Published December 9, 2003
“Understanding American Evangelicals”
Key West, Florida
Dr. Mark Noll, McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Department of History, Wheaton College
Jay Tolson, Senior Writer, U.S. News & World Report
Michael Cromartie, Vice-President, Ethics & Public Policy Center
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: In recent years, and especially since the beginning of the Bush administration, a lot of questions have been asked about how to understand America’s large population of evangelical Christian believers. We could not have found a better person to inform us on this topic than Mark Noll, who is professor of Christian thought and history at Wheaton College in Illinois. Professor Noll is an expert on the history of North American religion, including evangelicalism and fundamentalism; his numerous books include TheScandal of the Evangelical Mind, American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction, and, most recently, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. After he speaks, Jay Tolson will make some comments in response. Then we can all discuss whatever political implications we might want to draw from what Mark and Jay have to say about evangelicalism.
DR. MARK NOLL: In the fall of 1740, George Whitefield-a young but already celebrated Anglican priest-embarked upon a preaching tour of New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies that became paradigmatic for American evangelical Christianity. During this ten-week tour he preached at least 200 formal sermons. Over 20,000 people gathered to hear him on the Boston Commons, which was considerably more people than lived in the city at the time. Whitefield’s effect on American Protestants arose from the combination of his message and his method. His message was single-minded: “My one desire is to bring poor souls to Jesus Christ.” His method combined an extraordinary disregard for inherited church traditions with a breathtakingly entrepreneurial spirit.
But Whitefield did not enjoy completely smooth sailing in America. On the morning of September 19, after he had had a friendly visit with the governor of Massachusetts Bay, he was summoned to meet with a committee of Massachusetts Anglican clergy. They bombarded him with pointed questions, such as: “We have heard that when you were in Savannah, you allowed a Baptist minister to take part in a communion service that you led. Could this really be true?” Whitefield replied that not only was this
rumor true but he was actually prepared, as a properly ordained minister of the Church of England, to receive communion from the hand of a Baptist!
Whitefield then went on to make a most important general statement: “It was best to preach the new birth, and the power of godliness, and not to insist so much on the form: for people would never be brought to one mind as to that; nor did Jesus Christ ever intend it.”1
Whitefield’s fellow Anglicans could not be convinced, but they had heard him articulate a defining principle of Protestant evangelicalism. In the evangelical movement that began with revivalists like Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards and would spread over the course of centuries to touch every continent of the globe, the foundation was unswerving belief in the need for conversion (“the new birth”) and the necessity of a life of active holiness (“the power of godliness”). Despite many later twists and turns, the path that Whitefield marked out in the mid-eighteenth century is still the one that American evangelicals follow in the early twenty-first century. To illuminate that path I will try to do four things: (1) define “evangelical,” (2) sketch the history behind contemporary evangelical movements, (3) estimate the number of evangelicals, and (4) explain why historic evangelical hymnody offers a glimpse of evangelical Christianity at its best.
WHAT IS AN ‘EVANGELICAL’?
The word has borne several different senses throughout history, but almost all are related to the etymological meaning of “good news.” The English word “evangelical” comes from a transliteration of the Greek noun “euangelion,” which the authors of the New Testament regularly used to signify the glad tidings-the good news, the gospel-of Jesus, who appeared on earth as the Son of God to accomplish God’s plan of salvation for needy human beings. Thus “evangelical” religion has always been “gospel” religion, or religion focusing on the “good news” of salvation brought to sinners by Jesus Christ.
During the sixteenth century the word “evangelical” began to take on a meaning associated specifically with the Protestant Reformation. In many places around the world to this day, Lutheran churches retain this older sense of the term, as in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The sense that is more common today, however, arose in the eighteenth century in connection with a series of interconnected renewal movements in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Britain’s North American colonies. Considered genealogically, evangelical Christianity has been constituted by the networks of influence that the promoters of those eighteenth-century revivals and their descendants have shaped. Yet evangelicalism has also always been constituted by the convictions and attitudes that emerged in those revivals.
In one of the most effective efforts to summarize those convictions and attitudes, David Bebbington has identified four key ingredients of evangelicalism: (1) conversion, “the belief that lives need to be changed”; (2) the Bible, the “belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages”; (3) activism, the dedication of all believers, including laypeople, to lives of service for God, especially as manifest in evangelism (spreading the good news) and mission (taking the gospel to other societies); and (4) crucicentrism, the conviction that Christ’s death on the Cross (Latin crux) provided the means of reconciliation between a holy God and sinful human beings.2 These core evangelical commitments have never by themselves yielded cohesive, institutionally compact, or clearly demarcated groups of Christians. But they do serve to identify a large network of churches, voluntary societies, books and periodicals, personal networks, and emphases of belief and practice.
Since the mid-eighteenth century evangelicals have played a significant role in the history of Christianity, especially on the North American continent and wherever else the British or American empire has spread.3 For much of the nineteenth century, white evangelical Protestants constituted the largest and most influential body of religious adherents in the United States (as also in Britain and Canada). Today groups descended from those eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movements are more visible than they had been for several decades. A majority of those in full-time preparation for the ministry in the Church of England have, for some years, been trained in evangelical colleges. In Canada, a majority of the Protestants in church on any given Sunday are in evangelical congregations. And throughout the world, Pentecostal and charismatic movements, which trace their lineage to developments within Anglo-American evangelicalism early in the twentieth century, are far and away the fastest-growing segments of world-wide Christianity.4
Historically considered, evangelicalism has always been diverse, flexible, adaptable, and multiform. From its origins, evangelicalism has also been profoundly affected by its popular character, as Nathan Hatch argues in his important book The Democratization of American Christianity, describing how eager many evangelicals were to exploit the new political and social freedoms in the early decades of U.S. history.5 The transnational character of evangelicals has been sustained by innovative but informal networks of communication. The critical agents of transmission have been voluntary associations (e.g., Bible societies), personal ties (e.g., to George Whitefield or Billy Graham), books (like C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity), periodicals (like Christianity Today since the 1950s), and, as I’ll take up at greater length soon, hymns.
Over the last hundred years or so, American evangelicals have passed through several distinct periods. Early in the twentieth century the battles between fundamentalist Protestants and modernist Protestants greatly weakened the general strength of Protestantism in American culture. But evangelical cultural influence had in fact been declining for several decades, owing to the large-scale immigration of non-Protestants, the growth of cities as multicultural sites, and the secularization of university learning. The passing of evangelical cultural dominance was accompanied, however, by some significant innovations. The most important was the emergence of Pentecostalism, which developed early in the twentieth century from emphases on Christian “holiness” that had long existed in several evangelical bodies. Politically, during this period, evangelicals united behind the drive for Prohibition but otherwise did not take distinctive political positions.
In the period of the Great Depression and the Second World War, evangelicalism was the least visible that it has ever been-before or since-in North American life.6 Self-identified fundamentalists largely dropped out of sight after losing control of the northern Protestant denominations and also suffering the ignominy of the Scopes Trial in 1925.7 Yet appearances were deceptive. Though largely invisible to main arbiters of American culture, fundamentalists advanced their version of evangelical faith in many arenas, and set in motion activities that shape evangelicalism to this day. The Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and the Church of the Nazarene were only some of the evangelical denominations that grew more rapidly than the population during the 1930s. Fundamentalists also pioneered in exploiting the airwaves for religious purposes. Leaders of ecumenical Protestantism negotiated with the new national radio networks for time to present a generic form of religious uplift. For their pains they were granted occasional half-hours on Sunday mornings. By contrast, fundamentalists and evangelicals illustrated their entrepreneurial bent by buying their own radio time in prime listening hours.
During the 1920s and 1930s, a number of groups that earlier had had little contact with English-speaking evangelicals continued the processes of assimilation and education that would one day bring them into the evangelical coalition. Around the Great Lakes, for example, radio broadcasts from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago found receptive listeners among the Dutch Reformed of western Michigan, some Lutherans, and a number of migrants from southern churches who had come north to find work during the Great Depression and World War II.
In this era, politics revolved around economic issues, in particular the appropriate role for government in the economy. Evangelicals reacted to these issues more in terms of their regional subcultures and their lower socioeconomic status than in terms of their religious values. With a few exceptions for radical fringe groups, religion seemed largely irrelevant to political life, and participation rates were low.
THE POST-WAR PERIOD
The quarter century or so after the Second World War was a new era for evangelicals. Convenient boundaries for this period are 1949 (and the first national publicity for Billy Graham) and 1974 (when the Graham-sponsored Lau-sanne Congress on World Evangelization took place).
By the late 1940s, the fluid, shifting life in the shadows that had prevailed for evangelicals since World War I was giving way to an apparently more monolithic movement. The impression that a well-unified, coherent evangelicalism-resembling in influence the Protestant revivalism of the nineteenth century-had returned was, however, a mirage. But it was a mirage with great staying power, largely because of the impact of Billy Graham. For nearly thirty years, from the end of World War II into the 1970s, the great visibility of Billy Graham and the heightened influence of institutions that he favored gave the impression that a unified evangelicalism had returned to America.
Post-war “neo-evangelicalism,” to use a phrase popular in the 1950s and 1960s, was considerably more than just Billy Graham. In New England, the Philadelphia area, the Upper Midwest, and California, a small but vocal generation of articulate post-fundamentalists came of age as willing colleagues of Billy Graham.8 In 1942 these leaders had founded the National Association of Evangelicals as a promoter of general evangelical concerns, and soon thereafter they created or expanded many institutions, including Fuller, Gordon-Conwell, Asbury, and Trinity seminaries, Christianity Today and several other periodicals, a number of active youth ministries, and a raft of new mission agencies.
