Is Evangelicalism Due for a Hundred-Year Schism?

Written by on August 13, 2021

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment,’” Jesus told the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’” he continued. “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). He goes on to set a higher standard in other aspects of life, too, a standard where even private intentions matter to God.

The future of American evangelicalism—particularly white evangelicalism, a part often wrongly mistaken for the whole—has been subject to intense scrutiny for at least half a decade, and this year’s departures of Russell Moore (who has begun a public theology project here at CT) and Beth Moore (no relation to Russell) from the Southern Baptist Convention have revealed just how deep those divisions are.

As I’ve browsed reporting on the Moores’ decisions and read analyses on whether the US evangelical movement is heading for a schism—a complete and formal break in fellowship—Jesus’ words about murder and adultery keep coming to mind: If intentions matter so much, have we split already?

Widened and embittered division in the movement is certainly impossible to deny. The specific issues are many, some comparatively new (critical race theory, former President Donald Trump), some all too familiar (racism and race relations beyond the one theory, roles of women, sexual ethics, christian nationalism, church handling of abuse), all with a political edge.

It’s not primarily about different policy agendas or rival partisan loyalties. On paper, a lot of that remains unchanged. The political division I see is more, as CT president Timothy Dalrymple wrote in April, about different informational worlds feeding different fears, hopes, habits of speech, and political priorities. And that political aspect is crucial, in two ways, to thinking through where we are now and where we may go next.

The first is this: If we were to diagram where American evangelicals coalesce around the issues I’ve just listed, the collective result would look a lot like a new (and newly important) tribal division in US politics.

For a long time, there was a stereotype that cast Republicans as rich people who go to country clubs and work at big banks, and Democrats—Hollywood and the media aside—as poor and working-class. This was a decent shorthand once, but no longer.

Nationally, we aren’t polarized according to income as we once were; the “diploma divide” is now the more useful indicator, and its importance is growing. More educated people increasingly vote Democratic, while the less educated increasingly vote Republican. That disparity contributes to a defensive populism on the American right, including among educated Republicans, via the perception that elite institutions (where college degrees are a baseline for participation) are all controlled by political enemies.

Among white evangelicals, the education-politics correspondence isn’t so strong. Being college-educated doesn’t make you a Democrat or a progressive theologically or politically. But there’s an echo of the diploma divide in the discord among evangelicals.

The populist faction in evangelicalism similarly accuses prominent figures and institutions (“big eva,” in the Twitter terminology) of neglecting or abandoning truth to curry secular, liberal favor. Such accusations played a role in both Moores’ departures from the SBC, though both remain dependably theologically conservative.

In a widely shared Twitter thread in late May, historian of American religion and politics (and CT contributor) Paul Matzko compared this divide to older divisions in American Christianity in the 1830s and 1930s. Those were times, like ours, of “intense political polarization,” he told me in an email exchange, as well as “intensive technological innovation, dramatic social change, and widespread fears that something vital was being lost in the shuffle.”

Matzko believes our politicized breach is already in its middle stages and will prove irreparable. He anticipates “the current divide will widen into a series of formal splits that cut through each of the major evangelical denominations and institutions,” a forecast with which I struggle to disagree.

Yet I’m less sure about his expectation that the populist faction “retain control of the existing infrastructure.” In many cases, I think that will prove true—the Southern Baptist Convention could become one such case, though the June gathering in Nashville seems to have delayed it.

Elsewhere, however, institutions may go to progressive evangelicals and still-churched post-evangelicals, to borrow a label from a June Mere Orthodoxyarticle proposing a six-way fracture of US evangelicalism. See, for example, Bethany christian Services’ shift on LGBT adoption, or how disagreement over gay marriage within Mennonite Church USA has led to conservative departures while progressives stayed put.

The question of reparability brings me to the second way focusing on the political nature of this division is instructive: Our turmoil is significantly about political content consumption and how it competes with Scripture, pastor, and church community to claim our attention and disciple our minds.

Matzko’s Twitter thread gestured in this direction: “Evangelical clergy only get their congregants in the pews one to three times a week,” he wrote, while their favored political media “get them every day, all day.” When there’s a conflict between the two, polling suggests, political media win and the intra-evangelical divide expands.

Matzko highlighted political media sources like Newsmax, One America News, and outlets further right, which is the pulpit’s populist competition, but the same dynamic can and does emerge anywhere on the political spectrum.

The bad news, as he wrote to me, is it’s very difficult to break habits of heavy media consumption in a political echo chamber. The resultant “influence gap” between church and political content will prove a durable challenge to discipleship regardless of the issue arguments at hand.

But the good news—as Matzko and the Mere Orthodoxyauthors, Michael Graham and Skyler Flowers, noted alike—is that as alarming, precarious, and dire as intra-church conflicts feel now, some past upheavals have u

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