One of the advantages of being Catholic is that, whether you agree or not, at least you know who speaks for you. When a controversial subject needs to be discussed, there are vehicles and forums to help it get a hearing with the right people around the table.
Who coordinates the discussion for evangelicals? When we have difficult issues to ponder, who makes sure they get talked about by the right voices, with conviction and civility?
I think it was Mark Noll who wrote that at one time you could pretty much define a person's relationship to evangelicalism by how they would respond to the name Billy Graham. There was a pretty clear sense—not just of what evangelicalism stood for—but that its core leaders and organizations were tied together by a thick strand of overlapping relationships. The leaders often had gone to school together, done ministry together, or served on boards with one another. The evangelical community had large deposits of what Robert Putnam would call social capital—relational interconnectedness.
This didn't mean that every issue got consensus—or even politeness. We have always had a fair number of cranky characters. But there was generally a sense that the main players around the table at least knew and understood each other.
It's not clear that the players know each other so well today.
It's not clear they're all at the table.
It's not clear we have a table.
Scot McKnight, that thoughtful New Testament professor/author/blogger, said recently that evangelicalism seems increasingly divided into different factions. The centrifugal force is greater than ever. And emotions around factional identity seem to run hotter. (Scot said, in what came as a surprise, that the single topic that will draw the highest number of responses in a blog is not sexual orientation or politics, it's mentioning John Piper.)
One of the reasons for the controversy around Ted Haggard was that the national media often seemed to assume that his position as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals was a little like being the pope of that branch of the church, that he had been chosen by evangelicals as their voice. That wasn't exactly the case. Current NAE head Leith Anderson has brought terrific leadership to that position, in part by maintaining a more under-the-radar profile.
Why is there a decline of social capital among evangelical leadership?
One reason is that evangelical leaders tend—like our society generally—to be more narrowly niched. Some are leaders of local churches—Bill Hybels and Rick Warren and Andy Stanley. Some work in spiritual formation—Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson. Some of them are New Calvinists; some head up parachurch organizations (in the 1940s and '50s, this was a disproportionately large part of evangelical leadership—beginning with Billy Graham himself.) Today some are identified more generationally. Scot mentioned the names that his college students are highly aware of and in tune with—including Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and Donald Miller.
I expect another reason why the ties that bind evangelicals are becoming looser is the change in church/faith landscape. When I was growing up in the 1970s, a large part of evangelical identity was who we were not: we weren't Catholic and we certainly weren't mainline, liberal, establishment, pipe-smoking, sherry-drinking, hush-puppy wearers.
But those distinctions are no longer quite so clear. Some Catholics are quite evangelical. And the mainline is no longer the adversary it used to be. (Although as Christian Smith has noted, many of the values of the mainline church now dominate our culture–tolerance, individualism, egalitarianism, etc.–at a certain point of theological vacuity you no longer need to attend church to have the values.)