Evangelical Protestantism is the elephant in what passes for sophisticated living rooms in America and around the world. It is a phenomenon of vast dimensions and large implications. Yet it is either not perceived at all, or only in its role in American politics (a relatively small aspect of the phenomenon) is acknowledged, usually ruefully. With the ruing usually comes distortion, such as that illustrated by the widespread presumption that all Evangelicals in the United States are poor, uneducated and live on Tobacco Road. In fact, so pervasive is the antipathy toward and misunderstanding of the Evangelical movement that three accusations against Evangelicals are now widely accepted as fact: that they are theocratic, fundamentalist and anti-modern. All three are false. The truth of the matter is precisely the opposite. Evangelical Protestantism today is the most modern and pluralistic religion in the world.
To show this, it is important to establish some sense of what is meant by the term “Evangelical.” This is not always easy. For one thing, the boundaries of Evangelical Protestantism are not sharply defined. If one knows the names of some of the larger Evangelical groupings, one can find churches in almost any American locality belonging to the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the United States) or the Assemblies of God (the most sedate group within the Pentecostal sub-category of Evangelicals). But Evangelicals can be found within denominations such as the Episcopal Church that, as a whole, are not Evangelical. Some denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, contain often-uneasy combinations of Evangelicals and non-Evangelicals. And on the wilder shores of Evangelicalism, as in some Pentecostal and Holiness groups, there are congregations with no fixed address that meet in homes or storefronts.
Such fluidity immediately begs the question of definition. There is no Evangelical Vatican to provide a binding definition, but the following six characteristics are widely agreed upon: an unapologetically supernaturalist understanding of the Christian Gospel proclaiming a cosmic drama of redemption centered in the person of Jesus Christ; the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as the authoritative guide for Christian faith and life; a belief in the efficacy of prayer; a personal experience of conversion—being “born again”—as an essential step in becoming a Christian; evangelism—preaching the Gospel to all people—as a Christian duty; and, last but not least, a relatively strict moral code. Pentecostals, who constitute the most rapidly expanding group of Evangelicals outside the United States, exhibit three additional characteristics: An ecstatic form of worship, marked by glossolalia—“speaking in tongues”; the practice of spiritual healing; and, at least in the early stages of Pentecostal communities, a highly charismatic form of leadership.
If definitions do not present daunting problems, any attempt at quantifying the Evangelical phenomenon does. Using the foregoing definition, there are between sixty and eighty million Evangelicals in the United States, and at least 500 million in the rest of the world, the great majority in the global south, with Pentecostals accounting for the most rapid growth. Christianity constitutes the largest religion worldwide, and Evangelicals are its most dynamic element. But however uncertain these numbers may be, there can be no doubt about the huge size of the Evangelical phenomenon.
Having laid out the nature and scope of Evangelicalism, we can turn our attention to the false accusations against it, starting with its purported theocratic tendencies. A theocratic movement seeks to bring about a situation in which its own religion is imposed upon the entire society. For example, radical Islamists seek a society in which everyone, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, will live under Islamic law, and many are prepared to coerce resisters into such an outcome. Such an attitude has no parallel whatsoever in the Evangelical world. Of course Evangelicals, especially in a democracy, will try to influence legislation and government actions in ways that reflect their values—just like any other community of values, religious or secular, will do. But Evangelicals do not aspire to an ideal of a “Christian state”, and they certainly are not willing to use violence toward that or any other political goal.
As to fundamentalism, that is an iffy concept. Often it is simply a pejorative label one applies to any group one dislikes. It generally implies people who are intolerant and aggressive—in short, fanatics. Are there Evangelical fanatics? Certainly there are some, just as there are fanatics in every religious group. Note, however, that the most murderous fanatics in recent history have been adherents of secular and even decidedly anti-religious ideologies. By any such definition, the vast majority of Evangelicals cannot meaningfully be called fundamentalists.
This leaves the charge of anti-modernity. To be sure, there are some insights of modern science with which some Evangelicals have difficulties—the theory of evolution or the application of critical scholarship to the Bible, for example. But these do not touch upon the core of Evangelical faith. There are secularists who assume that modernity is incompatible with any beliefs in supernatural realities. That assumption results from a worldview that can itself be described as fanatical, and it certainly presupposes a definition of modernity that defies any reasonable historical judgment as to the characteristics and timeframe of the modern era.
