If James Hunter's 1987 book, Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation, was not a bomb on the happy playground of American evangelicals, it was at least a powerful grenade. In that book, as well as his 1983 work, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity, Hunter set out to demonstrate that the theological and moral boundaries of American Evangelicalism were rapidly shifting, less from corporate reflection on faith and practice than from the movement's accommodation to modernity through its various carriers (such as rationalization and cultural pluralism). Particularly telling for Hunter were the signals emanating from the evangelical colleges and seminaries he surveyed, which comprised the source, he hypothesized, of the coming generation of evangelical thought and practice.
Coming barely a decade after the celebrated "year of the Evangelical," this was disturbing news. At the time, American evangelicals were fairly giddy over their ascent out of the fundamentalist ghetto and into the White House, an achievement that was tarnished if it owed more to cognitive bargaining than cultural transformation.
But was the sobering news accurate? Fifteen years later, two Calvin College political scientists have challenged Hunter's claims. In their book, Evangelicalism: The Next Generation, James M. Penning and Corwin E. Smidt argue that little has changed on Christian college campuses since Hunter's work. (Conveniently, they ignore a comparison of tuition rates.) Conducting surveys similar to Hunter's, Penning and Smidt reassure us that evangelical orthodoxy remains robust, certainty has not waned, and moral boundaries are still being observed. They concede that there is a "degree of support" among some of Hunter's claims, especially the movement toward androgyny in evangelical family life and the shift from self-denial to self-fulfillment in conceptions of the Christian life. But on the whole, reports of Evangelicalism's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Beyond the number crunching (and there is a lot of it), this is a debate over competing theories on the sociology of Evangelicalism. Hunter, a student of Peter Berger, subscribes to the "sheltered enclave" theory: Evangelicalism, like any other cognitive minority, must protect itself from the contamination of modernity by its maintenance of sturdy plausibility structures. Penning and Smidt, however, find more compelling the "subculture identity theory" of Christian Smith. This alternative argues that those movements thrive under the intense pluralism of modernity that engages in vigorous "boundary maintenance," and Evangelicalism has proven equal to that task. So even the apparent loosening of some moral taboos (for example, regarding smoking and drinking) might point to greater resilience and stability in Evangelicalism, because they indicate clearer boundary-building between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism.
Both theories share the assumption that Evangelicalism is a movement that antedates, or at least is distinct from, modernity. Perhaps, then, the debate over whether or not Evangelicalism has the resources to resist modernity begs the larger question: Is American Evangelicalism itself a product of modernity? This appears most evident in ecclesiology, which unhappily falls to the margins of these studies of evangelical thought and practice. Penning and Smidt acknowledge that today's evangelical college students are profoundly dissatisfied with the institutional church and that their piety is of a decidedly nonchurchly form. Of course, in these convictions they hardly differ from previous generations. So what is at stake may be little more than different interpretations of religious individualism, which suggests that it is possible both to argue for continuity between the next generation and its forebears and still remain pessimistic regarding Evangelicalism's future.