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US evangelicals have ‘lost their umbrella’

US evangelicals have ‘lost their umbrella’

Tim Keller, above, is considered to be a leading figure of ‘the evangelical intelligentsia movement’, and he claims that, in an increasingly secular America, conservative Christians no longer command the respect they once enjoyed.

According to this report by Trevin Wax, in a recent forum, “Conservative Christianity After the Christian Right,” Tim Keller used the analogy of an umbrella:

So what’s happening is the roof has come off for the devout. The devout had a kind of a shelter, an umbrella. You couldn’t be all that caustic toward traditional classic Christian teaching and truth.

I spoke to o the American Bible Society’s board. American Bible Society does a lot of polling about the Bible. The use of the Bible, reading the Bible, attitudes toward the Bible. They said that actually the number of people who are devout Bible readers is not changing that much.
 
 What is changing is for the first time in history a growing group of people who think the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s regressive, it’s a bad cultural force …

He believes that the number of the devout people in the country is increasing, as well as the number of secular people. The big change is the erosion is in the middle. The devout numbers have not actually gone down that much. It depends on how you read them. But basically, they are not in freefall by any means.

What is really disappearing is the middle.

Keller sees the middle as having once leaned toward nominal Christianity, out of a sense of respect, tradition, or for social reasons. He says:

It used to be that the devout and the mushy middle – nominal Christians, people that would identify as Christians, people who would come to church sporadically, people who certainly respect the Bible and Christianity – the devout and the mushy middle together was a super majority of people who just created a kind of ‘Christian-y’ sort of culture.

The mushy middle used to be more identified with the devout. Now it’s more identified with the secular. That’s all.

The middle ground that once made it hard to speak disrespectfully of traditional values has vanished. They are are now identifying with expressive individualism, and so they don’t want to tell anybody how to live their lives.

What this means is that the devout:

Suddenly realize that they are out there, that the umbrella is gone, and they are taking a lot of flak for their views.

The big umbrella that once shielded conservative Christians is gone. Photo: Barry Duke

The big umbrella that once shielded conservative Christians is gone. Photo: Barry Duke

Keller used the White House’s rescinding an invitation to pastor Louie Giglio as an example of the kind of “flak” conservative Christians are now experiencing:

And there was no doubt, by the way, the Louie Giglio thing, when he was sort of disinvited because of his traditional views on homosexuality from giving the invocation at the Inauguration, that was so clear. No matter how I add it up, I look at the mainline churches and I take out the quarter that are probably evangelical, my guess is that 80 percent of the clergy of this country would have some reservations about homosexuality — 75, 80 percent, something like that.

But what we were being told was that you are beyond the pale, not just that you’re wrong, but that respect for you is wrong. And so that was heard loud and clear in the conservative Protestant world. Loud and clear. It was enormously discouraging. It was sort of a sense of it’s not just that you’re going to disagree with us, but basically you are saying we really don’t even have a right to be in the public square.

Last year Keller, senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Manhattan, New York, found himself in the midst of a controversy after he told journalists that he had  noted that many younger evangelicals:

Are taking an Anabaptist-like position; that is, that while they still believe homosexuality to be a sin, they don’t think the government should put that belief into law for the nation.

In explaining the Anabaptist tradition, I was quoted saying, ‘You can believe homosexuality is a sin and still believe that same-sex marriage should be legal’. I did say that – but it was purely a statement of fact. It is possible to hold that position, though it isn’t my position, nor was I promoting or endorsing the position. I was simply reporting on the growth of that view.

I can see how some readers might be confused at these points in the article and think that I support the legalization of same-sex marriage. I do not. I hope that clarifies things for those of you who asked about this article.

29 responses to “US evangelicals have ‘lost their umbrella’”

  1. Broga says:

    Tim Keller’s comments seem to offer a candid appraisal of what is happening regarding religion. Fascinating to consider the effect of the “mushy middle” as the “mushy middle” is what the BBC and the government rely on. They assume the mushy middle is Christian.

    The assumption might equally be that it is secular. From Tim Kellar’s comments the mushy middle is moving towards the secular even in the USA. I think Tim Kellar may anticipate a bit of a hammering for his opinions. Devout Christians cannot bear too much reality – to paraphrase T.S. Eliot.

  2. Rob Andrews says:

    Sure. Things have changed since the 1960s in America. And I’m proud to say it was my generation that started it all. We are more tolerent toward things like: sex;drugs; race; and other religions. Or no religion. 38% of American’t now have some level of college education. This makes for questioning of everything.

    How strange from what is going on in the Islamic countries. People are being beheaded, and cruxified! But that’ a good thing. the battle lines are now drawn clearly, between the secular and religious world views. With no more feel good wishy-washy middle ground that the man was bemoaning

    “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”.–Victor Stenger. See article in ‘the freethinker’.

