The Social Movement Dynamics of Modern American Evangelicalism -- By: William P. Payne

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 35:0 (NA 2003)
Article: The Social Movement Dynamics of Modern American Evangelicalism
Author: William P. Payne

The Social Movement Dynamics of Modern American Evangelicalism

William P. Payne

William Payne (M.Div. Candler; Ph.D. Asbury) is Assistant Professor of Evangelism/Missions at ATS.

In discussions with theologically conservative African American Christians, I discovered that the term “evangelical” has a negative association for many of them. They associated the word with a politically conservative agenda and mentioned school prayer, school vouchers, pro-Israel policy, the death penalty, and other political platform issues that are coupled with American evangelicalism as reasons for their antipathy. In the same conversations, some white evangelicals stressed the historical and theological components of the term and focused on those meanings to define the word and themselves. In this article, I describe American evangelicalism in terms of social movement dynamics and offer an alternative word to describe theologically conservative Protestants.

The Social Movement Dynamics of Modern American Evangelicalism

American evangelicalism exists as a theological construct,1 a historical phenomenon,2 and a sociological movement. At its core, it is a set of beliefs about God, Scripture, the nature of salvation, and personal morality. Those beliefs are rooted in and grow out of a historical milieu associated with the rise of conservative Christianity from the mid-1700s to the 1900s. In particular, the great awakenings, pietism, revivalism, abolitionism, the holiness movement, world missions, the prohibition movement, the emergence of Christian fundamentalism, and dispensational eschatology are historical factors that strongly influenced the development of modern evangelicalism. Modernity also fashioned the contours of American evangelicalism to the extent that evangelicalism interacted with it and reacted to it, e.g., changing demographics associated with immigration/emigration, secularism, the theory of evolution, biblical criticism, and progressive politics coupled with an aggressive social activism that threatened traditional values. Sociologically, modern evangelicalism became a codified political movement in the 1970s as it reacted to a cluster of issues that endangered the core fabric of a mythical evangelical

empire. Those issues gave American evangelicals a basis for common cause and the energy necessary to propel themselves into political activity. Some flash issues were the Civil Rights Movement, legalized abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, gambling, the homosexual lobby, the proliferation of pornography, and an activist judiciary.

Sociologically, when groups...

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