By now, it is a commonplace of the American religious scene that the majority of the nation's white Protestant Christians are split into “two parties.” The ideological dividing line runs between “mainline” denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians—and a bevy of conservative denominations and groups, but it also cuts through the mainline itself, which contains a substantial contingent of conservatives.
Among the two parties' numerous disagreements, theological and political, few have run deeper and longer than their difference over the meaning and importance of evangelism, the activity of “proclaiming the gospel” to those outside the Christian community. Is the church's prime call in this regard to seek conversions to the Christian faith, or is it to show the love of Christ by working for charitable goals and social justice? A well-known 1973 study of Presbyterian clergy found that the greatest polarization between self-described “conservatives” and “liberals” came over the relative priority of evangelism and social action. Indeed, the fight over these goals was an important (though by no means the only) factor precipitating the “split” early in this century.