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At the Crossroads

Evangelicals have become major players in American culture, and that may be their biggest problem.
2004This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

"You won! What are you grousing about? You won!" Sociologist Talcott Parsons was speaking. In his range were American Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars and advocates enjoying a coffee break at a Vatican Conference in 1978. What could "winning" have meant to any part of the American Christian church? With the Second Vatican Council still in recent memory, it looked to him that ecumenical Christianity had won, and denominations and confessions did not have to be isolated or at war but could relate positively. Major elements of the Protestant social gospel, the Catholic Bishops' Program, and the black Christian civil rights leadership had "won" as governments enacted what they stood for. Culturally, the same churches had "won" by having contributed to the liberal or open society, which mixed secular reasoning and religious prophecy; support for tolerance and respect among religions; celebration of individual freedom; and selective affirmations of popular culture.

Christians both within and beyond the groups to which Parsons was referring now tend to participate, with some critical reserve, in a culture that now takes for granted what these achieved, but first had to call hard-won.

Harvard professor Parsons did not have in mind, scope, or speech the one-fourth or one-third of America that his sociologist colleagues now lump together as "evangelical." This refers to the nexus of fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal-Baptist-conservative Protestant denominations. Were he alive today, he would find that more media attention, more governmental access and influence, more new wealth, more popular cultural expression comes from that group than others. Anytime from the 1920s to the 1970s, had he been wearing historians' spectacles, ...

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