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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with J. Randolph Taylor, May 23, 1985. Interview C-0021. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Benefits and pitfalls of conservative evangelicalism

During the latter half of the twentieth century, conservative evangelicalism became increasingly influential in the mainline denominations. Taylor examines why this happened, the benefits and pitfalls this has for the Presbyterian Church, and what Christians interested in social activism can learn from conservatives.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with J. Randolph Taylor, May 23, 1985. Interview C-0021. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Could you comment briefly on the resurgence of Protestant evangelicalism in the form of the contemporary born-again movement, particularly its strength in the Presbyterian church?
It is a phenomenon, and there are reasons for it. One is that we live in a very complex age. Some of the issues we've talked about of peace and justice and so forth are very complicated, almost insoluble problems. Thus, it's an era in which it's very satisfying to find simple answers, to find concrete answers to complex issues. If you can say, "This is the Word, this is the Way, you must follow this. Follow me, and I will lead you to truth," you're going to get a following in a time when everybody is scared. So part of this is personal reaction to social fear. It's more complicated than that, though. I think the mainline churches have probably been inconsiderate of conservative evangelical members for the past several decades. In part, throughout the nineteenth century, there was only a kind of conservative evangelical tradition. It was only with the twentieth century that there emerged a new sense of openness to alternate approaches, a breadth of search for truth, social involvement, activism, and an emphasis on praxis or practice rather than upon theory and theology. The result of that has been that for the past probably three decades, conservative evangelicals have felt marginalized in most of the mainline churches. There is a new sense of militancy on their part, basically saying, "We want a piece of the action. We want some influence in this." And that's what we have been finding in the Presbyterian Church, that partly what happened in union was that we found each other across a divide where we really weren't speaking very effectively to each other before. There's one other thing, in addition, and that is the whole church growth movement, which is a sociological phenomenon. During these past decades, what's also emerged is some of the human sciences have become much more sophisticated. The whole matter of how you communicate with people, how you use the media effectively, all that sort of thing. What makes for growth in a corporate structure of human beings is affecting the church, because what we know now sociologically is that simplistic answers do make for growth; complex questions do not. Churches that are trying to grapple with issues like justice and women's rights and world hunger and so forth have got to face a new phenomenon, and that is that that's hard to communicate simply over the TV, and it's very hard to get people to get in massive groups to attend to. So conservative evangelicals, who are less disposed to deal with those complexities--and that's not pejorative; that's just historically where their position has been--have taken to the media with a great deal more effectiveness and have taken to larger churches and growing churches with a good bit more effectiveness. Now there's a helpful shift taking place. The conservative evangelical community itself is becoming much more socially conscious. There's an organization in Washington called Sojourners that's headed up by authentic conservative evangelicals. They are on the forefront of this whole peace movement. They are on the forefront of questioning the Administration's position on Central America and so forth. It's one of those things where there's change taking place on both sides of the ideological spectrum, but I think the reasons for the growth that's been remarkable on the right is in part what I've just said.
And how significant a part of the Presbyterian Church would you say the evangelical movement constitutes?
It's hard to put numbers there, but I'd say it's very significant. Without knowing what the percentage is, I'd say it's very significant. This is part of the result of my pilgrimage on reunion: I think it very important. I think it's authentic. I want them involved. I think they help correct a shallow activism that is instinctive to those of us who are oriented toward justice issues. We are very quick to find satisfaction in being able to change the structures. We need to be reminded by our brothers and sisters that when you change the structures, you still have not changed the nature of the people who live and implement those structures, and so you're still dealing with the old human dilemma and the predicament of human history and the problem of sin. So each needs the other to keep it honest and to make it authentic.