How will American evangelicals respond to the storms without and the stress within?

The mid-eighteenth century was in many ways a high point of European cultural development. It was the age of absolutism in government: centralized, absolute monarchy held sway—usually more or less benevolently—in all of Europe’s great nations. It was the age of rationalism and enlightenment: the philosophers were confident that mankind was coming of age and could be freed from the arbitrary tutelage of revelation and church authority. The 1770s—the decade preceding the French Revolution—marked a kind of turning point. In the world of letters, everything was in ferment. In German literature, this is known as the period of Sturm und Drang—storm and stress. Two who would shortly become great figures, Goethe and Schiller, were already on the scene, but they had not yet developed the maturity and sense of direction that within a few years would enable them to exercise such a great influence upon the spirit of an entire nation.

The history of the church and the history of literature seldom run parallel, and it would be artificial to try to draw a close comparison. But perhaps as we view American Christendom in the 1970s, and particularly American evangelicalism, we can borrow the metaphor from German literature in the 1770s and describe it as our period of storm and stress. Storm comes through outside forces, forces that once were favorable or neutral, which have begun to buffet evangelicalism in this decade. The stress, we may say, is from within, as once mild tensions, too long unresolved, threaten to fragment evangelicals’ thinly-glued unity, and as new leaders, new institutions, and new movements seek to be heard in an arena where the stars have hardly changed in three decades.

A Political Tempest In The Theological Teapot

During the 1950s and 1960s, biblical Christianity seemed to gain a new, or at least a renewed, standing in American life. The nation’s political leaders willingly accepted the homage and the exhortations of evangelical leaders at prayer breakfasts and even in the White House itself—but, unfortunately, without making any corresponding commitment to honor biblical values. In 1968, the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency brought to the White House a man who wanted it known that he was on intimate terms with the most prominent of evangelicals. While it is true that Nixon never publicly confessed faith in Jesus Christ, he clearly sought identification with Christianity, and especially with conservative Protestantism and its values. But the brief summer of political splendor that evangelicalism appeared to enjoy waned rapidly as Richard Nixon’s sun went into total eclipse. Evangelicals who had endorsed him and basked in his warmth were embarrassed and chagrined; the whole evangelical movement has succeeded only with some difficulty and with less than total success in disentangling itself and its reputation from this man who, it was thought, would at least restore morality if not Christianity to public life.

Article continues below

After the intermezzo of Gerald Ford’s presidency, candidate Jimmy Carter, who publicly identified himself as an evangelical, won the nation’s highest office. He was the first evangelical in this century to do so. Yet thus far, to some observers, Carter has failed to demonstrate any significant Christian influence on the federal administration, in spite of his noble-minded human rights campaign and unquestioned personal integrity. The disillusionment of many over the President’s performance has cast a shadow on evangelical hopes of influencing American life from the top down.

While evangelicalism was thus failing to win the leadership of America’s political institutions, despite its momentary appearance of success, America’s political machinery was beginning to make definite challenges to evangelicals and their religious institutions. Indeed, the new evangelical involvement in politics sometimes furnishes the pretext for an expanded governmental interference with religion and the churches. Evangelical institutions, for decades virtually ignored by mass media and by government, began to come fully into their own only in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Billy Graham’s mammoth evangelistic crusades gave national visibility and won fairly favorable attention in the news media for phenomena that have existed since before the founding of the Republic: mass evangelism and the revival. In CHRISTIANITY TODAY evangelicalism created for itself an organ of opinion that won respect in the U.S. and abroad.

Evangelical theological institutions, and to some extent evangelical colleges as well, began to match—and in some cases even to outshine—their liberal and secular counterparts. Such growth naturally commanded increasing attention from our “guardian democracy,” which began to ask itself whether the evangelical renaissance might not imperil its new secular doctrine of relativistic pluralism. This attention has increasingly caused government to attempt actively to tax, to regulate, and even to administer independent evangelical institutions, as well as those of other religious communities. A number of colleges, forced by unmanageable economic and political developments to depend on federal aid, have adulterated or abolished their Christian ties. Life for those who have not done so is being made more difficult. Even schools that have chosen to accept no federal aid, such as Grove City College (Pennsylvania) and Columbia Bible College (South Carolina), have been subjected to vigorous governmental efforts to influence their policies through one or more Health, Education, and Welfare, or Labor Department rules, programs, or regulations.

Article continues below

Religious journalism, in effect once subsidized by favorable second-class postal rates, has been seriously challenged by vast increases in those rates. Hitherto independent evangelical social service groups, such as hospitals and children’s homes, have been subjected to increasing interference by ostensibly impartial and well-meaning bureaucrats. In individual cases such interference may have merit; but it is increasingly burdensome to evangelical institutions of all kinds and the long-range effect will be to weaken and perhaps to suppress them. As the 1970s draw to a close, it is apparent that a full-scale battle between independent evangelical institutions—and those of other religious groups as well—and an all-encompassing government may be shaping up. The question is whether evangelical institutions will be allowed to maintain both their function and their integrity, or whether one or both will be sacrificed to government’s administration of all activity that takes place within its frontiers.

