On Gospelbound I typically interview authors whose ideas intrigue and encourage me. And today is no different with my guest Brad Vermurlen, author of the new book Reformed Resurgence: The New Calvinist Movement and the Battle Over American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press).
Vermurlen works as a research associate in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin. His book is revised and expanded from his PhD dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, working under Christian Smith. Through dozens of interviews, argus-like monitoring of social media, and on-ground experience with leading churches, Brad documented and assessed the rise of New Calvinism in American evangelicalism.
For listeners who know my work, you realize that Brad has given much more comprehensive study to the work I started back in 2006 with my cover story for Christianity Today, “Young, Restless, Reformed.” I asked Brad all my hard questions, as usual for Gospelbound. But it’s a little different this week, because I asked him in part about my own work.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: On Gospelbound, I typically interview authors whose ideas intrigue and encourage me. Today is no different with my guest, Brad Vermurlen, author of the new book Reformed Resurgence: The New Calvinist Movement and the Battle Over American Evangelicalism, published by Oxford University Press. Vermurlen works as a research associate in the sociology department at the University of Texas at Austin. His book is revised and expanded from his PhD dissertation at the University of Notre Dame, working under Christian Smith. Through dozens of interviews, argus-like monitoring of social media and on-ground experience with leading churches, Brad documented and assessed the rise of New Calvinism in American evangelicalism.
For Gospelbound listeners who know my work, you realize that Brad has given a much more comprehensive study to the work I started back in 2006 with my cover story for Christianity Today called “Young, Restless, Reformed.” So I can’t wait to ask Brad all of my hard questions, which is typical for Gospelbound. But it’s going to be a little different this week because I’ll be asking him, in part, about my own work. I’m going to try not to get incepted in the process. Thank you, Brad, for joining me on Gospelbound.
Brad Vermurlen: Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Collin Hansen: Brad, what question did you set out to answer in writing this book?
Brad Vermurlen: Well essentially, I was interested in the phenomenon that you identified, the New Calvinist movement in American evangelicalism. I wanted to know about which actors were involved, where it came from and what it meant for evangelicalism in the United States.
Collin Hansen: Was there anything particularly that surprised you in that process, something you didn’t expect when you set out to do it?
Brad Vermurlen: Yeah, probably one of the biggest things is that, when I started the book, I really thought it would be one big powerful causal explanation about the tensions between theological and moral tradition, on the one hand and cultural innovation on the other, and the tensions between those two. Kind of a spin on Christian Smith’s old idea of distinction with engagement. But giving it a time aspect. But what I found, as I went through the project for months and years, is that one explanation was only a small part of the story, and that it actually involved several different dynamics and causes that work together to produce the movement.
Collin Hansen: Why don’t you give us a preview of a few of those causes? What does that look like?
Brad Vermurlen: Well, I outlined these in the book in great detail. There’s more than a dozen, close to 20 causal mechanisms and processes that I go through in the book. They involve everything on a really basic level, from religious leaders simply acting on their beliefs and values, which is controversial in some corners of sociology, that people would act their beliefs and values.
Collin Hansen: Meaning, because they’re always seen as being self-interested or deceptive actors, or what does that mean?
Brad Vermurlen: That’s right. There’s also views that people are just kind of, culture is used as a tool rather than as a motivating force. So simple things like people acting on their values, but then more complicated things like religious adherence becoming the substance of a movement that maybe they’re attending a Calvinistic megachurch and they’re not even fully aware of what Calvinism is. And so they become the substance of a movement that they don’t know fully about. There’s obviously the importance of the internet and social media in the rise of this movement. There is the importance of carefully contextualizing the gospel and the Christian message to certain local contexts, responding to postmodernism and the emerging church. I could list off 10 more if you want me to.
Collin Hansen: Well, I’m sure more of those will come up as we keep going on this. One of the things I had to push through, you’re coming from this perspective as a sociologist. I’m coming from it as a journalist with kind of a historical orientation. One of the things I often found is I would talk to a pastor and I’d say, “Why do you think this is happening?” And he would say, “Well, because it’s true.” I’d say, “I happen to agree with you, but that doesn’t explain why it would be happening now and why it wasn’t happening, because presumably, it was then true a generation or two ago.” So it was a bit of a challenge because I think, especially when I started working on this project in 2006, there wasn’t any other framework that anybody had put onto it.
