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Key 73: Blessed Blasphemy

Before 1993 slips away, I can't forfeit the occasion for pontificating provided by the historic resonances of the year. I used to be involved with the Evangelical movement. I am not anymore.  Recently someone asked me just what an Evangelical is.  The answer: an Evangelical is a fundamentalist who'll let you go to the movies. Well, 1993 marks the twentieth anniversary of two events of note in the Evangelical Christian community. The first was the much-balleyhooed evangelistic juggernaut Key 73; the second was the issuing of the Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern. In retrospect both events may be seen as tokens of failed religious triumphalism (and other ironies). 

After the Second World War a new generation of Evangelical churchmen arose, heirs to the fundamentalists who had fought the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversies at the turn of the century and in the 20s. These men, Carl F.H. Henry, Harold John Ockenga, Edward John Carnell, Harold Lindsell, Gordon Clark, Billy Graham, and others, wanted to repudiate the reputation the older fundamentalists had earned for themselves of obscurantism, fissiparousness, and biblicist fanaticism. They dubbed themselves "New Evangelicals" or "Neo-Evangelicals," sort of a counterpart to Neo-Orthodoxy which still dominated the Mainline Protestant consensus. 

While hastening to aver themselves at one theologically with the more intellectual of the old fundamentalists like Warfield, they were willing to renegotiate the fine print of doctrines like the inerrancy of the Bible. They professed a new humility, inviting mainline Protestant theologians to dialogue instead of polemical debate, even though as Neo-Orthodox Episcopalian Daniel P. Stevick observed in ­Beyond Fundamentalism­, it was a little hard to see the profit in "dialogue" with people who wanted it clearly understood that they and no one else possessed the copyright on Orthodox Christianity. 

Henry, Carnell and the others wanted to shed the backwoods image that stigmatized their uncles the fundamentalists. So, among other things, they called for new, dignified hymnody (and for their trouble eventually spawned the twin abominations of John Peterson's whitebread gospel jingles, too bland for Lawrence Welk, and the Biblegum sound of Ralph Carmichael). 

They wanted, they said, to take off the blinders of the old fundamentalist indifference to social ethics. Of course the sectarian nuttiness of Falwellian, Robertsonian Christian Rightism already existed in the avatars of Major Bundy's Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and several others. What the Neo-Evangelicals really wanted to do was to carve out a comfortable niche between  this extreme and the mild social liberalism of the Mainline denominations. If the Mainline magazine The Christian Century represented the Democratic Party at Prayer, the Neo-Evangelicals were the Republican Prayer Breakfast.

In all these secondary changes the Neo-Evangelicals mostly succeeded in alienating themselves from their closest kin, the fundamentalists, still virulent, still militant, and now happy to turn their polemical guns on the Neo-Evangelicals, whom they dismissed as revisionists with the same inquisitorial zeal the Soviets directed against the Maoists at about the same time. 

But the Neo-Evangelicals did manage to conjure into being a sacred cosmos of their own in the form of several religious institutions including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Fuller and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries, Christianity Today, and the National Association of Evangelicals.

They made quite a bit of headway on the coat-tails of Billy Graham and his controversial program of "Cooperative Evangelism" whereby he took advantage of burgeoning ecumenical sympathies to enlist the cooperation (or at least joint sponsorship) of the Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in the cities he targeted for crusades. One might blush at being seen on the same podium with a man who railed against Commies and predicted Jesus' soon return, as Billy did in those days, and yet count it worth the price when one's share of those conversion cards came one's way. 

It was Cooperative Evangelism that probably goaded the fundamentalists to their greatest fury, since it seemed to them an alliance with apostate pseudo-Christianity. Well, guess what, folks: the same thing happened in 1973 when the aging Neo-Evangelical elder statesmen tried to flog some semblance of life into the old nag of cooperative evangelism. 

Gordon-Conwell professor Dean Kemper, in a 1975 issue of The Reformed Journal, appraised the year-long effort made by the Key 73 planners at "Calling our Continent to Christ" and ridiculed it as an evangelistic Edsel, a lemon best left in the junkyard.  Kemper said that the crusade largely fizzled because Evangelicals and denominational Liberals had become alienated and polarized by the social struggles of the 60s.

The Evangelicals sided with Nixon in the 60s and early 70s, despite the minority voice of "Evangelicals for McGovern," and the Liberals were no longer interested in joining them in evangelism. One might even compare it, I don't know, let's say, to children in the marketplace calling to one another, "We piped and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn." 