The growing concern of evangelical Christians for an influential voice in shaping the public policies of a nation in which they constitute a large and vital element is leading to increasing governmental sensitivity, and to governmental efforts first to intimidate, and subsequently to regulate or even to silence the evangelical voice. Evangelicalism may thus have moved from the apparent conquest of the highest peak of American political power—with the election of Jimmy Carter as President late in 1976—to a situation where evangelicals are virtually muzzled, and that within the space of a few short years. Such governmental pressure and potential muzzling is, for the moment, only dimly perceptible; but evangelicals must be alert to it, for while the machinery of government moves slowly, it moves inexorably, and it can crush anything that stands in its way.

Article continues below
Stress: Institutions

Although American evangelicalism boasts a number of institutions with longer histories, many of its present most important and vital institutions were founded or reorganized in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s: the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the National Association of Evangelicals, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Campus Crusade for Christ, and several new or restored seminaries, to cite but a few. At least three significant evangelical seminaries were founded or reorganized in the 1960s: Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Miss.), Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In the 1970s, these institutions have been occupied in consolidating their gains and trying to maintain a clear course through perilous waters. The pressure for change and growth is increasing within existing evangelical institutions; new ones are no longer multiplying at the same rate.

During the 1960s, the aim of most evangelical seminaries and colleges, and of many evangelical publications, was to demonstrate academic integrity and to win intellectual acceptance. Today, as seminaries are filled with students whose desire seems not so much to prove their academic respectability as to win some significant spiritual battle for Christ, there is increasing pressure on these institutions to show that what they teach is practically meaningful and can be utilized effectively in the service of Christ. During the 1950s and 1960s, many evangelicals were zealous to demonstrate to the world that their institutions can be as good as secular or liberal Protestant ones. Now it is becoming increasingly evident that matching the secular world’s standards—if that is ever possible, given evangelicalism’s smaller internal resources—is not enough. The question increasingly asked of evangelical institutions by the young Christians who have flocked to them in such numbers is not, “Are you competent?” but “What difference do you make?”


How will American evangelical Christendom respond to the storms from without and to the stress from within? In 1979, there are fewer new faces among evangelical leaders than among representatives of almost any other social group. Most, if not all, of the leaders of 1979 were already famous in 1954. Most were young then, and all are 25 years older now. So many of the outstanding figures of evangelicalism in 1979 are near or even past retirement age that a fairly sweeping change of top leadership in the near future seems inevitable. Yet among second and third generation evangelicals standing behind the present leaders there are few who have gained the standing or displayed the gifts that would make them evident favorites to advance to the first rank. Perhaps in retrospect this will appear to have been a failing of the pioneers of evangelical resurgence. It may be that in the 1940s, as evangelicalism began to move, its leaders foresaw too short a timetable, thinking either that substantial victories could be gained or that the Lord would return before their own careers drew to a close. In 1979, however, as it becomes increasingly evident that the history of evangelicalism, like that of the church as a whole, must be marked by endurance as well as by bursts of enthusiasm, the way in which the mantles of evangelicalism’s Elijahs will pass to the shoulders of successors has not yet been established. Since many of the great battles of the 1950s and 1960s have been won by the present leaders—such as Carl F. H. Henry’s titantic struggle for the intellectual standing of evangelicalism—it is possible that the next generation of leaders will emerge out of a new series of conflicts and challenges that now, at the end of the 1970s, is beginning to mark evangelical life.

Article continues below

During the earlier decades of the evangelical resurgence, American evangelicalism directed its greatest effort toward the struggle with other strains of Christendom. It struggled with liberal Protestantism in the effort to establish itself as the authentic, intellectually respectable heir of Reformation Christianity, while having to fight a kind of rearguard action against some older fundamentalists, asserting that intellectual openness and social concern did not signify spiritual weakness. In both situations, evangelicalism was struggling to assert its rightful place within Christendom. It had not yet occured to many evangelicals that the existence of Christendom itself might be in question.

During the 1960s in America, liberal Protestantism, which typically had been at one with conservatism in supporting traditional morality and national, even jingoistic values, suddenly veered sharply in the direction of social and political criticism. Evangelicals suddenly found themselves standing almost alone on the front line of socio-political conflict, defending what had once automatically been assumed to be general American values. Not wishing to join the negative critics of America and the “American way of life,” many evangelicals now see themselves in the awkward position of trying to preserve certain national and social values while at the same time retaining the integrity to correct them. During the 1960s, hardly anyone doubted that America would survive as a nation, going on from strength to strength. Evangelicals only wanted to have something to say about making it a good nation. By the 1970s, not only liberals, but conservative Christians, too, were asking whether America could survive, and even whether America ought to survive.

