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W. Bradford Wilcox

American Evangelicals: Tamed & Tolerant?

Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want
by Christian Smith
Univ. of California Press, 2000
257 pp.; $27.50

Christian America is an exercise in iconoclasm. In this engaging and forceful book, Christian Smith sets out to destroy the "myth" that evangelical Protestants are a monolithic force for—depending on your worldview—reaction or reform in American political and cultural life. This book is particularly aimed at critics, journalists, and academics outside evangelicalism who cling to the belief that evangelicalism is a "demonic" force in our national life determined to undercut basic American freedoms, as well as at Christian conservative activists who are convinced that evangelicalism is an "angelic" force for cultural and political renewal in America. Smith's essential argument is twofold: first, evangelical political and cultural attitudes are much more complex, ambiguous, and ambivalent than is commonly acknowledged; and, second, to the extent that there are common beliefs and strategies guiding evangelical political and civic engagement, these beliefs and strategies pose no fundamental threat to American canons of political moderation and tolerance.

Smith unravels the complexity of American evangelicalism by relying upon more than 200 in-depth interviews with evangelicals around the country. He begins by pointing out a number of fallacies that cloud academic and popular understandings of American evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism more generally. The first is "the representative elite fallacy," which holds that the opinions of average evangelicals can be understood by consulting the opinions of evangelical elites. Smith dispatches this fallacy by arguing that prominent evangelical elites cannot possibly represent the diverse opinions of evangelical laity and that such elites often stake out controversial positions that place them outside the mainstream of evangelical lay opinion.

Another fallacy is the "ideological consistency fallacy"—the ...

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