Book Review: ‘The Age of Evangelicalism’

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Book Review: ‘The Age of Evangelicalism’ by Steven P. Miller
The ‘religious right’ was merely the political aspect of a much larger cultural moment that may now be drawing to a close.

By BARTON SWAIM
July 3, 2014 8:27 p.m. ET
The word ‘evangelical,’ both the noun and the adjective, is burdened with ambiguity. It comes from the Greek (euangelion, meaning “good news”) and is the New Testament’s word for the Christian gospel. In the 18th century, it came to designate a party within the Church of England whose members tended toward Reformed or Calvinistic views on theology and liturgy, with their emphasis on Scripture rather than tradition and on good works as a consequence of salvation rather than as a way of achieving it. Over time, and especially in early 20th-century America, it came to describe anyone who believed the New Testament’s account of the “good news” about Jesus and who therefore wanted others to believe it, too. For the past 20 or 30 years, it has designated nearly any Christian believer, Protestant or Catholic, who feels strongly about his or her faith.

Which is to say that it’s not a very helpful word. Indeed, many evangelicals, or rather people who might otherwise be known as evangelicals, have long since disavowed the term. Steven Miller in “The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years” doesn’t work very hard to define it; he says only (in a parenthetical aside) that evangelicalism is “the label commonly given to the public expression of born-again Christianity.” That definition is at once too narrow and too broad. It’s too narrow because it deals only with “public expression”—that is, politics—as if evangelicalism were primarily a political creed. And it’s too broad in that it conflates people who want nothing to do with one another. What, other than perhaps a rough similarity in voting patterns, do followers of the mega-church Texas pastor Joel Osteen have to do with members of the primarily northeastern Orthodox Presbyterian Church? Not much.

The Age of Evangelicalism
By Steven P. Miller
Oxford, 221 pages, $24.95
Even so, Mr. Miller’s account of the rise and recent decline of evangelicalism in American politics and society is consistently incisive and well-researched. He begins in 1970. On July 4 of that year, Bob Hope and Billy Graham co-hosted an “Honor America Day” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The event blended Graham’s Bible-oriented preaching with a kind of ill-defined civil religion. Calls for personal repentance and acceptance of Jesus as savior blended with pleas for a return to the nation’s founding principles and for a more conservative moral code—almost as if the nation itself were God. As if to foreshadow the next 40 years of quasi-comedic acrimony between the right and left, both secular and religious, about 1,000 people protested the event, many of them holding a marijuana “smoke-in.”

During the 1970s, the line distinguishing evangelicalism from American society at large blurred to the point of vanishing. From the amorphous Jesus Movement to the craze for “end times” best sellers like Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” (1970)—a book, as I learned from Mr. Miller, made into a documentary narrated by Orson Welles —religious belief was in fashion. Celebrities were “born again” in droves. (The phrase comes from John 3:3: “Jesus answered and said . . . Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”) Bob Dylan had a brief born-again phase before moving back to some form of Judaism; so did the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver before moving on to Unificationism and, later, Mormonism.

It was from this strange cauldron that the “Christian right” was born. Attempts by the IRS to downgrade churches’ tax-exempt status in the early 1970s, together with the Supreme Court’s school-prayer decisions (beginning with Engel v. Vitale in 1962) and the Equal Rights Amendment (passed by Congress in 1972, though never ratified), pushed Bible-believing Christians to engage in politics as they never had before. But, even then, conservative Protestants’ marriage to the Republican Party wasn’t ensured. As late as 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, [and] clear evidence of severe fetal deformity.” It was only when Catholic organizations drew their attention to the full import of Roe v. Wade that many evangelicals took sides and made the pro-life cause a serious political force.

By the late 1970s, left-leaning evangelicals were badly outmanned. Concern for the poor (or, as I would put it, concern that taxpayers be concerned for the poor) could not compete with the feeling that areligious radicals were having their way in Washington. In the 1980 election, self-described evangelicals plumped in decisive numbers for Ronald Reagan —this despite the fact that Reagan’s religious credentials looked flimsy next to the devout Baptist Jimmy Carter’s. The evangelical right had reached a level of influence that many liberals found profoundly unnerving.

Mr. Miller narrates two “evangelical scares,” both of them roughly coincidental with the Reagan and George W. Bush presidencies and both of them inspiring emotionally overheated rhetoric from the evangelical right’s critics. Yale president Bart Giamatti averred, in a speech to the school’s freshmen in 1981, that evangelicals had “licensed a new meanness of spirit in our land”; television producer Norman Lear, rather less cleverly, saw only “fascism masquerading as Christianity.”

The second scare produced an even more intense panic, though the evidence for an evangelical resurgence—either political or cultural—was far less obvious than it had been in the early 1980s. Apart from the Terri Schiavo affair, in which congressional Republicans tried to stop a Florida man from having his coma-bound wife taken off life support, evangelical conservatives’ supposed renaissance amounted to little more than the election of an evangelical president and an experimental White House program to help the poor by means of “faith-based” institutions. (The program soon fizzled.) Comparisons between evangelicals and the Taliban abounded in the media, and academics who should have known better spoke as if a coup were imminent. “Seldom has the wall of separation between church and state,” wrote two Cornell professors in 2005, “seemed so fragile as in the America of George Walker Bush.”

By the mid-2000s, Mr. Miller notes, many observers wondered if efforts like those associated with President Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” “were but stalking horses for a broader agenda of ‘Christian nationalism.’ ” The author seems to sympathize with those observers, but I find it hard to see why a social group that had no influence on higher education or in the entertainment industry and very little in the mainstream media should have produced so much fear and loathing.

Mr. Miller is a refreshingly opinionated writer for an academic, though some readers will find his tone cynical. He hints at motives. The figures of whom he manifestly disapproves are always “positioning themselves,” as if he somehow knows that their writings and actions have reference only to their own reputations. The Catholic social critic Richard John Neuhaus “positioned himself as a hostile critic of the religious left,” for example, and the University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter “positioned himself as an impartial, if gravely concerned, chronicler of American public life.”

The figures of whom Mr. Miller approves, by contrast, are given far gentler treatment. The Pentecostal minister Eugene Rivers and the political scientist John DiIulio, both of whom have expressed left-leaning positions as well as centrist ones, are “deeply religious men who saw the church as the most effective force for addressing the social problems of needy Americans.” Still, “The Age of Evangelicalism” is one of the most efficient and well-rounded accounts of the evangelical movement in America to appear in recent years. It deserves a wide non-specialist audience.

Is the “age of evangelicalism” drawing to a close, as the author thinks and as most readers in 2014 will feel instinctively? In a sense, yes. The era when Bible-believing Americans were plausibly represented by self-assured bombastic moralists—Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell —is certainly over. But don’t confuse politics with culture. Many evangelical or otherwise orthodox Christians have realized that politics is only one among many manifestations of a culture’s values. They may have gone quiet. That doesn’t mean they’ve gone away.

—Mr. Swaim is writing a book on political language and public life.

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