Is Evangelicalism America’s New “Religious Establishment?”

Roger E. Olson | 1/9/2017 | Roger E. Olson
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Is Evangelicalism America’s New “Religious Establishment?”

This past weekend I’ve attended and participated in the annual meeting of the American Society of Church Historians. I served on two panels. One was composed of the editors and some authors of a book I reviewed here earlier: The Future of Evangelicalism in America edited by Candy Gunther Brown and Mark Silk (Columbia University Press, 2016). I contributed the chapter “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology.” All the other authors are historians or sociologists of religion. The other authors present were: Michael Hamilton, Candy Gunther Brown, and Timothy Trent. The volume has stellar promotional statements on it from Philip Jenkins, Mark Noll and other well-known scholars of evangelicalism. The volume is now available in paperback. I highly recommend it.

Editors - Authors - Panel - Chapters - Book

We (the editors and present authors) formed a panel to discuss our chapters and the book in general. One theme that kept appearing–both in questions and comments from the audience and from panelists–was whether “evangelicalism” is America’s new religious “establishment.” According to some surveys as many as eighty million Americans claim to be evangelical or “born again.” Some sociologists and political scientists are almost in shock over the resurgence of cultural and political influence of this religious tribe. Common wisdom in the 1970s was that America would become increasingly secular and “evangelical Christianity” would lose influence.

So, a word of historical background will help set the stage here. What does “religious establishment” mean? Well, that was never clearly defined, so I have to make some assumptions about what I think it means to sociologists of religion.

Century - Pundit - Church - England - Tory

Sometime in the 19th century some British pundit referred to the Church of England as the “Tory Party at prayer.” (The Tory Party was the conservative party in England.) In other words, according to that pundit (and many sociologists and historians agreed),...
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