses but Puritan lyrics, albeit set to a steel guitar and a drum set.
The Evangelical ambiguity toward old-style religious-right (and religious-left) political activism is of a piece with the growing Evangelical intolerance with “seeker-sensitive” how-to preaching and hymnody. Young pastors often look to their parents’ generation’s worship services—with Aesopian homilies that use Bible characters as examples for how to manage stress or rekindle “sizzle” in a midlife marriage—and ask, “Would Jesus have had to be crucified for this to be true?” Even the old revivalism was typically quite minimal theologically, once one got beyond the “plan of salvation.” The fundamentalists (with some notable exceptions) were more about sustaining a coalition than about conserving the Great Tradition of Christian theology.
Unlike the typical Bible Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements, strict in terms both of entrance into the believing community and of measures of accountability that believers must meet to stay there. The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition, sometimes calling out backsliding Christians from the pulpit with all the force of the hellfire-and-brimstone revivalists of yesteryear. He is pro-life and pro-marriage. Sexual ethics are emphasized in this typical congregation with a strikingly conservative order, not only in the teaching of the church but also in its discipline, as the unrepentant face what their parents never seemed to notice in their red-and-black-lettered Bibles: excommunication.
This pastor and his leadership may want to retain Christianity in its fullest, but they are not sure how, or whether, public engagement fits with the mission of the church, but not because he’s theologically liberal. He has seen social gospels of left and right try to package a transcendent message for decidedly this-worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levers of political power. The question is, how does one carry out the things Jesus has commanded us to do (evangelize, baptize, disciple) without confusing them with the illusory immediacy of the priorities of this present age?
To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people. Our evangelism often involves personal stories of how we came to meet Christ. Our worship often involves personal “testimonies”—either spoken from the pulpit or in the small-group circle or sung in songs that seem cloyingly sentimental to others.
On the individual level, our past—what we’re leaving behind—often defines what we mean by following Christ. An Evangelical who was converted from a life of alcoholism once rebuffed me for listening to country music, because he heard in George Jones’ songs a glorification of what, for him, was the embodiment of the Egypt he’d escaped. Evangelicals whose pre-conversion stories included a lack of moral limits sometimes build legalistic hedges around even the possibility of such carnality.
And, conversely, those who grew up with an oppressive legalism often veer off into a licentious antinomianism, spinning it as “freedom in Christ.” The Evangelical who was converted out of a lifeless church often eschews liturgy as “formalism” and contrasts “religion” with “relationship.” One who was converted despite an exuberant but theologically vacuous church will seek out the “ancient roots” and “structure” of a more liturgically ordered church.
What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement. Evangelicalism pings back and forth between extremes—always seeking to avoid the last bad thing. The religious left was, in many ways, a reaction by some sectors of the “Jesus people” revival era to the empty consumerism and racism of the post–World War II Evangelicalism and the America in which it was so comfortably at home. The religious right was in some ways a reaction to the awful consequences of pietistic Evangelical withdrawal as the country veered into sexual revolution and a culture of death.
What has changed for younger Evangelicals is the slow-motion collapse of the Bible Belt and the notion of “Christian America.” The newer generations often see in the Bible Belt experiment a Christianity that sought to affix Jesus onto the American Dream. Christianity had become a totem by which people became “normal” citizens, and Jesus became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children—all that and eternal life too. This Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent but the studied clip of a telemarketer.
It is, as Walker Percy once pointed out about Southern Christendom, not Christian but Stoic. I once heard a neo-Pentecostal prosperity-gospel preacher say, perched on a golden throne with perfectly coiffed mauve hair, that she would bet her life on the Gospel even if it proved to be untrue because this was, after all, the best way to live. That certainly might be easy to say from a golden throne, but one is unlikely to see such beliefs translated into Sudanese.