So part of the challenge, I’m sure that you faced was trying to interact with the framework that I gave it. But then trying to bring challenge to that perspective, I’m sure from some corners, and then also trying to find evidence of whether I was right on some things. What kind of response did you get from colleagues in the sociology guild as you were working on this project? Were they supportive in any ways, baffled, antagonistic? What was that like?
Brad Vermurlen: Well, there’s so much to say there. First, I should clarify that, you mentioned people saying that the New Calvinism arose because it’s true. As a sociologist, this book doesn’t address the issue of which theological claims are true or false. It focuses exclusively on the social, institutional, and cultural dynamics at play. To the extent, it’s possible, I have to bracket the, I guess, metaphysical truth of theological claims and focus on those sociological issues, which creates a different type of project than what you did in certain parts of your book, where you were religiously confessional. This book is not that way. In terms of responses from my sociological colleagues, the book was largely an exercise of me being alone, whether that was traveling alone or writing alone for a course of some years, and then until I got married, and then my wife was along the way with me.
But I didn’t have much interaction with many people on the book, but when I did talk to people about what I was doing, at least the people who were familiar with American religion, there was some confusion when I said New Calvinism, some people thought I meant the Kuyperian style, Neo-Calvinism of mid-century. And I had to explain, no, this is actually, it’s a related movement, but it’s different. It’s a different thing going on. It’s something that’s arisen just in the last 20 years or so and it involves different people. So there was that confusion with Kuyperian neo-Calvinism.
A lot of people thought that I was setting out to do kind of a comparative study because I did travel to three of the largest, most influential Calvinistic megachurches in the United States: Mars Hill, Redeemer with Keller,, and Bethlehem Baptist Church with Piper. And when people heard that, they assumed that I was comparing them, comparing these three megachurches or something along those lines. But that’s not what the project was either. Those were sites for gathering data, but the framework of the book is not comparative. It’s not historical. It’s an interview-based and participant-observation-based study of actually, the entire field or landscape of American evangelicalism. So those were just sites to gather data at.
Brad Vermurlen: I should say that I got a lot of good encouragement from my dissertation committee at Notre Dame. I was working both in the sociology department and in their Center for the Study of Religion and Society. And so there was no pushback or concern about, why would you study American evangelicals or something like that, or even Calvinist. It’s a great place to study religion, as you probably know.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, that’s very true. And Christian Smith is somebody whose work I relied on heavily in producing and originally writing the book that came out in 2008. His explanations were largely the backdrop of my assessment for why this New Calvinism was emerging. One of the things I ran into, Brad, is sometimes people thought I was saying that Calvinism had become the biggest subset of evangelicalism. But I never actually made that claim. In fact, over the same period of time, I’d say you’d find much more growth in the millennial demographic from charismatic movements, like Hillsong, just to give an example. In your view, what makes the influence of New Calvinism worth studying, if it’s not even the biggest or necessarily fastest growing movement within that realm of evangelicalism?
Brad Vermurlen: Yeah. That’s a great question. I talk about this in the book. You’re right, it’s not the biggest subset of American evangelicalism. They might not even be the fastest-growing. The story is largely the story of what, if I had to sum up the whole what’s going on in the book. It’s the social construction of a religious movement. I set out to look for the more qualitative and social dynamics that explain the resurgence of Reformed theology, apart from numerical growth. So I recognize in the book that there has been numerical growth since say the ’80s or something, about Calvinism among American evangelicals. But there’s also been huge growth, as you said, in things like the Hillsong movement, Pentecostalism, progressive or emergent evangelicals. And the mainstream, I guess you’d say infrastructural backdrop of American evangelicalism is huge.