But many other evangelical groups were related only marginally, if at all, to Graham and his associates. Pentecostals continued to expand in denominations like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ. Figures of great regional popularity such as William Marion Branham and Oral Roberts conducted large healing revivals.9 Such revivals were especially important for what came later, in that they prepared the way for the rapid spread among evangelicals-in the 1960s and the following decades-of charismatic music, emphases on healing, and therapeutic approaches to spirituality.
In the post-war era, evangelical pluralism was regional as well as denominational. The South has since the late nineteenth century been the one region with a majority of born-again, Bible-believing Protestants. Yet the relative isolation of the South from the rest of the country’s religious organizations-as well as the South’s distinctive history-has meant that the Billy Graham orbit did not actively engage much of the country’s largest population of evangelicals, despite Graham’s own Southern roots.10
Another evangelical group not directly related to the Billy Graham orbit is African Americans. Black Protestants in North America have always shared many of the personal convictions and religious practices of white evangelicals. But their experiences-at first under slavery and then in a racially segregated society-have been so radically different from those of white evangelicals that their story is difficult to incorporate into the larger picture. That difficulty is ironic, for black Christians are the ones who have experienced the Cross most dramatically. More than white evangelicals, they have lived out the pietist themes of comfort in Jesus and security in his cross.
Besides Pentecostals and blacks (and many black Pentecostals), a great number of other evangelical groups flourished beyond the Billy Graham orbit, including Southern Baptists, Mennonites, several of the Holiness churches, pietistic Lutherans, and many independent churches.
In marked contrast to the high-energy political action of the nineteenth century, evangelicals remained largely quiescent from the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928 to the early 1970s. Like most of the rest of the populace, Southern evangelicals were Democrats. Northern evangelicals were divided between the two parties and not very active politically, but when they did enter the political arena, they were less thoroughly Republican than mainline Protestants.
TOWARD PLURALISM AND POLITICIZATION
Over the last thirty-five years, the diversity that always existed within American evangelicalism has become much more obvious. Because of changes in both society and the churches, the Billy Graham orbit has shrunk relative to other expanding evangelical influences, while new leaders and new concerns have created a more pluralistic evangelicalism.
The sources of that diversity are many. For one, the rulings by the United States Supreme Court that in the 1960s eliminated prayer in the public schools and in 1973 legalized abortion contributed to the politicization of American religion. Evangelicals differed among themselves on how best to respond to these decisions. Those of the Billy Graham sort have remained either apolitical or, if politically engaged, relatively unobtrusive. By contrast, new leaders, like the Baptists Jerry Falwell and Timothy LaHaye and the lay psychologist James Dobson, entered politics with a vengeance during the 1970s and 1980s. These figures were all marked by unusual enterprise in using mass-communications media. They, rather than the “neo-evangelicals,” were the ones who created the New Religious Right and have made conservative evangelical support so important for the Republican Party since the campaigns of Ronald Reagan.
Their efforts transformed evangelicals from a political constituency that was more Democratic than Republican and relatively passive politically to one that has become more Republican than, and almost as politically active as, the American population at large. It took a second phase of Christian Right activism to mobilize the Pentecostal and charismatic wings of American evangelicalism. Pat Robertson’s 1988 presidential campaign did not fare all that well, but it did succeed in politicizing a large segment of the evangelical community that had not been involved before.
Recent decades have also witnessed a repositioning of old religious and ideological antagonisms. With secularizing changes at work across North America, even the very deep, historic antagonism between Catholics and evangelicals is breaking down. Evangelicals have also helped once sectarian groups like the Seventh-day Adventists and the Worldwide Church of God in their move toward more traditional Christian affirmations. At the end of the twentieth century, there were even a few signs of improved relations between some evangelicals and some Mormons, whom most evangelicals had long considered far beyond the pale.11 With the decreasing influence of the older, mainline Protestant churches, evangelicals now worry less about theological liberalism and more about multiculturalism, post-modernism, and the general secularization of public life. Evangelicals also now expend considerable energy in debating modes of public worship, with much support in many churches for innovative contemporary styles (as on display, for example, at the 17,000-member Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago), while others promote older patterns, and many vacillate in-between.
American evangelicals are participating fully in the increasing turn to images that is replacing the historic Protestant reliance on the written word. A culture dominated by television, advertising, and therapy has presented both problems and opportunities for evangelical outreach. What it has not provided is unity. As people who have served on the worship committee of a local evangelical church know well, evangelicalism embraces a full spectrum of musical tastes and a thoroughly diverse set of responses to contemporary culture-from those who race to baptize the most visible products of modern life to those who reject soft rock, client-centered preaching, and the cult of celebrity as dangerous threats to the faith.
At the end of the twentieth century, there are very few generalizations that apply to all American evangelicals. Concern for conversion remains, though conversion is understood differently in, for example, charismatic, confessional, and Baptist circles. A reliance on the Bible also remains, though how that reliance is expressed varies greatly. The belief that the earth was created less than 10,000 years ago has spread very widely in evangelical circles, but within these same circles vigorous defenders of evolution contend that they are the ones reading the Bible correctly. Activism is as characteristic of evangelicals as ever, but that activity spreads over every point on the compass. Most North American evangelicals oppose the liberalization of abortion laws that has occurred over the last thirty years in Canada and the United States, but how that opposition is expressed-passively, apolitically, or through civil disobedience-ranges widely, as do religious conclusions about the basic issues at stake. Although the Religious Right has galvanized the political energies of many Christians, a surprising spectrum of economic, political, and social viewpoints can be found in evangelical communities.
The death of Christ on the Cross is still at the heart of evangelical religion, although the formal doctrines that define the message of atonement receive much less attention today than they did thirty or sixty or a hundred years ago. The continuing spread of Pentecostalism and the growth of the charismatic movement have meant more concentration on doctrines of sanctification (becoming holy oneself) than on doctrines of justification (how God accepts a sinner). In biblical terms, the Psalms have taken precedence over Isaiah; the gospels are edging out the epistles of Paul.
Like the meaning of “evangelical,” the question of how many evangelicals there are depends on how the concept is used. A redoubtable team of political scientists — John Green, Jim Guth, Bud Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt — has concluded that about 25 percent of the adult American population is associated with the mostly white Protestant churches and movements that have historically been known as evangelical. Of that number, about two-thirds (or roughly 16 percent of the total population) are actively involved in their congregations. These political scientists argue that, for any correlation with social views or political behavior, the fact of activity is much more important than mere identification.
But the bigger picture is considerably more complicated. If we use as the standard the four identifying markers of evangelical Christianity defined by David Bebbington (conversion, the Bible, activism in evangelism, and the cross of Christ), then a very substantial number of African Americans (perhaps 5 to 6 percent of the national population) also look like evangelicals. In addition, a very substantial number of individuals associated with the mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lu-theran, Episcopal) also affirm all four of the characteristic evangelical markers, as do a substantial number of Roman Catholics. Taken together, there are probably about as many Catholics, black Protestants, and mainline Protestants who tell survey researchers they embrace the four evangelical characteristics as there are adherents to the conservative Protestant denominations. This would suggest, then, that about 30 percent of American adults practice a religion that looks more or less evangelical.
HYMNS: THE LIFEBLOOD
When modern evangelicalism arose in the English-speaking world in the mid-eighteenth century, hymnody became the lifeblood of the movement. Many have heard what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote in his journal in May 1738 after his memorable experience of conversion at Aldersgate in London:
About a quarter before nine, while [the speaker] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.12
But for every evangelical who knows something about these words of John Wesley, there are thousands who have taken to heart the hymns written by his brother Charles. For example:
Hark, the herald angels sing,
Glory to the new-born King . . .
Mild he lays his glory by,
Born that man no more may die . . .
Jesus, Lover of my soul, Let me to thy bosom fly . . .
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free,
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee . . .
Ye servants of God, Your Master proclaim
And publish abroad His wonderful name . . .
“Christ the Lord is risen today,”
Sons of men and angels say!
Raise your joys and triumphs high:
Sing, ye heavens; thou earth reply.
Hymns, at least until very recently, have been the lifeblood of evangelical consciousness. The hymns that have been sung, republished, and sung some more carry observers close to the essence of evangelicalism. Whatever their differences of theology, ethnicity, denomination, class, taste, politics, or churchmanship-and in these
areas divisions exist beyond number-evangelical hymn-writers and hymn-singers point to a relatively cohesive religious vision.
At the heart of the evangelical hymnody is Jesus Christ, whose love offers sinners mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation with God. In this Savior, redeemed sinners find new life in the Holy Spirit, as well as encouragement in that same Spirit to endure the brokenness, relieve the pain, and bind up the wounds of a world that the great evangelical hymn-writers almost always depicted in strikingly realistic terms.
The history of modern evangelicalism could be written as a chronicle of calculated offense. Those who know even a little evangelical history know how prone evangelicals have been to violate decorum, compromise integrity, upset intellectual balance, and abuse artistic good taste. In specifically theological terms, the evangelical movement, including many of its sub-canonical hymns, offers the spectacle of a luxurious expanse of weeds, with multiple varieties of Gnosticism, Docetism, Manicheanism, Modalism, and wild eschatological speculation, not to mention confusion over doctrinal details and manifold outbreaks of unintended Unitarianism, springing up as a threat to the good seed of classic orthodoxy.
