Pluralism is a huge challenge for evangelicals

Kim Lawton’s interview about evangelicals and evangelism with Randall Balmer, professor of American religion at Barnard College, Columbia University

… Pluralism is a huge challenge for evangelicals. It comes at a time in the late decades of the 20th century when evangelicals really had become fairly complacent about their faith. One of the characteristics of American society is that the First Amendment set up a free market for religion, and you had all these religious groups competing with one another for popular followings. Evangelicals had to compete in that marketplace as well throughout the 19th and into the 20th century; even though they had a hegemonic hold over the religious landscape, they still had to compete somewhat. By the middle of the 20th century they had become fairly complacent about their role in society. Changes to the immigration laws, beginning in 1965, suddenly did change the complexion, quite literally, of religion in America. Evangelicals were unprepared to compete in that marketplace in the way they had in the past. The response generated by that was, politically, the rise of the religious right, which effectively tried to turn back the clock, tried to reintroduce evangelical Christianity as a kind of hegemonic expression of faith for the entire culture rather than compete in that marketplace. I think that’s a mistake. I think evangelicals need to understand how to compete within a religiously pluralistic environment rather than impose their principles on all of society.

Any person has a right to tell someone else that, “My religion, my faith, is better than other faiths.” But in a pluralistic culture, where we value discourse, we value freedom of expression, I think the other person ha[s] the right to disagree, and very often those sorts of discussions do take place. The real danger for evangelicalism is in trying to impose its religious values on the larger society, whether it’s posting the Ten Commandments in the Alabama judicial building or trying to prescribe some form of prayer in public schools. I think that is a mistake, because religion has flourished in this country precisely because the government has, for the most part at least, stayed out of the religion business. Once you begin to specify or to codify religious beliefs or behavior, I think you kill it.

We’re living in a moment where everyone is trying to understand the ground rules, and the ground rules have changed because we are in a pluralistic environment, arguably for the first time in American history, with the possible exception of the 17th and 18th centuries, long before the American Revolution. We’re living in a multicultural, religiously pluralistic context. We all have to figure out how to operate within that context. What is the appropriate form of discourse with someone else? How can I disagree with someone without being disagreeable myself? We’re all trying to find this language, and I think as a culture we’re looking for a common moral vocabulary which right now is eluding us. We haven’t come there yet. We’re looking for a way to talk about values and ethics without drawing on the language of one tradition in particular to the exclusion of all other traditions. And that’s a very difficult conversation to have. How do we talk about morality, how do we talk about ethics in a multicultural context in a way that does no violence to any one group within that multicultural environment? It’s very difficult. That’s the challenge facing us in the 21st century.

There’s no question that there’s been an overreaction on the part of some groups, liberals or secularists or humanists, whatever language you want to use, that have tried to be defensive and even to quash evangelical or more explicitly religious rhetoric in the larger meeting place of cultural discourse. But that’s an overreaction, and we are as a culture still groping toward common ground for discourse in this multicultural context.

Lifestyle evangelism has been effective on the part of evangelicals, and I don’t think it’s necessarily a cop-out. I don’t think it’s disingenuous. If you go back to the New Testament, that’s the kind of evangelism that Jesus himself did. Jesus was incarnational in his approach to the gospel. As an evangelical myself, I would feel much more comfortable with that sort of approach to spreading the faith, rather than preaching it over the airwaves. I’m not criticizing those who do, but it seems to me that incarnational approach to the faith and toward spreading the faith is much more consistent with the style that Jesus had in the New Testament.

Evangelicals are always struggling with exactly what’s appropriate: Should I be explicit about my faith? Should I simply live out my faith? At what point do I move from one stage to the next stage? That’s always going to be a struggle. But living one’s faith is essential to what it means to be a person of faith in a multicultural context. The New Testament calls on us to preach the gospel. If you believe that preaching the gospel means, “I live in a certain way, I hold myself to certain standards of propriety, I live my life with a great deal of integrity; that’s how I’m going to live my faith in this alien world,” then that has a certain legitimacy to it, that has a certain integrity that I honor.

Evangelicals would be hard pressed to draw a distinction between the two. Certainly, an evangelical would feel bound to communicate the faith in whatever way, in an incarnational way or through proclaiming the gospel in one way or another. The general understanding would be that having communicated the faith, it would have a generally ameliorative effect on the broader society and the people with whom you come in contact.

The biggest challenge facing evangelicals is how to communicate their faith. What are the ground rules in a multicultural context? What is appropriate for me as an evangelical making faith claims for myself or for my tradition, listening to others, trying to find a balance in that dialogue that would do no violence to the other and allow the other to be heard, but at the same time representing the faith, my faith, with integrity as Jesus would? We’re still struggling with that. It’s a big challenge in the 21st century in this bewildering multicultural environment. … rview.html

Hi Bob,

I’ve read this over a few times, and I’m still perplexed. How does one come from any religious system that says tolerance on the one hand, and practices exclusivity on the other? Either the dogma is confused, or the followers are failing to follow. It seems highly unlikely that ‘accomodation’ is high on any religion’s agenda, here in the USA or any other place. I’ve heard more calls for ‘understanding’, particularly from the muslim community, but the general push from most religious leaders seems to be the establishment of hegemony. Whether it is secular or religious entities, the social activism we see is about power. Saving souls or making life ‘better’ for us is driven by the will to dominate, not share.

Religion’s connection to personal spirituality has been tenuous even in the best of times. Regardless the rhetoric, that isn’t even a pretense in today’s world.

I do not see that tolerance and accomodation are any closer than they were a thousand years ago. Do the evangelists have a problem attempting to reconcile their religious views in a pluralistic society? Only to the extent that they haven’t enough power to force everyone to comply with their views.


Isn’t it the case that Christians are supposed to be kind to sinners but not accept the sin?

Hi JT,

I quite agree with you, and, it seems, so does Balmer:

I think many evangelicals wouldn’t understand their missionary activities as an establishment of hegemony, in fact, they would probably reel back from the thought. The idea of dominance, domination, dominion and imperium is becoming presentable in certain circles, but the thought that this means the suppression of other religions, and that this could require enforcement, brings on the uncomfortable thought that a Christian Dictatorship (even if it is called a theocracy) is the goal.

Balmer says this in other words:

“Killing it” means turning Religion into a dictatorship or another form of dominance, that cut’s other religious groups off from the life line that Evangelicalism has prospered on. The mixture of politics and religion always had adverse effects on the common people, and the more spiritual were in fact often the first victims.

The Catholic Church, in the time of their dominance, forgot to answer the questions, “What is the appropriate form of discourse with someone else? How can I disagree with someone without being disagreeable myself?” as well and the Inquistion is notorious for its dealings with dissidents. There is no reason to think that Evangelicals will manage to dominate without performing the mistakes of the past.

All the more we have to talk about it, trying to find some means of accomplishing the “very difficult”. I’d like to think that the Evangelicals here were the people we could talk to about this problem, but it doesn’t seem to be possible. This begs the question, whether these people are following the agenda of Robertson and Falwell themselves?

I think this is the way any religious group should promote their faith, and it is the kind of integrity that becomes extremely popular. It is when the agenda is dominance becomes central that people get their backs up and they “overreact”. I have often experienced evangelicals reacting against such “reactions” as if they were “actions” and not the answer to deepest felt threats. The idea that they could be regarded as being “threatening” seems to them to be completely the opposite to their reality, but they have to come to terms with that. That is why I found the article important.