So it’s hard for much to research against that backdrop. It is a fairly circumscribed movement, and it makes up only a fraction of American evangelicalism. But to go to the remainder of your question, it is a powerfully influential movement within American evangelicalism. You see that in the weight that it carries by some of its conferences, and networks, and websites. The Gospel Coalition is very influential, Acts 29 is very influential. And so despite being, I’d say, well under half or even a quarter of American evangelicalism in terms of lay people, it carries disproportionate weight and impact in the field.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I think there are metrics that are available today, or even that were available to you, that were not available to me when I was writing some of these things. I could look at, especially the influence of seminaries, and I would say, especially within the Southern Baptist Convention, the New Calvinism is significantly overrepresented. And it’s I mean, just in proportion to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the largest Protestant denomination. That was one of the primary metrics I used looking through Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under Al Mohler’s leadership since 1993. But you’re right, there are a number of other metrics, a number of conferences that have emerged since then. A lot of different transformations, aspects of commercialism, book sales, though Calvinists sell a lot of books, but tend to not sell nearly as many books as other movements, whether being progressive or sort of generic evangelicalism or even prosperity gospel.
So Calvinists don’t even really measure up, even with their top writers in those capacities. But you do have the example, this is why I’m saying it feels almost being incepted, talking about these things on this interview, because you have The Gospel Coalition website being one of the handful of largest Christian content websites in the world by any sort of objective standard. And so that public standard is what I mean there. So that’s something that’s relatively new and fits into that social construction of religious movement that you’re talking about there. Now your book again, goes way beyond, which I’m so grateful for. I learned a lot, my work from a decade ago. What do you mean, Brad, when you say that “the strength and prominence of this new Reformed movement reveals the increase in weakness, fragmentation and incoherence of the evangelical field as a whole”?
Brad Vermurlen: Right. That is a big part of the backend of the book, is I start by describing the movement, looking at the broader field and the other expressions of American evangelicalism, and building a model that explains the social construction of this religious movement. But by the end, the big part of that model is conflict, and competition, and jockeying for position in the field. And so by the end, I think it becomes clear that the strength and resurgence of the New Calvinism, simply by describing it and explaining it, one comes to see that the field of American evangelicalism is highly contested. And you end up with lots of different theological, and moral, and social positions on almost every issue under the sun.
And so in that sense, by telling the story of the New Calvinist movement and how it’s arisen since the turn of the millennium, say, you end up having to work through views on things like soteriology, ecclesiology, baptism, sexuality, gender, and all sorts of other issues, that once you really start to see the New Calvinism and the role it plays in the broader field of American evangelicalism, you start to see that a big part of the story is the conflict and the infighting among the leaders of American evangelicalism. Not even looking at the laypeople, but among the leaders, there’s a lot of different positions completely incompatible with one another in various camps. I’m not saying that within the New Calvinism, but between the conservatives and the progressives and what I call Neo-Anabaptists. And then just generic mainstream evangelicalism. I eventually call it incoherence. It’s an increasingly incoherent field, in my view.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, that was definitely the part of the book that I felt advanced the argument and advanced our understanding the most. I happen to completely agree with you about that. I want to talk more about that because you touched on a couple of things that I’ve done, the book on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism, the four views book that I edited in 2010. That book itself was very eye-opening to me. In the aftermath, I learned a lot about the nature of evangelicalism in that process, and why it’s inherently incoherent, I would argue. And then also, some of my reflections on the 10-year anniversary of the book’s publication, identifying several different stages, I shift from a focus on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, into a focus on ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, into now, where we are, a debate over and a focus on public theology, which is itself, dividing the New Calvinists among themselves. Even as furthering the incoherence that you talk about in evangelicalism, in general.
Speaking of this, Brad, I’ve come to see the New Calvinism as a movement of denials as much as affirmations. So yes, of course, this is a positive program of biblical and theological and historical retrieval of Reformed theology and its variance, and a pursuit of the glory of God and a desire to exegete, to preach the whole counsel of scripture. That’s the positive side of things. At the same time, I think every movement has particular reactions, and the particular reactions I’ve identified have been reactions to either, one: mainline liberalism, two: evangelical minimalism, think kind of megachurch-style evangelicalism. And then fundamentalist maximalism. Focus on a number of the peripheral or what an evangelical would call peripheral issues there. What do you think, Brad? Is that accurate in your research? Am I on the right track there?