The great hymns are not like that. They do not meander theologically. Whatever else they may lack, they possess the virtue of clarity. Professor Stephen Marini of Wellesley College has twice in recent years tallied the most often reprinted hymns in American Protestant hymnbooks, from the colonial era to the decades after World War II. Because of the differing range of hymnals he sampled for the two surveys, he has identified two different hymns as the most often reprinted in American Protestant history.13 The message of one of those two is so often repeated in other classic evangelical hymns that its lines are an especially good record of the center of evangelical concern. That hymn appeared in 1776, and I would say-with calculated awareness of what else was going on in that year in Philadelphia and in Scotland, where Adam Smith published his Wealth of Nations-that of all world-historical occurrences in 1776, the publication of August Montagu Toplady’s hymn may have been the most consequential:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
Not the labours of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone:
Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
The classic evangelical hymns have virtually no politics. Charles Wesley thought the American Revolution was sinful through and through, but American patriots hardly noticed as they went on reprinting his hymns in edition after edition. Through the years evangelicalism has given offense in a great variety of ways. Evangelicals of different sorts and at different times have tolerated or advocated racism, they have cheered attacks on the intellect, they have indulged unimaginable vulgarity in the production of religious kitsch, they have been callous to the dispossessed, they have confused their political allegiances with divine mandates, they have equated middle-class decorum with sanctification in the Holy Spirit, and they have tried to pass off gratuitous nonsense as if it were gospel truth-as for instance Toplady did in claiming, in the essay where he first published “Rock of Ages,” that the average number of sins a person commits in his or her lifetime is 2,522,880,000.14
Such failings, as well as particular dogmas and practices insisted upon by different evangelical churches, have been the occasion for oceans of offense. The classic evangelical hymns, by contrast, are virtually innocent of such offenses. Rather, their overriding message, and the single offense upon which they insist, is compacted into the four words that best summarize their message: Jesus Christ Saves Sinners. These hymns, in other words, proclaim a particular redemption of substitutionary atonement through a particular act of God accomplished in the particularities of the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and kingly rule of Jesus Christ.
Evangelicalism at its best is an offensive religion. It claims that human beings cannot be reconciled to God, understand the ultimate purposes of the world, or live a truly virtuous life unless they confess their sin before the living God and receive new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Such particularity has always been offensive, and in our multicultural, post-modern world it is more offensive than ever. But when evangelicalism is at its best, as it is in its greatest hymns, that declaration of a particular salvation is its one and only offense.
Of much else that could be said about classical evangelical hymnody, it is also worth recording that an important subtheme concerns the relief of suffering. The challenge to service in this world found so often in Charles Wesley’s hymns has never been an oddity:
A charge to keep I have, A God to glorify;
A never-dying soul to save, And fit it for the sky:
To serve the present age, My calling to fulfill;
Oh, may it all my powers engage
To do my Master’s will.
In the Victorian era, the blind, phenomenally popular Fanny Crosby expressed directly the care that at least some evangelicals have always shown to those for whom few others cared:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.
At its best, the evangelical desire to rescue the perishing has meant putting the perishing on their feet in the here and now as well as preparing them for eternity. Of course, we evangelicals are often not at our best, so we have often been lured away from Christ-inspired social service by prejudice, class-consciousness, middle-class fastidiousness, blindness to the structures of power that condition personal choices, and the many other forms of social sinfulness that beset the human race in general.
But at its best, evangelicalism is William Wilberforce, who for the sake of the kingdom of Christ devoted his life to the destruction of slavery. At its best, evangelicalism is the tireless, unpretentious, but absolutely stunning social achievements of the Salvation Army and the Mennonite Central Committee. And at its best, evangelicalism is the response to the words of Jesus that have inspired many to establish shelters for pregnant women in distress and to march on pro-life picket lines: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt.11:28-29).”Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.19:14).
At the start of the twenty-first century, there are multiple reasons to hope that evangelicalism will be at its best in the next several decades. A recent survey reported that nine of the ten most rapidly growing non-Catholic churches in the United States, and 93 of the top 100, identify themselves as evangelical, charismatic, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, or fundamentalist, or by some other label usually thought to fit under the broader evangelical umbrella. Annual tabulations by the missiologist David Barrett suggest that of the world’s nearly two billion people identified with Christian churches, something like 650 million are evangelical in a broad sense of the term.15 Barrett’s figures make clear that the only varieties of Protestantism growing with any concerted energy in the world are evangelical in general and most likely Pentecostal in particular.
In the second hymn survey made by Professor Stephen Marini, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” emerges as the most often reprinted hymn in American Protestant hymnbooks. This hymn’s story reveals much that is characteristic of evangelicalism. In a typical instance of evangelical ecumenism, the version of the hymn most often sung today actually represents an original composition of Edward Peronnet, who was a paedobaptist (a believer in infant baptism) associated primarily with the Methodists, and John Rippon, a Baptist, while the tune “Diadem,” the liveliest of several to which the hymn is sung, was composed by an 18-year old Wesleyan hatmaker, James Ellor.16
Less auspiciously, Edward Perronet’s career is also not untypical of evangelicalism. Peronnet was not an easy chap to get along with. As a young man he eagerly joined in the work of the Wesleys, but his zeal for revival led him to bitter attacks on the Church of England that soon alienated him from the Wesleys, who always saw their work as a complement to official Anglicanism. Perronet next took one of the chapels in the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection, but his festering anti-Anglicanism remained so strong that he wore out the countess’s patience and finally ended up pastoring a Congregational church. Evangelicalism at its best is not the career of Edward Perronet. It is, rather, the hopes, dedication, aspirations, and longing that have led tens-maybe hundreds-of millions of evangelicals to sing, decade after decade, and with all their hearts:
All hail the power of Jesus’ Name;
Let Angels prostrate fall;
Bring forth the royal diadem
To crown Him Lord of all.
Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget
The wormwood and the gall,
Go spread your trophies at His feet,
And crown Him Lord of all.
O that, with yonder sacred throng,
We at His feet may fall,
Join in the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thank you, Mark. Our respondent is Jay Tolson, a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report, who recently wrote an excellent cover story for that magazine entitled “The New Evangelicals” (December 8, 2003).
JAY TOLSON: Historian George Marsden said not long ago, “Not to understand religion and Jonathan Edwards in American history is like trying to make sense of Moby Dick without the whale.” He’s right. What is often missing from American historical discourse and the American media is any understanding of American religion. In book after book, Mark Noll has striven to help make this phenomenon of religion, so close to the core of our national life, more understandable and more accessible. He has done so, moreover, in an artful style that never resorts to reductionist social-scientific or ideological “explanations,” never tries to pluck the heart out of the mystery that is religion or render its ineffabilities prosaic and banal.
Professor Noll writes in his book American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction that four generalizations apply to all evangelicals today: they proclaim that (1) the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ is the Savior of all humanity, (2) each person needs to undergo a conversion experience to acknowledge this life-transforming fact, (3) the Bible is the true and authoritative Word of God, and (4) all Christians have a commission to spread the Gospel of Jesus.
Within these defining characteristics there is space for a variety of interpretations, maybe even more so now than in the past. This can lead to confusion and misunderstanding, both inside and outside the evangelical tent. The misunderstanding that I encounter continually is the identification of evangelicals with fundamentalists. As Mark Noll said, fundamentalism is a kind of extended interlude in the history of evangelicalism. It continues to be a force in many ways, particularly among some prominent evangelical leaders. But to reduce evangelicalism to fundamentalism is a fundamental mistake.
What especially interests me about the theologian and thinker Jonathan Edwards is that he not only-together with George Whitefield and John Wesley-helped to pioneer the program of evangelicalism, but also anticipated its problems. He feared that an approach to religion that dwelt heavily on the affections, or on what in the eighteenth century they called “enthusiasm,” held dangers. Even the most powerful personal conversion experience, for example, could not do away with the bedrock need for theology, clerical authority, and church discipline. Lose those things, he worried, and chaos could ensue. When Whitefield was touring the American colonies during the first Great Awakening in 1740, he would sometimes tell the crowds that certain local ministers were insufficiently converted. Edwards told him this was unwise, and might upset the social order.
So looking to Edwards and his example I ask: Can greater theological rigor and imagination help to clear away confusions and at least prepare the ground for more fruitful discussions of the conflicts among evangelicals, or between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, Christian or otherwise?
Let’s run down some problems associated with each of Professor Noll’s four defining evangelical characteristics. Taking them out of order, I will begin with the question of scriptural authority, or biblical inerrancy as it is sometimes called. As Professor Noll points out in another wonderful book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, evangelicalism has come to be associated with what many view as an excessively or unquestioningly literal approach to reading the Bible. Most famously, this literalism has arisen around questions related to the geological record and to Darwinian biology.
Is this kind of literalism what evangelicalism is all about? I think the answer is no. While Edwards lived before Darwin, he was deeply immersed in the science of his day. He was very much an enlightened man, as well as a serious Calvinist divine. Yet-and most uncannily-he was far in advance of what today seems novel, post-“scientistic” thinking. He understood that there would be those coming along who would claim that the scientific worldview could explain everything, the spiritual life included, and he saw the limits of such a view. He detected early signs of scientism, meaning allegedly scientific reductionism, in the advanced liberal theologies of his time and in trends such as deism. His response was that faith is not in conflict with the scientific method but is itself a kind of enabling condition of knowledge. Edwards held that faith does not have to replace science, nor science faith.
Hence I think Edwards may be of value in helping to overcome the notion, which lingers in some evangelical quarters, that reverence for the Bible requires you to try to read Genesis as if it were a natural-history treatise, which it is not. Edwards never fell for this literalist mistake, and he offers a way out of the needless intellectual impasse to which it leads.
Other issues arise here that immediately concern evangelicals and the wider society as well. Does scriptural authority underwrite a patriarchal social order? Or is there room for what we consider to be more liberal and progressive notions of women’s roles, up to and including their eligibility to join the clergy? And more controversially still, what should the Bible cause us to think about gay unions?
