About 20 years ago, the eminent sociologist of religion Christian Smith coined a useful and resonant phrase, describing evangelical Christianity in the post-1960s United States as both “embattled and thriving.”
By this Smith meant that evangelicals had maintained an identity in a secularizing country that was neither separatist nor assimilated, but somehow mainstream and countercultural at once. Evangelicals were both fully part of American modernity (often educated suburbanites, rather than the backwoods yokels of caricature) and also living lives in tension with pluralistic and permissive values. And this combination, far from undercutting their communities, was actually a source of religious vitality and demographic strength.
Smith’s description still holds up pretty well. The story of U.S. religion lately has been one of institutional decline, of Mainline Protestantism’s aging and Catholicism’s weakening and the rise of the so-called “nones.”
But there has been an evangelical exception. The evangelical market share has held steady while other traditions have declined, evangelical churches have continued to win more converts than they lose, and evangelical resilience is the main reason why religious conservatism retains an intense and active core.
The question is whether this resilience will survive the age of Donald Trump.
Some evangelical voices think not: Whether the subject is the debauched pagan in the White House, the mall-haunted candidacy of Roy Moore or the larger question of how to engage with secular culture, there is talk of an intergenerational crisis within evangelical churches, a widening disillusionment with a Trump-endorsing old guard, a feeling that a crackup must loom ahead.
In a recent cri de coeur on the influential Gospel Coalition site, Jared Wilson described younger evangelicals as “basically a bunch of theological orphans,” betrayed by older pastors who insisted on the importance of moral character and then abandoned these preachments for the sake of partisanship — revealing their own commitments as essentially idolatrous and leaving the next generation no choice but to invent evangelicalism anew.
In a somewhat different vein, Baylor professor Alan Jacobs responded to a question (from me) about where younger evangelical intellectual life is going by saying that “as far as I can tell, where young evangelicals are headed is simply out of evangelicalism.” Meaning that they will either go along with the drift of their elders and become church-of-American-greatness heretics, or they will return to “older liturgical traditions,” Catholic and Orthodox and Anglican, and cease to identify with evangelicalism entirely.
I don’t know exactly what to make of these predictions. U.S. evangelicalism has always contained a number of different tendencies: It’s home to rigorous heirs of the Reformation, seeker-sensitive megachurches, would-be ecumenical “mere Christians,” prosperity preachers and hard-edged Christian nationalists.
During the 2016 Republican primary, it was easy enough to argue that Trump was exploiting these divisions, winning Fox News-watching cultural evangelicals and prosperity-gospel types while losing churchgoers who cared about character and orthodoxy.
Then in the general election it was possible to argue that the latter groups only came around to Trump reluctantly, out of fear of contemporary liberalism’s anticlerical streak and that their relationship to his identitarian nationalism was transactional and didn’t reflect any deep congruence.
If this is right, then the alienation of younger evangelical writers from Trumpism’s court pastors could indeed be a signifier of a coming evangelical crackup. In this scenario, the label itself would become contested, with the kind of winsome and multiethnic evangelicalism envisioned by the anti-Trump Southern Baptist Russell Moore pitted against the nationalist evangelicalism of a Jerry Falwell Jr. or Robert Jeffress, and churches along the fault line internally embattled and dividing.
But it’s also possible that evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions, have underestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success. It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations — and that it is this group, not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated ... but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed.
If so, then this would imply that white Christian tribalism and a very American sort of heresy, not a commitment to Scripture and tradition, has kept evangelical churches thriving all these years. And if the God-and-country, pray-and-grow-rich tendencies sweep aside orthodox resistance, the evangelicalism that emerges might be more coherent and sociologically resilient, in the short run, for being rid of hand-wringers who don’t think Baptist choirs should set “Make America Great Again” to music.
This is a sobering idea, and one I hope is wrong.
But it is a paradox of this strange time that serious evangelicals should probably be rooting for a real post-Trump crisis in their churches — because its absence will tell them something depressing about where their movement’s strength lay all along.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.