Friday, April 25, 2014

Is There An Evangelical Mainstream?

Cedarville University
My post on the changes taking place at Cedarville University got a lot of attention yesterday.

Here is how I concluded the post:

I had actually thought that Cedarville was moving closer to the evangelical mainstream, but it now looks like the school is returning to its fundamentalist Baptist roots.

I wrote this because Cedarville has recently tightened its doctrinal statement, required faculty to endorse a complementarian position as it relates to the role of men and women in society, and stopped male students from taking courses with female Bible professors. When I was in college in the 1980s, Cedarville was a member of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches (GARBC), a fundamentalist Baptist denomination that was the product of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the 1920 and 1930s.  How do I know this?  I wrote my M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School on separatist fundamentalists in America.  I had a chapter on Ralph Ketcham, one of the founders of the GARBC.  More recently the GARBC kicked Cedarville out of the denomination because of the university's growing ties with the Southern Baptist Church.  Sarah Pulliam Bailey has done a nice job of explaining this history here.

When I arrived in central Pennsylvania I met a lot of conservative evangelicals who were sending their kids to Cedarville. Many of these families attended my local evangelical church.  I thus got the impression that the university had moved closer to the evangelical mainstream.  (Of course I was assuming that my Evangelical Free Church was part of that mainstream).  In other words Cedarville seemed to be leaving its fundamentalist Baptist background behind and becoming more like Wheaton College or Gordon College or Westmont College.  (Bailey's piece also mentions Taylor University in Indiana).

But  in the last few years a new administration has taken the helm at Cedarville.  Influenced by the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, this administration votes Republican, upholds a strict view of Biblical inerrancy, does not permit women to teach the Bible, and suppresses all student dissent.  Faculty have either been ousted or left voluntarily.  The entire philosophy department was eliminated.  Conservative Southern Baptists have assumed most of the leadership roles on the campus.

When I asked if these moves placed Cedarville outside of the "evangelical mainstream," my friend Kurt Peterson, who has taught history at two different evangelical colleges and is a former George Marsden student at Notre Dame,  wondered if it was actually Cedarville's president and board that now represented the so-called "evangelical mainstream." Peterson concluded: "Perhaps Cedarville's future enrollment will serve as one piece of evidence in this discussion."

This is a great observation.  Perhaps Wheaton, Westmont, Gordon, Messiah, Bethel, Eastern, Seattle Pacific, and Taylor no longer represent the evangelical mainstream.  Perhaps the evangelical mainstream today is best represented by Cedarville or Liberty University or Bob Jones or Moody Bible Institute.  Or can we even think about the evangelical mainstream in terms of Christian colleges when most evangelicals don't attend school affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities?

After I wrote this post and some good discussion got underway on my Facebook page, I was talking to a colleague who wondered if it is still possible to talk about an "evangelical mainstream" in the first place.  Is "evangelicalism" even a useful umbrella term today?  Is the movement so fragmented that evangelical unity is impossible.  He mentioned that in the 1950s there was an evangelical consensus (or neo-evangelical consensus) built around Billy Graham and Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicalism, but we no longer live in an American culture characterized by consensus.  The godless communists are gone, or at least they no longer pose a threat to the American way of life.

So what do you think?

Does Cedarville University and the decisions they have made on the theological, political and gender fronts make them part of the evangelical mainstream?  Have they come to define this mainstream?

Is there an American evangelical mainstream today?

To prime the pump a bit, let me throw out a possible definition of the evangelical mainstream. Please do not hold me to this, I am just brainstorming for the purpose of discussion.

The members of today's evangelical mainstream:

  • Believe in the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and can testify to a born-again experience.
  • Believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible and maybe even the inerrancy of the Bible (although they are not hard core about the inerrancy issue like they were in during the "Battle for the Bible" years of the 1970s and 1980s)
  • Are split generationally over gay marriage.  Baby boomers and older Gen Xers oppose gay marriage.  Younger evangelicals are more in favor of it.
  • Are divided over whether or not women can serve as pastors or teach men.
  • Are anti-abortion
  • Attend a megachurch where the preaching is contemporary and praise songs are sung with a worship band.
  • Are concerned about big government unless, of course, government actions support their agenda
  • Are tolerant of those who believe in the saving power of the gospel but have different political, social and theological views from what I have described above. But their tolerance only goes so far.
  • Are increasingly more interested in issues related to social justice and the environment, but believe these issues are subordinate to the proclamation of the good news of the Gospel as the primary means of changing the world.
I am sure I could add other things to this list.

What do you think?