Evangelicalism and Its Pathologies

Everyone carries with them the seeds of their own destruction. Growing up, my parents warned us that our family DNA conveyed dangers like alcoholism, heart disease, and skin cancer. Regardless of whether these dangers came through genetics, family dynamics, or some combination of the two, I didn’t ask for them. Of course, I also received tremendous gifts from my heritage, too many to count. But today we’re focusing on the dark side. So let’s stay negative.

Movements, like individuals, carry their destruction with them as well: genetic traits embedded in their institutional DNA from the beginning, which, left unwatched or unchecked, will eventually lead them into their own pit of despair.

DNA (550x356)

Evangelicalism is no different. Like all movements, it received at its birth both tremendous strengths and potentially debilitating weaknesses. And its history has been marked by the highs of the former and the depressing lows of the latter.

I was reminded of this during a fascinating presentation by Tim Larsen, one of my new colleagues at Wheaton College. Larsen unpacked the history of evangelicalism and its pathologies in four simple stages, as history that, as he said in the presentation, is brought to you by the letter “D.”

One important caveat here is that Larsen’s presentation focused exclusively on the development of evangelicalism in America. Although what he says about evangelicalism in its earliest era probably applies to evangelicalism throughout the world, the other three stages are more specific to the American context.

The 4 Ds of Evangelical History

As I said, Larsen explained the history of evangelicalism in four stages. But the most interesting thing about his presentation was his argument that each stage comes with its own set of pathologies. And they seem to be cumulative–i.e. each stage struggles with its own pathologies as well as the ones it inherited from earlier stages. So those of us lucky enough to be living in the fourth era of evangelicalism get to wrestle with at least four sets of interconnected pathologies. That sounds like fun.

1. The Dawn of Evangelicalism

Many think of evangelicalism as a relatively new phenomenon, but it actually has its roots in the 18th century revivals that swept the entire English-speaking world and involved such figures as Jonathan Edwards, John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield, among others. Concerned about the “dead orthodoxy” and intellectualism of the established churches, early evangelical leaders focused on fostering spirituality vitality in the lives and hearts of everyday Christians.

Although there is much to commend in this early vision, Larsen pointed out that the original ethos of evangelicalism also left it with a propensity toward several unfortunate pathologies.

Anti-intellectualism: The pathologies of most movements come from the fact that strengths quickly turn into weaknesses. Early evangelicalism grew out of a necessary critique of an overly intellectual approach to Christianity. So it pushed the pendulum in the other direction, insisting that true Christianity must be vital and experiential as well. But it didn’t take long before that reaction to intellectualism led to a corresponding anti-intellectualism, one that denigrated the life of the mind and prioritized instead the primacy of emotions and experience. That anti-intellectualism continues to haunt evangelicalism to this day.

Populism: Early evangelicalism also emphasized evangelism (bringing the gospel to every person) and resisted any kind of spiritual hierarchy, insisting that every Christian should experience transformative conversion. As necessary as these convictions are, they also tended to make evangelicals subject to a kind of pandering, a lowest-common-denominator approach to Christianity that encourages people to do whatever it takes to reach the masses.

Pragmatism: Although Larsen didn’t mention it in his presentation, it would seem that a parallel pathology would be pragmatism, a tendency to think that any practice is justified if it produces the requisite response. As long as people seem to having the kind of vital, spiritual experiences that you’re aiming for, you don’t need to worry too much about the practice itself.

All three of these pathologies flow from the strengths of early evangelicalism: its commitment to a kind of personal transformation that transcends mere head-knowledge, a desire to see every Christian, indeed every person, experience this amazing transformation, and a willingness to be all things to all people in order to facilitate this Gospel-centered transformation.

But each strength contained within it the seeds of its own weakness, difficulties that evangelicalism has wrestled with ever since.

2. The Dominance of Evangelicalism

The second era saw evangelicalism rise to be a dominant force in American culture. And contrary to what many might think, the real dominance of evangelicalism came in the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. Through the continued revivalistic efforts of people like Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, and Billy Sunday, the rise of social movements like abolitionism, prohibition, and the Salvation Army, along with other cultural influences, evangelicalism came to shape American culture in unprecedented ways during the nineteenth century.

As with the first era, though, dominance left evangelicalism struggling with at least two pathologies.

The Christian America: Unlike those who think America was a “Christian” country from its birth, it was really the second era of evangelicalism that cast a vision for an America that was thoroughly shaped by the evangelical narrative of personal conversion and societal transformation. But the dominance of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century left us with a narrative that suggests this was the way America was supposed to be from the very beginning. And many have been trying to recreate that supposedly original vision ever since.

A Desire to Control: The ideal of America as a Christian country, and one specifically shaped by evangelical principles, and the corresponding desire to re-establish that supposedly lost vision, sets evangelicalism up for significant power struggles as its vision of America comes into conflict with opposing visions. To some extent, of course, different visions of what constitutes society’s well being always result in power struggles. But in this case the sheer dominance of evangelicalism in the nineteenth century led the movement to expect a certain level of cultural power that stays with us today.

3. The Division of Evangelicalism

The transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century was a rocky one for evangelicalism. The controversy surrounding the Social Gospel, the rise of historical criticism, and debates about evolution, led many in the movement to conclude that so-called “mainline” Protestantism had drifted intolerably far from core aspects of the faith, that efforts to resist this drift from within had failed, and that it was time to separate. So American fundamentalism was born, an effort to resist theological “liberalism” by separating and founding new institutions (esp. churches and schools).

