Dr. Timothy L. Smith, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, is a noted authority on religious movements in America. His book “Revivalism and Social Reform” was among a select group chosen for the White House Library some years ago. He holds a doctorate from Harvard and is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. He is currently overseeing a major research effort supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and dealing with “the mosaic of evangelical Protestantism in modern America,” which he believes will contribute to an emerging new model for American religious studies. Dr. Smith was interviewed in his Baltimore campus office by Senior Editor David Kucharsky.
Question. As one who is widely respected for insights into the life of the Christian community, would you say that we are in the midst of a religious revival at this time?
Answer. If by “at this time” you mean the period stretching back twenty or thirty years, I would say yes, very much so. There is an extensive surge toward faith in God.
Q. How can you tell?
A. Well, just look at the numerical and financial growth of evangelical churches and religious organizations. Those institutions based on biblical faith have experienced a decided upswing. I’m talking not only of evangelical congregations and denominations but of the seminaries and Christian colleges which share their commitment. Probably as many as fifty such colleges are flourishing despite all the talk of the financial crisis in higher education. And graduates of Gordon, Fuller, Trinity, and similar theological seminaries are beginning to fill the great pulpits of the old-line Protestant denominations. So what counts is not simply Billy Graham’s citywide crusades, which to the casual observer may seem to be only a flash in the pan, but what those crusades rest upon: the very solid growth of institutional affiliation, congregational commitment, and life styles in families and local communities which reflect biblical faith. These constitute the stunning religious development of the last thirty-five years.
Q. How do you view the religious elements of the presidential election campaign this fall, and what effect might the election of Ford or Carter have on the spiritual scene?
A. Jimmy Carter’s penchant for personal testimony seems to me an authentic expression of the piety and convictions of a mainstream Southern Baptist. And his combination of “conservative” theology with “liberal” politics fits not only much of my study of nineteenth-century evangelicals but my personal experience growing up in a politically liberal Southern family. But despite the efforts of reporters who have interviewed Mr. Carter in depth—including Norman Mailer and the managing editor of Playboy—to explain how authentic and consistent his religious testimony seems, the news editors have not been able to resist a caricature of his beliefs. They know that the public remembers all too well the paraded piety of a number of recent politicians. The effort by partisans of Governor Reagan, and subsequently of President Ford, to advertise the claim that these two are also born-again Christians caused religiously faithful Jews, Catholics, Orthodox, and old-line Protestants, as well as maybe thirty million others who don’t care that much about religion, to be suspicious of the whole matter. Thus whichever candidate we will have elected by the time these words are printed will find his actual freedom to function quietly as a Christian believer restricted by the necessity of persuading many of those who must help him govern, and a large segment of the public he must lead, that he is not from their point of view dangerously pious.
So the effect on the religious scene will likely not be great. Unhappily, among the brotherhood of the born-again, the consequence may be to highlight longstanding political differences, especially notable between white and black evangelicals, and set off a decade of fruitless controversy over whether the Bible sustains Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Neither of these two gentlemen, I must say, really matters very much any more.
Q. Do you find much of a sense of oneness among evangelicals today? If someone were to come along and try to pull them together in some kind of unity, would he succeed?
A. My feeling is that we are a good distance away from major organizational revision. I think we may need another fifty years of loyalty to one another in seminaries, Bible-school programs, city-wide campaigns, prayer fellowships, and other symbols of the unity which CHRISTIANITY TODAY stands for before we should devote much energy to forging structural unity. I am very much more ambivalent about structural unity than I used to be, and I find confirmation of my ambivalence in Luther Gerbach’s studies of effective social movements.
Q. How does the report strike you that 34 per cent responding to a Gallup poll affirmed that they had been spiritually reborn …
A. Or that they had known such an experience as being born again?
A. I was both surprised and not surprised. Not surprised, because all branches of American Christianity rely on the appeal to conversion to secure adult commitments. In our society, religious affiliation is a matter of choice, so pastors and church organizations put emphasis upon some crisis of choice, whether they do so in biblical terms or not. Moreover, in teen-age years and in the early twenties developmental psychologists have observed a pattern of radical change in which a person does—if ever he does—break into an ethical perception of life’s meaning which is fundamentally different from the egocentric outlook of his childhood. These observations have created a body of psychological theory which appears to validate the notion of crucial turning points in religious perception and commitment. On these general grounds, then, I do not find the response to the poll startling. As I recall it, the question was not phrased in such a way as to point to a fully New Testament experience of the new birth. It was certainly close, however.