There are many ways to characterize modernity, but the most important element for our purposes is this: Modernity brings about a profound change in the human condition by transforming the assumption of fate into one of choice. The engine of modernization has been the science, and the technology resulting from it, of the past few centuries, and that science has been based on a distinctive rationality. It embodies a way of looking at the world that makes possible an ever-greater capacity of human control over the terms of material life. This rationality is a phenomenon within the consciousness of individuals, but it becomes a dominant principle not only of thought but of action when the artifacts of science come to populate the everyday life of people. An illuminating example has been detailed for us by David Landes, who showed how the advance of clockworks provided a model for the concept of a dynamic equilibrium that subsequently suffused society, economy and politics in the centuries thereafter.1 Rationality thus spills over into almost all the institutions of society—the state, the economy, even the family.
While all sorts of pre-modern elements survive the transformation into modernity, a quasi-technological mentality increasingly dominates in the major institutions. At the same time, modernization makes the institutional order more complex, introducing differentiation where previously there was an overarching order—for example, differentiating political and economic institutions, education and the family, religion and the law. The relations between these differentiated institutions allow for quite different forms of social order, and these forms, no longer fixed by tradition, become the objects of deliberate decisions. A vast arena of choice opens up.
While the institutional processes of this transformation are exceedingly complex, the implications for individuals are actually quite simple: More and more of life demands deliberate reflection and decision. Put the other way around, less and less of life can be taken for granted in an unreflective, supposedly “natural” manner. This is so both for ordinary events in everyday life and for matters of profound importance.
Take the area of relations between men and women. Whenever this notion originated (possibly with the Troubadours in the High Middle Ages), it was for a long time assumed in Western societies that special deference should be accorded to women. In a crisis situation, as the ship is sinking, this might lead to the cry “Women (and children) first!” But in ordinary life, far down on a scale of importance, it led to such habits of courtesy (a term not accidentally derived from “courtliness”—proper behavior at court) as letting a woman go through a door first. Presumably these habits were first established in the aristocracy, and then filtered down to the bourgeoisie and eventually to the working class. The habits were taken for granted, requiring no reflection. Thus, a man escorting a woman for the first time did not have to stop and think before letting her go through a door first. He might or might not say “Ladies first”, and she might or might not reward him with a little nod as she sails through.
Needless to say, this naturalized little ritual has become problematic since the ascendance of feminism. Now the man in question has to reflect and to make a conscious decision. Depending on how he sizes up his companion, he might indeed follow the old ritual, though he risks provoking a churlish comment (“Thank you—I’m not a cripple—I can open the door myself”) instead of a ladylike nod. Alternatively, he can be a true egalitarian (or a risk-taker extraordinaire) and go through the door ahead of her.
This little drama adumbrates a much larger phenomenon. The entire complex of gender and sexuality has become problematic. As less can be safely taken for granted, the individual is forced to ponder: With whom are sexual activities permitted? Whom should I marry? Who should be included in the household of the married couple? Who makes which decisions as between the spouses? Which spouse should work, and how should one’s occupation be decided? How should I raise my children? And most fundamentally, what is my sexual identity? Is it, too, something I can—or must—choose?
To say that modernity brings about a great shift from fate to choice is thus to say that it undermines the taken-for-granted character of both cognitive and normative definitions of reality—beliefs concerning what the world is like and how one is to behave in it. Jean-Paul Sartre famously proposed that man is “condemned” to freedom. As a general anthropological thesis, this is dubious. But it is an apt description of modern man if we define freedom as the capacity to choose. Modernity does increase individual freedom, whether one likes it or not, and not everyone likes it. While some have celebrated human freedom as supposedly “self-evident” among the rights of man, others have deplored this turn of events as alienating human beings from their allegedly “natural” embeddedness in community. The argument, now entering its third century at the least, reflects the empirical facts: Modernity does liberate, but liberation has costs.
If this is understood, a different perspective on fundamentalism now opens up. Fundamentalism can now be seen as a reactive response to the undermining of taken-for-grantedness brought about by modernity. It seeks to restore the security of a taken-for-granted worldview. The content of the fundamentalist message may be religious or secular, peaceful or violent, but its basic promise is always the same: Join us, and you will gain the inner certainty you crave!
Fundamentalists, especially religious ones, often claim to restore the pristine purity of this or that creed. That is, they purport to be neo-traditionalists, but the prefix covers up an enormous difference with the original. In a truly traditional setting, creed is taken for granted, allowing for a relaxed attitude on the part of the believer toward the non-believer. The latter may even be a source of harmless amusement, as we might be amused by a proponent of flat-earth theory. The neo-traditionalist cannot afford such a tolerant attitude, for the non-believer reminds him that he has chosen his belief, and so haunts the neo-traditionalists’ self-confident assertions of certainty. This is why neo-traditionalists within any religious framework do not tolerate non-believers very well. If non-believers cannot be ignored, then they must be converted, segregated, expelled or, in extreme cases, liquidated.