Brad Vermurlen: Yeah. I want to go back and talk about something that you mentioned about these kind of phases of the New Calvinism, and the most recent phase being public theology. I should say I finished something like 85 or 90 percent of the book four years ago, when I was working on my PhD and finishing up my PhD. After I finished the book, I sat on it for over a year and a half. So I actually don’t get into a lot of the more current controversies about things like wokeness, intersectionality, critical theory, and race. That will have to be another project for-
Collin Hansen: Next edition. Next edition, Brad.
Brad Vermurlen: Yeah. So it stops short of controversies that have arisen in the last two or three years and have, I guess, intensified. So I should say that. But going back to what you were saying about the positive and the negative, yes, there’s certainly things that the New Calvinism is for and championing. And then you also see the things they’re pushing back against. And I detail these at great length in the book. Pushing back against, like you said, certain progressive and liberal expressions.
I’ve found that the New Calvinism isn’t so much interested in, you mentioned mainstream, not mainstream, mainline liberal Protestantism. And from what I’ve seen, the New Calvinism isn’t so much interested in speaking to mainline Protestantism, because they’re not part of the same field. What they are interested in pushing back against are progressives, who would self-identify as evangelicals, or at least did five years ago because they’re part of the field, part of the conversation. So in sociology, one of the ideas is you’re not going to bother critiquing somebody who’s not even in the conversation.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, I think the way I’d put it, Brad, is that the boundaries are maybe a bit more porous than that, in my experience, because you’d see a number of people who come out of a kind of evangelicalism, not usually a Reformed evangelicalism, but a kind of evangelicalism, but they head out into mainline liberalism, even as they continue to speak to evangelicals. This would have been Rachel Held Evans’s example. Rachel and I, we’re born the same year and so we have contemporaries there. So you see her, she grew up evangelical, she spoke mostly about evangelical issues. But she ended up as a mainline Episcopalian. My story is the opposite. I grew up United Methodist, and then came to Reformed theology through college, and then pursued that within my adulthood and into my career.
And so as I have simply surveyed different movements, institutions within evangelicalism, it’s pretty remarkable how many people have a story similar to mine, of having grown up in a United Methodist context. But yeah, you’re right. We’re not inhabiting the same publishing spheres, not the same conferences, not the same institutions. But I do think those boundaries are somewhat porous between the two.
Brad Vermurlen: Yes, the boundaries are completely porous. I completely agree. One of the things I get into in the book, is that the boundaries of American evangelicalism are not clear. They’re porous, and they’re contested. I’m, by no means, the first or even the hundredth person to say such a thing. One potential critique of the book is that, by including people like Rachel Held Evans, and Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, these are all people who I’ve interviewed and included in the book, that I’m actually including something like mainline liberal Protestants. That might be, but if they say, like Rachel used to, and I think Doug still does, “I’m an evangelical.” Then you get into the sociological issue of, okay, so what do we do about that? If you self-identify as an evangelical, but you look more like a progressive Episcopalian, where does that leave you?
Collin Hansen: Yeah, well, where I concluded working on The Spectrum of Evangelicalism book, which you pick up on in this book, which I want to talk about in a little bit, is that there’s no authority. There’s no shared text. So without that, how are you supposed to definitively say? Who is the one who gets to define what evangelicalism is? I think people who are more in my confessional evangelical camp can misunderstand what I’m trying to say there. I’m not making a theological point.
I do believe the theological content of evangelicalism can be properly defined biblically and historically. But I am making a journalistic or even a sociological explanation to say, by what mechanism do we propose to enforce those boundaries? They don’t exist. Not outside of individual institutions, parachurch institutions, places like Wheaton College or Christianity Today. They can do that, no problem. But not this thing called evangelicalism. That doesn’t exist.
Brad Vermurlen: That’s exactly right. Now, on a surface level, there is an authority and I had text literally, that governs American evangelicalism, the Bible.
Collin Hansen: Yeah, yeah. Thank you for clarifying. Yes.