But as even the most minimal attempts to hold to a Christian ethic—especially as it relates to sexual morality—made Christianity out of step with postmodern America, Evangelicals have slowly come to realize that they are no “moral majority” who represent the truest strain of the American spirit. We are instead “strangers and aliens,” after all. To be truly “Evangelical,” then, is to reject the often nominal Christianity and impotent ecclesiology that empowered their parents to divorce and their friends to wreck their lives. And the Gospel certainly isn’t “useful” in maintaining an already existing behavioral image in the ruins of Woodstock.
Evangelical Christianity must recognize that part of the last generation’s political activism was in part prophetic—note Evangelical Christianity’s turnaround toward a pro-life position that put it at odds with the prevailing winds of American idolatry of “choice” and autonomy. For some, like the Southern Baptist Convention, this required an actual reversal of position, but for others it required recognition that the issue was one they had to engage publicly.
But we must also recognize that the last generation of political activism was all too often far less than prophetic. Too often, it has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it. That’s why we have seen voters’ guides that pretend to give us “Christian” positions not only on matters as transcendent and clearly revealed as the sanctity of human life or the definition of marriage but also on a line-item veto, the Balanced Budget Amendment, and the proper funding levels for the Department of Education. And that’s why we’ve seen Evangelical political leaders welcoming into the ranks, as Christians, Mormon talk show hosts and serially monogamous casino-magnate reality TV stars, just as they attempt to spin Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as born-again Christians who helped found “Christian America.” Apparently, it’s not only Latter-day Saints who attempt to baptize the dead.
Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel. I find this to be good news. But that does not mean that the next generation of Gospel-centered Evangelicals should retreat from social and political engagement. As part of a reaction to their parents’ or grandparents’ errors, a Gospel-focused, missional Evangelicalism could become not only separatist and isolationist but just as politically idolatrous though from a different direction, all the while reassuring its members that they are avoiding culture wars or social gospel.
First of all, the centrality of the Gospel demands a certain form of public engagement. The Gospel, after all, is the announcement of God’s redemption of sinners through the life, death, resurrection, and ongoing reign of Jesus Christ. This cannot help but have political consequences, if for no other reason than in its explanation of what sin is. Is Ahab’s theft of Naboth’s land (1 Kings 21:1–19) a matter of personal sin or public injustice? It was both. Was Herod’s taking of another man’s wife a personal failure of a sinner or the public scandal of a ruler? It was both. From the prophets to Jesus to James, the Christian ethic speaks both to those things we deem “personal,” such as how we talk about one another, and to those things we deem “public,” such as how workers are treated.
This is why the most self-consciously “apolitical” churches are typically the most political of all. The Southern Presbyterian and Baptist churches of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries demanded a “spirituality of the church” that addressed only evangelism and discipleship, not “politics.” Of course, they did address politics. When a “simple gospel-preaching” church in 1856 Alabama or 1925 Mississippi calls sinners to repentance for fornicating and gambling but not for slave owning and lynching, that church isn’t “apolitical.” That church is implicitly blessing the status quo.
A church in twenty-first-century America that doesn’t address the horror of abortion or the public denial of marriage is a church that says to Jesus, as others have said before, “Who then is my neighbor?” This church also keeps from guilty consciences the only thing that can liberate them: the direct confrontation with the Gospel of a God who is both just and justifier. We cannot in our attempt to keep the Gospel from being too big present a Gospel that is too small to, as the Great Commission puts it, teach the nations “whatsoever I have commanded you.”
A younger generation rightly rejects the triumphalism and hucksterism of some aspects of the old American civil-religion political activism. But, in reclaiming the centrality of the Gospel, we cannot fall back into the old dispensationalism of divorcing the kingdom from the Gospel, Paul and the apostles from Jesus and the prophets. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (with the implicit answer, “I’m not”) isn’t just a bad social ethic; it’s also a matter of denying the mission Jesus embodied and handed to us.
