Born Again Christians

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Born Again Christians

The term "born again" leaped into public discourse in America when Jimmy Carter was running for president in 1975 and 1976. The candidate and future president of the United States openly used the common evangelical phrase for a decisive conversion to Christ to describe his own spiritual experience and status. At about the same time, convicted Watergate conspirator and former Nixon aide Charles Colson titled his spiritual autobiography Born Again. These and other events brought the concept of "born again Christians" into common usage. It had previously been used primarily by evangelical Protestant Christian evangelists and theologians to distinguish between themselves and their followers and other types of Christians who do not believe that initiation into authentic Christian life involves a conscious commitment to Jesus Christ as lord and savior.

The phrase "born again" is derived from Jesus' statement to a potential follower named Nicodemus in the Gospel of John, chapter 3: "You must be born again." (Some scholars prefer the translation "born from above," but "born again" is the more common English translation of the Greek.) This and other references to a "new birth" or a "new creation" in the New Testament were often interpreted as referring to the gift of God's grace in water baptism throughout church history. During the Reformation of the sixteenth century, however, especially the "radical reformers" (primarily those called "Anabaptists") emphasized the necessity of a personal crisis of conversion involving conscious repentance and faith for authentic Christian existence. In the seventeenth century the German Pietists proclaimed the necessity of a Buss-kampf —"struggle of repentance"—for true Christian conversion. The revivalists of the Great Awakenings in Great Britain and the American colonies, including John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, all focused their messages to the masses on the transforming experience of encounter with Jesus Christ through personal decisions of faith. The phrase "born again" became attached to the work of God in a person's life when he or she repented of sin and believed in Jesus Christ. Modern American revivalists such as Charles Finney, D. L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Billy Graham all used this terminology and required such an experience as the entrance into authentic Christian life.

The best-known purveyor of a "born again experience" in the twentieth century is evangelist Billy Graham. Through numerous sermons (many broadcast on radio or television), columns, articles, and books, the Southern Baptist preacher and "pastor to the presidents" promoted the experience of personal conversion resulting in being "born again." Like evangelical revivalists before him, Graham interpreted this experience as a transforming work of God known as "regeneration" in which the Holy Spirit goes beyond forgiving the converted person's sins to imparting a new affection for things of God. That is, a person who is born again desires to please and serve God more than anything else. Graham and other evangelical Protestants believe that when a person is born again the Holy Spirit (third person of the Trinity) enters into his or her life in a special way and begins to eradicate original sin and establish love for God and others. Baptist theologian Augustus Hopkins Strong defined regeneration—being "born again"—as "the expulsive power of a new affection."

Throughout at least the first half of the twentieth century, being a "born again Christian" was something of an oddity. While most Americans belonged to Christian churches, they placed their hope for eternal salvation in the grace of God received through the sacraments—especially infant baptism and the eucharist (Lord's Supper). Many were influenced by the newer liberal theologies of preachers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick, who implied a universal salvation and emphasized Christian nurture and a social gospel more than or even in place of special grace received through sacraments or personal repentance and faith. Those who spoke of the need of a personal decision for Jesus Christ (conversion) and regenerative work of God (born again experience) were often considered fanatics by more mainstream Protestants.

The second half of the twentieth century has witnessed a rise of respectability of born again Christians. This is so much the case that many evangelical Christians (a term virtually synonymous with born again Christians) began to shy away from the term "born again" out of concern that it was being too widely used for too many vague religious experiences. Some polls taken in the 1980s placed the total of the adult American population who claimed to be "born again" at as high as 40 percent. What changed? The answer lies in several new religious movements that affected numerous people across a broad spectrum of Christian denominations.

During the 1950s and 1960s Billy Graham and a host of other tent and television evangelists moved around the North American continent preaching the message of the born again experience. Many of them did not identify with any specific denomination and urged those who surged forward to their altar calls (invitations to accept Christ) to join the church of their choice. No longer did one have to join a fringe church or denomination to be a born again Christian. To the dismay of many more traditional and liberal Protestant ministers, many of their parishioners brought the gospel of being born again into their congregations and lobbied there for church renewal, revival, and even charismatic experiences.

The 1960s saw the rise of the so-called Charismatic Movement of neo-Pentecostal Christians, who remained in their mainline Protestant and Catholic churches while speaking in tongues and exercising gifts of healing, prophecy, and other spiritual experiences once confined almost exclusively to what traditionalists and liberals had considered a lunatic fringe of Christianity. Almost all charismatics considered themselves born again. The 1970s witnessed the rise of the so-called Jesus People Movement of hippies and other countercultural young people who converted to Christ and spoke often and loudly of being "born again Jesus freaks." When many of them eventually put on three-piece suits and joined the mainstream of society, they continued to believe that their true Christian lives (as opposed to nominal Christian identities as members of churches) began with their born again experiences.

The 1980s were the decade of the "Reagan revolution" in politics and the rise of the so-called Religious Right in American society. Previously, most evangelical (born again) Christians had avoided direct political action based on their religious beliefs and values. Throughout the 1980s, however, many self-appointed spokesmen for conservative evangelical Christians formed Christian organizations to promote a generally conservative social, political, and economic agenda. Two notable ones were the Moral Majority, founded by fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell; and the Christian Coalition, founded by televangelist and educator Pat Robertson. Many journalists and other social critics and observers assumed that these right-wing Christian political action groups represented all born again Christians. While many evangelicals did support conservative causes in a new way, many others chose to avoid labeling the entire evangelical movement as politically conservative. Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis rose to prominence as speakers and writers among more politically moderate and liberal evangelical Christians. Nevertheless, in the public mind, "born again Christian" came to be identified as virtually synonymous with the Religious Right.

By the early 1990s born again Christians had entered the religious and social mainstream of American society. The stigma often attached to being born again in the early part of the twentieth century largely dropped away as evangelical Christians exerted their voices and inserted their institutions firmly into the middle of American social, political, and religious life. Some observers believe that this mainstreaming process of evangelical, born again Christianity in the 1990s weakened its prophetic voice and that with respectability and acceptance came a certain vagueness about the message of being born again. At least three major challenges face the born again Christian community at the turn of the century and millennium: How will it avoid losing its cutting edge as a distinctive movement as it gains respectability and social acceptance? How will it be affected by the inevitable and impending death of leaders such as Billy Graham? The third challenge arises out of the politicizing of the community during the Clinton impeachment. Can the community reposture itself politically?

See alsoCharismatic Movement; Christian Coalition; Colson, Charles; Evangelical Christianity; Falwell, Jerry; Graham, Billy; Mainline Protestantism;Moral Majority; Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity; Religious Right; Robertson, Pat; Televangelism.


Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory:AJourney into the Evangelical Subculture. 1989.

Carpenter, Joel. Revive Us Again: The ReawakeningofAmerican Fundamentalism. 1997.

Colson, Charles, Born Again. 1976.

Graham, Billy. Just As I Am: The AutobiographyofBillyGraham. 1997.

Roger E. Olson