Pietism, Legalism, and the Culture Wars

By Jeff Mallinson


Colloquially, the terms Puritan, prude, square, goodie-goodie, Pietist, fogey, prig, and legalist are interchangeable. Nonetheless, to truly understand the relationship between church and culture in America today, we must maintain a clear distinction between two of these words: pietism and legalism. This will help us make sense of how, despite good intentions, American evangelicals have made serious strategic mistakes within the culture wars, and, in the process, have also failed to be faithful to their heritage.

What is Pietism? We discuss this topic in detail on this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland Podcast, where my co-host Dan van Voorhis sets forth four key characteristics of the movement, which flourished during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. The term properly refers to movements that emerged from German and Scandinavian Lutheranism. First, Pietism typically took the form of conventicles or house churches. These gatherings were not meant to break with the larger body, but rather an ecclesiola in ecclesia (a little church within the church). Second, it typically affirmed an optimistic, forward-looking postmillennial eschatology. Third, despite their appreciation for the basic message of Martin Luther’s Reformation, Pietists thought his reformation had been incomplete and too comfortable with its state-church compromise. Fourth, Pietism emphasized religion of the heart rather than religion of the head. Today, one sees the vestiges of Pietism amongst those who emphasize sanctification, extemporaneous prayer, and emotional singing.


What is legalism, then? Legalism is a theological and moral perspective that emphasizes rules, discipline, codes of conduct, and precise biblical codes of behavior over grace, forgiveness, freedom, and the Gospel. Legalists exist in Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant communities. They are the self-righteous type that Jesus chastised with tough words: “You hypocrite,” he explains, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matt 7:4-5) Elsewhere, he calls legalists, “… blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matt. 23:24) Legalists are spiritual bean counters. Their relationship with God, each other, and the church depends on a system of merit, even when they officially affirm the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone.

Now, not every Pietist is a legalist. In fact, Pietism’s emphasis on personal devotion sometimes leads to a form of anti-nomianism (rejection of the Law) and even anarchism (a utopian belief that no human government is necessary), since they reject the right of bishops or other authorities to dictate the rules of behavior within congregations. Just as many radical reformers in the sixteenth century (aka Anabaptists) rejected the legitimacy of both political and ecclesial power and hierarchy, many Pietists—especially in the Americas, disconnected as they were from their church bodies in the Old World—rejected the rituals and rules, in favor of discipleship and personal holiness. They wanted to be guided by love rather than laws.

Thus, we should use “legalist” to refer to someone who burdens people with unnecessary rules, and “Pietist” to refer to a particular historical movement and its tradition. How can this help us make sense of U.S. culture wars today? By understanding how politicians have lured those with Pietist impulses into confusing personal devotion with cultural control, American evangelicals can return to their primary purpose of being virtuous individuals who serve their neighbors, instead of being cultural bullies who stay up late worrying that other Americans might be breaking Christian moral codes.


Typically, Pietists wanted to embody an alternative kingdom in America. They sought to be a beacon of light in a violent frontier. They were allergic to ideological coercion. In short, despite their typical over-emphasis on sanctification, real Pietists are loveable, prayerful, sincere folks. They are as endearing as the Mennonites, Mormons, and Mr. Rogers. They advocate a kinder, holier way of life, and invite the rest of us to join them. They stay out of my grill, and they’re generally harmless.

But what’s gone weird these days is that secular powers in America have learned to manipulate evangelicals for their own political ends. This basic gambit is as old as civilization itself, but the current co-opting of evangelicals by the political right began with the work of strategists like Karl Rove (an atheist, by the way), who convinced voters that failing to support Republican candidates was the moral equivalent of allowing murder (because of abortion) and perversion (because of the threat to family values from the left). By the end of the twentieth century, many assumed that the marriage between conservative Christianity (many Pietists now included) and conservative politics was necessary, ancient, and inevitable. David Kuo’s book, Tempting Faith: The Inside Story of Political Seduction, provides more details regarding this history.


Pietism, a typically quietist movement with anarchic tendencies, has been seduced by the Constantinian dream. Unfortunately, they’ve come a couple centuries late to the party. No longer is holiness something to encourage amongst believers within a conventicle; holiness is now something to impose on society, through the arm of the state. To use H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous “Christ and Culture” typology, many American Pietists have been lured from their “Christ against culture” approach, past the “two kingdoms” or “Christ and culture in paradox” model of historic Lutheranism, and on to the Reformed “Christ the transformer of culture” model or even—for a full dose of power—the “Christ above culture” model of Roman Catholic Christendom.

All of this affects the everyday lives of Americans, who exist in a culture with the twin impulses of civic freedom and personal holiness. If you’re like me, you like that part of our national heritage, and you don’t want any sect to have the political power to enforce its religious rules on the culture. But if you have to employ that model, letting the Pietists run things is a particularly dreadful idea. You see, once a Pietist abandons his or her old rejection of political power as a means of spiritual improvement, and seeks to impose unnecessary rules on Christians and non-Christians alike, they become legalists indeed. Tragically, legalistic Pietists are neither faithful to their theological tradition nor culturally effective in America today. Fortunately, there is hope for a better way. American Christians can return to one thing the old Pietists got right: that Christians should take their faith seriously, and become beacons of light in a dark world, for the benefit of their neighbors. In the wake of a tiresome culture war, perhaps we can all join together as champions of Christian virtue (not rules) in our vicious age. Such champions will become heroes to all those who are being crushed and bruised by our decadent culture. By getting back to basics, we can shrug off our reputation as pestering squares, and return to being the spiritual revolutionaries and cultural healers we are meant to be.

-The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping a piña colada, beneath a fake Eiffel Tower, in Las Vegas, between chapters of David Ellefson, My Life with Deth: Discovering Meaning in a Life of Rock & Roll.