Should it come as any surprise that this move toward separatism came with a few pathologies as well?

Anti-intellectualism: I realize that this is a repetition of an earlier pathology, but it finds renewed emphasis in this era. Many blamed the theological drift of mainline Christianity on an overly intellectual approach to Christianity, one primarily associated with schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Some evangelicals responded by overemphasizing the “simple truths of the faith” and rejecting “academic” theology entirely.

Isolationism: I could be wrong, but it seems that a movement birthed in separatism will almost always struggle with isolationism: a tendency to gather in increasingly smaller groups of like-minded believers. As the issues over which separation was understood to be necessary increased, the fragmentation of evangelism grew, along with the corresponding isolation of individual churches and institutions.

Suspicionism: Okay, I know that this isn’t really a word. But it fit the ism-motif for this section. Evangelicals in this era generally felt that they’d been forced out of historically evangelical institutions like Princeton. And to a large extent, that was true. But this narrative of losing the battle and retreating to more defensible positions, left evangelicalism in this era with a propensity to always be looking over their shoulders, as though they were wondering who else might be conspiring against them and seeking the downfall of their newly established denominations and schools. A culture of suspicion prevailed as people sought to test the orthodoxy of those remaining.

4. The Development of Evangelicalism

Larsen wasn’t terribly happy with his fourth “D,” feeling that it wasn’t as interesting as the first three. But he was trying to capture the important shift that took place after WWII as evangelicalism gained new momentum, re-engaged mainstream culture, and sought greater ecumenical dialog. Undoubtedly the most characteristic figure of the era is Billy Graham. His crusades demonstrated a commitment to breaking through the isolation of early 20th-century evangelicalism and partnering with anyone who would help him promote the gospel (while at the same time raising questions about whether he had fallen prey to the pragmatist and populist pathologies of evangelicalism’s genesis). With a renewed focus on social action and cultural engagement, evangelicalism boomed in the latter part of the 20th century, becoming one of the more important cultural forces in American society.

Along the way, while older pathologies continued to raise their hoary heads, evangelicalism developed at least two new ones.

The Idol of success: I’m not sure how new this one actually is – indeed, I think it’s actually just a new manifestation of the older pragmatism – but maybe modern evangelicalism struggles with it in new ways. The idea here is that we’ve come to view success as a sign of faithfulness. Those with the biggest churches, largest platforms, and most influential voices, they’re the ones who have truly succeeded, the ones making a real difference. Everyone else should learn from them by buying their books and attending their conferences. As evangelicalism grew in numbers, money, and influence, we came to define success in precisely those same terms.

Our Inferiority Complex: At the same time as this renewed vigor and influence, though, we somehow managed to develop an inferiority complex. In the previous era, we broke away from the intellectual and cultural centers of American life. Returning after a generation or two in the isolation of fundamentalism, we returned to the scene with a renewed commitment that the best of evangelicalism can and should be a match for the best that secular culture can produce. But framing our engagement as an attempt to “match” or even “better” what others have done implicitly puts us in the position of being the ones trying to catch up, the ones left behind and now trying to prove themselves. So there’s a contestant feeling that our music, movies, books, theology, and general way of life, just aren’t quite as good as what the cultured elite can produce.

What’s Next?

That is anyone’s guess, and Larsen didn’t even try to go there. I think there’s a general consensus that we’re looking at another major shift in the story. We’re moving beyond the post-WWII era and the corresponding revival of evangelicalism, but what are we moving into? What will the fifth “D” be?

According to some, the fifth D might well be “death” (see, for example, “The Coming Evangelical Collapse” and Evangelicalism Is Dead! Long Live Evangelicalism!). But I don’t think so. People who promote the death of evangelicalism seem to have in mind just the evangelicalism of the fourth D, an evangelicalism that has clearly struggled with many of the pathologies of its history. But evangelicalism is older and more diverse that such accounts suggest. Will the evangelicalism of the fifth D differ from that of the fourth? Of course. But change is not death. Indeed, change usually suggest health and life.

What will the fifth D be? No one knows. But finding out is going to be interesting.




  1. David A Booth says


    Thanks for your thoughts.

    Perhaps one of the most significant things about evangelicalism can be found in the fact that your article speaks of Christians and Christianity but not of churches or denominations. Perhaps one of the pathologies of evangelicalism is its lack of a developed ecclesiology.

    What difference does this make? It is hard to draw strong conclusions from impressions, but my sense is that evangelicals tend to seek renewal by starting para-church organizations or by thinking about ministry in entrepreneurial ways. Regretfully, this appears to be a vicious cycle in that these para-church organizations frequently engage in actions which rightly belong to churches (e.g. A non-denominational seminary administering the Lord’s Supper or commissioning missionaries announces to the world that it doesn’t care about church membership or discipline).


  2. Patrick says

    If we all simply listened to Christ and followed His prayer that we love one another like He loved us, we’d be able to have various differences and still not be “suspicious”, not denigrate the other view with hostility, be forgiving&loving, etc.

    Heck, I’ve learned to discuss Orthodox theology with Mormons and JWs w/o getting upset.


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