Looking Askance to the Right

I recently read Douglas A. Sweeney’s The American Evangelical Story. It’s a quick read (just over 200 pages), especially considering the scope of the topic he covers. He moves from the Great Awakenings to the present, providing an overview of what has shaped American evangelicalism during the centuries in between. I recommend it to you if you’d like a quick understanding of a topic about which shelves of books have been written.

My major disappointment with the book is this: Sweeney (a church history professor from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is extremely inconsistent in his degree of objectivity and is maddeningly selective regarding whom he criticizes. He takes a “just the facts” approach (bordering on a “keep it positive” approach) to most of the book’s events and characters, but he goes into op-ed mode when addressing fundamentalism, even in its battle with theological liberalism. Let me offer some examples.

Sweeney writes the following of Curtis Lee Laws’ term “fundamentalist”:

“Today, many of us employ this word for people we dislike. We associate it with bigotry and religious zealotry. But Laws himself was a fundamentalist. He deemed it a badge of honor, for as he defined them in his paper, fundamentalists are those ‘who still cling to the great fundamentals and who mean to do battle royal for the faith.’

“During the early 1920s, ‘battle royal’ bludgeoned nearly every mainline Protestant body. Few of them met with amputations (or ecclesiastical schisms), but most hemorrhaged profusely.” (p. 166)

The idea that “‘battle royal’ bludgeoned” anything is a pretty unsympathetic description of that portion of our history, especially when Laws and his fellow fundamentalists had clear biblical warrant for their opposition to theological error. But the whole concept of defending the faith is treated as an unnecessary, even mean-spirited skeleton in evangelicalism’s closet. Even the SBC is chided for the controversy between liberalism and orthodoxy in recent decades:

“Centrifugal forces of various kinds continue to push at evangelicals in America as much as anywhere else. Southern Baptists, for example, have been embroiled in civil war since well before 1979, when conservatives began to win control of their institutions. With a national membership approaching sixteen million people, they are still the largest Protestant church in the land. As long as their membership persists in this long-standing, family feud—and some of their people isolate themselves from other evangelicals—they will threaten the coherence of the evangelical movement.” (pp. 181-182)

If Sweeney is somewhat critical of those who defend the faith against liberalism, you can imagine that he’s even harder on the separatist side of the Fundamentalist-New Evangelical controversy. He is. Here are a few samples:

“During the 1930s and 1940s, fundamentalists licked their wounds. Some withdrew into a hostile state of Christian separatism, giving up on the larger culture and defining themselves in opposition to mainline Protestantism (they took their ball and went home).” (p. 170)

The new evangelicals “sported a new style of fundamentalist performance, projecting less concern to master the Christian martial arts than to reverse the dire effects of the great reversal.” (p. 171)

The American Council of Christian Churches is described as “a combative, antiecumenical remnant from [the] past” (p. 172).

Fundamentalist leaders like Bob Jones Sr., Bob Jones Jr., and John R. Rice are “right-wing fundamentalist leaders” who “opposed Graham publicly, disparaging the new evangelical movement he led. They encouraged their constituents to turn their backs on Graham, creating a rift in the evangelical world.” (p. 177)

As I mentioned at the outset, these criticisms are especially unfair when compared to Sweeney’s optimistic treatment of other branches of Evangelicalism. Perhaps I’m just revealing my own lack of objectivity. I’m sure that’s the case to some degree. But here are some statements from his chapter on Pentecostalism (which includes allusions to Charles Finney, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Perfectionism, the Keswick movement, the NAE, women preachers, and thousands of Pentecostal denominations):

“America’s Holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic traditions enjoy a uniquely modern social, cultural, and intellectual history, one in which apostolic commitments to genuine holiness and the exercise of supernatural gifts have been reclaimed and used to spread the gospel abroad.” (p. 134)

“In less than a century, the [Assemblies of God] has grown from a tiny convocation of like-minded Pentecostals to one of the largest, most dynamic evangelical institutions. Even the sexual and financial sins of AG televangelists Jim Bakker (1940- ) and Jimmy Swaggart (1935- )—scandals that filled the tabloids and lit the TV screens of the 1980s—seem not to have dampened lay enthusiasm for other AG ministries.”

The conclusion of this chapter is especially positive:

“In roughly a century and a half, America’s Holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements have grown from a band of brothers and sisters intent on renewing the Protestant mainline into a worldwide, ecumenical phenomenon. Now found in every Christian tradition in every corner of the world, uniquely Pentecostal passion for apostolic authenticity, the supernatural gifts, and energetic spirituality has excited the Christian piety and practices of billions. Perhaps the fastest-growing movement that the church has ever seen, Holiness-Pentecostalism—as conveyed by charismatics—has given the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church a facelift, rendering its features more evangelical in the process.” (p. 152-153)

What was particularly bothersome as I read the criticism of those on the right and what I perceived to be the whitewashing of those on the left is that I recognized in it a tendency in myself and others in my generation. We tend to be charitable in our evaluations of those who are less restrictive than us (on any number of issues) even as we’re merciless with those who are more restrictive. To be sure, fundamentalists have often committed the opposite error, straining out gnats “out there” while swallowing camels “in here.” But I do think younger men are prone to swing the pendulum back to the other extreme, giving space to evangelicals while withholding from fundamentalists the same courtesy. Tolerance is too often extended in only one direction, contrary to the spirit of Romans 14:3.

Perhaps the answer is to be more charitable all around. Perhaps it’s to be as exacting in our criticisms to the left as to the right (or vice versa, for older men). That’s certainly the case when the gospel is at stake. But there does need to be some consistency. Our tendency to alternate between charity and rhetoric depending on who we’re talking about is no virtue.


2 Responses

  1. I have thought many of the same thoughts. On one hand I am so thankful for the recovery of biblical ministry philosophy, emphasis on the doctrines of Grace, expositional preaching etc – that are wonderful. But in criticizing the men of the past and realizing they are men of their times we need to be cautious- what will people 100 years from now say about our generation – are we exempt from any errors? or are we the generation who ‘gets it’ as we swing the pendulum the other way?

  2. Good post, Chris. Thanks for giving us some good food to digest.

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