Brad Vermurlen: So the problem comes, is when there are 20, or 30, or 40 different combinations of ways to interpret the Bible. And everybody is, in principle, approaching it in good faith, and they think they’re approaching the religious truth and they’re doing a good job. And then you get to the question of, they’ve landed all over the map and then there’s no overarching authority in American evangelicalism to say, “You’re wrong, you can’t hold that view. And no, you can’t go plan a church based on those views and you can’t hold a conference and organize a conference.”
There’s confessional authority, if you are a confessional Reformed, or if you’re a confessional Lutheran with an evangelical approach, or evangelical Anglican, or something along those lines. You can have these historical confessional authorities. And there’s much more of a route paved out about what’s accepted and what’s not. But that’s not most of American evangelicalism, and it’s certainly not American evangelicalism as a whole. In that sense, even though you have the Bible as both an authority and a text, you end up with interpretations all over the map on nearly every issue, and no way to adjudicate between which views are within the bounds and which ones are outside of the bounds. People will try to make those calls, but people aren’t obligated to listen to them.
Collin Hansen: That’s one reason why, when Don Carson was articulating the purpose behind The Gospel Coalition, he employed the phrase, being prophetic from the center. The idea there was, we want to hold out an example of what evangelicalism has been at its best, and what it ought to be, to become a model. A model for what it ought to be, but not a patrol. It’s a fruitless exercise to try to patrol the boundaries of evangelicalism. You have no mechanism by which to do it. But you can give an example. You can give a model. You can contend in the public sphere for a certain set of beliefs that you describe as being properly evangelical. That’s one thing, I don’t know if a lot of people have picked up on that, but that’s one thing that’s guided The Gospel Coalition since its inception in the mid-2000s.
One thing I did not understand when I was writing the book in 2008, but I’ve come to understand since then, and learned a lot about from your work as well, Brad, is that my writing did not just observe a movement, but in fact, helped to create it. I learned that, Brad, when I heard countless stories of young adults reading the article for Christianity Today and the book, and for the first time identifying themselves as part of something bigger. And this was the crazy part, Brad, that I kept hearing stories of people coming to faith in Jesus for the first time, reading the article and the book. That was not something I had expected at all. But I actually think that when you think of periodicals and you think of book publications, that’s an important aspect of American evangelical history and identity.
I actually think something similar, and I’m not trying to put this on the same level, but just the same phenomenon, something similar happened in the First Great Awakening in the 1740s with Jonathan Edwards and the Prince family, father and son, their work on the publication, The Christian History. It more or less defined, identified the First Great Awakening itself. I think the same thing happened in the 1940s with the new evangelicals, that publications that would emerge like Christianity Today in 1956, both described and also created the movement. What do you think from a sociologist perspective about that observation?
Brad Vermurlen: Once again, I think that’s exactly right. I say this about your work in my book, both about your 2006 article with Christianity Today and the follow-up book in 2008. That it not only described the New Calvinism, but helped to create it and to fortify it. And that’s one of the many causal mechanisms that contribute to the social construction of this religious movement.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I ended up doing a lot of research after I worked on this book while I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and I focused on evangelical periodicals. And as I did that, I came across work from the First Great Awakening, critique of the First Great Awakening from historians like Frank Lambert, who were arguing that it was all a manufactured myth. It resonated with me in part because in 2006, when I published the article, I didn’t have other frames of reference. And so I wondered if I had been manufacturing something that didn’t really exist.
And in fact, some very highly placed people within evangelical institutions thought the same thing. Now, more than 10 years later with your book and others, that’s not the case. I think we can very clearly see the outline of an institution and a movement that’s continued to morph, and in some ways, to grow over time. But there were many things I did not understand that only came into view much later, after the book was already out there and circulating. I wondered, Brad, have you discovered any parallel movements to the New Calvinism in other Christian traditions, or even outside the faith that might help explain the conditions that gave rise to this movement?
Brad Vermurlen: I’ll get to that, but one thing I want to say about the movement being real, one thing that I would hammer over and over again in sociology is, just because something is socially constructed doesn’t mean it isn’t real. So I do describe the book as the social construction of a religious movement, but the movement itself is very real. It’s real, it’s big, and it’s powerful. It may be losing some of its force in recent years with some big names retiring, or sadly passing away.
