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American Evangelicalism, by Christian Smith: A Response

Updated on June 18, 2012

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American Evangelicalism: Premis, etc.

In his book, Christian Smith looks at American evangelicalism and offers explanations as to why it seems to be thriving under pluralism. He “measures” the vitality of the religion by looking at robustness, saliency, participation, (there are six) and comes to the conclusion that yes, evangelicalism is really quite popular. Participation and commitment are both strong and in fact the religion appears to be growing. The research Smith did was very empirical and thorough- huge numbers of telephone surveys, followed by personal interviews and visits to churches. Hard to dispute such data.

Smith came to the conclusion that evangelicalism is thriving because there was a split with the evangelical-fundamentalists in the 40s that polarized the religion into the fundamentalists and the more mainline, moderate, and liberal Christians (comprised of both Protestants and Catholics). The fundamentalists are characteristically very conservative and withdrew from the mainline culture. This retreatist attitude caused the fundamentalists to become very tightly-knit, and have, Smith says, not developed any kind of lasting relationship with mainstream culture. The other pole (mainline and liberal Christians) have conformed pretty heavily to mainstream culture- to the point that it’s difficult to find any distinctions. Smith says that these two poles (three groups, really- but it’s difficult to distinguish between the mainliners and liberals, and they often get lumped together) both rate quite low in his six categories for measuring religious strength.

Having looked at these two apparently failed approaches to religion, Smith proposes that in a pluralistic religious environment, only those religions that manage to be active in the mainstream cultural while also maintaining a clear distinction from it will thrive. The other important factor is that the religious group has to also create tension between itself and other outgroups so that its followers will have something clear to unite against in righteous moral outrage (or, you know, make insulting bumper-stickers about). In an effort to find this balance, evangelicalism has developed a relationship with mainstream culture in which the secular media is under constant attack and yet they try to get every famous evangelical on television and almost court the media for publicity.

Meaty Argument

Smith argues that the very delicate nature of this integral relationship is what dooms evangelicalism as far as making any societal change. This is particularly difficult for evangelicals to swallow because one of their main goals is to “redeem” society (society, evangelically-speaking, is the sum total of all its parts; parts being people). Evangelical Christians see social problems as existing on an individual level, rather than an institutional level, and thus see the solution to all social problems as a simple matter of finding all of the perpetrators, leading them individually to Christ-Their-Personal-Savior, and He’ll take it from there (at least that’s the impression I got. They may well see it as a bit more complicated than that). So the really funny part is that the rate of such things as divorce and alcoholism are equal or higher among evangelicals than in the rest of the population. The interviews included in the book showed that those interviewed either didn’t understand the problem or were unable to answer. The other rather unfortunate trend seemed to be that much of what the evangelicals valued about their religion was what other people really hated about them, which suggests that their recruitment level is probably pretty low. However, Smith’s final point was that this conflict between evangelicals and the rest of American society is actually really beneficial for them because it helps them maintain their distinctive identity, rather than being swallowed up by the mainstream like the moderate and liberal Christians. Smith closes by describing the new approach to the ‘culture conundrum’ being taken by the emerging church: namely that it’s trying to maintain the sense of tension but minimize the conflict aspect by keeping an eye on mainstream culture and recognizing its effect on the church, but also understanding that having a Christian politician in office is largely ineffective as far as creating any sort of social change.

Reader Response

While I agree with Smith’s reasoning as far as why the two poles he originally introduced are failing, I would be careful to distinguish between the nature of the two failings because I believe they are in fact very different. The fundamentalists can be considered ‘failing’ in that they aren’t growing at any appreciable rate, but it’s important to note that on the other hand, they are strong in that the members that they do have are very committed. As we discussed in the previous class, the fairly extreme costs combined with equal benefits has the effect of making the religion stronger. [for those of us just tuning in: the demand for commitment weeds out “free-riders,” making those who are involved doubly committed and thus strengthening the whole community.] It is also clear that Smith wrote this before the election; the fundamentalists may not have been very visible to the mainstream, but they have a strong voice and a united front and have proved that having politicians on your side can, in fact, have an impact.

I believe that Smith’s definition of religious failure is what can be associated with the moderate and liberal Christians- in the sense that for all intents and purposes, they don’t really exist anymore. This sort of failure would be symptomatic of groups that failed to maintain their identity and were swallowed by the mainstream and are now little more than ritual and the occasional after-school/youth group program—members primarily belonging to the Church-on-Easter-and-Christmas camp. The children growing up in such a household may or may not remain involved after they move out, and if they do, it will most likely be out of habit or childhood nostalgia. And as far as ‘new recruits’ go, as discussed in the previous class, people are very unlikely to join a church that looks exactly like what they do already. As they don’t require much in the way of investment, people don’t feel as though they’re getting any benefits either and are very unlikely to remain involved. Thus, in the traditional sense of ‘strong’ and ‘weak,’ the more accommodating, liberal pole is very weak, particularly when compared to the fundamentalists, who work to differentiate themselves from the rest of the population and create these strong, self-affirming communities on the fringe of society. And as far as Smith’s “emerging church” is concerned, I think that they will have a difficult time maintaining tension without the conflict aspect. The argument has been well rehearsed and even better documented: if people are going to unite in any strong and lasting way, they need to do so against an enemy. Uniting against an ‘other,’ while not impossible, is certainly more difficult and would require a very strong sense of identity on the part of the community that I doubt an ‘emerging church’ would have. Even if that aspect was in place, they are still uniting against and if my working knowledge of the English language serves me, that implies conflict. A necessary evil, though not necessarily evil.

What Do You Think?

Do you have any experience with American Evangelicalism? What do you think of religious pluralism in America? Do you think it has any impact on the way people experience and practice religion?

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