Churchly Shadows & Substance
Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of
Recovering Mother Kirk: The Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition
reviewed by Robert W. Patterson
American Evangelicalism’s sharpest critics, questioning whether this popular religious movement can live up to its original promise of recovering a conservative Protestant tradition in America, have repeated the pattern set by the Evangelical founders who put a fresh face on Fundamentalism in the 1940s. In Deconstructing Evangelicalism, his fourth book in less than two years, D. G. Hart questions the very idea of Evangelicalism and appeals to its managers to stop the game they have been playing since the days of Harold John Ockenga and Carl F. H. Henry.
“Evangelicalism,” writes Hart, who once directed the Institute for the Study of Evangelicals at Wheaton College and now works for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, “needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact, it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism. Behind this proboscis, which has been nipped and tucked by savvy religious leaders, academics, and pollsters, is a face void of any discernable features.” This is not a book for those whose world would fall apart if Evangelical were stricken from the dictionary.
As Hart documents, Evangelicalism would not have been constructed without the labor of his fellow historians, especially the Evangelical historians Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch, who in the last twenty years have rewritten American church history to fit the paradigm that Ockenga invented in setting up the National Association of Evangelicals. In Hart’s mind, his colleagues (and mentors) have been negligent in accepting without question a paradigm designed to harness an infinite array of sideline Protestants—from the Assemblies of God to the Reformed Episcopal Church—into a unified whole. As reflected in a cover story in U.S. News & World Report last December that posits a cohesive Evangelicalism going back to Jonathan Edwards, the paradigm holds popular sway as well.
Hart also faults the sociology guild, as well as pollsters, for inflating the numbers with expansive definitions of what constitutes an Evangelical. Skeptical of public opinion polling because of its connections to marketing and advertising, Hart reveals how pollsters George Gallup, Jr., and George Barna not only served Evangelicals looking for “scientific” validation that their movement is really mainstream, but also contributed to a dilemma lamented even by insiders: a movement so porous, so chameleon-like, so ubiquitous that it confounds scholarly and theological definition.
Writing as a church historian, a rarity these days, Hart sees things that historians of religion are not trained to see. For example, he implies that Evangelicalism, not being a natural or organic community like the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, or even the Southern Baptist Convention, ends up functioning like a rogue church. Even as Evangelicals concede that their movement is not an ecclesiastical body, many are emotionally involved in the construct as if it is. This is the problem that Hart unpacks in the second half of the book, as he argues that Evangelicalism lacks the critical ingredients—polity, creed, and liturgy—that Christians throughout history have needed to sustain themselves this side of glory.
This is the easier side of his argument, as Hart is not the first to observe that Evangelicals—who tend to rally around personalities and para-church organizations—demonstrate only a tertiary interest in cultivating the traditional institutions and formal structures of church life. But he is the first to document how their substitution of biblical inerrancy for a comprehensive confession of faith failed to provide the creedal glue necessary for an authentic religious community. He is also the first to trace to the 1940s Evangelicalism’s liturgical use of generation-specific, top-40 show tunes, a pattern he also finds problematic for sustaining a Christian community across generations.
Hart concludes not only that Evangelicalism is unnecessary, but that Protestants would be far better off without it, as they would be forced to find their identity through ecclesiastical channels—and be what they were prior to the 1940s: good Congregationalists, good Methodists, or good Pentecostals.
They would also return to congregations led by pastors concerned more with shepherding God’s flock than with building coalitions to shape a nation, returning to these pastors “to hear the Word preached, to receive the sacraments, and to hear sound counsel and correction.” Recovering Mother Kirk can help all Protestants—not just his intended Presbyterian audience—who desire a more church-centered, traditional faith independent of the Evangelical project.
A collection of sixteen essays published between 1995 and 2000, including three in Touchstone, Mother Kirk reveals Hart’s passion for classic Protestant confessionalism. To Hart, the American democratic experience has played havoc with traditional Protestant faith and practice, which, prior to the First Great Awakening, centered more on the corporate life of the church than on the personal activities of the individual. To find their way back, Protestants must first of all embrace the visible church as their mother, as (quoting Calvin) “away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.”
It also means recovering ecclesiastical authority, chucking the notion of “every member a minister” and replacing it with a traditional understanding of the ordained office, as Christ delegated the Great Commission to his apostles, to church leaders. The confessional tradition views ministers as endowed by Christ with the keys to the kingdom, with apostolic authority to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments, functions so important that they cannot be relegated to the rank and file.
Likewise, Hart highlights how the Reformers upheld the importance of public worship as the central means through which the people of God come to and grow in faith. Instead of relying upon the “new measures” of the para-church or mega-church—whether Promise Keepers rallies, Evangelism Explosion, or the Alpha program—traditional Protestants look to what the Westminster Confession calls “the ordinary means” that are carried out by pastors every Lord’s Day in the context of worshiping congregations.
Worship being so critical, Hart devotes seven chapters to the topic, revealing the problems of liturgies that mimic Young Life meetings. Borrowing heavily from pop culture, including throwaway music typical of top-40 radio, what Evangelicals dub “Praise & Worship” simply perpetuates adolescent experiences, which Hart claims are unable to “provide the sustenance on which a life of sacrifice and discipline depend.” Lacking a sacramental dimension, what Hart describes as “worship as homeroom” ends up turning the means of grace into the pragmatic “means of motivation” to prod individuals to participate in the myriad of YMCA-type programs for which mega-churches are known.
Central to his affection for the kirk is Hart’s call for the church to be the church: a church with a clear sense of her calling as something very different from an agency devoted to promoting civil society. Taking cues from the Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, the Princeton divine Charles Hodge, and the sociologist Peter Berger, Hart calls for a sharp distinction between the civil or temporary realm and the ecclesiastical or eternal realm, preferring a strong church in a secular society to a compromised church in a so-called Christian society.
Here Hart is fighting a huge battle, as Protestants have confused the kingdom of God with America ever since the Revolutionary War. Recognizing that individual Christians, like other citizens, should be involved in social and political affairs, Hart warns the church corporate to stay out of political and public policy matters. Calling for less religion in public life but also for less politics in the churches, Hart even takes on “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” for misconstruing the mission of the church, focusing more on the woes of American society than on the woes of the Christian church, including the sixteenth-century division the document attempts to bridge.
Many will challenge Hart on this and other points, but both volumes offer a noble attempt to correct the religious confusions of the times, including the misidentification of Evangelicalism with historic, conservative Protestantism. Hart makes it clear that their disdain for tradition and formal structures, as well as their love of MTV liturgy, makes Evangelicals the innovators—not the inheritors or conservators of a traditional faith.
This insight, along with his charting of a confessional Protestant option, could encourage traditionalists to stay within the Protestant fold. Although not his intention, Hart also implies that Evangelicals may not be the culture-war allies that some Catholics think, as both Deconstructing and Mother Kirk expose the irony of a project that claims to represent a majority of Americans but has little discernable impact on the moral climate of the land.
Robert W. Patterson is a former Presbyterian minister who is now Research Fellow of the Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society and writes on domestic policy issues in Washington, D.C.
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“Churchly Shadows & Substance” first appeared in the May 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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