But I do want to say, the argument of the book is not that New Calvinism isn’t real, it’s that it’s real and it’s socially constructed. But other movements that run parallel to the New Calvinism. Yes, there are other, I guess you could call them options, of ways to respond to what I call the hypermodern context. So you have Neo-Anabaptist evangelicalism, that is, itself, its own little thriving evangelical subculture centered around places like Missio Alliance and people like David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, who-
Collin Hansen: Which by the way, emerged very self-consciously as an alternative to The Gospel Coalition. And interestingly, one of my really good friends, the late Rob Moll, also a journalist at Christianity Today, around the same time, wrote about the New Monastics for Christianity Today, very similar dynamics. I think different in terms of scale and scope, but we were engaged in similar projects of discovering and helping to identify these movements through journalistic means.
Brad Vermurlen: That’s right, yeah. In the book, I include the New Monasticism within the umbrella of the Neo-Anabaptist evangelicals, mainly because of the influence of Shane Claiborne. But you also have kind of more Pentecostal and charismatic expressions of evangelicalism that are different responses and reactions to the same cultural and institutional context that produced the New Calvinism. You have prosperity responses. You also have people just kind of leaving evangelicalism and leaving evangelical Protestant faith. Whether that’s for Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, or just for becoming secular and not religious. So there’s all sorts of ways to respond to a hypermodern context and a post-9/11 world and all of the sorts of conditions and uncertainties that, that brings about. The New Calvinism is one plausible response.
Brad Vermurlen: One thing that reminds me of is the, speaking of like a posture in a post-Christian context, or what I use in the book, a hypermodern context. Hypermodern means roughly what people would think of as postmodern, but I don’t like saying postmodern because of what it implies about its relation to modernity. I think postmodernism is an intensification of the assumptions of modernity. But anyways, in that type of context, there’s the very basic question that evangelicals constantly wrestled with, with what type of posture to take that type of world?
One of the threads throughout the book that may not be clear, and that maybe I should highlight, is the idea of strategic action and positioning. Strategic positioning in the field in a way that is thoughtful and intentional and strategic. So in sociology of religion, this is actually, in my view, an overlooked dynamic of American religion, because there’s all sorts of theories about, how do people come to hold traditional or conservative religious beliefs? And you get all sorts of answers.
Things like, well, it’s based on economic anxiety, or it’s based on people wanting power, or there’s answers about gender dynamics. And there’s just a whole slew of answers about how traditional and conservative religion can thrive and gain adherents in this type of context. And one of the points I try to make in the book is that, an overlooked theory, is that it can make compelling arguments. Arguments that people find to be good, and true, and beautiful, and that they can contextualize carefully, and preach well, and have churches with great music and good aesthetics, and that sort of thing. So aside from conflict, which is a big part of the book, there’s also this strategic, thoughtful approach to ministry that I try to draw throughout the book.
Collin Hansen: When I think of strategic action, I think even about that very overlap in terminology that The National Association of Evangelicals used in the 1940s, and even including their publications, that they cited, Evangelicals United for Action. I think people may see, and I understand where you’re coming from in terms of the splintering, the Reformed movement is exemplary of the splintering, the fragmenting of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is, itself, a renewal movement within Protestantism, and I see the Reformed movement less as a splintering or a rejection of the American evangelical experiment. But more as a renewal of it.
So, less as a repudiation of what had been done originally, through the generation of the 1940s and ’50s, and more of a seeking to recover the best of what they had done in light of the best of what had happened in the awakenings before them. And so I like the concept, not only of conflict, because I think people could get the wrong idea with conflict to say, “Oh, it’s because they just thought everybody else was wrong and they were right.” Well, of course, there’s always going to be conflict.
Carl Henry, John Ockenga, Billy Graham, they were all very critical. They started Christianity Today magazine because they were critical of Catholics, because they were critical of mainline Protestants, because they were critical of fundamentalists. But they were also engaged in a strategic action for positive aims. I think that’s a lot of what the new Reformed movement is trying to do as well. At least as I experience and understand it, recognizing I don’t have any right to speak for everybody else.
