Evangelical Christianity always has functioned as the de facto faith of the South and much of the rest of the red American hinterland, though not in the same way that Catholicism historically has served as the faith and the basis for national identity in Poland.
Yet, there seems to be a rising concern among evangelical Christians that the faith – this cultural bulwark of red heartland culture – is becoming unmoored from its historical distinctives. Yet, there is an element of irony bound up in this, namely because the strong case could be made – and has on occasion – that evangelicals have never managed to develop significantly strong distinctives. And partly because of this, contemporary evangelical Christians have failed to cultivate a sufficiently strong and enduring grasp of what defines their faith tradition – what sets them apart from others.
As one who took up a rather exhaustive and disciplined study of evangelical history a generation ago, I don’t find this anomaly all that surprising. While all faith traditions are the product of significant improvisation on the fly, evangelicalism, as far as improvisation goes, arguably represents an extreme outlier.
So much of the American Back Country was populated by people who were to a significant degree unlettered and culturally deracinated – essentially poor people desperately in search of land on which they could lay down roots and to construct the foundations of a culture – indeed, what many of these egalitarian-minded pioneers hoped would be a new culture constructed from scratch and that reflected a radical departure from many beliefs and practices that distinguished the old culture of Europe.
The evangelical identity that emerged within this cultural milieu is unique among all the other forms of Christianity throughout the world. While resembling European Anabaptists in some respects, its adherents undertook a conscious abandonment of older traditions, setting aside the creeds and the ecclesiastical structures and liturgies of older traditions in favor what could be accurately described as a lean faith emphasizing the absolute primacy of scripture, the radical priesthood of the believer (which, interestingly enough, mutated over the course of time into a unique American theological concoction known as soul competency), and an unyielding emphasis on congregational autonomy.
Within the last two centuries, these distinctives have contributed both to what could be accurately described as its adaptive genius – a strong factor contributing to its expansion into a worldwide faith – as well as to its obstinate shortcomings and weaknesses.
Speaking as a strictly amateur historian of American evagelicalism, I often wonder how these profound contradictions ultimately will play out. A faith tradition that has been unusually well-equipped to adapt to and to weather all manner of socioeconomic change has also been encumbered by the very factors that have accounted for its enormous growth and spread: its emphasis on soul competency as well as on para-church structures (at the expense of individual parishes) to facilitate evangelical outreach, and its longstanding and arguably excessive reliance on charismatic leaders who inevitably pass from the stage and must be replaced by others.
Only time will tell if evangelicalism ultimately manages to adopt to prevailing cultural winds that threaten not only them but expressions of the Christian faith.