A floating podcast: Are evangelicals more confused than usual, these days? #REALLY

This week's "Crossroads" podcast is a bit different, for several reasons.

In the headline, I called this a "floating" podcast because, well, I phoned into the Lutheran Public Radio studio from a cruise boat in the Bahamas (the final stage of some wonderful 40th wedding anniversary celebrations). So I was "floating," at the time. Also, the podcast isn't going to be posted on the GetReligion website right away because our tech person is (continuing the wedding theme) on his honeymoon. So click here to access the Issues, Etc., version of this show.

Now, to the topic. Host Todd Wilken asked me to take a look at an NPR essay that ran with this headline: "2017 Has Been A Rough Year For Evangelicals."

Yes, we are talking about yet ANOTHER elite-media look into the identity crisis among many evangelical leaders in the era of Donald Trump. But before we get into the heart of that essay, check out the lede:

As 2017 ends, evangelical Christians in the United States are suffering one of their periodic identity crises. Unlike other religious groups, the evangelical movement comprises a variety of perspectives and tendencies and is therefore especially prone to splintering and disagreement.

Yes, the first half of that is basically fine -- since anyone with any exposure to the American brand of evangelicalism knows that debates about doctrine and identity have been common through the decades. But what's going on with the statement that evangelical churches and institutions contain a "variety of perspectives and tendencies" and, thus, are somehow uniquely prone to divisions, debates and disagreements?

I laughed out loud the first time I read that.

So American Catholicism is a fortress of cultural conformity? Ditto for Lutherans and Anglicans? Is there any brand of Judaism in America that is not struggling with beliefs, practices and borders? And how about the following, which is taken from the top of a blunt and rather provocative New York Times obituary for the 90-year-old leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. ...
Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.
Mr. Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture. The church even found itself at odds with an old ally, the Boy Scouts of America, which admitted gay members and gay adults as scout leaders.

Now, it would be easy to say that Monson is, in this case, being found guilty of defending his church's teachings against the doctrinal standards of The New York Times.

There is some truth to that. (In fact, the ever-kind Bobby Ross Jr, oh-so-gently hinted at that in an earlier GetReligion post.)

However, the piece does cite examples of protests and conflicts inside modern Mormonism that display the tensions of our times. Thus, it is easy to say that there are Mormons who are arguing about what it means to be a Mormon, in the age of Trump and lots of other cultural earthquakes.

Has anyone noted the rising tensions in some parts of Catholicism -- in America and elsewhere -- in recent decades and, in particular, during the rise of Pope Francis? How about the decades of conflict (you could call them wars) on essential points of doctrine among United Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians and every other branch of what used to be called Mainline Protestantism?

But there's the key point to underline, once again: The NPR essay keeps return to issues framed in terms of politics. The evangelicals taking part in this new-old debates about identity are searching for some way to find an authoritative DOCTRINAL framework to define the church-history term "evangelical."

There are problems here, as NPR noted:

In the theological sense, evangelical Christianity is defined by its characteristic dogma. A recent survey of self-described evangelicals by LifeWay Research (affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention) found that less than half of that group actually accepted the authority of the Bible, believed that trust in Jesus Christ is the key to eternal salvation, and shared a commitment to spread the Gospel message to non-Christians. The researchers did not ask about political beliefs or voting history.
"These particular findings arrive at a time when many evangelicals are questioning whether the term is still a term we ought to be using," says Scott McConnell, who directed the LifeWay survey. "It's a reminder to this community that 'evangelical' is about beliefs."

Also this:

In recent years, the evangelical label has had increasingly strong political connotations, with pollsters and news organizations paying closer attention to the "evangelical vote" and evangelicals themselves becoming more passionate about politics.
"There is this perception now that evangelicals are fundamentally politically conservative people and that their religion is just a veneer," says Mark Galli, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today.

But is this really something new, a conflict stirred up by He Who Must Be Named, as in the omnipresent Trump?

Check out the video at the top of this post, in which some evangelical thinkers react to one of several pieces I have written through the years about this "define evangelical" debate.

Now note the year -- 2013.

This piece also refers to the fact that I was asking Billy Graham questions about many of these same issues back in 1987. You may recall that Graham said he had no idea what "evangelical" means and, when I pressed him on that point, he tried to define the term in, yes, doctrinal terms. He wanted to avoid politics.

So here is the bottom line and it's the same one that the Rev. Timothy Keller referenced the other day in his much discussed essay in The New Yorker, the one with this headline, "Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?"

Ready? At some point, journalists who cover religion and politics are going to have to grasp that doctrine is more important than politics, when you are covering debates about doctrine in major religious groups and movement. Politics may be the official religion in many newsrooms, but that is not the case -- believe it or not -- in the vast majority of religious sanctuaries.

But do the doctrines have political implications?

Ah, there is the rub. Arguing about abortion? That's a matter of doctrine, dating back to the early church. How about the meaning of marriage? Ditto. The moral status of sex outside of traditional marriage? The same.

Now here is a tough one: How about traditional Christian believers trying to make a choice between two deeply flawed candidates, like Trump and Hillary Clinton? That leads into complicated, timeless doctrinal debates about "theodicy" and biblical standards on choosing between the lesser of two evils.

Yes, for some evangelicals (and others), Trump vs. Hillary was a political decision. But for many, many others, it was and still is a matter of doctrine and moral standards.

So in what sense is this evangelical "crisis" really "new"?

So enjoy the program. We will strive to get you a GetReligion "Crossroads" edition, complete with the opening blues guitar riff, in the near future.

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