Why It’s Okay to Criticize Fundamentalist Evangelicals

David Hollinger’s work on Ecumenical Protestantism and its success and achievements is a breath of fresh air.

In a recent interview in Christian Century, Hollinger, former president of the Organization of American Historians, and professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, calmly and firmly lifts up the legacy of Ecumenical Protestantism (EcuP): our recognition that marriage is more than procreation, our challenge to Billy Graham’s reduction of sin to something personal and private, offering a larger worldview for missions addressing the cultural imperialism regnant in missionary projects, with advocacy for racial and gender equality.

Hollinger notes Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1922 sermon, “Will the Fundamentalists Win,” and its publication in Christian Century. Hollinger invites EcuP to adopt a Fosdickian mentality, a willingness to offer criticism of Evangelical Protestantism (EvaP) and its obscurantist versions of faith and questionable scholarship.

I add: legalism and a drive for purity of faith and thought, confusion about women and race, disdain for the world, Paul rather than Jesus, a masochistic love of perceived persecution, Old-Testament militarism, twisting history to support American Exceptionalism, Reconstructionism, a reliance on outlandish promises and miracle stories, pressured conformity, visions of eternal wrath for the “faithless,” and always the temptation to believe “my faith is bigger, better and brighter than your faith; what’s wrong with yours?”

Our effort might not win any EvaP friends, but secular intellectuals who accept “Enlightenment-generated standards for cognitive plausibility,” and just about anyone else who cares about the state of religion and prefers truth to hype. In other words, let Toto do his work—pull back the curtain, let the world see the smoke and mirrors and regain the trust of many.

I am hopeful, however, about younger evangelicals who engage the world and learn about grace and compassion, American militarism, Christian arrogance; discovering that the EvaP “gospel of salvation” is seriously flawed and biblically wanting.

EcuP is emerging from decades of self-deprecation, encouraged by forceful leaders like Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake and Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, who offered “sweepingly anti-denominational pronouncements” … They were “afraid of the Catholics. Catholic unity was something they wanted to counter with Protestant unity” (a new insight for me).

EcuP might be better off today, suggests Hollinger, if it had “developed styles of ecumenism that had more respect for the role of denominational communions and local congregations.”

Ordained in 1970, I watched the “decline” of EcuP and the rise of EvaP, “puffed” by American media, as Hearst puffed Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade.

EvaP danced over our grave and set the rules of the game for the last half of the 20th Century. EvaP challenged everyone’s credentials, demanded proof of faith, and reminded EcuP that we were in a state of failure, and shame on us.

The losses embarrassed me. So I reached out to a variety of “growth-centered” writers, including Robert Schuller and, later on, Bill Hybels and Rick Warren. In the 90s, I attended conferences at Willow Creek and read a lot about the theology and mechanics of church growth. I learned a lot that makes sense, and a lot that doesn’t!

As a child of the Reformed Tradition, I never gave up on infant baptism, the place where Calvin makes his stand and makes clear: the church and its understanding of grace flows out of and through infant baptism. For Calvin, it’s covenant theology, a theology of grace!

Coincidently, I’ve been reading Calvin’s Institutes again and have seen something previously unnoticed: Calvin’s refusal to be intimidated by the pious claims of the Anabaptists.

Calvin despised the Anabaptists, but calling their bluff caught my attention. Calvin labels their claims to be Scripture-abiding, as “tricks” and “equivocation” (Institutes, 1541 edition, trans. Elsie Anne McKee).

The Anabaptists, with their “believers’ baptism,” have a diminished view of God, a view of grace compromised by “holiness” convictions, an overbearing focus on the believer’s need to “come to faith.” Faith is then “proved” with dramatic conversion stories, allowing little room for failure. Today’s EvaP is a direct descendant of Calvin’s Anabaptists.

EcuP has made clear and important contributions to American culture, and to the well-being of faith throughout the world. Let’s count our victories and celebrate our worth.

Let’s continue the struggle for marriage equality, Palestinian justice, immigration reform, rights for women around the world, biblical studies academically sound and faithful to to the text, modes of worship that are serious, thoughtful and grace-based, ever-determined to shape the American vision to one of kindness, compassion and mercy.

It’s time to tear down the barricades and head for the smoke!