As I have related before in these pages, there are two versions of the fundamentalist project in the face of the pluralization dilemmas posed by modernity.2 The more ambitious one seeks to impose the renewed taken-for-grantedness on the entire society, a project generally requiring a totalitarian regime that controls all dissidence within and all communications with the outside world. The less ambitious sectarian or subcultural version creates a social enclave within which a taken-for-granted worldview can be maintained while the larger society is allowed to (literally) go to hell in a hand-basket. Both try to defy the unavoidable effects of globalization, which turn religious choices into a kind of marketplace and religious institutions into voluntary associations. And both are difficult to pull off under modern conditions. Evangelicalism succeeds where fundamentalism fails precisely because it is not a neo-traditionalist project but a modern one. And that is how it has been able, along with somewhat similar projects in non-Christian domains, to defy the old assumption that modernity necessarily brings about secularization in its wake.
Why, and how, is Evangelicalism modern? Well, to begin with it is hardly original to observe that Protestantism has had a distinctive affinity with modernity. More than a hundred years ago, Ernst Troeltsch explored the cultural consequences of the Reformation, especially in terms of modern individualism, and Max Weber developed his famous thesis on the effect of the “Protestant ethic” on the origins of modern capitalism. Modern rationality, rooted in what Weber called the “disenchantment of the world”, has antecedents in much earlier times—in the separation of the sacred and the secular already brought about by early Christianity, which in turn went back all the way to the metaphorical exodus of Israel from the mythological cosmos of the ancient Near East. Of course, modern rationality is not limited to cultures influenced by Protestantism; one could make an argument, for example, on behalf of the accidentally or preternaturally modern character of the Jewish experience in Diaspora (but I’ll not do so here). Still, when it comes to modernization, one can say that Protestantism has a certain comparative advantage.
One may take apart the ingredients of the “Protestant ethic”—a rational attitude to the world, a systematic approach to economic activity, individual agency seen as a religious mandate (“vocation”), a sober lifestyle implying delayed gratification and saving (Weber’s “inner-worldly asceticism”), a foregoing of wider kinship ties in favor of the nuclear family, and a high regard for education. These ingredients can be found in other religious communities, but they are present in a massive way among Protestants. This fact goes a long way to explain the remarkable global expansion of Protestantism in the contemporary world, particularly in developing society. In Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia, an individual who becomes Protestant, quite apart from the properly religious meaning of this act, signals his or her identity as a modern person. (And, incidentally, the emphasis on “her identity” is not just an expression of gender-free language: The emancipation of women from the many forms of male dominance is one of the most notable characteristics of nascent Protestantism.)
All that said and, I hope, accepted, Evangelical Protestantism has an additional and even deeper affinity with modernity. At the core of this form of Christianity is its insistence that to be a Christian one must go through a distinctive individual experience—that of being “born again”—in Evangelical language, “to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal lord and savior.” In other words, religious identity is established by an act of individual choice. Of course, specific choices are made in other religious communities, too—as to the degree of observance in Judaism, as to entering a monastic order in Catholicism, and so forth. But in most of these other cases individual choices form in an overall context of highly communal religion. Evangelical Protestantism, perhaps uniquely so, privileges an act of individual choice at the very core of the religion: One cannot be born a Christian; one must be “born again” to merit that designation. (This accounts, incidentally but illustratively, for the widespread rejection of infant baptism by Evangelicals. In this, at any rate, Evangelicals can correctly claim to follow the practice of early Christians: When Christian communities were first founded in the late Roman period, by definition one could not be born as a Christian—adults had to decide to adhere to the new faith.) It is this fact that singles out Evangelical Protestantism as a peculiarly modern religion, even if some of the intellectual baggage that comes along with this choice strikes some Westerners as not especially modern in character.
The “born again” experience legitimates the claim of equal human dignity by all who have gone through it. India has not on the whole been a very fertile field for Protestant growth, but for understandable reasons Protestantism has especially appealed to Dalits (formerly known as Untouchables, the lowest and most despised group in the Hindu caste system—and, significantly, the upper castes in that system are called “twice born”). The following episode, recounted in a missionary report, is instructive. A Dalit entered a cloth store owned by an upper-caste individual. The Dalit happened to put his hand on a bale of cloth. This enraged the storekeeper, who shouted at the Dalit: “You are unclean! You have polluted my store! Get out!” The Dalit replied: “No, I am not unclean. The Lord has made me clean.”
