The Return of a Prophetic Voice Among American Evangelicals

Harvey Cox

The voice of prophecy often springs forth from unexpected places. Those who articulate it often, like Amos, the tender of sycamore trees, do not claim to be prophets. Thus when an ad appeared in American newspapers in early June of 2006 condemning torture as “morally intolerable” and a violation of the human dignity that all religions hold dear, the list of signers surprised many readers.

It included not only the names one might expect, like the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches; it also bore the signatures of several well-known evangelical leaders, including Rev. Ted Haggard, former president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Rick Warren, pastor of the famous Saddleback mega-church in California, and Dr. Roberta Hesteness, minister-at-large of World Vision, an evangelical development organization. Further, this ad appeared on the heels of the formation of an evangelical alliance to fight global warming and growing evangelical opposition to the Iraq war. Was something new afoot, or does this mark the return of a prophetic voice that was once vibrant but has seemed almost completely lost in the vast American evangelical community?

It was not really something all that new. Religiously conservative American Protestants have not always embraced the right-wing political agenda many do today. A hundred years ago when a series of pamphlets called “The Fundamentals” appeared, those who supported them (and who therefore called themselves “Fundamentalists”) were often populists and progressives in the political arena. After all, their nineteenth century forebears had fought for abolition and women’s rights. The “Fundamentals” were all about religious orthodoxy. They spelled out what their writers believed were the rock-bottom beliefs threatened by liberal trends in theology. They insisted that such doctrines as the Virgin Birth, the verbal inerrancy of the Bible, the physical Resurrection of Christ, and his imminent return must be staunchly defended if historical Christianity was not to be erased by what they called “modernism.”

Still, the earlier impulse for societal reform did not die out completely. The best-known self-styled “fundamentalist” of the early twentieth century was the three-time Democratic candidate for president William Jennings Bryan. But Bryan’s positions on public policy issues were similar in many ways to those of Bill Coffin a half century later. And they were the complete opposite of those that Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and the current “religious right” contend for today. Bryan brought crowds to their feet with his stinging attacks on Wall Street and rich bankers, and he was so suspicious of militarism that he resigned from Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet before World War I to protest what he saw as that president’s belligerency toward Germany. Unfortunately, Bryan is remembered today mainly for his role in the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925, the last year of his life. But even then, Bryan remained a progressive fundamentalist. The life and teaching of Jesus inspired his political career. He allowed that the seven days of Creation mentioned in Genesis might refer to very long eons. He slyly ribbed the biblical literalists by remarking that, “The Bible is about the rock of ages, not the age of rocks.” His argument against the theory of evolution was not based on a literal reading of Genesis. It was a moral one. He argued that the idea of “survival of the fittest” was a flat contradiction of the central core of Christian ethics, and that it might lead to the belief that some races were more evolved than others. In this view he showed remarkable prescience. The Nazis loved evolutionary theory, which they twisted to undergird their ideology of the master race.

Some historians believe that after the ridicule poured on them during the Scopes trial American fundamentalists retreated in humiliation and almost disappeared. This, however, is a mistaken picture and makes it hard to explain their powerful rebirth after World War II. Where had they been?

During the 1930s and 1940s American fundamentalists did not disappear. They simply regrouped. They crafted a nationwide religious counterculture made up of thousands of independent churches, Bible institutes, summer camps, conference centers, radio ministries, and revival services. They founded their own colleges, such as Wheaton in Illinois and Westmont in California. They advised their people to “come out and be separate.” Since society at large was so obviously plunging toward judgment and destruction, they usually eschewed political involvement. Why patch up a ship that was doomed to sink anyway? The kind of prophetic reforms Bryan once advocated now seemed pointless to them. The best one could do was to snatch a few coals from the fire and save as many individual souls as possible.

The year 1940 marked a major change in the American religious landscape. An influential group of Protestant religious conservatives, under the leadership of Reverend Harold Ockenga of Boston’s Park Street Church, formed the National Association of Evangelicals. Its purpose was to draw a sharp line not just against “modernists,” but also against fundamentalists. These evangelicals held some of the same beliefs as fundamentalists, but there were important differences. Evangelicals firmly believed in the religious and moral authority of the Bible, but did not consider it a dependable source for geology or history. But the main point of contention was that evangelicals did not want to abandon the larger society; they wanted to engage it. They longed for a rebirth of Protestant Christian influence in America, especially in what we now call “values.” They went public.

