The American Conservative’s Rod Drehler is only the latest observer to point out an inconvenient truth few want to hear: modern American evangelicalism is dead or nearly dead. This doesn’t mean Christianity in the United States is dead, it simply means that the pseudo reformation and pseudo revival practiced by the likes of Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, and Rick Warren has predictably failed.
Quoting from the late blogger Michael Spencer, a.k.a. the Internet Monk, Drehler predicts that within a few years, the mega churches will be sitting empty and all the “Christian” books, DVDs, video games, CDs, and similar materials will be filling the dumpsters. No politician will pay any attention to the Religious Right, and the media will not bother to cover evangelists and their activities.
Not surprisingly, atheists, secularists of all stripes, libertarians, liberal Christians, gays, non-Christians, and traditional Christian believers, such as Catholics, the Orthodox, and Anglicans, will welcome this development. Many of them I’m sure will jump for joy, or even break out the champagne, when they see the for-sale sign and empty parking lot at the local mega church.
Perhaps we should wait to celebrate evangelicalism’s death, because for all its faults and shallowness, late 20th century American revivalism or evangelicalism had some positive side effects. As the mega churches go down and the preachers fade into irrelevance, many of us find ourselves missing their influence.
The most important positive side effects of 20th century American evangelicalism include:
- Checking and sometimes actively suppressing the racist, xenophobic, regionalist, and anti-Semitic tendencies in the white working and middle classes, particularly in the South. The emergence of Republican politicians, radio talk show hosts, and others who are mindlessly opposed to immigration and Hispanic Americans is a sure sign of this. So is the talk of succession movements in some states, which revives the spectator of the Ku Klux Klan, the Confederacy, and the Civil War. The big beneficiaries of this development will not be the gutter-level proponents of traditional racism that liberals fear, such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Aryan Nations, or Neo-Nazis, but a new generation of George Wallace-style politicians who will cynically manipulate the prejudices of working class whites for their own purposes. A harbinger of this development is Donald Trump.
- Providing a weak, but effective restraint on the worst tendencies in American popular culture. The entertainment and publishing industries restrained and behaved themselves out of fear of backlash and censorship, while the religious right was a force. Without it, there will be little control on sex, violence, nihilism, voyeurism, and other destructive tendencies in entertainment. Expect movies, video games, television, music, books, etc. to become increasingly pornographic and violent in the years ahead. Such formerly taboo themes as racism, xenophobia, bestiality, anti-Semitism, and anti-Christian bigotry are starting to become commonplace in the mass media. Expect politicians, sports figures, and others to embrace and celebrate these trends rather than oppose them. B-movie predictions of a marriage between nihilistic violence and corrupt politics, such as The Hunger Games and the original Death Race 2000, might be more prophetic than we think.
- Restraining or at least diverting some of the radical tendencies in the American working classes. The traditional American impulses towards class warfare, wealth redistribution, mindless government regulation, and crackpot economic and political systems and ideologies were effectively stifled by evangelical revival. The reason the U.S. didn’t see a major political and social upheaval during the economic downturns of the 1970s and 1980s was that evangelicalism effectively took the place of such movements. Without evangelicalism, expect to socialism, Marxism, technocracy, anarchism, syndicalism, populism and all other manner of nuttiness could make a comeback. Historians of the future may mark the Occupy movement as the beginning of this development. The left wing intellectuals who will welcome this trend will probably the first to recoil from its results. Instead of reform and revolution, the end result of this will probably be greater political corruption and less effective government. The model for this new populism will be African-American politicians who deliver radical diatribes to the crowds while openly lining their pockets with corporate cash. Think a thousand Jesse Jackson Jr.s, most of whom will be white. The first of these leaders Donald Trump has already appeared.
- Limiting or softening the desire for authoritarian solutions to problems inherent in both sides of the American political spectrum. This already appears to be starting; both the Bush and Obama administrations adopted authoritarian policies and showed themselves willing to use brute force to solve problems at home and abroad. The increasingly hardline foreign policy and the growing acceptance of repressive police tactics are a sign of this. Another sign of the new authoritarianism is so-called liberal Big City mayors like Rudi Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg, and Rob Emanuel, who use militaristic police forces to keep African-Americans and increasingly working class whites and Hispanics in their place, their place being out of the way of big business, tourists, and the affluent upper class. Bloomberg tried to use “public health” in his drive to push any sort of working class eatery out of his city. Emanuel seems determined to use gun control to drive poor blacks out of Chicago.
- Evangelicalism acted as something of a check on the worst tendencies of other religious movements, particularly the Religious Left. Without it, there will be little to stop bitter feuding over doctrinal issues, nor will there be anything to stop the Religious Left from trying to impose its brand of puritanism on the rest of us by force. Evangelicals were among the few Christians willing to denounce and stand up to the prosperity gospel charlatans. They also effectively blocked the Religious Left from carrying out its worst programs, such as wealth redistribution and transforming the schools into Marxist indoctrination centers. They also helped control the Pentecostal and charismatic movements with their tendencies towards superstition, magic, faith healing, and out-and-out charlatanism.
- Without evangelicalism, the gospel and its moral influence will be increasingly lost in the American church. Expect it to be replaced by a shallow mix of New Age drivel, magic, superstition, pseudoscience, simplistic feel-good philosophy, demonology, entertainment, pop psychology, get-rich quick scams, pornography, and plain old fashioned American hucksterism. The church will increasingly become a carnival act and a freak show. If you want to see a preview of what it will look like, tune into Dr. Phil’s TV carnival, sometimes it’s on every afternoon in most markets. A friendly performer occasionally mentioning Jesus’s name as he introduces the next outrageous entertainment or titillating diversion. The preacher of the future will be a ringmaster, rather than a shepherd to the flock.
The result of the collapse of evangelicalism could very well be a country that is more intolerant, superstitious, violent, corrupt, ignorant, and nihilistic than ever before, in other words, a country that is the opposite of the critics of evangelicalism want. The old axiom of being careful what we wish for is about to come back to haunt many Americans.