Q. But 34 per cent is a rather high figure, is it not, in a society that seems to opt so blatantly for secularity and irreligion?
A. Yes, but I have to look at the question also from my awareness that a very large proportion of the American population is affiliated with religious communities in which the biblical idea of a “new birth” as the beginning point of the life of faith is absolutely central. After all, there are some 12 million Southern Baptists in America, to say nothing of all the evangelicals of other persuasions, both white and black.
Q. And you feel this is a lot more than mere nominal affiliation?
A. In many denominations, yes. I recall Senator Sam Ervin’s influence over the minds of the American people in those wonderful Sunday-school talks on constitutional liberty during the Watergate hearings—the immense persuasiveness of his use of biblical language was a sign of how widespread are what some intellectuals call the simplistic ideas of evangelical Christianity. I don’t happen to think they are simplistic, of course. The conception of simple honesty has profound dimensions, and Senator Sam spelled them out.
Q. Do you feel that evangelical leaders, pastors, and others with influence are taking advantage of the current spiritual movement?
A. No, and for a strange reason. The early part of the twentieth century witnessed an immense fragmentation of religious association and resources. Those who in every Christian tradition were trying to keep alive a sense of New Testament faith faced experiences which prompted them to interpret their present and their future to be that of a beleaguered minority fighting with their backs to the wall, but holding out for a truth that was far more precious than either the wall or their backs! We kept that psychology. I have talked to people in many evangelical traditions over the past few months. They all lament how dark the day is and how hopeless the future. Yet, out of simple loyalty to the things they believe to be precious, they express a determination to hold out, faithful to what they suspect will be a bitter end. As a matter of fact, not only within their own communions but also in the others they believe to be truly biblical they witness this great growth, this flourishing of faith; but most are still under the illusion that the world outside is going in the opposite direction. Well, large chunks of “the world” are—certainly two parts of it that influence most the public image of our culture: the university community, and the media of mass entertainment and communication. These latter are not any longer the mainstream, however. The wave of the future is those young people deeply affected by religious need and evangelical commitment whom one finds thronging the campuses of earnestly Christian colleges. Yet the elders who have shared that commitment still cling to a fortress mentality, despite their testimony to faith in God’s promises to pour out his Spirit in the “last days” upon all flesh. I would not, however, substitute for the fortress mentality the old Christian triumphalism that assumes a steady march to the millennium. Biblical hope is not that simple, and the sources of despair in modern life are extensive.
Q. So what specifically do you think the local church should be doing to let the Spirit do his work through us in a time of religious prosperity?
A. It seems to me that we have applied production models to our view of church growth and church administration. Denominational leaders tend to think that the forward-looking pastor is the one who has a plan very much like a businessman’s plan for saturating a market. Accordingly, we have stressed image and public relations too much. But I think that the great need is to recover a sense of the complexity and profundity of biblical truth.
Q. What do you really mean by that? How does a pastor go about explaining that to lay people?
A. Laymen are not that naïve. They know that history is at least as complicated as their own lives, and that the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian, declares the situation of the people of God to be precarious. Social evil and personal sinfulness are omnipresent, the Book affirms; but those who keep the covenant of faith in righteousness are in step with eternity. Truth and justice may finally prevail on earth, but only if the believing remnant bear a cross for them. Biblical hope is rooted in faith and nurtured in love; love may go beyond, but it cannot go without, “simple justice.” Jesus made these teachings of the prophets the heart of his ethic. And he declared that living by that ethic, so long an impossible dream, was about to become the normal experience of persons reborn through the power of the Holy Spirit—persons who would know very well the manifold contradictions of a complex and often sinful social order. Those who believed him, and those who believe him now, soon learn, as the apostles did, that only through “much tribulation” can we enter into the Kingdom of God. But the apostles also learned that no test of their faith or fortitude can “separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.” Thus what William Law in seventeenth-century England announced as a “serious call to a devout and holy life” is the plain, and plainly understandable, message of the New Testament. As long as Christians read the Bible, no amount of theological posturing can obscure that message. They do, and it hasn’t.
