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