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The rebirth of the "Born Again" movement

The election of a "born-again" Christian president has focused attention on the
most significant movement among American Protestants.
It has also tempted Evangelicals to become involved with the election of candidates as well as the election to grace.


President Jimmy Carter unabashedly confesses that he is one. So do Senator Mark O. Hatfield of Oregon and Congressman John B. Anderson of Illinois. Charles Colson, former aide to Richard Nixon, has written a best-selling autobiography recounting how he became one. Eldridge Cleaver, onetime Black Panther leader, returned to the United States to face trial on assault charges as the result of an experience that made him one.

What these individuals — and perhaps 40 million more Americans and additional millions worldwide — profess to be are "born-again" or evangelical Christians. The terms "born again" and "evangelical" are used interchangeably to describe these Christians because of the two salient aspects of their faith. They share in common a highly subjective "born-again" experience, a turning point in their lives when they committed themselves to Christ. And they believe in evangelism, the proclaiming of the redemptive message of Jesus' life, teaching and atoning death — the "good news" (called euaggelion in the Greek New Testament and later dubbed gospel by the Anglo-Saxons).

Previous to the 1976 presidential election, evangelical Christianity had been growing quietly but impressively for over a decade — often at the expense of played out, mainline churches.

Indeed, some Evangelicals had been contending for several years that they represented the silent and overlooked majority of Protestants. But not until the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter did a "great awakening" occur among the media as they focused on Evangelicals and discovered their numbers and influence.

A Gallup survey released five weeks before the November election revealed that 34 percent of 1,553 Americans interviewed claimed to have been "born again." Among Protestants alone, nearly half (48 percent) said they were "born-again" Christians, which projected to a nationwide total of 43 million adults. Gallup also found that 58 percent of Protestants (compared to 38 percent of Catholics) have tried to convert others to Christ through "witnessing" in one form or another. Even more surprising, some 46 percent of Protestants — and 31 percent of Catholics — polled believe that "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word."

Gallup concluded: "All of our studies would seem to indicate that God is alive and well in America." He observed that the evangelical view is "currently the 'hot' movement in the church . . . 1976 can be considered the 'Year of the Evangelical.' "

The historical and spiritual roots of evangelical Christianity extend back to the Pietism movement, founded by the German Lutheran P. J. Spener (1635-1705), that swept Europe in the 17th century. The Pietists sought a religion that was more personal, individual and meaningful than the systematic but stale and remote orthodoxy propounded by the scholarly successors of Luther and Calvin. They stressed the need for conversion, high moral standards, and were deeply concerned with the winning of more souls for Christ. They de-emphasized doctrine and dogma, which enabled the movement to spread among a wide variety of religions just as Evangelicalism today cuts across religious, racial and regional lines. In brief, the Pietists promulgated a subjective "heart religion" to act as a counterweight to the scholastic "head religion" of the day.


Heart Religion

Nicholas Zinzendorf (1700-1760), a successor to Spener in the Pietism movement, gave the "heart religion" an added twist. Rejecting the idea of many Pietists that conversion should be marked by an outward act of penitential remorse, Zinzendorf coined the slogan that has come to play such a great role in the history of revivals: "Come as you are. It is only necessary to believe in the atonement of Christ."

Closely parallel to the Pietist movement in Germany was the Evangelical or Methodist (named after the methodical manner of study and devotion) movement in England led by John Wesley (1703-1791). In 1738, after a frustrating period of missionary work in the colony of Georgia, Wesley returned to England where he came into contact with a group of Moravian Pietists who had originally been organized by Zinzendorf. On May 24, during a meeting of Moravians, Wesley's intellectual conviction of God was transformed into a personal experience while hearing a reading of Luther's preface to his commentary on Paul's epistle to the Romans. In his Journal, Wesley wrote that "while he [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me . . ." From then on, Wesley, like the Pietists, laid much emphasis on the necessity of conversion. He devoted the remainder of his life to evangelistic preaching in England.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the British colonies in America were experiencing the "Great Awakening" sparked by the preaching of Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts. For several decades revivals and conversions spread like waves through the colonies. As with Wesley in England and Zinzendorf in Germany, many colonial revivalists had to conduct their campaigns outside the established churches. Emotional demonstrations and disorders were not welcomed by conservative churchmen who cared for more subdued, decorous conduct in the Lord's house.


Private Versus Public Religion

From the time of the "Great Awakening" to the Civil War, U.S. Protestantism was generally evangelical. Although church and state were separate, religion and culture were not. Evangelicals believed that God had given them North America — and the U.S. Constitution — as basis for building an evangelistic nation. Revivalism was considered God's way of winning souls.

