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The Strange Decline of American Evangelicalism

AN INSIDER'S VIEW

By John Warwick Montgomery | September 1992
John Warwick Montgomery, a Lutheran clergyman, is a practicing barrister and Principal Lecturer in Law and Human Rights at Luton College of Higher Education in England. Born in the U.S., he held professorships at various evangelical institutions of higher learning in the U.S. and Canada for some 30 years. He is now a permanent resident of England.

The evangelical — representing by far the majority of American Protestants — stands for an experiential relationship with Christ, a strong view of the Bible, personal holiness of life, and eschatological confidence in the return of the Lord to judge the world. He or she is also generally opposed to evolutionary theory. Recent evidence suggests that Evangelicalism is now illustrating its opposition to evolution by its own activities: by regressing rather than go­ing forward.

According to a recent report by the Prince­ton Religion Research Center, based on a nationwide Gallup poll, the average Ameri­can’s belief in the reliability of Scripture has declined by half in the last 30 years (from 65 percent in 1963 to 32 percent today), and 69 percent of U.S. adults now identify with moral relativism. The conclusion seems inescapable: On two of its most important agenda items, the promotion of biblical authority and moral absolutes, Evangelicalism has been a conspicu­ous failure in our generation.

This sad state of affairs is particularly sur­prising when one recalls that in the late 1950s and early 1960s the success of Evangelicalism seemed assured. A Gallup poll at the time revealed that a significant majority of Ameri­can Protestant clergymen, irrespective of de­nomination, preferred to designate their theol­ogy and churchmanship as “evangelical.” Christianity Today, whose premier issue ap­peared on October 15, 1956, soon overwhelm­ingly out-distanced the modernist Christian Century in readership. Billy Graham was con­sistently regarded as the most respected living American, according to the polls. Theological seminaries of evangelical persuasion, such as Fuller in California and Trinity in Illinois, attracted many of the best college graduates, while enrollments at more-or-less modernist, mainline denominational seminaries steadily declined. The biennial International Missionary Conventions of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and the activities of Campus Crusade for Christ on secular university and college campuses touched many with the evangelical message and resulted in significant missionary activity at home and abroad. The “death of God” movement of the 1960s epito­mized the vacuity of liberal theology, and the former’s death seemed to confirm the inevitable success of all that Evangelicalism stood for.

And today? When one thinks of evangel­ists, one’s first thought is not of Billy Graham, now in his 70s, but of such media figures as Jerry Falwell and his now defunct Moral Majority; Oral Roberts, who, because of financial problems, had to sell his City of Faith medical complex which a 900-foot Jesus was supposed to have told him in a vision to build; Jimmy Swaggart and his steamy sexual recreations; and Jim Bakker with his grandiose, fraudulent schemes and lachrymose, eyelashed ex-wife.

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