The White Evangelical Crisis is a synechdoche for everybody's crisis

March 29, 2022

The Word of the Day, at this particular Pee-Wee's Playhouse, is "institutions."  Actually, it's a word of many days.  This is a bit gnomic, but hey, it's my blog, I'll gnomicize if I want to.


Hillsong, a large collection of evangelical churches that emphasize music and a generic psedo-Reformed theology (it has little to do with Calvinism, to be honest), seems to be in crisis.  It seems to be a scandal of abuse of power by charismatic leaders, including sexual harassment and violence.  (Hillsong sometimes presents itself as racially inclusive or “post-racial,” but that seems to be as fantastic as almost every other such claim by white-dominant institutions in the world.)

This is not the first time this has happened—the whole “Mars Hill” scandal is another one.  

Some white evangelicals will call this traumatic, and suggest that lots of decent people found meaning and value in these churches. I’m sure that’s true; God's presence is not hindered by our corruptions. But it is also that, as P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute. Sounds like it was somewhere between the Wal-Mart and the Target of white evangelical churches.

But sneering, as much fun as that may be (and it can be a great deal of fun) is not useful.  For the problem is not just with these churches.  In fact, the crisis of white evangelicalism as symptomatic of a larger crisis of religious institutions today.  It’s been going on for a while, now—white evangelicals’ visible support of Trump is another example of this, and also a symptom of the crisis as well.

As this nice piece from way back in 2019 makes clear, the real problem is a crisis of institutions in general.

This is quite bleak, at least to me.  Because what it suggests is that the real crisis is a crisis of institutions.  This is a key problem for any theologically-minded people, evangelical or otherwise, who wants to argue white evangelicals into a more theologically orthodox attitude, away from their racial and ethno-nationalist Donatism.

The problem is that white evangelicals lack the institutional frameworks that enabled previous generations of elites, embedded in deeper institutions, to influence in powerful ways the beliefs and behaviors of their congregants.  Both as a simple institutional fact, and perhaps as a feature of evangelical theology, there is a more immediate “the customer is always right” attitude in evangelicalism, and a deep affirmation of the immediate subjective experience of the individual believer. This is connected to the larger crisis of elites facing our culture today, and in particular:

a critical but underexamined transformation in the institutional structure of American Protestantism.  In short, for much of American history, Protestant religious elites actually did have the power to shape their followers’ political behavior in significant ways, at least on occasion.  But the elites in question were typically theologically liberal mainline Protestants, and much of their power derived from a now-defunct ecumenical infrastructure that facilitated the transmission of information and arguments from elites to average churchgoers (and vice versa).  Most of today’s evangelical Protestant leaders, in contrast, possess neither the intrinsic religious authority nor the institutional resources necessary to influence their purported followers’ views of particular candidates or policies.  On the contrary, evangelical elites tend to take their marching orders from the men and women in the pews – men and women who, again, overwhelmingly identify as conservative Republicans.…

Today, however,

the robust organizational structures that allowed mid-century mainline leaders to exert some degree of influence over their followers’ political convictions were nowhere to be found in American evangelicalism. … 

The lesson is clear: 

The institutional weakness of American evangelicalism meant that evangelical elites – in sharp contrast to their mainline predecessors – always served at the pleasure of the rank and file.  Highly vulnerable to shifts in public opinion, they either tracked the political mood of the lower-middle-class white electorate, or else became shepherds without flocks.  

The problem with the white evangelical world is just another example of a larger problem with our world as a whole today: many traditional institutions are weaker and weaker, while newer institutions, such as social media, are more engrossing but also ask less, at least overtly, of their participants.  Their authority is no less powerful, but more invisible.

We are not less disciplined in contemporary society; we just haven’t learned to see the discipline surrounding us. How can we learn that? What "sociological imagination" need we have?


That’s fairly jumpy, but it’ll do for tonight.