  3. Michael Glass says:

    Tim Keller’s analysis, that American society is becoming more secular while the devout are maintaining their numbers, is an interesting one. If this analysis is true, then religious belief is becoming more marginalised. This would accord with other observable differences in American society over the last half century.
    * The sexual revolution has largely overturned traditional religious teaching about human sexuality.
    * The increasing spread of scientific knowledge has largely replaced traditional beliefs in demon possession with an acceptance of mental illness. A literal interpretation of biblical creation stories is slowly giving away to scientific views about evolution. Also, other traditional beliefs are giving way to knowledge that accords more with the findings of science.
    * The coming of the internet has helped the spread of criticisms of religious beliefs while the abuses of religious bodies are being given increasing publicity.
    Christians are now having to come to terms with a largely secular, or post-Christian society. This should prompt some interesting changes in the approaches taken by religious bodies towards society and with the attitude of the general public towards the claims of organised religion.

  4. Daz says:

    “What is changing is for the first time in history a growing group of people who think the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous, it’s regressive, it’s a bad cultural force …”

    What dastardly cads would say such a thing?

    [Talking of umbrellas, mind, today is the anniversary of a most unusual murder.]

  5. Sally in MI says:

    Just who is out there saying ‘the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous?” Seriously. I still attend a Brethren (anabaptist) church, and I believe, but I’m not about to force my beliefs on the entire nation, although our pacifist stance should be emulated by anyone calling themselves “Christian.” But these jokers want US law to reflect their Christian viewpoint, never mind that theirs is not even a majority view. Because they know how to get in front of a mic, say inflammatory things, make a few more up, and sound religious, their views are out there, all the time. Look at blowhard Palin, who constantly whines on about “American values, God, and country” or whatever. She doesn’t even attend church. Her hatred of anyone not just like her is absurd. Her insistence that we demolish other countries that SHE sees as a threat, that we protect Israel and their genocidal tendencies because “Jesus” and that our government is bad, all get out there, and a number of the mushies adore her.
    None of that is healthy for this republic, which was set up to keep religion out of the public square.

  6. Trevor Blake says:

    Even the faithful know that [1] it takes a majority of indifferent religionists to empower a minority of dedicated / cynical religionists and [2] religious ethics always follows secular ethics. To the latter I add that in a generation or two Western Christianity will not be able to shut up about how they invented and supported same sex marriage. Just like they were for slavery until they were against it.

  7. Norman Paterson says:

    I have a couple of points to make. The first is the use of the word “secular.” It has got that I no longer know what people mean by it, and have to work it out from context every time. Tim Keller seems to use it to mean “non-religious” or something. I think we need another word for the concept. Suggestions, anyone? How about “religion-neutral?”

    Second, when I read this after his paragraph about attitudes to homosexuality:

    But what we were being told was that you are beyond the pale, not just that you’re wrong, but that respect for you is wrong. And so that was heard loud and clear in the conservative Protestant world. Loud and clear. It was enormously discouraging. It was sort of a sense of it’s not just that you’re going to disagree with us, but basically you are saying we really don’t even have a right to be in the public square.

    … I had to read it all a couple of times because it seems to be exactly how gays were being treated. It took multiple readings to decide that he was actually talking about mainstream, anti-gay clergy and churches. Now isn’t that ironic?

  8. David Anderson says:

    “Just who is out there saying ‘the Bible is bad, it’s dangerous?”

    Raises hand.

  9. Lucy1 says:

    Also raises hand

  10. AgentCormac says:

    Mine is being held aloft too.

  11. barriejohn says:

    All religious books are dangerous, and so are other ideological tomes as well. They discourage the use of reason.

  12. AgentCormac says:

    The evangelical intelligentsia movement. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?

  13. Broga says:

    My hand is raised.
    Secular: My Collins dictionary defines it as: ” of, or relating to ,worldly as opposed to sacred things.” That is how I see it.

  14. L.Long says:

    ALL dogma is bad, and religion is worse & neither one deserves any respect.
    Example…
    You keep your religion to yourself and do not insist that others follow. OK.
    Now we vote for Same sex marriage and you say OK. good.
    Now we vote on what to do about climate change. Your religion says not to worry gawd is coming soon. So you do not vote for anything . So this thought times 10000 means 10000 votes for not doing anything.

  15. Rob Andrews says:

    @David Andreson, et. al.

    Raises hand too
    Bible but especially Qu’ran is dangerous

  16. Norman Paterson says:

    Broga – Thank you – I am corrected. For some reason I never thought to look it up. But I have just discovered that the Freethinker is only “associated” with NSS – I thought the relationship was closer than that.

    NSS says: Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

    – which is a far cry from that dictionary definition. Perhaps I am not corrected after all.

  17. jay says:

    So he’s a Presbyterian. He could look in his own back yard.

    The local Presbyterian church here has a rainbow logo on their sign, and the phrase “an inclusive community”

  18. jay says:

    Rob Andrews: “And I’m proud to say it was my generation that started it all. We are more tolerent toward things like: sex;drugs; race; and other religions. Or no religion. 38% of American’t now have some level of college education. This makes for questioning of everything.”