What is needed in the evangelical world-and in other religious worlds, for that matter-is rigorous theological analysis of how Scripture bears on these questions. You really don’t ever hear this. Instead, you hear vague generalizations about this verse from Leviticus or that text from Paul, and that’s about it. How authoritative should Paul be in these matters? He does after all come quite a bit after Jesus. And what is the thrust of Jesus’ message as contained in the gospels? Unfortunately, we can’t determine “what Jesus would say,” as some recent people would like us to do.
This pertains as well to discourse about the “sanctity of life.” The aggressive and sometimes even militant stand of evangelicals and others, such as Catholics, on sanctity-of-life issues, particularly abortion, is very hard for many outsiders-including Christopher Hitchens, who is here with us today-to square with the casual disregard shown toward the death penalty. How is this reconciled so easily within the evangelical community? Why does the sanctity of life seem to point in only one direction?
These are issues that don’t receive theological scrutiny in any way that reaches beyond a very narrow community of thinkers. Most of those in every camp on these issues seem to prefer fuzzy emoting to clear theological reflection.
A particularly telling instance is the debate over stem cells, where a certain view of the sanctity of life seem to trump even the possibility of carrying out life-saving research. Is it possible to arrive at a theologically clarified definition of the onset of life that can explain why this is or is not morally permissible?
There are many other points that we could talk about in relation to scriptural authority, but I’ll add just one more. This is the use of dispensationalist “end-time” scenarios to justify support for Israel. Some of the more fundamentalist evangelicals who are taken with these dispensationalist ideas even got angry with George Bush’s “roadmap to peace” proposal because they view the idea of Israeli-Palestinian compromise as a betrayal of their favored apocalyptic scenario. Many other-probably most-evangelicals support Israel out of a sense of shared Judeo-Christian heritage and out of admiration for Israel as a democracy, but dispensationalism remains a force.
Professor Noll has written authoritatively about how theologically shaky this end-time thinking really is, about where it comes from, about how it is confected through a throwing together of passages from Revelation with passages from other books of the Bible, and about how far it is from any orthodox reading of Scripture. And yet dispensationalism has significance because people believe it, whatever its dubious underpinnings. Witness the huge success of the Left Behind novels co-authored by Tim LaHaye. Not all of the forty or fifty million readers of those novels believe them, of course, but many do, just as many Americans today have a view of the Kennedy assassination that is shaped more by Oliver Stone’s fanciful movie JFK than by any other single source. Pop-culture artifacts have a power of their own.
Evangelicalism’s emphasis on conversion, being “born again,” is probably its least controversial aspect. Yet even here there is a serious question that is as old as evangelicalism and America: How adequate can such a conversion experience be as the defining element of what one is spiritually? I mention America here because understanding “conversionism” of various kinds is important to understanding the American character generally.
In his new book The Transformation of American Religion, Alan Wolfe argues that too many evangelicals feel that once someone has had this experience, little else matters. But what does such a single dramatic conversion experience mean for the rest of one’s life? How does it move one to progress spiritually? Is “conversionism” one of the reasons why evangelicalism today, especially the “megachurch” variety, seems to be in danger of becoming merely another form of therapy, a “feel good” religion?
This is important for the wider society because conversionism-or more broadly, the fascination with radical personal change and complete transformation of the self-is among the deepest impulses in American culture. But if a focus on self-transformation can lead to self-absorption, to an excessive preoccupation with the self or even to the cult of the imperial self, then one has to examine whether evangelicalism may itself be involved with cultural impulses that have some problematic implications for Christianity and for American society as well.
The evangelical emphasis on God’s will rather than our own works as the source of salvation, for instance, seems so widely accepted as to be beyond controversy. And yet many evangelicals seem actually to believe otherwise. The survey researcher George Barna has found that surprising numbers of self-identified evangelical Christians affirm all sorts of notions that he, as an avowedly strict evangelical, finds unsettling, including the idea that a person’s own actions are at least as important as-perhaps even more important than-justification through faith in the saving work of Christ on the Cross.
The last of our four corners of evangelicalism is the “great commission” to spread the gospel. This may be the most challenging of the four when we consider its effect on the rest of American society and on all sorts of sensitive issues, particularly in international politics.
As Mark Noll among others has pointed out, evangelical Christians have been hugely successful in spreading their faith abroad. I think something like 70 percent of the evangelicals in the world today are in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. In some places, they are involved in heated encounters with that other proselytizing religion, Islam.
The U.S. government should in no way say to evangelical groups that they can’t go to the Middle East or some other heavily Muslim region and evangelize. We respect the free exercise of religion, so our government cannot act as if Islam exclusively “owns” the Middle East or parts of South Asia or wherever by trying to keep Christian missionaries out of those areas. But evangelists themselves have to make clear what their project is-they are often seen not just as Christians but as agents of America or Western ways-and they must understand that the U.S. government has to distance itself clearly from any missionary enterprises.
Evangelicals also need to do some stern self-criticism and disavow the ridiculous things that Franklin Graham and others such as General William Boykin have said about Islam being evil. Inflammatory remarks like theirs represent a strain of rhetoric that does not spring from any legitimate Christian impulse or any scriptural authority. To pronounce other religions evil does not help the cause of America or the cause of evangelicalism.
It was a mistake for President Bush to remain silent about what Boykin said and to tolerate his continued role in the intelligence office, since remarks as careless as that clearly compromise his effectiveness. They also, sadly, compromise what President Bush has rightly said about how we should distinguish Islam itself from the corrupted versions of its principles that terrorists like to cite.
MR. CROMARTIE: Thanks, Jay. Now we invite everyone else to join the conversation.
KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: There are two things I’d like to know from Mark Noll. First, given the weakness of denominational and hence institutional identification among evangelicals-who often just call themselves generic Christians and leave it at that-how successful will they be at passing on their traditions? And related to that, what new institutional forms do you think will come out of evangelical entrepreneurialism and the evangelical focus on the individual?
DR. NOLL: In a strange twist of history, the Southern Baptists have some of the evangelical world’s strongest institutions, even though Baptist principles are among the most anti-institutional within evangelicalism. But evangelicalism as a whole, as many have remarked, has always combined traditional views on Christian belief and practice with anti-traditional views on institutions-a situation enabled by evangelicals’ tendency to “free ride” on existing institutions. Evangelical leaders have often aimed low with institutions such as colleges, because their priorities are mission and evangelism carried out individually.
Lack of institutional strength probably is not putting evangelical Christianity in jeopardy-the free market of ideas and practices around the world is moving too rapidly for institutions to matter that much, though weak institutions do contribute to some of the quality-control issues regarding what counts as evangelical that Jay Tolson was just pointing out. But there will always be figures like Oral Roberts who can whip up enthusiasm.
MR. WOODWARD: But Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and even Jerry Falwell-all entrepreneurial celebrities of evangelicalism, if you will-what do they all do? Billy Graham creates the Billy Graham Center and helps Wheaton College. Roberts and Falwell each build a university. What these people have done, in the classic American style, is to create institutions because they can’t replicate themselves.
DR. NOLL: The evangelical fascination with religious celebrities goes back to the nineteenth century, when institutions inherited from Europe carried little weight and it fell to individuals to create the elements of civil society, including churches. This penchant works less well now, when the modes of celebrity creation are so far beyond the control of evangelical Christians.
NINA EASTON, The Boston Globe: While researching a story on Attorney General John Ashcroft, I was surprised to learn that some Pentecostals-Ashcroft’s family belonged to the Assemblies of God in Missouri-were pacifists during World War II. Ashcroft’s father and some others wanted to serve purely as chaplains, though they weren’t able to. Can you comment on evangelicals and the anti-war movement?
DR. NOLL: The Assemblies of God and other early Pentecostal bodies were almost uniformly pacifist up until World War I. This was not because they embraced Anabaptist strictures against warfare, like the Mennonites or the Church of the Brethren, but because they were so intensely pietistic or otherworldly. The pietist strand in evangelicalism remains strong, and can lead indirectly to a pacifist stance. Since the end of the Second World War, as various ethnic varieties of historic European Christianity have become assimilated, we have seen the rise of a Mennonite or more broadly Anabaptist influence within the broader evangelical world. John Howard Yoder and his younger associate Stanley Hauerwas are evangelicals who speak for a more direct pacifism. But pacifism of any sort has always been a minority position within evangelicalism.
DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: You mentioned that pluralism marks evangelicalism, so let me be vulgar and ask: Who’s up and who’s down in the pluralist mix today? Is the severe strain in evangelicalism losing out to the sunnier or mushier types that some would say are favored by the American cultural climate? Someone once said that in the nineteenth century, religion prospered while theology went bankrupt. Does that also describe what’s happening among evangelicals? Have they gone from the intellectual rigor of Jonathan Edwards to George W. Bush breezily claiming that Christians and Muslims all pray to the same God? Is the feel-good, sunny, mushy side now carrying the day?
DR. NOLL: I’m a historian, not a journalist, so I’m going to say it’s complicated. Jonathan Edwards has been receiving increased attention over the last fifteen to twenty years, and more than ever just this past year. But of course the people interested in Edwards are a pretty thin slice of the evangelical world. An inoffensive, feel-good approach to religion is rising in some circles.
If you’re asking who’s up and who’s down in Washington, D.C., then you’re asking about something different from what’s happening across the American evangelical scene as a whole. Among African-American Christians you find people like Illinois state senator James Meeks, who is a seriously dogmatic Baptist pastor in Chicago and also strongly tied to the Democratic Party-a combination that’s rare in the Caucasian world. If you were in Cincinnati, you would notice the coalition of white and black pastors, mostly Pentecostal or independents, who have mounted a campaign against racism. They may be fairly radical in their social views, but they are rather traditional when it comes to religion.
