Sociologists Need to Account for Evangelicals’ Vitality ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sociologists Need to Account for Evangelicals’ Vitality

Thanks to Jason Byassee, executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, I was asked to contribute a post to the Call & Response Blog. As a sociologist, I'm fascinated by the intersection of religion and social change. Because much of my focus has been on the American context, it's impossible to ignore the vitality of Evangelicalism in the United States.

I've noticed that not everyone is as sanguine about Evangelicalism as I am.

In fact, most sociologists ignore all forms of religious enthusiasm. At Duke Divinity's Call & Response blog, I write:
Spiritual vitality is not a topic normally addressed by sociologists. My discipline historically has more often severely critiqued religion for its oppressive beliefs and practices.

Of course, sociologists are not alone in this: gauged by books and magazines at my local bookstore and conversations with colleagues and neighbors, arguments for the oppressiveness of religion are everywhere. The disappointment and hurt so common among people I know fuels the attention given to the "new atheism" in recent books like Sam Harris’ “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Christopher Hitchens’ “God is Not Great,” and Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.”

But, a few social scientists do pay attention, and I point out that my reading of some recent publications reveals social scientists promoting their own particular religious bias.

The Evening Descends album coverImage via Wikipedia

There is a lot they don't like about Evangelicalism.

They acknowledge the strength of Evangelicalism and the evidence that churches in the "Mainline" are adopting Evangelical tactics. Yet, the very spread of "Evangelicalism" is not seen as success, or less the work of God, but rather evidence of a noxious spread of the frightening demons of shallow individualistic spirituality, right-wing freakishness, and worldly decline.

I say to my colleagues that we need a broader analytical approach that encompasses, rather than ignores, the strength of Evangelicalism --
Social scientists must switch from merely a critique of evangelicalism to a broader analysis of what constitutes the set of dynamics broadly labeled (and vilified) as “Evangelicalism.”

How do we account for the passion, excitement, and (dare I say it?) spiritual vitality evident in at least a portion of evangelical churches?

I'm not alone. Theologian Philip Clayton at the Claremont School of Theology has also aggressively promoted a more open-minded understanding of evangelical vitality. This is a call not to promote Evangelicalism, but rather to avoid merely dismissing it.

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