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American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Matthew Avery Sutton
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
480 pp., $35.00

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America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
Grant Wacker
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2014
448 pp., $27.95

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Mark Noll


Jekyll or Hyde?

Two stories about American evangelicals.

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The evangelical segment of the American citizenry began to interest the nation's political savants in 1976. Although no one—then or now—has ever precisely defined what makes someone an "evangelical," the fact that Jimmy Carter taught a weekly Bible class at his Southern Baptist church in Americus, Georgia, and that he sometimes used the word for himself was enough to kick-start an engine of media scrutiny that has never stopped. The much-publicized rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, the contribution by evangelicals (however defined) to the nation's never-ending culture wars, and the alliance between many self-identified evangelicals and the Republican Party have kept the Evangelical Question alive as a matter of urgent public analysis—as well as a steady source of revenue for the nation's leading secular and academic publishers.

The transcendently important dimension of that question is religious: how do evangelicals measure up to the standards of historical, classical Christianity? But for immediate interest to the broader public, political queries have predominated: how and why has this variety of Christian faith affected American public life, as it so obviously has from the late 1960s forward?

Two recent books from Harvard University Press—Matthew Avery Sutton's deeply researched depiction of the evangelical forest and Grant Wacker's equally well researched focus on the tallest tree in that forest—are among the latest in a distinguished lineup to accept the challenge of explaining American evangelicals to Americans who are not part of that religious tribe. The parade began with George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture from Oxford University Press in 1980; it continued in the early 1990s with the first well-rounded study of Billy Graham (by William Martin from Wm. Morrow) and Paul Boyer's Harvard Press book on "Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture." Significant studies followed steadily, including earlier Harvard books by Wacker on Pentecostalism (2001) and Sutton on the flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (2007). Since 2010 the steady stream has become a flood: from Alfred A. Knopf on the spirituality of the Vineyard Fellowship, from W. W. Norton on the migration of southern evangelicals to California, from Harvard on evangelical creation scientists and right-wing nationalists, from the University of Pennsylvania Press on evangelical ambiguity about public funding and on the small band of evangelical political liberals, from Basic Books on Jimmy Carter's religion, and from Oxford University Press on the Jesus People, evangelical anxieties over authority, evangelical cultural influence, preachers of the Prosperity Gospel, and the rise of the Christian Right.

The appearance of such books from major trade and university presses testifies to the salience of evangelical political activity in general public consciousness. Only the Civil Rights Movement has generated as much careful scholarship on religion in the public square. In both cases, however, attention to the political effect of actions propelled by religious motives has too easily ignored, trivialized, dismissed, or read through those motives. Thankfully, the floodtide of recent scholarship includes a number of studies predicated on the assumption that in order to understand the political impact of evangelical religion it is imperative to first understand evangelical religion. The new books by Sutton and Wacker belong among the very best of such efforts.

The conjunction of the two books is also fortuitous, since taken together they allow readers to assess both aspects of the Evangelical Question: concerning the character of the religion, and concerning the political effects of that religion. Although the books resemble each other in their bold claims about evangelical influence on "America," they move in very different directions. Sutton seems convinced that evangelical religion is a Mr. Edward Hyde who, though often restrained by his alter ego, nonetheless acts for destructive, sinister ends. By contrast, Wacker's account of the Billy Graham phenomenon convinces him that, although Mr. Hyde lurks constantly in the background, the evangelical Christianity that Graham represents should be regarded as a benevolent, altruistic Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Matthew Sutton is a younger historian of already considerable renown who teaches at Washington State University. His American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism rests on unprecedently thorough research into an ad hoc but cohesive tradition of influential authors, preachers, and widely read interdenominational periodicals that he describes as "radical evangelical." The chief early proponent of this radicalism was William Blackstone, an Illinois layman who in 1878 published Jesus Is Coming, a book that has sold into the tens of millions, been translated into scores of languages, and remains in print. Blackstone's study drew on widely scattered passages of Scripture to chart the entirety of world history, from the creation to what he saw as the rapidly approaching Second Coming of Christ. Because Blackstone stressed biblical prophecies that he believed predicted the return of Jews to ancestral lands in the Middle East—and because he campaigned hard for that eventuality—he has been recognized as the most influential Zionist who was not a Jew.

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