MR. BROOKS: Does George Bush represent the softer, more therapeutic small-group movement-which I gather you say is rising-when he says things like, “Muslims and Christians all pray to the same God,” rather than adopting a harder-edged evangelical style?
DR. NOLL: I don’t know. I don’t think Bush has read much theology, which would make him a typical evangelical. When he says it doesn’t matter whom you pray to, you should ask if that’s the President speaking, or a person who has been talking to his Sunday-school teacher, his minister, or his friends. There’s no central control board in evangelicalism. There’s no pope, and no place to send a letter of resignation. So what George Bush says is no more or less generally representative of evangelicalism than what any other layperson may say.
FRANKLIN FOER, The New Republic: Do you think it’s a sound political assessment for Democrats to conclude that evangelicals are now so firmly and overwhelmingly Republican that courting them is a waste of time? Does the Democratic Party have anything to lose electorally by unabashedly embracing secularism? John Green, I believe, uses the term “freestyle” evangelicals to describe Christians who aren’t so partisan. What’s your sense of how large a group this is, and can the Democrats appeal to it?
DR. NOLL: My sense, looking over the shoulders of analysts like John Green and his colleague Bud Kellstedt, is that practicing evangelicals make up a huge portion of the Bush vote and have made up a huge portion of Republican votes for the last twenty years. As late as the 1960s and maybe even into the 1970s, a majority of the Americans that social scientists and historians would call evangelical was voting Democratic. In 1976, Jimmy Carter did very well among evangelicals. Can Democrats win evangelicals back? I think that as long as a strident pro-choice position remains a defining feature of what it means to participate in Democratic Party politics, it will be very difficult to enlist evangelical support. But there may be an ocean of possibilities facing Democrats who are willing to take a more moderate position, as the late Pennsylvania governor Robert Casey did a few years back, and as Glenn Poshard did when he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Illinois in 1998.
MR. TOLSON: Bill Clinton didn’t do too badly among evangelicals in 1992.
DR. NOLL: Right. He made a specific move to say, in effect, “Of course I’m backing my party’s platform, but I hear the reasons for a pro-life position. I would like to work with you to the extent possible in my party’s platform.” That kind of reaching out would, I think, attract the lower-middle-class constituency that makes up a big part of the evangelical world, as well as Catholics who are pro-life but who want to see something other than 1950s legalism as the dominant political stand. But so long as the pro-choice position is a litmus test for Democratic participation, I think active evangelicals will be hesitant to identify as Democrats.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, NPR: What do you see as the future of Pentecostalism? It’s now the fastest-growing segment of evangelicalism, both here and abroad, especially in Latin America and Africa. Is it cresting in the United States? What are its prospects for being mainstreamed into evangelical Christianity?
DR. NOLL: That’s a very important question for the United States and even more so for world development. My own sense is that the history of Pentecostalism is predicted by the history of the Methodist movement. The Methodists were the wild-eyed visionaries of the 1700s. John Wesley and Charles Wesley were intellectuals, but they were also enthusiasts (at least as defined by the writings of Jonathan Edwards). Like the Methodists, third- and fourth-generation Pentecostals are interested in institutions. Take the Assembly of God’s Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri: it’s a large place that cares about hiring teachers with reputable degrees-it draws from the University of Chicago and UCLA. One of the problems in gauging growth is that Pentecos-talism, like evangelicalism, is more a broad term than a precise affiliation. There is no single Pentecostal movement as such, though by some estimates Pentecostals around the world may total 650 million, or more than a quarter of all Christians.
Moreover, there is a great deal of variation across this enormous group. Among ethnic-Maori Pentecostals in New Zealand, there’s a second- and third-generation concern for creating institutions, especially schools. In the Zionist and Apostolic churches of southern and West Africa, there’s a more chaotic situation, with many believers urgently seeking active divine help in the face of needs for healing, for food, or for relief in various other kinds of emergencies. Generalization, in other words, is risky.
I hear frequent reports of resurrections and physical healings coming from rural China, and I sit in suburban Chicago scratching my head and thinking, “This is not what I encountered on the way to work this morning. I just don’t know what to make of it.” Those among these movements that remain in the same geographical space will probably be calmer fifty years from now than they are today. But if they’re uprooted or taken somewhere else, then they’re likely to be more dramatic.
MR. TOLSON: Pentecostals are good at building local institutions such as cooperative-credit banks, where people pool their funds to do things. I’m not suggesting that this necessarily explains its growth, but such efforts have certainly been a strong part of Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal focus on the Holy Spirit bears mention as well. It’s interesting that the person of the Trinity whom theologians find most nebulous and difficult to discuss should act as a unifier among these huge numbers of very poor people around the world. From their devotion to the Spirit they really do derive a great deal of direct solace, nourishment, and-if you’ll excuse the overused word-empowerment.
DR. NOLL: Brazil is perhaps the best example of that. There are three generations of Pentecostals there, and the third generation is calmly institutional. Fifteen or twenty of its members sit in the national congress.
MR. WOODWARD: To understand why Pentecostalism is the form of Christianity that’s growing so much in these parts of the world, you have to recognize that it mimics the religions that are already there, tribal religions. It does the same exorcisms, for instance, but in the name of Jesus. I think that is a big reason for the popularity of this style in Latin America and in Africa-that and the wealth-producing aspect imported from the United States.
DR. NOLL: It’s noteworthy that Pentecostals are becoming more assimilated into broader evangelical networks even as the larger evangelical world is becoming more heavily influenced by Pentecostal or charismatic phenomena such as speaking in tongues.
WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Council on Foreign Relations: What’s the current extent of American evangelicals’ involvement in missionary work? Do you have any numbers? How do they compare with past data? What are the trends? And what do you consider the best sources to consult in researching this area?
DR. NOLL: The best periodical is the International Bulletin of Missionary Research-the IBMR, for short-which is put out by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant scholars at the Overseas Ministry Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut. The number of Americans involved in overseas missions work climbed over the last century, and there have been some very interesting developments along the way. Around 1910, British Protestant missionaries far outnumbered their American counterparts. Now the ratio is something like twenty Americans to every one Briton. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Catholic missionary participation was edging closer to Protestant missionary participation from the United States, but the Catholic number has dropped dramatically since the 1970s.
In about the year 2000, there were roughly 100,000 Americans serving outside the United States in at least semi-permanent religious assignments. This represented an absolute numerical increase over previous years; yet at the same time U.S. citizens were forming a shrinking share of all Catholic or Protestant missionary personnel worldwide. Sometime after the Second World War, it seems, Americans went from being about four-fifths of all Protestant missionaries worldwide to being about half, which is where things stand now. As I said, this has been in the context of an overall increase in the absolute number of Americans serving as missionaries. It’s not at all unusual to find Koreans, Brazilians, Nigerians, and Samoans doing missionary service away from home.
MR. MEAD: This doesn’t include the Mormons, right?
DR. NOLL: That’s right. I’m leaving the Mormons aside. They’re something of a special case because the Latter-day Saints church asks its members to put in two years of missions work.
Reporters who want a good international story should look into the Jesus film. This is a 1979 version of the Gospel of Luke, funded by the late Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ and produced by a Jewish producer. According to the film’s website at www.jesusfilm.org (you can download the movie and watch it there), Jesus has so far been dubbed into more than 800 languages and has been seen by more people than any other movie in history. Campus Crusade has a staff of something like 16,000 people around the world, most of whom spend their time showing the Jesus film to new audiences. Only about a tenth of those staffers, by the way, are Americans.
MR. FOER: Was the film popular in America?
DR. NOLL: It was released, but it wasn’t very popular. It’s actually not too good. It’s not terrible, but it’s in something like the Cecil B. DeMille style. Yet its words are the words of the Bible. If you don’t know about the Jesus film, you don’t know about the evangelical artifact that is most widely used around the world.
MR. TOLSON: Is it true that just two evangelical denominations, the Pentecostals and the Southern Baptists, now send more missionaries abroad than all other U.S. Christian groups together?
DR. NOLL: Well, the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God are the largest denominations that send missionary groups, but nondenominational groups are heavily involved as well. The Southern Baptists have 8,000 to 10,000 people in missions, I think. In the first half of the twentieth century, the main American mission field was China. Africa became much larger after World War II, and it probably is still the main recipient of U.S. missionaries. There was missionary activity in the Middle East as well-the American universities of Cairo and Beirut have Protestant-missionary foundations-but the presence there was never that large, as people knew it was a pretty tough row to hoe.
ELISABETH BUMILLER, The New York Times: White House sources have said that they believe one way to make a dent in the black vote in 2004 is through black evangelical churches. How realistic is this notion?
DR. NOLL: That’s a really interesting question. I’m not sure of the answer, but I do know that the black population at large-not just the church- goers-responds to surveys with as much doctrinal and practical Christian orthodoxy as white, churchgoing evangelicals do.
MR. TOLSON: Last fall I asked a leader of one of the biggest African Methodist Episcopal churches in Savannah, “What is your sense of your congregation’s feelings about the mobilizing power of evangelical themes, whether for the Democrats or for the Republicans?” You always wonder how representative a leadership view is, of course, but this man said that evangelical themes weren’t really needed on the Democratic side. He himself was leaning strongly toward Howard Dean because of the Iraq war and the economy.
I asked if his congregation, including the passive, non-voting types, could be energized by a candidate able to “speak evangelical,” the way Bill Clinton used to do. He said probably not, but I doubt that, in part because I’ve talked to other black evangelicals who feel differently. When I asked about Joe Lieberman’s appeal as the Democratic candidate most comfortable sounding religious and moral themes, this AME leader said that Lieberman was too conservative on the really important issues. I thought that was an interesting way to put it.
