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Lauren F. Winner


Thriving on Conflict

The very thing that makes evangelicalism attract and hold large numbers of people undercuts its effectiveness in social reform.

My entire extended family seems to be engaged in a conversation about the persistence of evangelical Christianity. Recently, I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, visiting my sister. We were driving around one Saturday afternoon, shopping for pottery, when we passed a sign that said "Old Fashioned Tent Revival Meeting Next Week—Get to Know Jesus and Be Saved." My sister chuckled and said, "It boggles my mind that stuff like that still happens. Seems like it belongs in the nineteenth century. I don't understand how people can really believe stuff like that anymore." (I have learned, finally, to keep quiet when Leanne starts down this line of inquiry.) A few days before the pottery-shopping episode, I had been speaking to my cousin, who, taking a tack opposite from Leanne's, began praising God for the miracles he was creating in the church by having evangelical Christianity continue to blossom. "There's really no other explanation for it," Claire said, "other than the hand of God working in this country. I don't know how these watchmaker deity people would explain it. Here we are, the most dissolute, morally backwards country, and yet God is working here to make evangelicalism the strongest, most popular religion going."

Christian Smith and his fellow researchers are asking the same question that my cousin and sister are asking, and, not surprisingly, they think there is another explanation than the hand of God working in people's daily lives. It is not, after all, the job of sociologists to decree when God is working in human life. In short, Smith posits that "American evangelicalism is thriving—not only that, it is thriving very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism." The conjunction in the subtitle is the only misleading word; if the subtitle read "Embattled, Thus Thriving" rather than "Embattled and Thriving," the reader would have Christian Smith's thesis before opening the book.

It may seem obvious to some readers—like ...

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