    I’m from that generation too. Some good was done. Certainly the ability to question authority, question the policies of war, belief was opened up to exmamination, censorship was challenged (Ralph Ginzburg, before Allen Ginsburg was arrested for obscenity mailed in my hometown). And I did meet Allen Ginsburg, albeit briefly. A few years ago I purchase a copy of Eros volume I in a used book store…. I don’t know that the owner knew the significance of that issue).

    But all in all I’m far from proud of my generation. Too many, far too many rotted their minds away with drugs. Laziness was promoted as a virtue, science was disdained in favor of new age bullshit, too many bought into the communist lie (odd that people crying for freedom would endorse communism). Trashing buildings become a form of political speech, often by people who could not articulate a coherent political or social strategy if you asked them. They could repeat slogans, tough.

    When men reached the moon, a nation of stoners couldn’t give a shit.

  19. Matt Westwood says:

    @Norman: not a “far cry” at all.

    Secular: relating to worldly, as opposed to sacred things.

    Secularism: A political ideology based on the secular.

    Where’s the discrepancy?

  20. Paul Cook says:

    Norman

    Secular in a political sense is supposed to mean that in Government religion is separated from politics.

  21. Norman Paterson says:

    Well of course I thought I knew all this.

    Keller, above, uses secular to mean the opposite of “devout.” But it is possible to be a devout secularist so that does not quite fit unless he means “religious” and “non-religious” for “devout” and “secular.”

    That seems to match perfectly with Broga’s and Matt’s meaning, and even Paul’s.

    My understanding of secular was more to the NSS definition which is not that secular is non-religious, but that it is even-handed to all religions and none. So I would say it is possible to be both a devout believer in some religions, and a committed (ie devout) secularist, at the same time. This is not possible for all religions – Islam is the obvious exception, since it does not tolerate any other beliefs. But if the religion is tolerant, then there is no conflict. So a secular government does not mean a government free of all religion. It means one that treats all religions (and none) equally. The common mistake is to equate “secular” and “atheist.”

    Apologies if this is boring or obvious or whatever!

  22. Broga says:

    @Norman Patterson: No problem but I’m opting out of this discussion. I am against religion which I regard as archaic superstition.

  23. Brian Jordan says:

    There;s a long – and to my tiny mind rather tedious – discussion of the meaing of “secular” in America here:
    http://chronicle.com/article/The-Crisis-in-Secular-Studies/148599

  24. Norman Paterson says:

    Brian – Thanks for the link. The article seems to have been posted just today. I found it interesting because it demonstrates the range of meaning attached to this word, though it does go on a bit and the author obviously likes to show off obscure words like “exenteration” (= “a radical surgical treatment that removes all organs from a person’s pelvic cavity”). I would have said “gutting.”

    But this illustrates the problem with these articles – you get sidetracked into pedantry and how grand the sound of your own voice is. The point is that we do not seem to have an agreed meaning for this word.

  25. Matt Westwood says:

    No, the point is that “secular” is being used by religious fascists as a pejorative.

  26. barriejohn says:

    Matt: You’re right. “Secular” isn’t being used as an innocent descriptive term, but as a euphemism for “ungodly”, amoral, “liberal”, “child-murdering”, “family- hating”, and so on. The same word means different things to different people!

  27. Norman Paterson says:

    Matt, Barrie – True. But even here in FreeThinker we don’t agree what it means.

    Since the NSS exists I would say they have probably put most effort into a definition and it would be simplest to go with that. It would also be perverse not to. If you disagree with the NSS, then you should be able to present a reasoned argument to change the definition.

    A visit to the thesaurus to check out the synonyms and antonyms is interesting.

  28. John says:

    I too find the appelation ‘evangelicalical intelligentsia’ an oxymoron.
    It is almost as idiotic as ‘militant atheist’ or ‘militantly secularist’.
    Secularism, to my understanding, is the separation of religion from the state.
    More specifically, it is a system in which religion is no longer privileged.
    Let’s face it: religion is a business and an interest grouping just like any other.
    L. Ron Hubbard, failed businessman and science fiction novellist, knew this.
    This is why he set up his “church”of “scientology” and cleaned-up big.
    For any interested students, there could be a useful MBA project here….
    Even though he did not know what the real reason was behind Louie Giglio not being invited to attend the White House, Keller concluded ‘basically you are saying we really don’t even have a right to be in the public square.’
    Now where have we heard similar nonsense before?
    Oh, I remember: we have heard similar nonsensical mush being sprouted over here in the UK too from disgruntled clergy.
    Any time their traditional position of being accorded deference comes under question they claim they are being “persecuted” and “shut up”.
    Where, perhaps, we should all get concerned is when these people try to appropriate and misuse terms they do not like, like secularism and liberalism, both of which – seemingly – are becoming terms of oppobrium and abuse on the US political right wing these days.
    They need to remember “Even the President must sometimes go naked”!