Karen Swallow Prior is quickly emerging as one of the leading commentators on contemporary American evangelicalism.
Prior, a conservative evangelical, spent 21 years teaching English literature at Liberty University before transferring to the undergraduate college of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina this past year. A Southern Baptist, she has a long history of pro-life activism under her belt, and her 21 years at Liberty (what many consider to be the “flagship” university of conservative evangelicalism) makes her well-versed in the evangelical world. Yet her intimate knowledge of evangelical subculture does not come without her critique or criticism. In two interviews given in the past month, Prior offers her insights into the evangelical world that she has invested her life in: insights that amount to sober self-reflection for those in the evangelical community.
Interview #1 with David French
Her first interview is with David French (former religious liberty and pro-life attorney turned conservative political commentator on The Dispatch). In it, she observes that many that identify as evangelicals in exit polls on election day (i.e. the “81%” of white evangelicals that supposedly voted for Donald Trump in 2016) do not necessarily meet the criteria or fit the historic definition of the term. (Tim Keller made a similar point while writing back in 2017, saying that the moniker of “evangelical” has simply become the default civil or folk religion in certain parts of the country.)
By contrast, many of those that do fit the historic definition are beginning to abandon use of the term as having become overly politicized and partisan, or just simply unhelpful. While Prior and other leading evangelicals such as Russell Moore and N.T. Wright remain committed to its usage, they also recognize the need for reform. Prior sees this reform burgeoning in the upcoming generation of young evangelicals that are pushing back against the “culture war” mentality of years past.
Several traits of these “new evangelicals” are worth mentioning here. First, although they tend to be pro-life, Prior argues that their pro-life outlook is also “more holistic” and less narrow in their concern for racial justice and immigration reform. Both Prior and French suggests that this gives them a sense of “homelessness” when it comes to partisan politics. They cannot buy into the Left’s view of life, and yet neither can they adopt the Republican Party’s narrative on immigration and race relations.
These characteristics are embodied in people like Rondell Trevino. Rondell is a Latino-American and millennial Christian who founded “The Immigration Coalition,” an organization whose mission is to provide “biblically balanced resources that show compassion to immigrants and respect for the rule of law.” Rondell repeatedly refers to himself as “politically homeless” and “pro-life from the womb to the tomb.” He also describes himself as “theologically conservative [but] socially compassionate,” as well as “too conservative for progressives” and “too progressive for conservatives.” Like many millennial evangelicals, Rondell defies and transcends partisan categories.
These facts lead Prior (who has spent years with evangelical students) to predict that the future of evangelicalism looks neither Republican nor Democrat. Though future generations of evangelicals might vote for different political parties, she does not necessarily anticipate the same marriage that the Religious Right has had with the Republican Party. Prior also predicts that the future of evangelicalism looks much more racially and culturally diverse–an observation that many others have made due to current sociological trends. As white Americans become less religious on average, the black church continues to thrive, while the U.S. continues to receive a steady stream of evangelical immigrants from the majority world, including Latin America. With them, they bring new cultural expressions of evangelical Christianity, as well as different viewpoints that do not comport with the Republican or Democratic parties. Although evangelicalism in America has historically been a predominantly white phenomenon, denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention are being enriched by an influx of black, brown, Latino/Latina, and Asian evangelicals. In other words, evangelicalism in the U.S. is beginning to look a lot more like St. John’s vision in Revelation 7:9 (“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”).
Interview #2 with Mark Tooley
In the second interview with Mark Tooley (president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, or “IRD”), Prior lowers her gaze from evangelicalism’s seemingly bright horizon back down to the present. The interview took place in the wake of Jerry Falwell Jr.’s resignation as president of Liberty University following news of sexual controversy. Prior says that the Falwell fallout offers a lesson for evangelicals about unchecked power, a seemingly recurring problem in evangelical spaces and something that Prior has written about at length. Both Prior and Tooley attribute this in part to the entrepreneurial spirit common in American evangelicalism, which platforms “celebrity pastors,” often with little accountability. This tendency to promote large, charismatic personalities has been around at least since George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards in the 1700s, and dovetails well with the consumeristic, capitalistic ethos of America. It has also arguably contributed to the shallowness found in many attractional/seeker-sensitive churches. If evangelicalism is to mature past this adolescence, it must root itself deeper into the ecclesiology of historic church traditions.
You can check out both interviews below.
In my next post to be released later this week, I hope to comment on Liberty University’s place in the conservative evangelical world.
Soli Deo gloria.