The institutional correlate of individual choices is a community constituted by these choices—that is, the church as a voluntary association. As noted in passing above, modern plurality imposes this institutional form on all religious communities, but Evangelical Protestantism does not need to have this institution imposed on it: The voluntary association is its natural social expression, engendered from within by its religious self-understanding. Arguably this makes for further affinities—with the market economy and the democratic polity, for example, both institutions based on individual choices by, respectively, consumers and voters. But that is another story.
If the present argument is valid, Evangelical Protestantism in developing societies today replicates many aspects of the religious history of Europe and America in the centuries following the Reformation. Now as then, it plays different social roles in different parts of the world. Thus, the same Protestantism in America today does not do what it does among Dalits in India. In the latter case, it is a modernizing force. This is not a role it can play in America, a society that is already modernized—indeed, one that is modern from inception and almost by definition. However, it should be clear that, in America just as anywhere else, it is very misleading to understand this form of Christianity as being anti-modern. It is nothing of the sort.
Protestantism institutionalized in voluntary associations is not how it originally appeared in its Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican versions. In those cases, it was embodied in state churches (although on their fringes there were dissident movements that, by definition, were voluntary in character). The heritage of state churches persists to this day, despite the fact that these churches have been effectively divested of any real power. As the British sociologist of religion Grace Davie has carefully described, this means that people, even if they rarely make use of the churches, regard them as a sort of public utility. The individual belongs to them by virtue of being born in a certain place, and no particular effort is required to retain membership.
The Evangelical heritage is very different. Some years ago a young woman from Finland, a student at an American college, decided to attend an old-style Evangelical revival meeting. It impressed her as quite an exotic affair. She became a little nervous when, after the “call from the altar”, ushers fanned out to invite people to come forward and declare their acceptance of Jesus. An usher reached the place where she was sitting and asked her: “Sister, are you saved?” She replied, in a strong accent: “I am a member of the Lutheran Church of Finland.” The usher was clearly puzzled, hesitated for a moment, then nodded and moved on. He had evidently taken her answer to be a yes. This little exchange beautifully illustrates Davie’s point.
Another British sociologist, David Martin, in describing the historical trajectory of Evangelical voluntarism has used the term “the Amsterdam-London-Boston axis.” There were some other eruptions of voluntarism in Continental Protestantism (for example, in the Pietist movements in Lutheran countries), but Martin is probably right in seeing the first enduring case as having occurred in the Netherlands. After the successful revolt against Spanish rule, a tolerant Protestant regime was established. Protestantism split into two large groupings, one rigorously Calvinist, the other much more liberal theologically. The mutual tolerance between these two then came to include Catholics (prevalent in the south of the country), Jews (mainly those fleeing the Iberian expulsions) and “humanists.” The unique Dutch system of “pillarization” (verzuiling) institutionalized this heterogeneity, as each pillar was allowed to develop its own institutions. This was not yet a fully voluntary system, as strong cultural forces tended to keep individuals in their pillar of origin. Yet it was a definite move in the direction of voluntarism. What is also important historically is that the Netherlands became a haven for Evangelical dissidents from other countries, such as theological refugees from the established Church of England (some of whom famously made their way to colonial America on a ship called the Mayflower).
Protestant voluntarism came to be much more richly developed in England, with the growth of Nonconformist churches that the Anglican establishment, willy-nilly, had to tolerate increasingly. The historian Élie Halévy has shown how these free churches, with the Methodists in the lead, had a large influence in the shaping of modern English culture and politics—take, for example, the role of the so-called “Nonconformist conscience” in the anti-slavery movement.
But Evangelical voluntarism literally exploded in English-speaking North America, with different versions of this form of Christianity competing freely across the vast spaces of a continent. Evangelical Protestantism became the dominant religion in America, profoundly shaping its culture and politics. In the course of the 20th century, this dominance was greatly diminished, though its influence on the culture is still much in evidence, and its political influence continues robustly. What is more, it is from America that Evangelical Protestantism began its global explosion in the second half of the century. While this type of Protestantism has been massively indigenized throughout the Global South, it retains strong American connections. It speaks, as it were, with an American accent. If an Evangelical from, say, Alabama should happen to attend a Protestant church in Guatemala or in South Korea, he may not understand a word—but the order of worship and the music will be familiar, and he is likely to feel very much at home and, of course, be warmly welcomed.