Then I asked about Bush and black evangelicals. He said that he and other black ministers got all excited about Bush’s faith-based initiatives, but then felt disappointed at how little they amounted to. The ministers came to feel that the initiatives were a fig leaf for real cuts in important programs.
Are the Democrats foolish not to play to the black evangelical voter? I think they might be, but it’s hard to quantify. And at the time of the election, other factors-such as the economy and the state of affairs in Iraq-will probably outweigh any concerns related to evangelicalism specifically.
DR. NOLL: It is historically significant that few African American Christians will call themselves evangelical even though from the outside, in terms of beliefs and practices, they look like evangelicals.
MR. FOER: Eugene Rivers argues that black Pentecostals are much more socially conservative than the Baptists.
DR. NOLL: I do think that many Americans who can be described as evangelical are not hardcore anti-tax, anti-government people. This would include quite a few people from the Midwest, some in cities. Taxes and trade are not particularly evangelical issues. Questions of personal character and morality do resonate, however. Evangelicalism’s focus on the individual means that issues like Clinton’s sexual behavior or Bush’s past drinking-though not, for some reason, Reagan’s divorce-weigh more heavily in evangelicals’ political thinking than pocketbook issues.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, Vanity Fair: I was riddled with astonishment to hear Jay say that there is no scriptural authority for Franklin Graham’s or General Boykin’s comments about Islam. Perhaps General Boykin shouldn’t be involved in intelligence work, but he’s entitled as anybody else to have an opinion about religion, as is Franklin Graham. Christian Scripture doesn’t prepare us in any sense for Muhammad and his followers, but it must surely be the case that they are, at the very least, heretical. And how can there be scriptural authority for President Bush’s claim that Muslims and Christians pray to the same God?
MR. TOLSON: I’m aware that Islam comes after the writing of the Christian Scriptures. What I was trying to do was to think through some of the theology of the Christian evangelizing mission in relation to other religions. At the time we were discussing Islam, but this could apply to dealings with Hinduism or other religions as well. I was saying that not only does it seem the negation of common sense to go to, say, the Middle East saying “Your religion is evil,” but it’s also not theologically or scripturally necessary. Nothing in the New Testament’s presentation of Jesus and his teaching or ministry suggests that you should go around declaring other religions evil. Misguided or not in possession of the full truth is not the same as evil.
And of course there’s a great debate now among students of early Christian texts about whether Jesus saw himself as starting a new religion or simply trying to fulfill certain Jewish teachings as a good Jew would. But I’m not even asking evangelicals to join that debate. Instead I’m only asking, in the name of common sense, whether it’s wise to try to evangelize by denouncing other religions as evil.
MR. HITCHENS: But why be a missionary if not to rescue people from the damnation that will accompany adherence to false religions? Why would you bother trying to convert people to your religion if some other religion that they already practice is perfectly okay? That’s all I want to know.
DR. NOLL: I don’t believe Christian missionaries think that other religions are “perfectly okay.” They believe that Christianity is better. But it doesn’t make sense, either practically or logically, to derive from the proposition “Christianity is decisively better than all other religions” the proposition “All other religions are evil.”
Over the course of the twentieth century, all of classical Christianity-Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox alike-made a dramatic shift toward understanding non-Christian religions as fundamentally flawed but nonetheless insightful in some aspects of their understanding of the world, the human condition, and even the divine. Catholics and the so-called mainstream Protestants have probably gone furthest toward embracing this insight, followed at a distance by other Protestants such as the evangelicals, with the Orthodox hanging back even more.
While its degree may vary, the shift is real. It results from more firsthand experience of the glories of non-Christian civilizations, as well as continuing missionary efforts motivated by the desire to rescue those who otherwise would be lost eternally.
MR. HITCHENS: I want to call attention to a very interesting book put together by Ibn Warraq and called Leaving Islam. It’s a collection of personal accounts by ex-Muslims. “Ibn Warraq” is a pseudonym for a former Muslim fundamentalist, adopted for fear of violent reprisal. There’s a website set up by people who have converted from Islam to Christianity. The main reason many of them give is the evidence the Koran itself contains of the absolutely repulsive and nasty character of Muhammad’s life: his greed, his hitting on the household help, his child brides, his fanaticism, and so on. Graham and Boykin may be less critical of Muhammad than some of the prophet’s ex-followers-people who know the Islamic sources firsthand-are.
DR. NOLL: You’re defending Franklin Graham.
MR. HITCHENS: These people have left Islam because of what’s there in the Koran, in cold print. They can’t stand it.
ALAN COOPERMAN, The Washington Post: Maybe the Haddith is involved here, but I can’t imagine that the Koran is in question. I’d like to see the specific texts to which you’re alluding.
MR. HITCHENS: You guys are less repelled by what’s in them than these ex-Muslims are.
MR. TOLSON: I know Christopher won’t be happy until I say I submit. I submit.
MR. HITCHENS: We were talking about the wisdom and propriety of Franklin Graham’s describing Islam as he did. Everyone should read Ibn Warraq’s fascinating book. It supports such criticism with accounts by people who have been Muslims.
MR. TOLSON: A milder version of something like that critique may be found in Abdelwahab Meddeb’s recent book The Malady of Islam. It gives a critical view of Islam, but also shows why there have always been at least two sides within it.
MR. COOPERMAN: Some of us attended a recent session, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, at which evangelical leaders and others from around the country reflected on how to discuss Islam. [See Center Conversation #26, “Evangelicals, Islam, and Humanitarian Aid: A Conversation with Lamin Sanneh.”] The consensus at that meeting-though it was not uncontroversial-was that for both practical and theological reasons evangelical leaders should moderate their statements on Islam. And for some months after that, they did.
Lately, every time I’ve been with an evangelical group, I’ve heard not only support for Israel but effusive praise of Jews as the chosen people. I’ve seen evangelical sessions beginning with someone blowing the shofar, which is very strange. I think that today’s American Christianity is the most philo-Semitic Christianity in history. And we are at perhaps the most philo-Semitic moment in the history of American Christianity. I’ve read that good will toward Jews has been present in evangelicalism since its inception, but am I not right in surmising that in the early twentieth century, there was at least as much anti-Semitism among evangelicals as in American culture generally? Since then, anti-Semitism has faded, and philo-Semitism has taken over. How has this happened? Has it been linked to changes in the theological understanding of the Jewish role in God’s plan of salvation?
DR. NOLL: I think you have the history right. As far back as the eighteenth century, one can detect a strand, not so much of philo-Semitism as of intense interest in Judaism, and particularly the Hebrew Scriptures studied in their original language. Ezra Stiles, the very likable president of Yale College just after the Revolution, studied privately for many years with a rabbi in Newport, Rhode Island.
The early-twentieth-century beginnings of the philo-Semitism that Alan mentioned were rooted in the dispensational theology that became so important in relationship to prophecy conferences at the end of the nineteenth century. In effect, all this arose as a kind of compensation for the relative loss by evangelicals of political, social, and cultural authority in a more pluralistic America. There was a retreat into a privatized, esoteric religiosity that involved Pentecostal practices and various recondite readings of the Bible, in which people interpreted parts of both Testaments literally so that Zionism became a way of demonstrating the predictive power of these texts.
Most of this went on without much connection to the actual Jewish people until the 1920s and ‘30s. Then a series of individuals-Arno Gaebelein is one whose name comes to mind-who did in fact have contact with modern Jews promoted a dispensational theology that featured the notion of the people of Israel returning to the Middle East to fulfill what the Bible was thought to have prophesied.
Now this was a two-edged sword, because the same literalism that was applied to the return of the people of Israel to the Promised Land also urged an “end-time” aspiration toward the conversion of the Jews. And so this was a theological point of view that could be read as anti-Semitic and philo-Semitic at the same time. In the 1970s, Hal Lindsey extended the dispensationalist franchise with his bestselling books, most famously The Late, Great Planet Earth. His viewpoint strongly favored the nation of Israel, and laid the groundwork for figures like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to become friendly with certain Israeli political leaders.
There is a strong but narrow band of evangelical theology underlying this philo-Semitism. I would moderate Alan’s statement about this being the most philo-Semitic moment in American Christian history. That may be true of evangelicals and some Catholics, but mainline Protestant groups like the National Council of Churches display a strong suspicion of Israel as the putative oppressor of the Palestinians.
MR. COOPERMAN: Since Vatican II, the Catholic position has tended toward acknowledging that Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God. Is there anything cognate to that acknowledgment among evangelicals?
DR. NOLL: Such a notion has not gained traction among evangelicals. There’s a tension in evangelicalism, since it nurses strong interest in the history of Israel and in Judaism, as well as solicitude toward the modern nation of Israel, but combines all this with a powerful strain of conversionism or supersessionism that understands Christ as simply replacing the old covenant that God had with Israel.
Hence one might say there’s a fault line running through the evangelical world. On one side are those who feel that the nation of Israel is vital to the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. On the other are those who think that whatever was promised of good to Israel is now being fulfilled through the work of Christ in the church. But even those people would recognize a special category for the Jewish people. And I think this has been one of the reasons for the offense given by evangelicals to some Jews: it’s not just that Jews are included among those who are to be evangelized, but that they are singled out, as it were, as the prime target of evangelization-albeit with philo-Semitic feeling.
MR. MEAD: My reading of some of the dispensational, end-time stuff is that it’s kind of expected that the Jews won’t convert until the very end, at which point there’ll be a mass conversion.
DR. NOLL: You’re probably referring to dispensationalist speculations about the identity of the group of 144,000 saved people mentioned in the Book of Revelation.
MR. MEAD: Right. And what I’m wondering is, shouldn’t this foster a kind of tolerance among evangelicals toward Jews? As the dispensationalists themselves see it, the Bible foretells that the Jews are finally going to be counted among the saved. Thus it must be God’s plan that at the end they will convert. Is that an accurate description of the dispensationalists’ view?
