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.
- Culture, whatever else it is, is the power to define reality.
- Culture can be conceived as a sphere, with a center and periphery.
- At the center of cultural spheres are ‘cultural elites’; they produce culture and command reality-defining power.
- New Calvinists are the major culture producers within American Evangelicalism, and have moved to its cultural center.
- As the cultural elites of Evangelicalism, the New Calvinists are uniquely situated to wield reality-defining power.
- The end result is a shift in the cognitive and normative definitions of American Evangelicalism.
- 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.