Let me wrap up with this question, Brad, the New Calvinist movement, I do think it continues to grow, near as I can tell, but as we’ve been discussing here, it has fragmented due to, I think, two factors above all, politics, especially post-Trump, and racial strife. You quoted some of my writing and speaking in 2016 during the election, specifically ran in The Washington Post along these lines about, well evangelicalism broadly, but trends that have included the New Calvinist movement. Now, I know this is not necessarily the kind of talk you want to engage in, but does your research suggest that the movement, as you projected out or kind of closed the gap on those last four years, can the movement be reassembled, or would you say that its time has come and gone?
Brad Vermurlen: That’s a tough question. Like I said, I finished the project mostly four years ago, and the book is coming out only now. And so I focused a lot more intensely on those types of issues, and the conflicts, and all the dynamics going on pre-2016, which was bad timing on my part. It’s very important what’s happened since 2016. I think you’re right, that I do have a short appendix. It’s the last part of the book, and the title of that appendix is, “Is the New Calvinism Past Its Prime?” There, I give a little bit of an update and my hunch about what’s going on. Now, in some ways I do think it’s fair to say that the New Calvinism is losing steam. And I think that’s probably an understatement, you have leaders going in different directions on politics, and race, and how to relate to things like intersectionality, and identity politics.
So it’s not as cohesive as it once was. At the same time, Reformed theology and the things that come along with it in this movement, things like the natural complementarity of men and women, and certain conservative views on things like marriage and sex and other sorts of distinctives that come along with the New Calvinism, don’t really need to rely that much on the New Calvinism being the New Calvinism, the way it was from say 2006 or ’08 through 2014 or ’15. The basic idea in that little appendix is that, even after the movement fades away and big names retire or pass away and megachurches like Mars Hill or whatever, splinter and become autonomous churches, that the New Calvinism, the ideas that are behind it, are well situated to go on into the foreseeable future. At least among a segment of Americans, of American evangelicals.
It offers something distinctive that you don’t get other places, that you don’t get from mainstream megachurch evangelicalism. You don’t get it from the Neo-Anabaptist, you don’t get it from the progressives. And so I’m not one for predicting the future, I don’t think that’s the job of social science. But yeah, that last part of the book where I just say, it really does seem to be losing some steam. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean Calvinism is going away. It doesn’t mean gender complementarianism is going away, and it doesn’t mean conservative views on these hot button social issues are going away. It just means that they’re going to proceed under, maybe different names in the coming decades.
Collin Hansen: I would say, Brad, I’ll play the prognosticator here, because I won’t put you in that position. I’d say it’s no surprise that the new evangelical movement arose in the aftermath of World War II. I don’t think it’s a surprise that the Jesus movement, which would become that kind of pop culture evangelicalism, emerged in the aftermath of Vietnam. I don’t think it’s a surprise that the New Calvinism emerged in the aftermath of 9/11. And I think something else will emerge in the aftermath of President Trump’s time in office, whether that is coming soon to an end, or I mean, we’re recording this before the election, so we don’t know, or whether it is in another four years.
Simply because, through the Coronavirus, through a lot of the contested nature of what we’re seeing politically and religiously, a lot of trends that have been going in a certain way have accelerated pretty significantly during the last four years. Especially trends of hostility toward the church, trends of contentiousness within the church, trends of church attendance on the decline, all kinds of things like that. So I tend to personally think the New Calvinism is well situated because of our beliefs to handle that movement. But I just don’t think it’s going to look the same way. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Brad Vermurlen: Yea, so the book doesn’t end on a optimistic note. It leaves the reader just sitting there and thinking like, “Oh, wow, where do we go from here?” And that’s because that’s where I sit too. Looking at American evangelicalism as a whole. Now, what I say at the end of the book is that, what I see is pockets of sub-cultural and local strength within a broader framework of dissolution, or what I call, borrowing from another sociologist, cultural entropy. So cultural entropy is the idea that you have this cultural system, in this case American evangelicalism. That from the beginning was, to borrow a phrase that I quote in the book, a combustible combination, it was always an uneasy combination of different things,
Brad Vermurlen: And so you end up with pockets of sub-cultural and local strength. So you’re going to have a thriving prosperity church down in Texas or something, and you’re going to have a thriving Calvinistic church somewhere else. You’re going to have all sorts of big churches doing well, by all measures. And you’re going to have some denominations that are even probably doing well. But overall in a, if I can use the word universal in this case to mean all of American evangelicalism, if you look at locally, you can see strength and thriving.