If Bryan had been the most visible American purveyor of born-again Christianity in the 1920s, the role was taken over in the 1950s, and held for many decades to follow, by Reverend Billy Graham. Starting as a raw-boned ultra-conservative, Graham matured and broadened and soon became much more than the icon of evangelicals. Polls showed him to be the most respected religious leader in the country. Graham always claimed that he was “a New Testament evangelist, not an Old Testament prophet.” Nonetheless, as he shook off his early shell, his actions took a prophetic turn. He reaped scorn and abuse from his associates on the religious right by cooperating with “liberal” denominations in his many crusades, by insisting that his audiences (even in the South) should not be segregated, and, later, by calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Graham became the “pastor of America.” It seemed entirely fitting that at the memorial service held at the National Cathedral after 9/11 in which a Roman Catholic cardinal, a Jewish rabbi, and a Muslim imam participated, it was Billy Graham – now an old man – who was assisted to the pulpit and preached the sermon.

But besides Billy Graham’s generous ecumenical outlook, a very different and contentious kind of evangelicalism had emerged in America. These evangelicals moved out of the religious ghetto and boldly addressed the wider public. They began to voice what might be called “right-wing prophecy,” but the values and worldview that informed their preaching were not, despite their protestations, “biblical.” When a little-known Baptist preacher and self-styled fundamentalist named Jerry Falwell, with the help of conservative Republican campaign specialists, organized what he called “The Moral Majority” in the late 1970s, the core religious principles of a Bryant were nowhere in sight. The movement was based on what they called “traditional American values.” Anything but an advocate of “come out and be separate,” Falwell welcomed into the fold Catholics, Jews, and even Mormons who shared his political and moral convictions. One heard little about the Virgin Birth or even the inerrancy of scripture, and nothing at all about Jesus and his prophetic Hebrew predecessors. Falwell’s agenda was evoked by what he and his followers saw as a frontal assault on the core traditional values of American society. Some of the voices in this new and politically charged “moral fundamentalism” took the battle to the streets and, like Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, were arrested blocking abortion clinics. Now the enemy was no longer theological modernism, but a series of court decisions that took prayer and Bible reading out of the schools, legalized abortion, and reached a malicious climax by approving of gay marriage. Indeed, one preacher called the fight over same-sex marriage not just another skirmish, but the “battle of Gettysburg. If we lose this one,” he said, “we lose the culture war.”

By the 1990s Falwell’s Moral Majority had faded, but it was succeeded by Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. Both have explicitly political agendas. But one peculiar type of “prophecy” did continue. It was the idea of the imminent Second Coming of Christ, fictionalized for popular consumption by the Left Behind series of novels, which focuses on the cataclysmic disaster they say we are heading for in the Middle East, a blood-soaked catastrophe that will usher in the Last Judgment. The immense popularity of these novels (they have sold some sixty million copies) stems both from a residual apocalyptic sentiment that still lingers in the American religious psyche, and from the foreboding quality of the present bewildering age.

Meanwhile, the alliance Falwell forged with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party had paid off, at least temporarily, for both partners. The religious right mobilized perhaps millions of voters for Republican candidates. In turn, Republican office holders rewarded them access to the highest level of the administration, including the Oval Office.

But the alliance is now fraying. Republicans in office have just not achieved the results the religious right expected. Roe vs. Wade still stands. There is little chance that mandatory prayers and Bible reading will return to public schools. There is not yet, and probably will not be, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Consequently, it begins to look as though leaders on the religious right will not devote much energy to getting out the vote this fall, or maybe even in 2008. Meanwhile, intemperate statements by Falwell (who attributed 9/11 to God’s judgment on America for its gays and feminists), and Pat Robertson (who publicly called for the assassination of the president of Venezuela) and the criminal investigations of Ralph Reed, the former director of the Christian Coalition, have driven more moderate evangelicals away from the religious right.

There is another change that might have even longer lasting significance. It is the emergence of the mega-churches. These congregations of fifteen to twenty thousand are sprouting up all over the country, and are often evangelical in style but not in substance. Their preachers generally avoid both controversial doctrinal questions and divisive political issues, but nonetheless a genuinely biblical prophetic voice seems to be emerging. The same Rick Warren of the mammoth Saddleback church who signed the statement against torture also organized a coalition of evangelicals to join the fight to save the environment. They call it “caring for Creation” and have urged their members to be faithful stewards of the world God has commanded us to nurture. They have been denounced and criticized by Falwell and Robertson, but they have attracted the appreciation of many evangelical young people. They signal the rise of a new generation of evangelical leadership, and the future seems to be on their side. The old guard that once claimed to speak for American evangelicalism can no longer do so with any confidence that it will be heard.

So, once again the voice of prophecy has begun to sound forth from an unexpected quarter. Who knows? Maybe the wheel is turning. Maybe the progressive impulse of early twentieth century evangelicalism is making a comeback to an America sadly in need of a vision that is both spiritually vital and politically forward-looking. Maybe we live not in the Last Days or the “end time,” but at the beginning of something new and promising.

Harvey Cox is Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, where he has been teaching since 1965, both at HDS and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Decisions Today. His Secular City, published in 1965, was selected by the University of Marburg as one of the most influential books of Protestant theology in the twentieth century.