Evangelicals typically wonder, then, how do we “balance” such things? How do we engage socially without creeping back to the God and Country religion that gave us Christian T-shirts with a red, white, and blue “USA” in the middle of the slogan “Jesus Saves”? In the providence of God, it seems, an Evangelical triumphalism and an Evangelical isolationism will be decreasingly possible. As the sexual revolution whirls on, it is no longer possible to pretend that Evangelicals represent the “real America” of God-loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth social conservatives like us. As orthodox Christianity becomes increasingly freakish in American society—as it is in Europe and in the Islamic world—the more the church will have to look to the New Jerusalem and the less we will be able to look to Mayberry for our picture of what “normal” looks like.
Total disengagement, though, is itself also a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away. It is one thing, after all, to avoid the typical Evangelical panic and paranoia of the last generation. It is another to act as though it is holy to constrict the liberties of future generations by keeping silent. If we shrug off attempts to bully and intimidate on the basis of a new sexual orthodoxy, we would be accepting a designation of “bigotry” not only for ourselves but also for future generations to come and for those of various faith traditions. Was the Apostle Paul, after all, anything less than missional when he called for public justice and fairness for himself (Acts 16:37–39)? Were the revolutionary-era American Baptists wrong to pressure Madison and Jefferson for a First Amendment guaranteeing religious exercise? After all, one can still preach the gospel from a jail cell.
The secularization of American culture will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts—and thank God. The engagement instead will be first congregational, in shaping the consciences of a people who will witness to, as Evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry put it, the God who judges both men and nations. An Evangelical who is leading more than an online presence but an actual church must equip people to testify to the whole counsel of God about what a person is, what makes for human flourishing, what the goal of sexuality is, and so on. A shifting Western culture that is more out of the closet in its Dionysian nature is a culture that is much harder to accommodate to while keeping the pretense of Christianity.
Moreover, as genuine Christianity—in all its forms—becomes more freakish to the culture, the less it will be seen as one more constituency for one or the other political party. This is not necessarily because Evangelicalism changes, but because the parties start to see even the mildest Christian the way President Obama’s campaign viewed Jeremiah Wright: as an embarrassment among the “reasonable” people, who give donations and vote. This could give the sort of prophetic distance that enables Christians to speak in the public arena but with a primary focus on the church as the colony of the kingdom of God, not on America as some sort of mythical new Israel with a covenant mandate to bless the nations.
One additional factor that gives me hope for the future of humbly engaged, gospel-focused Evangelicalism is Rome. By this, I don’t necessarily mean some form of Catholic-Evangelical co-belligerence. I mean instead that the Roman Catholic Church is unlikely, at least at the magisterial level, to shift with the tides of Western culture as the state gives the sword of Caesar to protect the orthodoxies of the sexual revolution. Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive, and entrepreneurial Evangelicalism will be unable to bargain away its birthright without being reminded by the Vatican of what we’ve become in the process.
At the same time, Evangelical Christianity can remind Roman Catholicism that natural law is true enough so far as it goes but that the natural law points to a Judgment Seat (Rom. 2:15–16). Catholics will push Evangelicals to see beyond “Christian values” to the natural underpinnings of human life and flourishing, and Evangelicals will push Catholics to see that the universe is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10) and that losing our living sense of the ultimate telos leads to an unsustainable teleology.
The times will demand that Evangelicals stand for the faith in a different way from that in which we have done in the past even when we were at our best, to stand in a way that lives in the tension of prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. Prophetic distance in that we don’t become mascots for any political faction, adding Bible verses to justify somebody’s agenda when called upon to do so. Prophetic engagement in that we understand that the Gospel speaks to the whole of reality, including the decisions we make together in civil society and statecraft.
Evangelicals may go wobbly here and there, but we will still be here, even if our sawdust trail leads again to the prison cell. We might be left behind by Wall Street or Capitol Hill, but we’re looking beyond them to something—Someone—we expect to see exploding forth in the eastern skies, maybe any moment now. You can call that a “Rapture” if you want, but don’t call it a “retreat.”
Originally published by First Things