The Constitutional Convention decided that there would be no “Church of the United States.” So in the First Amendment we see, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” How that was interpreted and viewed then, and how it has been interpreted today is very different.
Needless to say, this new right which took effect in 1791 made a distinct marking on the development of the American Evangelical mind in this new country. They had an unprecedented degree religious freedom, and Noll points out that while is is a very good thing for churches to be free of government (which really was the purpose of the Amendment), this “freedom from an establishment had an ironic result for Christian thinking,” (pg. 64).
Noll states for the first time churches had to compete for adherents. Before in Europe, churches were assigned responsibility for parishoners. Denominations, now in “competition,” accomplished this through revivals. This process led to a “religious market” which caters to individuals and stresses personal conversion and faith. This had both a positive and negative effect:
This combination of revivalism and disestablishment had effects whose importance cannot be exaggerated. Analyzed positively, the combination gave the American churches a new dynamism, a new effectiveness in fulfilling the Great Commission, and a new vitality in bringing the gospel to the people. Analyzed negatively, the combination of revivalism and disestablishment meant that pragmatic concerns would prevail over principle. What the churches required were results – new adherents – or they would simply go out of business. Thus, the production of results had to override all other considerations, (pg. 66).
It also, Noll adds, predisposed believers to utilitarian apologetics or functional theology. Now they were asking questions of what would expand the church and what would advance the cause of the church in society. Noll notes that it was this that caused much difficulty for the life of the mind.
American evangelicals never doubted that Christianity was the truth. They never doubted that Christian principles should illuminate every part of life. What they did do, however, in the years between the Revolution and the Civil War, was to make most questions of truth into questions of practicality. What message would be most effective? What do people most want to hear? What can we say that will both convert the people and draw them to our particular church? The heavy pressure for results meant that very little time or energy was available to think about God and nature, God and society, God and beauty, or God and the shape of the human mind, (pg. 67).
In that context those issues simply became irrelevant. My note, I see this sustained today in much of the church growth movement – a focus on practicality. Not saying that is inherently wrong as we do want to bring the Gospel to the people. Unfortunately it seems in some circles the ends justify the means, and we could question the end results in some of those cases. I think we also see a lack of intellectual depth as well with the focus on “how to” books – a shift from systematic, biblical and historical theology to practical theology.
A shift from “is it true?” to “does it work?” What do you think?
Next in this series – how a Christian-Cultural synthesis impacts evangelical thought.