The Loosening of American Evangelicalism

Long-standing norms against drinking, tattoos, and Catholic-coded church practices have rapidly fallen. What’s going on?

Something has happened in the last 25 years in American evangelicalism—what I believe to be a massive generational shift. I’d like to sketch a picture of the change I see and ask if you see it too.

First, though, let me set the scene. I have in mind low-church Protestant traditions in the United States: churches centered on the Bible, evangelism, and personal faith in Jesus; often but not necessarily nondenominational, with moderate to minimal emphasis on sacraments, liturgy, and ecclesiastical authority; and marked by a revivalist style as well as conservative beliefs about sex, marriage, and other social issues. Historically, these congregations were predominantly white and middle- to lower-class, though not as uniformly as is often imagined. Many were founded within the last three decades, and they’re typically given to long sermons, contemporary worship, monthly Communion, and lots of lights.

These are the churches in which I’ve noticed what I would call a kind of loosening. This shift is largely unwitting, or at least unplanned. It is not consistent or ideological; it is not a program or platform; it’s not even conservative or liberal per se (and my goal here is not to render an overall positive or negative judgement on the change). This loosening consists of a broad relaxation of previously unspoken—or at least unwritten—social norms.

The most obvious example is attitudes about alcohol. For generations, American evangelicals were known to be highly suspicious of drinking, sometimes to the point of being teetotalers. This remained true through my teen years, and when I heard that Brother Joe or Sister Jane enjoyed a glass of wine before bed, it was whispered …

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