Is this news? Evangelicalism’s weakness extends well beyond turmoil of 2016

Starting Nov. 9, the media will be clogged with political pontifications. Here are a pair of major themes for those on the religion beat.

(1) What happened with white Catholics, the perennial religious swing voters? How about blue-collar white Catholics?

(2)  What’s ahead for demoralized evangelical Protestants after a campaign that divided them and undermined their clout?

Journalists should also ponder whether evangelicalism’s major weakness extends well beyond politics. So said the Rev. Russell D. Moore in the annual First Things magazine Erasmus lectureship on Oct. 24. He’s the chief socio-political spokesman for the huge Southern Baptist Convention and a fierce moral critic of Donald Trump, especially on racial and ethnic issues. His speech critiqued the candidate -- without ever uttering his name.

However, Moore’s major theme was that many evangelicals’ Trumpism is merely a sign of weakness that at root is intellectual. He said to influence America’s “post-Christianity culture,” religious conservatives must develop stronger “public arguments” on moral questions and on “why and how Christianity matters.” That, in turn, will require much more “theologically rigorous” thinking. (The video of this important address is at the top of this post.)

Many observers over the years have said that for all its innovations and energy, U.S. evangelicalism is all too weak intellectually, thus limiting cultural influence. Two current news items demonstrate this struggle, the first one internal to the movement and the second regarding vulnerability to outside challenges.

Significant conservative Protestant scholars have emerged in recent decades, especially in fields like Bible, history and philosophy. Yet one leader, Mark Noll (just retired from Notre Dame), raised alarms about intellectual thinness in 1994’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” In 1995, Noll helped launch a classy,  ambitious outlet for conservative Christian thought, Books & Culture: A Christian Review.

After 21 years under John Wilson’s editorship, the magazine ceases publication with the November-December issue. Its sponsoring magazine, Christianity Today, couldn’t find donors with the foresight to sustain such an endeavor. (The parent magazine itself  shifted from a more intellectual approach under founding Editor Carl F. H. Henry. Disclosure: The Religion Guy was CT’s news editor in that era.)

Most thought journals survive only through subsidies that supplement limited subscription and advertising income. During its first six years B&C received grants from Pew Charitable Trusts, which provided strategic aid to foster evangelical scholarship before shifting its focus to survey research on religion.

The Religion Guy regrets that he planned but never filed Memos to praise two cover stories among B&C’s many outstanding contributions, “The Secularization of the Academy 25 Years On” (November-December 2015), and “Studies of the Early Church: War and Killing” (January-February 2016).

Meanwhile, an unrelated conflict is a reminder of growing challenges from academic culture. Are these topics too complex for news coverage? It appears that many think that way.

This weekend (Oct. 29-30), leaders of the Society of Biblical Literature will discuss whether to bar InterVarsity Press from displaying books at its annual convention for Bible scholars, starting next year. That would harm an important source of conservative Christian thought. InterVarsity Press is among a handful of the best in the business, and the huge S.B.L. gathering is vital for marketing.

The dispute arises because the publisher’s parent, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, wants staff members to resign unless they affirm its long-time affirmation of ancient Christian doctrines on sexual morality, including opposition to sex outside of marriage and same-sex relationships.

IVCF leaders have explained that they have gay-oriented staffers who are celibate, and that the organization is concerned about individuals’ theological commitments -- not their views on gay marriage as a political matter. Also, the press does not ask authors to affirm IVCF’s credo.

One way or another, expect more conflicts along these lines.
 

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