(Conservative) Evangelicalism: Still Embattled, Still Thriving

by Brantley Gasaway

Evangelical defenders of God's truth are once again under assault in America's culture wars and are increasingly unwelcome in the public sphere--that is, if you believe the narrative coming from many conservative evangelical leaders in reaction to Louie Giglio's withdrawal from participating in President Obama's inauguration ceremony this past Monday.

Louie Giglio
Giglio, an Atlanta evangelical pastor best known for his leadership of the Passion conferences for college students and campaigns against human trafficking, had originally been chosen to give the benediction at the inauguration. Yet the liberal website Think Progress publicized a sermon that he gave in the 1990s in which he identified homosexuality as sinful and encouraged gays and lesbians to seek "the healing power of Jesus." The Presidential Inauguration Committee faced criticism for inviting Giglio, especially since evangelical leader Rick Warren had refused to step down from serving in the same role four years ago after facing similar criticism from gay rights activists. On January 10, Giglio issued a statement in which he "respectfully" withdrew since "my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration." (Read Christianity Today's account here.)

To many conservative evangelicals, Giglio became a martyr. Even though it was unclear whether he was asked to step down or did so gracefully in order to avoid controversy, Christian conservatives interpreted the pressure put on him to withdraw as yet another form of persecution. "The imbroglio over Louie Giglio is the clearest evidence of the new Moral McCarthyism of our sexually 'tolerant' age," warned Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler. "The Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House have now declared historic, biblical Christianity to be out of bounds, casting it off the inaugural program as an embarrassment." Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council liked Mohler's McCarthyism reference so much that he borrowed it for his own op-ed argument that this marked "the inauguration of a new era of religious intolerance." Gabe Lyons, founder of the "Q" conferences that bring together evangelical cultural leaders, called Giglio's treatment a "hate crime" (though he later retracted that description). "As gays come out of the closet," Lyons wondered, "are Christians meant to swap and go hide back in closets of their own?" Owen Strachan, the new director of the "complementarian" [patriarchal] Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, accused "the homosexual lobby" of practicing the "tyranny of the minority." "Now is a time for profound courage," Strachan declared. "This is an age when the die is cast, and every Christian will be called to give an answer on this question: is homosexual practice wrong or right?" Strachan went so far as to suggest that American Christians are facing a similar test of faithfulness as the one endured by Japanese Christians in the 19th century who were ordered to deny Christ and killed if they refused.

These claims of persecution in response to Giglio's withdrawal from the inaugural ceremony are only the latest in a long line of perceived oppression or marginalization against which conservative evangelicals regularly protest. (Another ongoing example: many agree with Catholic conservatives that the "Obamacare" mandate that employers' health insurance plans must cover contraception is an assault on religious liberty.) Spend even a little time in the company or with the publications of conservative evangelicals and you will hear claims that evangelicals are becoming a harassed minority in the United States. (One liberal evangelical has labeled this "the American evangelical persecution complex.")

Whenever I encounter these claims, it reconfirms for me the strength of Christian Smith's argument in his 1998 book, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving. Developing a "subcultural identity theory" of religious strength, Smith argued that evangelicals' sense of embattlement within the broader pluralistic and secular American culture actually serves to fuel their sense of mission and thus sustains their movement's vitality. Their belief that American culture is increasingly rejecting God's will for public policies and personal morality inflames conservatives' political engagement. Indeed, conservative evangelicals did not respond to Obama's re-election and the Giglio affair with resigned acceptance of their marginal status and retreat into religious enclaves. Rather, they vowed to keep fighting for and defending "biblical truth" in the public sphere.

At the same time, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make broad generalizations about "the evangelical subculture." While Smith's theory continues to work well for conservative evangelicals, both moderate and progressive evangelicals are increasingly rejecting the persecution narrative. Over at The Immanent Frame, Marcia Pally recently posted an essay on the "robust polyphony" within contemporary evangelicalism--and both scholars and moderate to progressive evangelicals have offered thoughtful responses. In response to Giglio's withdrawal, for example, younger evangelical leaders such as Matthew Lee Anderson, Andrew Marin, and Rachel Held Evans all embraced (albeit for different reasons) Christians' more marginal status--while theologian Scot McKnight likely spoke for many Anabaptist evangelicals when he suggested that neither Giglio nor any other Christian should accept an invitation to pray in the first place since it politicizes one's public witness.

Nevertheless, despite signs of conservatives' shrinking appeal both within evangelicalism as a whole and even within the broader culturewe should not underestimate the ways in which political setbacks and perceived cultural insults will continue to galvanize their public engagement. As long as they feel still embattled--and no end seems in sight--conservative evangelicalism will survive and attempt to thrive. 


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for these reflections.

How do you see Smith's work intersecting with Jason Bivin's idea of evangelicals as an "Embattled Majority," as introduced at this blog?

Jason Bivins said…
For what it's worth, what I'm really going after in my "EM" book is the notion that the discursive production of "religion" as a politically combustible category is what enables very different groups of Americans (and not just evangelicals) to think of themselves as embattled majorities. That this is a shared self-imagining, flowing from a shared condition of political exhaustion, is what compels me.
Thanks for weighing in, Jason, on Mark's question.

I wonder if conservative evangelicals are more inclined or just more conspicuous in proclaiming (as Jason described it so well in the post Mark linked to) "their majoritarianism while also performing their victimization, oppression, and persecution"? Of course many groups are galvanized by their sense of embattlement. But it seems to me that their sense of cultural custodianship--flowing from a nostalgic view of America as a Christian nation that they are trying to re-establish (and here I'm thinking of David Sehat's work)--make conservative evangelicals particularly prone to turning their perceived victimization into political action.

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