Among the Post-Protestants: Part 8, Protestantism, Disenchantment and Evangelizing the Young

A theme in this series is point made by Charles Taylor in his book A Secular Age.

Specifically, the Protestant Reformation played a significant role in disenchanting the West. That the post-Protestants ended up espousing a social gospel without the gospel--a disenchanted gospel--was no accident. 

The Protestant Reformation, in turning its attention to the moral laxity of the laity, introduced a moralism into the faith that had been largely absent in Catholicism. In Catholicism the pursuit of holiness and saintliness was a special calling, a religious vocation, placed only upon the few. This changed with Protestantism as the moral bar was raised for every believer. The monasteries closed as holiness, virtue, and saintliness was now expected from everyone. 

This moral vision also had the polis in view, a reforming civic-mindedness that looked toward the betterment of society. This focus on the polis can best be seen in Calvin's Geneva and in William Wilberforce's work to abolish the slave trade in England. 

All of this lead to a slow moralization and politicization of faith. As I tell the story in my upcoming book Hunting Magic Eels, we stopped seeking God and began to focus on being good.

This moral and political shift helped facilitate disenchantment, the West's drift away from Christianity. Once being good became the goal of faith, it was a short step to realize one doesn't need God to be good. Being a good person is enough. And as the children of the Protestant Reformation, the post-Protestants have simply traced this line to its logical conclusion. That's how the post-Protestants became post-Christian. That's how you get to a social gospel without the gospel. 

This bring me back to evangelism in a post-Christian age, specifically evangelism among young people. 

The younger generations have drunk deeply from the post-Protestant well. They are very, very clear that the entire point of life is being a good person. Full stop. My students, for example, are on the right side of history. They are tolerant on the issues of race, sexuality and gender. They are justice-minded. They are concerned about the environment and climate change. They tick all the good person boxes. And because they have, they don't have much need for the church, as the demographic decline of Christianity among these age cohorts makes clear. The church isn't holding its young people. And our journey among the post-Protestants should make the reason clear. When espousing the social gospel is how you get saved, when being a good person is the whole ballgame, traditional religious expressions, along with its associated metaphysical baggage, can be effectively discarded. Because when you are a good person, you're already saved.

And what makes this doubly hard from an evangelistic perspective, as we've also discussed in this series, is how this image of being a good person functions in self-perception and self-esteem, how being a good person isn't as critical as seeing yourself as a good person. This is why virtue signaling and performative activism are more important than actually being a good person. The goal is to see yourself and have others see you as being a good person.

That makes evangelism hard, as any proclamation of the gospel runs the risk of unsettling our highly moralized self-perceptions, our settled convictions that we already occupy the moral high ground, especially in contrast to a church associated with racism, science denialism, and backwards views on sex and gender. To be very, very clear, I'm not suggesting that a gospel proclamation should try to convince young people that they aren't good people, that we need to tell them they are sinners in need of grace, that they need to repent or face judgment. I'm just trying to describe the challenges evangelism faces when the people you're trying to evangelize see themselves as better Christians than the Christians, as already on the moral high ground in relation to the Bible and church, as already good people, as already saved. And all of it deeply implicated in a cozy, certain, and highly moralized self-perception. 

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