But if the Liberal co-sponsors of yesteryear were mostly reluctant to play, the rightist fundies were on hand, eager to assume their old role, issuing pamphlets and tracts with titles like "Key 73--Blessing or Blasphemy?" (Guess which?)

When Thanksgiving weekend of the same year witnessed the convening of the Neo-Evangelical bigwigs and the new generation of what were already coming to be called the Young Evangelicals (Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, Richard Quebedeaux, Donald W. Dayton and others) to sign a Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, essentially a hand-wringing apology for taking so long to get on the moderate liberal political bandwagon, one almost had to wonder if the Evangelicals were not trying by this gesture to atone for their sins in the eyes of the Liberals. But if so, it was too late. The year and the crusade were about over. And so was an era. 

Soon after, Carl Henry, Neo-Evangelicalism incarnate, wrote a brief book in which he bemoaned (he was almost always bemoaning things; it seemed to be his mission ever since his first book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism) the fact that just when Evangelicalism had begun to gain media prominence (Jimmy Carter had recently confessed that as a regenerated Born Again Christian he still looked at hot babes but felt guilty about it), the movement was fragmenting. 

This lament revealed a couple of things. First, the arrogance that Evangelicals were a super-race with a saving message for everybody, as if everybody hadn't already heard the pitch of "the old time religion" (which also seems to have been the astonishing premise of the whole Key 73 debacle). Second, that it would be desirable to have everybody agree on religious opinions. What's the problem if they don't? 

But the fragmentation he was talking about was no doubt the leftward drift both socially and theologically of those pesky Young Evangelicals, who now assumed the Prodigal Son role once played with such relish by the Neo-Evangelicals themselves. Ockenga and Lindsell launched thunderbolts at Jack Rogers and all the others who dared touch the ark of biblical inerrancy. It turned out that the Neo-Evangelicals had been pretty much kidding when they declared themselves willing to rethink these questions. Or maybe the elder statesmen were just getting older and thought it would simplify "cramming for their finals" if they had an inerrant answer book on which to rely. 

The Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (this last a safe euphemism committing no one to anything at all) had been a barely-passed compromise document, and the ink was hardly dry before the signatory powers spun centrifugally away in all directions. The Young Evangelicals, in the pages of Sojourners and The Other Side soon found themselves falling victim to the curse of Evangelical "me-too-ism," falling in line (once they decided to strike an anti-abortionist stance) with the Catholic Left. Warmed over Stringfellow-and-Berriganism formed a large part of the vegetarian diet of these radical Christians, giving a new venue to the radicals of the 60s, like has-been nightclub singers making the rounds of the nostalgia-circuit. Here was a moving target of uncertain views, an unstable amalgam of Liberation Theology and Mennonite anarchism. Jane Fonda as Christ figure.

And here was a far cry equally from the Establishment liberalism of The Christian Century (in whose pages Teddy Kennedy seemed to be the regnant theologian) and from the safe "Every Litter Bit Hurts" editorials of the insufferably smug Christianity Today. Karl Barth once referred to the latter as "Christianity Yesterday." Reinhold Niebuhr had similarly accused Billy Graham of set ting back Christianity 100 years, to which Graham responded that he hoped to set it back 2,000 years.

Others wanted to set it back even further, apparently to the time of the prophet Samuel in the Bronze Age. It would not be too many years before the political influence Henry apparently coveted for the mealy-mouthed Neo-Evangelicals would be usurped by the hate-spewing legions of Falwell and Robertson. Gunning down abortion doctors could not be far in the future. 

So the Declaration was still-born, its "Evangelicals for McGovern" agenda increasingly irrelevant while Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell highjacked the high ground. Had Key 73 fared any better? It had hoped to share yesterday's news, ah, that is, the good news, with an America already bored with it. Instead, the Evangelicals stood to learn a few lessons from it themselves.

For one thing, it seemed that a lot of their scalp-hunting rhetoric which had sounded one way in the mythic never-never land of hot-house revival preaching, sounded another way when they went public with it. Now just what the hell do you mean by "calling our continent to Christ"? Jews became quite properly alarmed when Key 73 singled them out as special targets. Proselytism had become politically incorrect. Not the thing to do in polite society. The old-time fundies never let that bother them. But remember Neo-Evangelicalism was built on respectability, the veneer of civility and dialogue. Perhaps in reaction to the stinging rebuke called forth by Key 73's obliviousness, some Evangelicals including Gordon College's Marvin Wolfman, soon began genuine two-way dialogues with Jews aimed simply at better mutual understanding. 