Q. What ethical and moral impact are the flourishing evangelicals having upon secular society?
A. A lot less than I would like to see. A characteristic of revivalism in the twentieth century, as distinct from that in the nineteenth, is that evangelists today are not as clearly insistent upon the ethical outcomes of religious commitment, especially in relationship to social evils.
Q. But the preaching of the Gospel today quite generally affirms that regeneration of individuals produces personal and social behavioral changes for the good.
A. That expectation comes through, yes, but in a way which makes radical renunciation of personal and social sin secondary to orthodox belief or psychic peace. Nineteenth-century evangelicals were committed to the conviction that the evidence of salvation by grace was a life of uncompromising righteousness. Accordingly, they went on to teach personal responsibility to act against social evil.
Q. But you do not deny, do you, that there has been a special kind of piety characteristic of evangelicals in the twentieth century?
A. Unfortunately, the ethical emphasis has been upon a traditional set of taboos. If someone asks me seriously why I do not drink, I welcome the chance to explain what I regard as the moral obligation to alcoholics I know as well as to the society I share which makes me say, “I’ll take diet Coke, or if you have none, buttermilk.” But it is possible for a non-drinking Christian simply to exemplify a kind of cultural hangover from the nineteenth century. Our evangelical ethical emphasis in other matters as well sometimes reflects merely an atrophied tradition rather than a vital commitment to making our new life in Christ the central principle governing ethical choices and ideological commitments.
Q. Does American pluralism have anything to do with this? Do you see any holding back because we are obliged to be tolerant of one another’s moral behavior?
A. It does have an effect. But remember, pluralism has characterized American religion from the beginning. New England was not pluralistic in colonial times, but the rest of the colonies were. And people living south and west of the Hudson cared about righteousness, too. Mennonites and Methodists were not Puritans, but they followed the way of holiness.
Q. How about dispensationalism? Do you agree with the criticism that it encourages a fatalism that bodes ill for our being the salt of the earth and the light of the world?
A. Numerous studies, including a couple by my own students, are now making plain what I did not realize when I wrote Revivalism and Social Reform: dispensational millenarians, or what I once called pessimistic premillennialists—men such as Arthur P. Pierson or A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance—were as concerned to alleviate social evil as Wesleyan post-millennialists like the Salvation Army’s William and Catherine Booth. In a recent visit to the Philadelphia College of Bible, I found social work to be the most popular field of undergraduate specialization!
Biblical literalists, including dispensationalists, also feel bound to take literally the words of Jesus about compassion for the poor and the ill and justice to the imprisoned and the racially outcast. While rejecting the idealism which anticipates a brighter tomorrow, they often act in such ways as to help make a brighter day possible.
Q. Where is liberal theology in the seventies? What is its effect?
A. One of the things that’s happening is a return to the old modernism. Witness the new book by William R. Hutchison entitled The Modernist Impulse, which describes the author’s disenchantment with neo-orthodoxy and his new respect for the older liberalism. A good many examples of this return have cropped up in the liberal schools of theology. But I do not find it very significant. Modernism, of either the older or the newer variety, doesn’t have the morally transforming power or even the intellectual tools to cope with the despair about all order, all justice, all hope which dominates the modern intellectual community. The critical battle of the twentieth century is that between hope and despair. Human beings now experience staggering insecurity about all those structures of thought and value and community upon which we heretofore counted. Here and at every other major university there are scholars who are gearing their lives to what they see as a desperately honest explanation of the hopeless situation of mankind.
Despair is the pervasive reality, and any theology which does not have in it an immense amount of faith in the loving and empowering grace of God is not going to be able to cope with that reality.
So I tend not to take very seriously whatever fad may now be dominating liberal theology. The truth is that mankind has come to the brink. Our only hope is that view of God and of human destiny which it seems to me Jesus Christ made plain in his magnificent fulfillment of the insights and hopes of Israel’s prophets. He lights the way to justice, love, and liberty in human cultures. Evangelicals ought to be shouting from the housetops, not for partisan or sectarian advantage, but for the good news that love and grace in Christ are here to save us. Jesus and the apostles established the Church in a day equally dark, by a faith which seemed to broken Greek idealists equally ridiculous. We who today claim to be his followers, and who number not a handful but millions, ought therefore to be ashamed of any who profess that faith but live by cool accommodation to the despair of our age.
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