Liberal foundationalism became partners in the demythologizing project of the modernist intellectuals. Conservative foundationalism headed in another direction. Conservative foundationalists became defenders of the traditional sacred and the supernatural aspects of the Christian faith. However, like their liberal counterparts, they appropriated the tools of Enlightenment modernists to support their aims.
I wrote that liberal foundationalism is searching for the essential truths behind all human religious expressions, not just Christianity and the scriptures. Christianity is merely a high expression of these transcendent values. The project of conservative Christianity has been to protect the traditional understanding of scripture, but without the appeal to traditional or ecclesiastical authority. The conservative project became a search for the essential or fundamental doctrines on which the rest of the Christian faith rests. All else would be built and justified upon this “foundation.” Conservative Christianity turned to rationalism and scientific analysis to show that the Bible was a perfect fail safe, bomb proof, system of teaching with no errors or unreasonableness. Any “reasonable” individual, as an objective autonomous person, should be able to see the self-evident rationality of God’s word.
During the last third of the nineteenth century, Evangelical Christianity reached a highpoint. The Holiness Movement sprang up as movement advocating social reform and recovery of Wesleyan holiness teaching. The Salvation Army was in full gear. Evangelicals trumpeted child labor laws, women’s suffrage, prohibition, and anti-monopolist legislation. Around 1900, a magazine called Christian Century was born, so named because it was believed that the twentieth century would by the century where the Church would usher in the Kingdom of God.
However, storm clouds were gathering before the twentieth century dawned. Liberal foundationalists were winning the day in seminaries and academies. The liberals began to champion more and more social causes grounded in a humanistic philosophy built on demythologized scripture. Evangelical champions saw great harm coming from what they saw as the abandonment of scripture and accommodation to secularist culture. They began to turn more of their reformist energies away from addressing the needs of society to preservation of what they believed were fundamental truths.
World War I struck a devastating blow to the hopes of a Christian century. The liberal response was to go deep into modernist rationalism to search for values on which to build a global human agenda. The League of Nations and ultimately the United Nations would become emblematic of this impulse to find grand macro level solutions to the world’s problems through enlightened humanism. Conservatives became ever more reclusive and sectarian as they sought to “defend” the Bible and traditional Christianity. Many historians identify the mid-1920s, with the battle over fundamentals in the Presbyterian Church and the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, as the watershed moments in the liberal and fundamentalist divide.
The conservative retreat increasingly became one that was anti “social gospel” and that championed change through personal conversion. It also became evermore influenced by dispensational views of a world “going to Hell in a hand basket” with the Church playing the role of a lifeboat, saving individuals from the coming Apocalypse. This continued until the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s when some Evangelicals began to rethink there disengagement from social reform. Still, their involvement until very recently has been concentrated on personal morality and individualist solutions.
Alongside these changes in Evangelicalism was the rise of Pentecostalism which radically oriented its follows toward personal experience of God. A significant offshoot of the movement is the “health and wealth” gospel. It teaches that because God wants to bless everyone, everyone who truly trusts in him will be blessed with good health and increasing wealth. It is very similar to the “self-made man” ideology of the robber-baron days. If you have enough faith, you will be wealthy. Just like the self-made man, it also had the corollary of the “self-unmade man.” There is the implication that if you do not have health and wealth there is something wrong with you spiritually.
As conservative Christianity began to reassert itself in the 1970s it sought a level of respectability that would give it influence in the world. Consequently, there has been an element of celebrity worship. Athletes, powerful business people, politicians, or other prominent people who espouse a personal relationship with Jesus, are paraded about not because of their exceptional spirituality, but rather because of the legitimacy their presence gives to Evangelical agendas.
The bottom line is that when it comes to economics in Evangelical circles, the analysis is almost totally focused on personal financial responsibility, personal ethics and how economics can be used to “save souls.” The business environment is often touted as ministry but what this usually translates into is that the workplace as an important staging ground for one-to-one evangelism and living out one’s personal morality. Not that these are wrong. But absent from the picture is a comprehensive view of what it means to be a steward of the God’s resources as it relates to systemic issues in business and economy, and addressing ethical issues like environmental impact or racism.
In short, the Evangelical analysis of the world is one where the ability to see systemic evil has atrophied. Over the past century, the economic sphere of life has become evermore secularized, materialistic and individualistic. Evangelicals, who have a long history of pragmatism when it comes to employing cultural tools for personal evangelism, have too often bought into a form of individualistic capitalism that is harmful to the formation of healthy image bearers of God.
Too many conservatives and Evangelicals seem to take the attitude that as long as the economic system is reasonably fair (which they generally suppose it to be), and they have played by the rules, then the failure by those who did not play as well by the rules is not their concern. They are merely reaping the consequences of their poor decisions. Yes, there are “deserving” poor who fall into poverty by no fault of their own and they deserve our help. But in a robber baron, survival of the fittest mentality, the “undeserving poor” are not our concern. Like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal son, there is outrage at the notion that anyone should run through the village to bring back into community these wayward souls without first exacting punishment. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us and some in conservative and Evangelical circles seem to be intent on fulfilling that prophecy. Even in circles where compassion is found there is still a strong tendency to promote a strategy of individual salvation without addressing the systemic issues that have led people to bad decisions and, like tentacles of monster, they are dragged back into broken eikonhood.
If there is a decided bent to toward statist and socialist thinking on economic issues in mainline seminaries, then in Evangelical seminaries there is virtually no economic thinking at all! What does economics have to do with personal salvation or running a church? With no intentional effort to form economic thinking, the ethos of economic forces of an increasingly secularist and individualist culture become the formative teachers. Theological reflection on business or economics is absent.
The two primary embraces of business and economics I see in conservative circles fall into two categories. First, business people are important because they make a lot of money enabling them to give to ministries and charities. Second, business people have skills and insights that will make ministries and congregations more efficient and effective in the goal of “reaching lost souls for Jesus.” Rarely is there any hint given that the work that the business person does as a business person is ministry in and of itself.
I have been hard on both liberal foundationalists and conservative foundationalists in these last two posts. I am sure you can name examples from both camps that don’t fit the description I have given here. I know I can. In addition, I have largely ignored the Roman Catholic contributions which have become increasingly significant at the national level over the last half of the twentieth century. Still, I think these two forms of foundationalism have been the driving forces in the USA over the past century. What I find interesting is that in addition to their foundationalists commonalities they also both seem to be tainted with a type of Gnostic-like dualism.