DR. NOLL: Yes.
JEFFREY GOLDBERG, The New Yorker: I’d like to follow up on Alan Cooperman’s question with one that I’ll ask while bearing in mind my assumption that there may be only a thin line separating philo-Semitism from anti-Semitism. While I was in Israel last month, I spoke with a group of evangelical tourists-evangelicals are pretty much the only tourists you can find in Israel nowadays-and their ministers. When the roadmap and the peace process came up, they insisted fiercely that Israel will lose its divine eschatological privileges if it cedes any of the biblical heartland, meaning the Judean and Samaritan territories that are better known today as the West Bank.
Here’s the question: Might some future land-for-peace deal made by the government of Israel turn these evangelicals, seemingly so pro-Israel right now, into people who strongly dislike the modern state of Israel and who slide from there into not only theological but cultural anti-Semitism, all of it fired by the belief that the Jews have once again proven themselves a stiff-necked people, unwilling to do what God wants them to do?
DR. NOLL: I think something like that is entirely possible. But it might not mean all that much in the longer term. American evangelicals can be politically mercurial. Were an Israeli government to reverse evangelical expectations in that way, there might be some vocal condemnations uttered and some million-selling books written, but in five years they might all be forgotten.
MR. TOLSON: But still, I think the basis of evangelical support for Israel is generally not this kind of apocalyptic sentiment.
DR. NOLL: I hope you’re right. I think many evangelicals would cite Israel’s status as a staunch U.S. ally and its rare commitment to democracy in an exceptionally important and difficult region of the world. But the eschatological note is there as well, and it complicates the picture.
MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. News & World Report: The biggest single group of Israel supporters in Western Europe, as far as I can tell, is the Protestant Loyalist community of Northern Ireland. The Catholic Republicans wave the Palestinian flag and the Protestant Loyalists wave the Israeli flag. I think Ulster is the only place in Europe where you’ll see demonstrators proudly displaying, rather than defacing, the Israeli flag. And yet it’s done as part of a Presbyterian feud, if you will, with Catholics.
JANE LITTLE, BBC: Regarding the earlier exchange about the perceived evils of Islam, I want to mention that many in the Muslim world seem to perceive evangelical Christianity negatively as well. And Bush is associated-not only in the Muslim world but also in the minds of many people in secular Europe-with a messianic imperialism and an ignorant, triumphalist brand of Christianity.
What do you think Bush’s inaction regarding the Boykin affair reveals about his priorities in an election year? Is it right that American Muslims are saying, “He just doesn’t care about our vote at all”?
Also, among evangelicals themselves, are there any signs of openness toward interreligious dialogue as opposed to a focus purely on apologetics and conversions?
MR. TOLSON: The most plausible explanation for Bush’s reluctance to distance himself from Boykin’s remarks, or to block the general’s appointment, is politics. Bush is wary of losing the evangelical vote. I think he weighed the alternatives there. I think it was definitely inconsistent with his efforts to emphasize that Islam is not an evil religion. But I guess he was willing to sacrifice on that front in order to stabilize his base. Maybe Michael Barone will disagree with this assessment, but I think it was a strongly political calculation.
DR. NOLL: I’d be very surprised to learn that George Bush holds the views that Tim LaHaye or General Boykin holds. But I do think Jay is right to see political considerations at work in Bush’s decision to do nothing about Boykin.
I don’t think the evangelical constituency in general is nearly so much in tune with European opinion as the U.S. media are. Europe is nearly a vacuum for American evangelicals. The same cannot be said, by the way, of Africa, East Asia, or more recently Latin America. In all those places, U.S. evangelicals have fairly extensive ties by virtue of missions work.
As for evangelicals and interreligious dialogue, I do think there are more and better dialogues going on between evangelicals and others. Catholics, to give one example, talk to evangelicals in ways that never happened forty years ago. But again, the evangelical world is a pluralized place. There are still many evangelicals who regard the pope as the Antichrist and would tell you so if you asked. There are also some evangelical leaders and authors-Gerald McDermott is one-who are very sophisticated and know how to carry on fruitful dialogues with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other non-Christian groups. And there are other leading evangelicals of a more bumptious sort who are ready to spit in your eye and tell you that you should love Jesus.
So can evangelicals carry on the kind of dialogue that the modern world frequently demands of people? The answer is yes and no.
MR. LITTLE: We know that evangelicals in this country show a fair amount of variety, but that’s not perceived from abroad. Bush is closely associated with the more assertive end of the spectrum, and seems to be speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
DR. NOLL: He may be associated with it, as Jay suggested, by virtue of being unwilling to speak out against it. And yet, again, I’d be very surprised to hear that copies of Tim LaHaye’s books are lying around the White House.
MR. TOLSON: Joan Didion’s review essay about LaHaye and the Left Behind novels in the November 6  issue of the New York Review of Books offers a good illustration of how certain American intellectuals want to identify Bush’s worldview with LaHaye’s worldview. Didion’s is a very “European” view of Bush. Her piece is a good read, but really silly.
DR. JAMES DAVISON HUNTER, University of Virginia: The evangelical movement has always been intensely pluralistic. But the public profile of evangelicalism and the reality of evangelicalism are very different things. When my colleagues at the University of Virginia hear the word “evangelical,” for instance, they think of politics more than theology or religion. “Evangelical” in their minds is associated with nastiness and right-wing fervor.
This disjunction indicates a double task. Understanding American evangelicalism, which is the goal of our session today, means grasping the movement’s history and internal character, and also grasping its relationship to the larger American scene.
Marginalization is the subtext that runs beneath the history of evangelicalism in America. Jonathan Edwards came from a prosperous and prominent New England family. He wrote from the center, not the periphery. Evangelicalism back then had a cosmopolitan cast; Edwards’s interest in science and openness to the scientific world reflect that. Today, evangelicalism is far more insular, and socioeconomically it belongs to the lower-middle and working classes.
It reached one of its nadirs when H. L. Mencken went after it in the 1920s. And yet throughout most of the twentieth century, it seems to me, evangelicals still seemed to feel that America was largely theirs. This accounts for a lot of the political quietism that they displayed up until the late 1960s and the early 1970s. With the changes of that era, it dawned on many evangelicals that they had been moved to the periphery of American life and culture. The rise of the Religious Right was their attempt to reclaim that lost centrality. And the preferred vehicle was not theology, scholarship, or art but political activism.
Mark and Jay, I’d like to know what you think about the relationship between evangelicalism and the larger social world of which it’s a part. How is this disparate movement negotiating its place in America? I don’t think that the political mode of evangelical self-assertion is as dominant today as it was back in the early 1980s. Am I right about that? Are other modes emerging?
DR. NOLL: You could write the history of American evangelicalism as a tale of tension between a proprietary instinct and a sectarian instinct, which I think is another way of saying what James just did. You can trace this back to Jonathan Edwards, who was influential but who was also kicked out of his church at the height of his international fame, when he was forty-seven years old. He was literally banished to the wilderness in that he was sent to Stockbridge, which at the time was on the far western frontier of Massachusetts.
Since Edwards, the interaction of these two impulses-the proprietary and the sectarian-has fascinated European observers. Max Weber concluded that American Protestants use sectarian means to maintain proprietary control of American culture.
You are right, James, to say that the retreat of evangelicalism to the sectarian margins subsisted for a long time with a lingering proprietary sense, a belief that somehow the United States was still God’s country, meaning Protestant, and that we just weren’t going to take it any more.
I also endorse the insight, expressed by you and Robert Wuthnow, that the key mobilizing event for the evangelical attempt to reclaim centrality was the expansion of the federal government associated with the Depression and the Second World War. Before that happened, Protestants in Grand Rapids, Des Moines, or the suburbs of Chicago could do what they wanted to do in their own school systems and their own public lives, even if the rest of the country was going to hell in a hand basket. But as federal influence grew and brought with it national norms in areas such as education, a sectarian reaction arose in order to reassert proprietary Protestant interests. That’s when you see evangelicals becoming politically active, starting their own TV stations, organizing lobbies, and so on.
My own hope for the evangelical movement-and I am speaking now as an evangelical Christian myself-is that we can somehow get past both sectarian and proprietary thinking. Whether we do this by appropriating or reappropriating certain Calvinist or Catholic themes, or whether we teach ourselves to handle new ways of being present in the public space without believing that we have to dominate the public space, getting beyond these two impulses will be crucial if we are to succeed in bringing positive Christian resources to bear on American public life.
DAVID SHRIBMAN, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Is James’s description of evangelicalism as a lower-middle or working-class phenomenon still accurate?
DR. NOLL: It’s accurate well into the post-1945 period. More recently, evangelicals have undergone a certain gentrification, with more than a few now falling clearly into the socioeconomic upper classes.
MR. TOLSON: Maybe this is another way of making the same point, but evangelicalism has been bound up with the American impulse, and vice versa, from the beginning. The period of fundamentalist quietism, of retreat from cultural authority, is an exception. Now we see moves toward a reclaiming of that authority, most effectively through means that have always worked the most powerfully for evangelicals. These means all involve a certain kind of vagueness that just sort of infiltrates the culture in ways that might be disturbing to evangelicals who prefer to see their faith more sharply defined.
Evangelical Protestantism succeeded in the early nineteenth century by being vague and taking on many forms. It merged with Jacksonian democracy, which was the dominant political trend of the time and the perfect political equivalent of many evangelical impulses.
It seems to me that now, along with political activism by evangelicals, we are seeing a seeping outward of the older evangelical culture through, for instance, the megachurches, which offer a reassuring, therapeutic religion that reinforces community in effective ways and assuages the anomie that so many people feel.