But looking at American evangelicalism universally, I think you see dissolution and entropy and this kind of, things just kind of falling apart. If I had to take a guess, I think that’s what you’re going to see in 10 and 20 years is, obviously new coalitions will form, new alliances will form. But I don’t think it will make much sense anymore to talk about American evangelicalism as a movement, as a single movement. And I make that argument in the book, at this point in history, at best, it’s a contested field.
Collin Hansen: I couldn’t agree more, Brad, and you drew that out in ways. You picked up on this, what I said in 2018 at T4G, I do not believe evangelicalism is real as a national overarching phenomenon. It’s something that you can categorize according to a set of observations, sociological observations, on a local level. But as an overarching movement, I mean, the pockets may occasionally bump into each other, they may occasionally contest with each other, but there’s simply no overarching, cohesive mechanism for drawing them together in some kind of united action. And it’s also, it’s not a self-identity, it’s a self-identity only in so far as I believe it is a political expression.
But otherwise, evangelicalism is not a place that most of evangelicals live. They tend to live in the context of their church, in the context of who they podcast and who they read, maybe then inside a denomination. But I just, I don’t think it’s a space that they self-consciously inhabit, and that’s why I think historians, and sociologists, and journalists, all have to be really careful about how they talk about it, because it can be something you may be able to look back on history and describe. But it’s hard because it’s simply not an identity marker in a contemporary fashion for most of the people who are included in it. And that’s why I argue, I’m simply not convinced that it’s a real phenomenon in that sense.
Brad Vermurlen: Now, you do have people who self-identify as evangelical.
Collin Hansen: Sure.
Brad Vermurlen: They are, I think, increasingly rare. I interviewed 75 leaders for this book, and a lot of them clearly evangelical leaders, sociologically. They don’t want to apply the word “evangelical” to themselves for various political reasons or whatever, for what it’s come to mean in the American imagination. But you do have people who say, “Yeah, I’m an evangelical.” But what they mean by that, I mean, the next question always should be, which kind of evangelical? What kind of church do you go to? What type of preachers do you enjoy learning from? On that issue, they could be all over the map.
Collin Hansen: Right, and they may not recognize, even somebody else, as being an evangelical of having any relevance to them, which is why I often mention that I don’t think people in Birmingham, Alabama, as evangelicals, really care what happens in Grand Rapids, or Wheaton. It just doesn’t seem to occur to them of why they should care about that, even if they’re reading books that were published in those locations. It’s not an identity they typically inhabit, and insofar as people do continue to identify that way, as I mentioned before, I think in many cases, it’s become, well, I’m white, I’m a Christian, somewhat observant at some level, and I vote Republican. That’s more or less become the synonym, I think, for evangelicals.
I’m not going to put you on the spot to have to answer that question, but I think that’s what’s happened. So that’s why I appreciate, Brad, your work as a sociologist to help give understanding for these things. You’ve certainly taken what I’ve done and radically improved it, and then given me a lot of insights. And I hope people will check out the book as far as they can. Of course, it’s an academic book, so you may not be buying it yourself. May be able to check it out at a library near you, a theological library near you, from what I’ve seen about it. But having read it, full of really good insights, especially if you’re like me and you love the discipline of sociology, especially for the study of American religion. So my guest again on Gospelbound has been Brad Vermurlen, author of Reformed Resurgence: The New Calvinist Movement and the Battle Over American Evangelicalism. Brad, thank you for joining me on Gospelbound.
Brad Vermurlen: Awesome. Yeah, thanks for having me. Glad to do it.