For well-known historical reasons, the United States has been in the vanguard of modern religious plurality. So it is not surprising that in this country the most mature form of religious voluntarism developed. Both Troeltsch and Weber conceptualized two types of religious institutions—the “church”, into which one is born, and the “sect”, which one joins. The two types, they argued, had sharp sociological differences: The church is inclusive, containing a heterogeneous population under a wide umbrella of tolerance; the sect is exclusive, insisting on strict doctrinal and behavioral standards.
The American experience is hard to squeeze into these two types (though Weber tried, giving the title “Protestant sects” to his essay on American religion). The church historian Richard Niebuhr suggested a third, distinctively American type—the “denomination”, defined as a church that accepts the right of other churches to exist. It could also be defined as one of a plurality of umbrellas. As such, however, the denomination does not have the exclusive character supposedly characteristic of sects. Rather, it has the earmarks of a church, into which one may or may not be born, but which one joins and adheres to voluntarily.
The denomination is the prototypical institutional type of Evangelical Protestantism, especially as the latter developed in the United States. This is what accounts for its American flavor. Hostile critics in the Global South have described it as “Americanization”, as a cultural aspect of American imperialism. This is grossly inaccurate, since Evangelicalism has become thoroughly indigenized in all the developing societies to which it has spread. However, the term has a certain residual validity: The denomination is indeed an American cultural construct and, even where ties with America have greatly diminished, this ancestry remains a tangible reality.
It remains so even where the missionary impulse has now been reversed. American missionaries carried the Evangelical message to Asia, Africa and Latin America. Now missionaries from these regions are coming to America and other parts of the world. The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a large Pentecostal denomination in Brazil, is sending missionaries to the United States and Portuguese-speaking African countries. Evangelical Anglican bishops from Africa have agreed to preside over conservative Episcopalian dioceses and congregations in North America, bishops who, by the way, dissent from the liberal stance of the American church on homosexuality and, more basically, the authority of the Bible. Evangelical Nigerian priests have been responsible for revitalizing exhausted parishes of the Church of England. Evangelical missionaries from South Korea are swarming all over Asia, notably China, which is currently experiencing what is locally called “Christianity fever”, most of it Evangelical in character. A Nigerian evangelist has founded a Pentecostal congregation in Kiev called the Embassy of God, which is conservatively estimated as having 25,000 members, almost all white Ukrainians (including until recently the mayor of Kiev).
The list of examples is a very long one, as some will be glad, and others horrified, to learn. Suffice it to say that Evangelical Protestantism and its distinctive voluntarism have been successfully globalized, a development that is deeply linked to the process of global modernization. But if one is not inspired by Evangelical fervor, is there really any reason to be horrified by it?
Quite apart from how one may feel about the globalization of Evangelical Protestantism, it is something of a scandal that a phenomenon of such dimensions should still be so little understood or even perceived in the larger Western public, including academia and the media. Domestically, it is certainly unhealthy for democracy if a large segment of the population is only perceived through a distorted prism of political partisanship, especially as the political alignment of American Evangelicals may be gradually changing. As D. Michael Lindsay has shown in a recent book, Faith in the Halls of Power (2007), Evangelicals have increasingly moved into elite social and cultural institutions, a development quite independent of party politics.
Internationally, the Evangelical phenomenon should be of considerable interest to the U.S. foreign policy community. Here is a vast population that is peaceful, modernizing in its effects, and not antagonistic to American interests. The positive relationship of Evangelicalism with a nascent market economy is now firmly established. Its relationship with democracy is still somewhat uncertain. The massive study, Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in the Global South, chaired by Timothy Shah of the Council of Foreign Relations (three of four planned volumes have now appeared), indicates that Evangelicals have taken different political positions, not all pro-democratic. However, Shah gives credence to David Martin’s contention that Evangelicalism, especially in its explosive Pentecostal version, serves as a “school for democracy.”3 The political fruits of this “schooling” may not be immediately visible, but it is precisely in its capacity to create voluntary grassroots institutions that Evangelicalism contributes to the emergence of civil society, a necessary precondition of democracy. Could this possibly have something to do with why the Chinese Communist Party is not fond of “Christianity fever”?
2Berger, “Between Relativism and Fundamentalism”, The American Interest (September/October 2006).
3The three current volumes of the series, all published by Oxford University Press, cover Africa (March 2008), Latin America (April 2008) and Asia (March 2009).