STEVEN WEISMAN, The New York Times: A conversation among religions is, I believe, urgently needed-all the more so as globalization advances and as history reminds us of the horrors caused by religious warfare. And I wonder: Can such a conversation influence theology and even change religions at the mass level?
America was founded by deeply religious people who also, for practical reasons, understood that the state had to be neutral and to protect the freedom of different religions. Where are we going in those terms?
DR. NOLL: Evangelical Christianity can never be universalist in a latitudinarian sense. At the heart of evangelical religion is the belief that Jesus is the savior for everyone, so an evangelical cannot say just, “Your religion’s fine with you, my religion’s fine with me,” and leave it at that.
At least a few good evangelicals are seeking a new way of retaining the old allegiance in a modern world where face-to-face contacts with members of all kinds of other religions are now commonplace. Such contacts may not change theology at the level of essential tenets, but they do force theology to become more sophisticated, particularly when it comes to assessing the balance of true and false or good and bad in other religions. As part of this process, I hope, evangelicals are also learning to be more self-critical about how the servants of Jesus can fall short of the universal ideals that Jesus came to teach us all.
MS. BUMILLER: So is this a change of product, or just of marketing?
DR. NOLL: I hope that, at least in some parts of the evangelical community, this is about much more than just marketing a product. What I’m talking about is not changing inherited theological beliefs so much as dealing with them in more sophisticated ways.
Evangelical religion is offensive. It claims forthrightly that there is one and only one way to God. But the way in which that claim is understood, and the way in which the world is understood in relation to that claim, have in fact evolved.
Jonathan Edwards speculated about the conversion of people who had never heard the message of Jesus Christ. Now, that type of speculation didn’t go far. His writings on this topic weren’t published until the 1990s. But he did think about such things.
Your reference to marketing and product development is fitting because that’s what happens to popular movements. And I must admit, as an intellectual of sorts myself, that I wish evangelicals would pay more attention to intellectuals!
MR. BARONE: Jay talked earlier about the need for the government to distance itself from missionaries, and yet U.S. authorities have a duty to try to protect Americans-missionaries included-when they are in danger overseas. When I worked for the late Senator Frank Church of Idaho, he always paid a lot of attention to promoting the safety and security of Mormon missionaries. He cultivated good relations with the Mormon church, which didn’t hurt because Idaho is a heavily Republican state with a lot of Mormons, and Church was a Democrat.
I have to disagree with Mark when he suggests that Bush’s use of lines from hymns and so on is cynical. Bush’s chief speechwriter is my former colleague Michael Gerson, who is an evangelical and attends an Episcopal church. John McConnell, the number-two speechwriter, is a Catholic. I don’t think either Bush or these writers are cynical. I think they’re trying to use phrasing that’s as inclusive as possible, while still making reference to faith. They like to refer to God as “the Author of our destiny,” which is a direct steal from that other George W., George Washington.
JEFFREY ROSEN, The New Republic: Abortion aside, precisely how do the views of evangelicals differ from those found in secular society? Can you be more specific about how much pluralism there is among evangelicals? James Davison Hunter’s book a decade ago suggested, if memory serves, that there was no substantial difference in views between younger evangelicals and their secular counterparts when it came to the death penalty or school prayer. If 40 percent of Americans really do identify as evangelical, according to Gallup, then it’s unlikely that they’re all social conservatives. How much pluralism is there in the evangelical community?
MR. TOLSON: I think there’s a lot. If abortion were off the table, American evangelicals would reflect, by and large, the general American political distribution.
MS. BUMILLER: What about gay marriage?
MR. TOLSON: Not on homosexuality, but on most other issues. I think that’s an accurate statement.
JOHN PARKER, The Economist: How about the death penalty?
DR. NOLL: In Illinois, some of the strong supporters of Governor George Ryan, who was a high-profile foe of the death penalty, were evangelicals, often urban, mainly black and Hispanic but white non-Hispanic as well. Evangelicals, I suspect, will often take the political shape of what’s dominant in their locality or region.
MR. PARKER: How do white evangelicals view affirmative action?
DR. NOLL: I think there’s considerable support for affirmative action in many parts of the evangelical community.
MR. WEISMAN: How many evangelicals do not describe themselves as social conservatives?
MR. HITCHENS: They might not use the terminology of “social conservatism” and might not recognize themselves as such, but they would say they support family values.
MR. TOLSON: Family values, right.
MR. HITCHENS: Am I mistaken in thinking that theologically the question of abortion didn’t trouble evangelicals for quite a while?
DR. NOLL: No, you’re not mistaken about that.
MR. HITCHENS: How did the evangelical alliance with conservative Catholics on this issue come about?
DR. NOLL: This is an area where the Catholic-evangelical discussions have been so interesting over the last thirty years. People on both sides were backing into shared opposition to abortion, and the alliance grew from there.
MR. PARKER: Has the greater involvement of evangelicals in political action been an essentially defensive measure, a reaction to the sense of growing marginalization that you described? And was it really a bold attempt to retake the center, or more of a cry of pain over large-scale secularization and things of that sort?
DR. HUNTER: I think that evangelical political activism has been less about retaking the center than about stopping the slide toward secularization or pulling America off the slippery slope of cultural decadence. That evangelicals should feel such a responsibility is a testimony to their proprietary impulse regarding the American experiment, but their political activity over the last several decades has clearly had a defensive, rear-guard quality.
MR. CROMARTIE: Nathan Glazer has used the phrase “a defensive offensive” to describe movements such as the Religious Right.
MR. PARKER: Hasn’t this drive toward political effectiveness and engagement required evangelical leaders to try to impose a greater coherence on the community than it really has? And doesn’t that have a cost, given the way in which a certain vagueness or internal variety has served evangelicalism so well and marked evangelicalism so deeply?
DR. NOLL: Yes.
MR. PARKER: If that’s true, then how likely is evangelicalism to remain more or less coherent politically? Won’t the movement’s inherent tensions push it in the direction of less overall coherence?
MR. TOLSON: That has already been happening. There’s been an intensification in political activity and then a falling away. Since the early 1990s we’ve seen a sense of disillusionment with politics and the public realm fuel the tendency of evangelicals to embrace “private” solutions, such as home schooling.
DR. HUNTER: Whatever political coherence evangelicalism has shown has not been the result of some painstakingly worked-out theory. The Dutch Reformed tradition has developed some capacities for such theorizing, but the broader evangelical community never has.
MR. PARKER: I understand what Jay has been saying about evangelicalism not being all that coherent, but is that true at the voting booth? Aren’t they overwhelmingly Republican and also one of the biggest elements in the Republican electoral coalition? That looks like political coherence to me.
MR. TOLSON: A scholar at the University of North Carolina named Christian Smith is trying to look beyond some of the more politicized issues and see how evangelicals think about the full range of social issues. He finds much more nuance and ambiguity in the positions of everyday evangelicals, albeit not in those of their leadership.
You’re certainly correct about recent evangelical voting patterns. But there have been times, even over the last thirty years, when evangelicals have retreated from political activism. As Michael Barone notes, Karl Rove felt that they weren’t there in the numbers he expected in 2000. He and the Republican leadership are very concerned about evangelical turnout in 2004.
MR. CROMARTIE: Christian Smith’s books include American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, and Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Believe. The latter uses a survey he did of more than 2,000 evangelicals; in essence he found out that they’re a lot nicer than their leaders!
MR. SHRIBMAN: Fifteen years have passed since the Pat Robertson campaign; will he be regarded as the Al Smith of this movement, or as someone who has been less on God’s errand than on a fool’s errand?
DR. NOLL: The short answer is that Pat Robertson will disappear from history when his TV program goes off the air. His significance is to have embodied the politicization of a part of the evangelical world that had not been politicized before. John Parker’s point about the evangelical world’s mostly monopartisan politics not matching its internal religious diversity is important. The people that Robertson brought in had been outsiders religiously, if not politically. And the coalition that took place politically on the right did bequeath more unity-albeit unity of a partisan political character-than had ever existed in the religiously variegated evangelical community.
1. This quotation and material in the first paragraphs are taken from my book The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 13-15.
2. D. W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989), 1-17; quotations 3, 12.
3. Material in the next several paragraphs is abridged from my book American Evangelical Christianity: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 9-28.
4. On that recent and dramatic spread of such movements, see Karla Poewe, ed., Charismatic Christianity as a Global Culture (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994); Murray Dempster, Byron D. Klaus, and Douglas Peterson, eds., The Globalization of Pentecostalism (Oxford: Regnum, 1999); and Richard Shaull and Waldo Cesar, Pentecostalism and the Future of the Christian Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
5. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
6. The key book is Joel A. Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
7. See especially Edward J. Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion (New York: Basic, 1997).
8. Especially useful is George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
9. See especially David Edwin Harrell, Jr., All Things Are Possible: The Healing and Charismatic Revivals in Modern America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975).
10. A good account of recent contacts found in David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptists and American Evangelicals: The Conversation Continues (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1993).
11. See the breakthrough represented by mutually respectful dialogue in Craig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, How Wide the Divide? A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).
12. This material on hymnody is abridged from my American Evangelical Christianity, 262-82.
13. For his own use of such a list, see Stephen Marini, “Evangelical Hymns and Popular Belief,” in Music and the Public Sphere, 1600-1900, ed. Peter Benes (Boston: Boston University, 1998). Professor Marini’s list is also being used for a multi-part project on Protestant hymnody in America directed by Edith Blumhofer at Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals.
14. Ian Bradley, ed., The Penguin Book of Hymns (London: Penguin, 1989), 355.
15. David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission: 2000,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24 (January 2000): 24-25.
16. See Bradley, Penguin Book of Hymns, 19-21.