What is the sociological significance of the New Calvinists?

What is a sociologist of religion to make of the New Calvinism?

The New Calvinists, by which I mean that branch of American Evangelicalism that has arisen in the past 20 years centered on Reformed theology and complementarianism (including but not limited to the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd), don’t constitute a majority of Evangelicalism. I’d wager they’re very much in the minority theologically. Yet they seem to have influence within Evangelicalism that far exceeds their size as a group. Time Magazine, after all, called it one of their “10 Ideas Changing the World’ back in 2009- a claim that I met skeptically, particularly in light of the explosion of Pentecostalism in the global south during the same time period. Of all the religious movement in the world, why on earth should the activity of a wing of American Evangelicalism garner so much attention?

So my initial orientation to the question I posed at the beginning of this post was “Nothing worth speaking about”. I had chalked it up to the intrinsic stratification of the Western world (why mention the religious activity of millions of poor brown people when a handful of rich white Evangelicals are making graphic t-shirts?). In other words, the New Calvinism was a fad limited to a wing of Evangelicalism that ultimately was of no sociological significance.

Over the past couple of years, while exploring some literature in the sociology of culture and the sociology of knowledge, I’ve had the opportunity to reassess my position. While my assessment of the mere size of the movement is probably still accurate, my original conclusion couldn’t account for the vast cultural output of the New Calvinism (Books! Conferences! Rap music!), the celebrity status of their leaders or the fury with which they planted boundaries (Penal Substitution! ESV! Chromosme-based requirements for ministry!). Many conversations and shower-thoughts later, I came to the conclusion that the history and activity  of the New Calvinism is best described as a shift in American Evangelical identity. Below I’ve brief sketched some of the theoretical signposts that led to my conclusion (this is not a full argument by any means), in the hopes that it will make some sense of things.

  1. Culture, whatever else it is, is the power to define reality.
  2. Culture can be conceived as a sphere, with a center and periphery.
  3. At the center of cultural spheres are  ‘cultural elites’; they produce culture and command reality-defining power.
  4. New Calvinists are the major culture producers within American Evangelicalism, and have moved to its cultural center.
  5. As the cultural elites of Evangelicalism, the New Calvinists are uniquely situated to wield reality-defining power.
  6. The end result is a shift in the cognitive and normative definitions of American Evangelicalism.
  7. So what is the sociological significance of the New Calvinists? The New Calvinism is the cognitive and normative redefinition of American Evangelicalism to be centered upon Reformed Complementarianism.

I think this can account for a lot of the Evangelical experience with the New Calvinist movement that has occurred in the past two decades. If accurate, it perhaps raises the stakes for those who have seen them as a source of irritation- for they’re not just a movement within a branch of Evangelicalism, but the cultural center of Evangelicalism. The takeaway is simple but broad in its implications: The New Calvinists currently own the power to define Evangelical reality.

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9 Replies to “What is the sociological significance of the New Calvinists?”

  1. “The takeaway is simple but broad in its implications: The New Calvinists currently own the power to define Evangelical reality.”

    Now there’s a depressing thought.

    1. It doesn’t thrill me either; frankly, my antipathy to the movement probably clouded my first assessment that I describe in this post. All I can say is that if some other movement wants to usurp their position at the cultural center they should start producing more culture.

  2. This is a sharp analysis.

    I would add to it the observation that Calvinism has never been far from the surface of American culture.

    I would also note that the New Calvinists tell a compelling and easy-to-understand narrative.

    And I would call to everyone’s attention the considerable pushback against New Calvinism. Voices of an alternative Evangelicalism like Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Rachel Held Evans, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, and Lillian Daniels are being heard among Christians disaffected by and dissatisfied with Neo-Calvinism.

    1. The alternative Evangelical voices you refer to are possibly closer to the American cultural center than the New Calvinists are (which is more of a commentary of Evangelicalism’s place in the American cultural sphere than anything else). Likewise, being at the center of Evangelical culture may mean being further along the periphery of American culture as a whole. It may be that those alternative Evangelicals are (unconsciously) sacrificing a place in the center of Evangelicalism for greater capital in American culture overall.

  3. Which is to say that perhaps it’s better not to cling to the “evangelical” label that is nowadays often associated with sexism, intolerance and willful ignorance because of people like the über-Calvinists. Whenever I said that I was evangelical, I ended up having to explain that, no, I didn’t think the earth was 6,000 years old, I was not interested in locking women up in the kitchen or demanding submission from them, and I didn’t think that the narrative books of the Bible were all literal and historical. Now I say I’m a Christian and it makes for more interesting conversations.

    1. I appreciate that intuition and where it comes from. At the same time I’m loathe to cede the label, and what the New Calvinists have shown is that the cultural center can change. If another group were to start producing culture that could meaningfully compete they could move into the center.

  4. I actually don’t think the “new Calvinists” have the power to define Evangelical reality. Even though there is a massive output of books, music, conferences, etc., the NC brand of these things don’t have much of an influence on American evangelicalism as a whole, in my opinion. It pretty much all circulates within the NC camp (I can think of a few exceptions like Piper, who are liked even by Arminians and egalitarians, who try to take what they like and spit out the core of his theology). The evangelical cultural influencers are not the pastors and musicians of the NC camp….they are the Chris Tomlins and Rick Warrens.

    1. Good point about the Chris Tomlins and Rick Warrens of the Evangelical world Jennifer. I do think that the New Calvinists exist in the cultural center, although they do not comprise all of it. Chris Tomlin, for example, may define Evangelical reality related to “Worship music”, for example. Rick Warren exists in the center, although he notably got a vote of approval from John Piper during an interview a couple of years ago. What cements the NC position, to my mind, is seeing the boundaries that are patrolled in Evangelicalism and then assessing who keeps those boundaries. Complementarianism, for example, is a boundary that (I think) is almost entirely supported by NC organizations and thinkers. My hunch is that the NC is riding the association with complementarianism, actually. But even on other theological boundary issues NCs seem to be at the forefront of saying who’s in and who’s out.

      1. I suppose…I guess I never saw NC figures as influential outside of their own camp. I agree that they have clear boundaries and clearly communicate who’s in and who’s out…but they’re a tiny minority and often disliked, misunderstood, and/or caricatured by others. I would actually be ecstatic if it is indeed the case that the NC is becoming the cultural center of American evangelicalism, but I just don’t see it as the case. The biggest, hottest NC preachers attract a couple thousand to their conferences. The pragmatic, feel-good, wishy-washy preachers bring tens, hundreds of thousands. If you go into the average Christian bookstore, a very small percentage of the books are by NC guys and the wonderful dead guys that have inspired and molded their faith. I think in recent years the movement has indeed grown and people have indeed noticed, but I guess I’ve never perceived much influence on broader evangelicalism (except, like I mentioned in my original comment, a few exceptions like John Piper).

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