Wafer-Thin Commitment -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

This political season has brought to the fore questions about what makes for an evangelical. We are told that scores of Evangelicals are voting for Donald Trump, and we wonder why. He sure doesn't seem like an Evangelical, but again what is the definition?  Martin Marty takes a look at the question as he takes note of a couple of Evangelical observers, including David Gushee.  Of course, this isn't a new question -- just ask Donald Dayton, who was asking that question three decades back!  In this piece Marty takes note of Gushee's use of the terms "wafer-thin" and "half-churched" to describe the state of the Christian community. Take a read and offer your thoughts.

Wafer-Thin Commitment
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 21, 2016
                 Credit: michael_swan / flickr
Now and then a word or a phrase is understood to be so appropriate to a situation that it enters the vocabulary or catalog of slogans. Thus Robert D. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” became coin of the linguistic realm. Generations ago we suddenly knew what being “other-directed” was, thanks to the work of David Riesman. Readers can no doubt think of many more. While Sightings has no credentials for coining or establishing such a word or phrase, we found one (or two) this week that ought to receive attention.

David Gushee is Vice-President of the American Academy of Religion, President-Elect of the Society of Christian Ethics, and a Wilbur-Award-winning blogger, whose “beliefs” are categorized on his blog-head as “Christian Evangelical.” One of his recent blog posts is headlined “The problem of the half-churched Christian.” The commitment of millions of believers to any particular denomination, he observes, seems “wafer-thin.” So, “half-churched” and “wafer-thin:” two coinages for the price of one. The word “churched” would make Gushee’s observation sound particularly Christian, but his word would be applicable to synagogues and other companies of the attached as well.

Gushee wrote on St. Patrick’s Day (a day for many “half-churched” Catholics of Irish descent and commitments from wafer-thin to very thick levels), as he entered the familiar discussions of What are evangelicals, how many there are, why they are no longer easily defined or discerned, etc. Were he of “Mainline Protestant” descent—there’s another coinage of our times!—informed readers would not be surprised to hear of half-churched adherents, but: evangelicals? Were Gushee of Catholic cohorts, he could take for granted that most readers will know half-churched members with wafer-thin commitments in that communion. As for Jews? No doubt, you get the point.

But “evangelicals?” Many political opinionators and reporters still write as if they thought “evangelicals” were knee-jerk partisans who respond only to signals of “the radical right.” Gushee knows better, as does best-selling author Eric Metaxas, who one day later, on March 18, blogged “Evangelicals and Politics: So What Is an Evangelical, Anyway?” He demonstrated concern about the protean, sprawling, and anarchic assemblage belief- and action-system of people casually called “evangelical.”

As we read Gushee, Metaxas, and scores of leaders and writers who care about the integrity of their—or anyone else’s—religious commitment and the clarity of their actions, we will, in the case of the Christian market accept the term “half-churched.” Gushee knows that there have long been such, but he chronicles from his Baptist background the decline of membership, regular worship participation, mobility, hyper-individualism, the atomization of communities like congregations, denominations, and more, how the “half-churched” populations came about freshly in our times.

Through the years we find ourselves bemused by the drastic changes in the “evangelical” category, the degree to which old-line evangelicals are exploited in politics, pop-culture and the market place. This is not the time or place for nostalgia about “good old days.” Wafer-thin commitment in anything is not a new invention or pastime. But Gushee’s terms are handy devices for dealing with situations that demand attention by pro- or con-evangelicals or their cultural counterparts in a time of schisms, chaos, dabbling and, here and there, fresh commitments in coherent communities. “Mere” anarchy is loosed upon the world….? Or is “half-” this or that the appropriate term?


Gushee, David. “The problem of the half-churched Christian.” Religion News Service, March 17, 2016, Blogs.

Metaxas, Eric. “Evangelicals and Politics: So What Is an Evangelical, Anyway?CNSNews.com, March 18, 2016, Commentary.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. Second edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Image: Evangelical liturgy. Credit: michael_swan / flickr creative commons.

To comment: email the Managing Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com. If you would like your comment to appear with this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-policies.
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at  www.memarty.com.
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