Sociologist Peter Berger argues evangelical Christianity may be so successful around the world because it is individualistic:
Why is this? David Martin, another British sociologist who has been a kind of dean of Pentecostalism studies, has shown in great detail how this astounding development can be understood as yet another incarnation of the Protestant ethic, which was a crucial factor in the genesis of modern capitalism.I think he is right.
But I think there is another important factor, which has been generally overlooked. Allow me to regale you with the Berger hypothesis on why Evangelical Protestantism is doing so well in much of the contemporary world: Because it is the most modern of any large religion on offer today. I am well aware of the fact that this contradicts the prevailing view of Evangelicals in academia and the media—so brilliantly expressed in President Obama’s priceless characterization of a demographic not voting for him in the 2008 election as economically challenged people “clinging to their guns and their God”. In other words, seen from the perspective of Harvard Yard these are the great unwashed out of step with modernity. But curiously this is also how diehard Evangelical fundamentalists see themselves—as defenders of the true faith against the intellectual and moral aberrations of modernity. They are both wrong.
Evangelicals believe that one cannot be born a Christian, one must be “born again” by a personal decision to accept Jesus. What can be more modern than this? This view of the Christian faith provides a unique combination of individualism with a strong community of fellow believers supporting the individual in his decision. It allows individuals to be both religious and modern. That is a pretty powerful package.
Berger isn’t the first to note the individualistic ethos of evangelicalism. This reminds me of one of the conclusions of Souls in Transition where Smith and Snell suggest that while conservative churches are the ones that have thrived in the United States, particularly compared to mainline churches, they too have accepted the tenets of liberal Protestantism including individualism, declining adherence to authority, and pluralism.
If Berger is right, can this tension between individual religiosity – notable dubbed “Sheilaism” in Habits of the Heart – and community (adherence to a larger umbrella of conservative Protestantism, going to church regularly, etc.) continue to propel evangelicalism or tear it apart?