Article continues below

Now, at the end of the 1970s, evangelicals face the question of determining whether, and to what extent, our society and its institutions must be defended, to what extent transformed or abolished. It is Francis Schaeffer, American-born and trained but for 30 years a resident of Switzerland, who is challenging American evangelicals to choose with care the new battles they will fight. In his sweeping, panoramic analysis of Western intellectual and spiritual history, How Shall We Then Live?, Schaeffer argues that Western civilization has lost its biblical, Christian base and is in the process of collapse. In his new series, Whatever Happened to the Human Race?, Schaeffer shows how this collapse is already resulting in the wholesale destruction of human dignity and freedom, and threatens, in effect, the abolition of man. He also charges that evangelicals, as they have become established in American society and have come to enjoy personal peace and affluence, have tacitly condoned this abolition by their failure to take action against it. Yet Schaeffer’s desire clearly is not merely to analyze evangelicalism’s failures, but to repair them. He ends his presentations by calling on audiences to do everything in their power to change the present situation of evangelical inaction, including, “if necessary, even removing our leaders.” Perhaps, then, out of the need to face new challenges and to fight new battles in the 1980s, will come the new leaders that evangelicalism still lacks.


As we have said, evangelicals in the 1960s were fighting for their right to be recognized by the broader church and by secular America. In the process, they never questioned their own identity. In the 1970s a challenge to evangelical identity arose within evangelicalism itself. Originally, evangelicalism simply and straightforwardly defined itself over against both liberalism and neo-orthodoxy by straightforward acceptance of the absolute trustworthiness and authority of the Bible as the Word of God. Vis-à-vis separatistic fundamentalism, evangelicals distinguished themselves by greater openness on social and cultural issues and by greater readiness to engage in dialogue with liberals, but not by any significant doctrinal differences. By the later 1970s, however, as liberal Protestantism shifted from claiming to be the custodian of American culture-Christianity to being its critic—perhaps even its executioner—evangelicalism has found itself more and more identified with that culture-Christianity. Evangelicals are perplexed by the fact that while they do not want to destroy “Christian civilization” in America, they can hardly accept it as it is. When liberal Protestantism in effect abandoned its own battle with secularism and materialism, it left evangelicalism exposed on its left flank and, to pursue the military metaphor, evangelicalism appears as a whole to have shifted leftward—theologically and politically—in the effort to defend liberalism’s abandoned positions from militant secularism. This leftward shift has exacerbated the old tension between evangelicalism and extreme fundamentalism. The fundamentalists saw in the ongoing broadening of evangelicalism’s cultural base a corresponding weakening and adulteration of its claimed doctrinal integrity. Consequently, many evangelicals felt compelled to reaffirm their doctrinal base.

Article continues below

Evangelicalism, then, is being forced to ask itself whether it can continue much longer to express its own doctrinal integrity in the rather general terms that sufficed in the past or if it must consciously sharpen them in the direction of insistence on the inerrancy of Scripture. While many evangelicals consider the whole question of inerrancy divisive and wish it would go away, probably many more see it as a necessary, if socially awkward, duty to reaffirm the trustworthiness and indefectibility of the Bible as the Word of God in the strongest and least ambiguous language possible. This is a question that was not faced with such sharpness by the early pioneers of evangelicalism; whether they should have faced it then is now beside the point. There seems today to be no way to evade it. The probable consequence of the inerrancy dispute will be a paring away from the evangelical body of some conservatives who cannot accept the term and its meaning, and a consequent numerical weakening of the evangelical camp. The greater internal strength resulting from such clarification, nevertheless, may and should more than compensate for the numerical loss. Schaeffer asks whether evangelicalism can tolerate in its fellowship those who are unwilling to condemn abortion on demand; the inerrancy group is asking whether it can tolerate within its leadership those who will not affirm inerrancy. Such questions as these are awkward, and confront many middle-of-the-road evangelicals with dilemmas they would rather not face. But they are upon us in 1979, and the way they and others like them are answered will probably determine the character of evangelicalism in the 1980s.

Article continues below
Storm And Stress—Then What?

The storm and stress of German literature in the 1770s, to return to our metaphor, was followed by its greatest flowering. We cannot predict what political and social transformations may follow the storm and stress decade of American evangelicalism. But we may hope that these pressures, rather than crushing or crippling evangelicalism, will enable it to emerge stronger, richer, and more faithful than in the past. Evangelicalism is in flux. Let us hope and pray and work that the onslaughts from without and the tensions from within may combine to produce a fresh generation of gospel-believing Christians who are able to stand in the new conflicts no less firmly than the evangelical pioneers who have stood in those battles now passing from the arena of the present onto the pages of history.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.