Naming modern phenomena “traditional,” evangelical tradition

To label something today as traditional is to reference the past, to perhaps suggest an unchanging connection between the modern manifestation and what something was (or what we think it was) before. Historian Kristen Kobes Du Mex highlights how evangelicals claim to be traditional:

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“America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion,” inveighed 1920s evangelist Billy Sunday, self-proclaimed preacher of that “old-time religion.” In 1963, when an Episcopal clergyman accused Billy Graham of “putting the church back 50 years,” Graham responded: “I’m afraid I have failed. I had hoped to put the church back 2,000 years,” suggesting that evangelicalism was a return to a pristine, ancient Christianity.

As historian Timothy Gloege explains, however, early-20th-century evangelicals called their movement “old-time religion” even as they pioneered a new, consumer-oriented faith. Frequently sidestepping traditional denominational structures, evangelicals have excelled at using modern promotional techniques to deliver their message through celebrity spokespeople and an elaborate Christian media empire — think of ubiquitous televangelist Joel Osteen. Prioritizing an individual’s personal relationship with God and plain reading of the scriptures, they also created new standards of orthodoxy, including the “inerrancy” of the Bible. These innovations were often sold as “traditional” Christianity, but they developed the faith beyond what even Reformation innovators could have imagined.

This reminds me of a discussion in a grad school class involving the sociology of religion. In a discussion of different religious traditions and where they might fit in a current understanding of liberal or conservative, the professor jumped in at one point and noted that even the groups that claim orthodoxy or tradition tend to have moved over time from earlier practices and beliefs.

So, perhaps being “traditional” exists on a continuum with some versions closer to tradition and others further away? This might even be less of a changing of something and more of a shift in emphases. Think of the hundreds of Christian denominations in the United States who would highlight different aspects of faith as being more important or the major Christian traditions – Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, etc. – and how they might each claim to retain traditional elements of Christianity.

It would be worth noting what groups claim tradition more strongly, how they make these arguments, and for what reasons. Did evangelicals at the turn of the twentieth-century claim “old-time religion” and tradition in order to distinguish themselves from other religious changes? For various religious groups that have called fellow adherents back to the fundamentals of their faith, why do so at that particular moment? In a competitive religious marketplace in the United States, promoting tradition could appeal in particular ways – and not others.

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