But this vision of religion was shattered by the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the North, Protestantism came under the influence of liberal scholars who began to question such fundamental doctrines as the deity of Christ and His resurrection. Further, the wave of Roman Catholic and other non-evangelical immigrants and the onset of industrialism with its squalor and evils withered the dreams of an evangelical Eden.

In the South, Protestants clung to a strong evangelical faith that promised a "blessed assurance" of eternal life hereafter to compensate for the defeat, suffering and poverty that resulted from the war. Their sense of otherworldliness and doctrinal purity led to a spiritual one-upmanship toward the "worldliness" and liberalism of Northern Protestants — an attitude that persists today.

On the other hand, Northern Protestants have been critical of their Southern counterparts for neglecting the social problems of the day. In part, this neglect has been the consequence of the otherworldliness of Southern Evangelicalism that led to the development of what Martin Marty, one of the foremost interpreters of modern American religion, calls "private Protestantism." Private Protestantism holds the pessimistic view that the world is a hopelessly evil place. Souls must be rescued from it one by one, but it will take the return of Christ to fully right all the wrongs. Christians should adopt as a policy Christ's prayer to His Father that "thou shouldest [not] take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world" (John 17:15-16).

In contrast, the "worldliness" of the Northern Protestants has led to a more optimistic view Marty calls "public Protestantism." They believe that Christians can and should change society through social reform, ecumenism and moral influence in education and politics. In this way they can be "good Samaritans," fulfilling Christ's instruction: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Matt. 22:39).

Revivalists since the Civil War have traditionally preached a private Protestantism that has ignored or deprecated the need for social reform. But recently groups of "New Evangelicals" have sprung up to crusade with typical evangelical fervor for a "social gospel" relevant to the world here and now.

Still, most evangelical leaders continue to proclaim the gospel of a born-again experience now and a better world in the indefinite hereafter.

Thus, the International Congress on World Evangelization, meeting July 1974, in Lausanne, Switzerland, rejected a call for more social action on the part of Evangelicals. While consideration was given to the "liberation of the whole man" and the social implications of the gospel, a majority of the 2,500 delegates opposed the trend toward "secular salvation" that viewed human liberation in a political and social frame of reference.

The congress voted to hold fast to the narrow, traditional concept of evangelism, i.e., preaching Christ to win souls now in advance of His return. Article 5 of the covenant drawn up at Lausanne stated that "social action is not evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation."


Of the World

The Evangelicals at Lausanne in 1974 could afford to avoid choking evangelism with the cares and causes of this world. After all, Evangelicals have always been a religious minority. They rarely exercised political clout — except on a regional basis — as a consequence of their relative indifference to worldly affairs. Very few Evangelicals then held positions of national or international leadership. Evangelicals more or less condemned and moralized from the sidelines as spectators. But now in 1977 they have to a degree become players. A self-confessed "born-again" Christian occupies the White House. The candidacy of Jimmy Carter made evangelical Protestantism a political issue because of Carter's born-again faith and his campaign pledge to bring morality and trust back to government.

Carter's candidacy also tempted several evangelical groups — totally disconnected with the Carter presidential campaign — to get involved in politics. As if the election to grace was not a sufficient preoccupation, they took an interest in the election of candidates by endorsing certified "born-again" Christians. Evangelicals were encouraged to participate in the political process — an activity that until the past several years has been largely foreign to the bulk of the evangelical community. Reckoning that "born-again" Christians account for one-third of the American electorate, politically minded Evangelicals hoped to score significant gains at the ballot box for God and a more Christian country in the post-Watergate era.

But their impact on the election — with the possible exception of Carter's candidacy — doesn't appear to have been great. Federal and state governments were not born again on November 2. But the election did serve to exacerbate the debate among Evangelicals over their proper role in worldly affairs.

Faith without works is dead, wrote the apostle James. But just what works should Evangelicals occupy themselves with till the Kingdom comes? Can they realistically confine their role to just witnessing and winning souls now that they have come off the sidelines and become active participants in national affairs? Can they develop an ethic and program to deal with the serious problems facing the country and the world: hunger, poverty, pollution, injustice? Just as the nation is at last taking notice of their strength, Evangelicals find their house divided on these vital issues.

If 1976 was the year of the great awakening of the Evangelicals' latent strength and influence, 1977 and succeeding years may be a period of the great disillusionment as Evangelicals discover the frustrations of going public — being of the world and not just in it.