The long-term captivity of U.S. evangelical churches to right-wing politics is leading many young evangelicals right out of our church doors. As Anthony Bradley of The King’s College highlights in this classic Economic Wisdom Project Talk, young American evangelicals “have been soured by a faith that is primarily tribalistic, that is contingent with the culture instead of leading with grace, and they want none of it.” Bradley addresses this urgent problem in the church’s witness by casting a vision for a more truly humane and gospel-oriented Christian cultural approach, one rooted in “Christian personalism.”
As featured on our brand-new EWP website, this popular talk is part of our playlist of Economic Wisdom Project Talks on the topic of Culture; see below for more Culture resources. The Economic Wisdom Project offers faculty and students alike cutting-edge resources engaging some of the most pressing issues facing the church and the academy. In conversation with leading theological voices, the EWP Talks series offer interdisciplinary resources for the classroom and practical wisdom for tomorrow’s leaders. These talks are conveniently categorized by topic and speaker to help classrooms find the ideal resource for their studies. We invite you to explore our entire library on the EWP website, and consider assigning these resources in your classes!
Bradley shares the story of an enthusiastic culture-warrior student at his school who burned out and became an atheist, and drills down into the problems in predominantly-white evangelical churches that create this dynamic. Young evangelicals are pursuing a more authentic spiritual experience, one that stands in stark contrast to a syncretistic Christianity that blurs the lines between partisan politics and gospel ministry.
Understanding evangelicals’ current issues with young congregants requires a look back at the movement’s history. Bradley traces the history of white evangelical political engagement through the Moral Majority and the Religious Right movement. Too many conservative evangelical leaders chose devotion to political power and partisan priorities over gospel orthodoxy and global ecclesial bonds. As Bradley recalls, “for many conservative evangelicals, politicians and pundits had more influence than their pastors.” As a result, families within this tradition “raised their children not to be loving God and loving neighbor, but to be warriors in the culture war.”
But, as current events are reminding us, the Moral Majority and culture wars failed to usher in a more just or righteous American society. Instead, they produced a partisan evangelicalism that has left the faith of many young evangelicals “disillusioned, disconnected, and completely destroyed.”
How can we revive evangelical public witness, particularly among younger believers? Bradley points to the tradition of Christian personalism. Originally proposed by French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, who “was discouraged that people were just considered means of politics and economics,” personalism was a reaction against the trend toward viewing “human persons as cogs and not ends in and of themselves.” Personalism reaffirms the central Christian doctrine that human beings, as image-bearers of God, hold inherent dignity and potential.
Unlike the Moral Majority, a Christian political and cultural engagement rooted in personalism would not trade principle for power or people for partisan prestige, but rather would ask the starting question of what are the moral, political, economic, social and spiritual conditions that enable all human beings to thrive. As Bradley notes, an evangelical public witness ought to affirm that our neighbors are “free and creative people…meant to be brought together with other free and creative people so they could form institutions and structures that allow other people who are made in God’s image to thrive.”
Bradley’s message is particularly timely in this current moment in American history, as communities across the country are rising up to insist that no system should violate the inherent dignity of all people. For evangelicals hoping to model a faithful public witness in this time, particularly among a highly-activist young population, Christian personalism offers a compelling way forward.
This and many other timely resources can be found on the Economic Wisdom Project website. We hope you will consider assigning this resource to your class!