And yet for all the ironies of the Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern and Key 73, those twin Golems of twenty years ago, they have in some ways proved prophetic indicators of what has become the future. This may have been accidental, much as Inspector Clouseau proved to be in the right in A Shot in the Dark. Here's what I have in mind. 

Old-time fundamentalism continues to survive and to prosper, though at least in its media career it has fallen upon harder times recently. It has a major competitor in its twin the Charismatic Movement with its crazy "Dominion Theology" of triumphalism and mind-over-matter metaphysics. No matter how many sex-scandals deface it, it fills stadium after stadium. But how fares Neo-Evangelicalism? I see it slowly dissolving into its constituent parts.

The founders, Henry, Ockenga, Lindsell and the others eventually became the spitting images of their fundamentalist forbears, grumbling at the excesses of the gutsier younger generation. The seminaries they founded, occasional efforts at retrenchment not withstanding, seem destined to fight a losing battle against a drift toward Neo-Orthodoxy among their students. There seems increasingly little difference between these students and those at mainstream Protestant seminaries. Neither of them either learn or care much about classical biblical criticism, the real kind, the kind people used to debate over.

The Society of Biblical Literature is a tame tiger, where the center of gravity has settled down to a kind of apologetics and harmonization, of retreat into non-threatening diversions such as trendy feminist ideology and literary approaches to the gospels. Summarizing the text has come to count as criticism. Since Evangelical seminaries have more students and bigger budgets, they can pour more scholars into the membership of organizations like this, tipping the balance of the plausibility structure.

On the other hand, Evangelical seminarians have been made to feel guilty for being politically incorrect, and so have been shamed into a hitherto-unheard of degree of liberalization at the point of God-language and God-concepts. Conversely, students at main stream seminaries quite often combine the most simplistic kind of Sunday School biblicism and pietism (perhaps clothed in the pseudo-clinical idiom of the Twelve-Step Movement) with radical feminism and ultra-leftism. 

And just as Evangelicals are liberalizing at some surprising points, so are Liberal Protestants being forced to reconsider evangelism. Their memberships declined precipitously in the 60s and 70s in a grass-roots reaction to ill-considered denominational blunderings into radical politics and posturing. The World Council of Churches supported church-persecuting Commie terrorists in the Third World. The confused Presbyterians, trying too hard to be relevant, like Jimmy Durante wearing "with-it" hippie threads on ­The Hollywood Palace­, donated money to defend terrorist Angela Davis. One denomination's big crusade currently is to get the Cincinnati Reds to change their name--to, let's see, the Cincinnati Native Americans? They're still at it. 

So now, with the kind of butt-covering theology made famous by the Mormon Church which received a revelation that it was finally OK for blacks to become priests once the Mormon Church was about to forfeit its tax-exemption, the Mainline denominations suddenly rediscovered the "biblical mandate for evangelism." Really, for meeting budgets. As my favorite theologian, the Church Lady says, "How con­ven­ient!" One can only imagine the grotesque spectacle of genteel Episcopalians and Lutherans stammering through a Campus Crusade for Christ pamphlet.

Some Mainline denominational churches have aped Robert Schuller and the fundamentalist megachurches in creating quasi-religious shopping mall churches with plenty of programs but no real theology. Vacuity sells, and so it triumphs. This too is the legacy of Key 73, as it was the first major effort to sell the gospel like a deodorant. Evangelism as Madison Avenue advertising. Bill Bright's "Here's Life America" a few years later, followed by various other similar ad campaign crusades continued the trend. Televangelism made it a cardinal tenet of American religion. And now we sit and wait for the Nielson Ratings of Salvation.

You know, come to think of it, 1993 recalls another important religious year. It marks an even century since the World Parliament of Religions convened in conjunction with the Chicago World's Fair. It was a series of presentations in which notable representatives of the major faiths were invited to address various issues in the manner of the United Nations. I wonder if the future took a wrong turn somewhere, because this sure sounds like a better candidate for the wave of the future than the more recent fiascoes discussed here.

Do we need more religious imperialism, more tiresome evangelistic huckstering? Or do we need a forum where the (sometimes literally) warring religious factions may present their grievances and perspectives, and in a happier circumstance, share their treasures? Should we deem it a greater religious virtue to listen to a different heart-felt viewpoint, or to try to cajole the other into agreeing with you? If you'll excuse my paraphrasing Billy Graham, I guess I'd rather set back the clock a hundred years to the World Parliament of Religions than a mere twenty to Key 73.                   

Robert M. Price


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