Thursday, April 28, 2016

An Intellectual History of American Evangelicalism since 1945

Worthen, Molly. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

In The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years, Steven P. Miller observes that one popular motif in the academic study of American evangelicals can be labeled "give 'em a fair shake." According to Miller, this model "seeks to explain the evangelical subculture to an audience that, presumably, carries reflexive hostility or incredulity toward this Bible-bound 'other'" (Miller, p. 6). He would no doubt place in this category Molly Worthen's Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (which, incidentally, was also published in 2014, also by Oxford University Press).

Worthen, who currently teaches at the University of North Carolina, presents a history of "conservative white Protestantism" in America from the end of the Second World War to the early years of the twenty-first century. She does not deal with African-American Protestants, who tend to think of evangelicalism "as a white word." Nor does she tell the stories of "Latinos, Asian evangelicals, and other new immigrants" (5).

She defends her intellectual-history approach by pointing out that while not all thoughts and thinkers "are equally good," scholars must take into account "that all people think, and that material forces alone cannot explain human experience" (9). Though not herself an evangelical, Worthen evinces a real appreciation for her subjects and what she calls their Crisis of Authority.

So what does she believe is the crisis? In order to hear Worthen's answer we must first understand her idea that the identity of American evangelicals is revealed not so much by their beliefs, but by their struggles. She insists that what unites modern evangelicals is not their doctrinal conformity--which they have never been able to achieve--but their shared questions "borne out of their peculiar relationship to the convulsions of the early modern era" (7). In other words, if we want to comprehend who evangelicals are, we should listen not to their confident affirmations, but to those doubts with which they constantly wrestle.

Worthen asserts that three types of questions stand at the center of the American-evangelical crisis. These questions ask about "how to repair the fracture between spiritual and rational knowledge; how to assure salvation and a true relationship with God; and how to resolve the tension between the demands of personal belief and the constraints of a secularized public square" (4). Put another way, evangelicals deal with questions about the relationships between "reason and revelation, heart and head, private piety and the public square" (2). Worthen suggests that neither Roman Catholics nor liberal Protestants are troubled in this way because both groups have an agreed-upon, extra-biblical arbiter: Roman Catholics look to the Pope and the magisterium, while liberal Protestants allow the goddess of reason to rule. By contrast, evangelicals confidently claim the Bible alone as their guide. But because they have no single complementary authority, it seems impossible for evangelicals to achieve and maintain harmony. As Worthen writes, "it is no secret that the challenge of determining what the Bible actually means finds it ultimate caricature in their schisming and squabbling" (7).

With Worthen as their guide, readers meet and hear the thought leaders of post-war American evangelicalism, men like Carl F. H. Henry, the first editor of Christianity Today magazine, Harold Lindsell, author of the immensely popular 1976 book, The Battle for the Bible, which defended the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and Francis Schaeffer, evangelicalism's highly-influential cultural prophet. She concludes that American evangelicalism represents "a discernible family of intellectual traditions . . . yielding the religious landscape we know today" (9).

One of the great strengths of Worthen's treatment is her close acquaintance with her subject. She set out to understand who evangelicals are and largely succeeded. One downside of this book relates to its intense focus on American evangelicalism as a tradition that has always paid close attention to ideas. Because it is a tightly-focused intellectual history, Apostles of Reason usually fails to register what all the fuss was about. Why did millions of Americans convert to some brand of conservative Protestantism during the post-war era? To get more answers to that question, read the Miller book too.

You can see a BookTV interview with Molly Worthen discussing Apostles of Reason here.

No comments: