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David Bebbington

Not So Exceptional After All

American evangelicalism reassessed.

A real-life character in one of these books, a Mississippi Baptist insurance company executive, recounts an unusual Christian testimony. As a teenager, he had started pilfering from a local grocery store, but one day he was caught, taken by the owner into a back room, and directed to sit down facing the man's desk. A pistol lay on one side of the desk, a Bible on the other. Either, the storeowner told him, the lad would be handed over at gunpoint to the police, or he would listen to some Bible passages. He chose the latter option, found himself convicted of sin and ran home to ask God to change his life. "So," he concluded, "that's how I became a Christian." The menacing with a pistol may be exceptional, but the subsequent denouement was not. The Mississippi teenager went through the conversion experience that forms the entry gate to evangelical religion. He became one of the millions of Americans who form the subject of the volumes here under review.

Conversion is just one of the four characteristics that, in combination, evangelicals habitually display. Alongside that hallmark are an eagerness to learn from the Bible, an activism rooted in zeal for the gospel, and an appeal to the Cross as the means of redemption. It is welcome that all five books mention each of these four points, not neglecting, as many efforts to describe the key qualities of American evangelicals have done, the atoning work of Christ—even if the study by Monique El-Faizy relegates the Cross to a subordinate position. Only if some such set of criteria is deployed can the extent of evangelicalism in modern America be plotted. Self-identification is far from conclusive, since evangelicals do not necessarily use the term of themselves. In a recent survey undertaken by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion, a mere 15 percent of the respondents classed by the investigators as evangelicals employed the word as a self-description. So, even in studies where people are asked their religious allegiance, some such objective grid is also called for. When applied, it reveals that perhaps 25 percent of the adult population of the United States is evangelical. It is because so sizeable a proportion of the nation can be recognized as evangelical—a datum which, in conjunction with evangelical political activism, some observers find deeply alarming—that publishers have recently been producing a deluge of introductions to the subject. Here are five of them.

They can be arranged roughly in sequence according to their degree of overt empathy for evangelicalism. Douglas Sweeney, associate professor of church history and the history of Christian thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, identifies closely with the movement. In The American Evangelical Story he writes as an insider for insiders ("we evangelicals"), frequently quoting Scripture for his purpose. His is the only straightforwardly historical work among the five, recounting the main developments in America from the 18th century down to the present day. He argues that the Great Awakening brought urgency and a cooperative spirit to the heirs of the Reformation; that in the early 19th century American evangelicals moved to the center of their culture; that missions were a bright page on the evangelical record but race relations a much darker one; that new styles of spirituality around the turn of the 20th century transformed the movement; and that fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism wrote fresh chapters in the more recent past. These topics are skillfully chosen to bring out the main features of the story, and they are fluently discussed with a telling awareness of recent scholarship in the field. Nor does the sympathy of the author for his subject preclude criticism. Missionaries, Sweeney observes, often failed to distinguish between the gospel that they preached and the culture that they carried. Furthermore, he remarks at the end, evangelicals have often suffered from an insularity born of success and so have failed to draw on the doctrinal resources of the broader church in time and space. This is a good survey of its theme, and a wise one.

The second work, Sam Reimer's Evangelicals and the Continental Divide, is again by an evangelical insider, an associate professor of sociology at Atlantic Baptist University, Moncton, New Brunswick, but it has a more detached tone. The book reports the results of surveys made in 1995 of evangelicals in Canada as well as in the United States in order to compare and contrast their attitudes. Much of the text consists of analytical tables and related commentary, giving the case an air of social scientific objectivity (and it is none the worse for that). But the author also includes some splendid illustrations of grassroots attitudes. One gem comes from the lips of a Manitoba Baptist, who, when asked what he thought of various specified groups, remarked as he went through the list, "I don't know what a secular humanist is, but I am probably against it." The overall findings of the monograph are clear: the web of evangelical opinions showed few differences on the two sides of the border, precisely because it constituted a single subculture.

Richard Kyle, professor of history and religion at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas, is the writer of the third title, Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity. Kyle is an insider, a Mennonite and already the author of two books published by InterVarsity, but he engages in a sustained critique of the contemporary movement. Evangelicalism has capitulated, he argues, to the forces of Americanism—individualism, pragmatism, populism, democracy, free enterprise, and so on. In trying to convey the gospel to the United States, the movement has assimilated the values of the nation. In a manner reminiscent of the challenge of David Wells in No Place for Truth (1993), Kyle excoriates the willingness of evangelicals to absorb so much from popular culture: "many evangelicals," he warns, "are in danger of trivializing Christianity." He devotes four chapters to the history of the movement, showing that the assimilation of Americanism was already proceeding apace over the centuries, and then examines in turn its politics, megachurches and lowbrow culture in the contemporary world. The verdict is pessimistic. Evangelicals have tried to be countercultural, but, paradoxically, they have been thoroughly pressed into the mold of their setting.

The fourth book, Believers, is by a journalist who was once an insider but who became an outsider. Jeffery L. Sheler started as a fundamentalist Baptist, shifted his allegiance to the more open-minded but still definitely evangelical Nazarenes, and then joined a mainline Presbyterian church. There was no sharp turning away from his origins, but when he decided to explore the evangelical world he found it unfamiliar. He traveled around the country visiting representative evangelical centers in Virginia, Massachusetts, Colorado, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Washington, D. C., and New York, and even ventured to Guatemala with a missionary team from Alabama. The stimulus to his enterprise, he explains, was the ignorance displayed by his colleagues in journalism concerning all things evangelical. He wished to demonstrate that, far from being rustic, irrational and intemperate, evangelicals were mostly sensible Americans, hardly different in many respects from their neighbors. There is, he concludes, "nothing alien or weird about evangelical Christianity." Evangelicals' greatest asset, he suggests at the end, is the gospel message itself. Perhaps the author discovered that he was less of an outsider than he himself had supposed.

In preparation for God and Country, the final volume considered here, Monique El-Faizy, another journalist, adopted a similar technique of visiting various leaders and bases of the evangelical movement. She even witnessed the same Christian music festival at Creation East, Pennsylvania, as Sheler and, like him, investigated Wheaton College, Illinois, "the Harvard of the Christian world." Furthermore, El-Faizy too, was once an insider but is now an outsider, having abandoned her youthful religious practice when she went to college. She contrasts the old-style fundamentalist solemnities of Grace Community Church, California, where she grew up, with the go-ahead, light-hearted tone of so much contemporary evangelicalism, representing for her a shift of message "from God's wrath to God's love." Her journeys have concentrated on the large and headline-grabbing institutions, so that she may have exaggerated the extent of the transformation, but there can be no doubt that seeker-friendly churches have altered the rising evangelical ethos in the direction that she indicates. Her conclusion is nevertheless that evangelicals are trying to turn the clock of America back to the 1950s, to "a prefeminist, pre-sexual revolution era." Although she evidently disapproves of this aim, the book is uniformly fair-minded, maintaining dispassionate rapportage and offering some highly sympathetic individual pen-portraits. Once again, even in the work least identified with the movement, evangelicalism receives an appreciative appraisal (though it should be added that it would be easy to compile a different selection of books, ranging from dyspeptic to apocalyptic in their assessment of American evangelicals).

The overriding impression from the five studies put together is that large segments of contemporary evangelicalism have moved toward an accommodation with American popular culture. This is clear from many of the examples highlighted in these pages: the Christian Wrestling Federation starring Michael the Arc Angel; Hoops of Hope, "Impacting Eternity through Basketball"; and the Christian cowboy service during a rodeo in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1976, when a convert said, "God, take the bridle reins of my life."

The most sustained study of the phenomenon comes in three successive chapters of El-Faizy's book. Christian publishing has taken off, with the barrier between the religious and the secular markets breached. Christian bands have become mainstream in the entertainment industry. And, although Hollywood is proving a harder nut to crack, The Passion of the Christ may well have unleashed a fashion for integrating religion into film. These chapters reveal that, even if evangelicals have adopted the methods of the world, they are exerting an undoubted influence over salient dimensions of modern America.

The process, though partly unconscious, is also partly deliberate, for the sake of the gospel. Its roots lie in the efforts of inter-war evangelists to capture the airwaves for Jesus. Charles Fuller's Old-Fashioned Revival Hour, launched in 1925, was only one of a host of successful radio shows. For an observer from outside the United States, this phenomenon seems particularly striking. In Britain evangelism was almost entirely excluded from the programs of the monopolistic British Broadcasting Corporation, but in America the radio, and soon television, became primary agencies for the communication of Christian teaching. The conquest of the media has meant a presence at the heart of popular culture that has been denied to many evangelicals elsewhere. Hence the evangelical rank and file of America have a natural affinity for the contemporary, the marketable, and the glitzy.

A British perspective may have more to suggest about the evangelicalism of the United States. Sometimes American commentators glory in the religious differences of their land from Europe: the lack of overbearing state churches, the weakness of inhibiting customs, the favorable ambience of the free market. "Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned," declared one enthusiast for megachurch practices in 1996. Yet a trawl through these volumes reveals a remarkable degree of linkage with the British Isles. There are allusions to the general cultural background: to Shakespeare and Darwin, to Arnold Toynbee and Aldous Huxley, to London plays and Oxford curricula. There are more references to inspiring figures from the Christian past: to Baxter and Doddridge, to Wesley and Whitefield, to Carey and Wilberforce. J. N. Darby, the fertile mind behind dispensationalism, the holiness enthusiasm of the Keswick movement, and British participation in The Fundamentals all receive coverage.

Nor has the transatlantic influence been limited to remote periods. Neo-evangelicals have been swayed by the New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce, the theologian J. I. Packer, and the Christian statesman John Stott. The Alpha evangelistic course, and especially the clergyman Nicky Gumbel (who is said to have "a plummy English accent") have had an impact on many. Most of all, the literary critic and author C. S. Lewis, not himself an evangelical, has been canonized. Although the 20th-century influence of America over the British movement has been far stronger, especially through Billy Graham, there has been a longstanding and in some measure enduring influence of Britain over American evangelicalism.

That casts doubt on the frequently encountered thesis of American exceptionalism. The United States, it is often claimed, is entirely different from the Old World in its religion. Thus evangelicalism can be presented, as it sometimes is in these volumes, as something distinctively American. It is not. Admittedly it is true that American evangelicalism is hugely bigger in scale than its British counterpart, which enjoys the support of only about one-tenth the proportion of the population owing allegiance to the American movement. But the characteristics of the two are very similar, and their essence is identical. That is a necessary condition of the transferability of the Alpha course. The same is substantially true of other countries. Of the churches affiliated to the Willow Creek Association of seeker-friendly churches based on Bill Hybels' megachurch in the Chicago suburbs, 3,300 (as might be expected) are situated in the United States, but as many as 2,700 are outside the country. Rick Warren's book The Purpose-Driven Church is used as a training manual in 160 lands. Evangelicals, as Douglas Sweeney points out, account for roughly one out of ten people in the world. This expression of the Christian faith is not unique to America.

It is here that Reimer's evidence is so revealing. He scrutinizes samples of evangelicals in Canada in order to perceive any differences that might mark them out from their coreligionists south of the border. It is true that there is a methodological problem with his survey. He chose places for examination where half the evangelicals belong to denominations that in many ways are unusual: the Missouri Synod Lutherans in Minneapolis and the Mennonites in Manitoba. Few evangelicals would say, as one Missouri Synod pastor told the investigator, that he considered his infant baptism the time of his salvation and so his most important religious experience. It could be that some of the variations between Canada and the United States that Reimer explores are the result of denominational rather than national contrasts. But that consideration makes his findings all the more significant. Despite the dissimilarity between denominations that might well reinforce the national differences, he establishes that there are very few points of distinction between his Canadian and his American samples. It is true that there are variations over such matters as eternal suffering in hell and the extent to which teenagers should be exposed to other points of view, but the more central the belief, the more transnational concurrence there is. He explains his findings by pointing out that evangelicals belong to a subculture that transcends national boundaries. Evangelicalism is an inherently international phenomenon.

When that has been said, a feature of all these books looks strange to an observer from overseas. That is the degree of emphasis on politics. A study of British evangelicals might mention their political views in passing, if only to remark on their diversity. Evangelicals in Britain, a few eminent exceptions apart, usually have their hands too full with ecclesiastical politics to tamper with the secular variety. These volumes, by contrast, dwell on the role of American evangelicals in the public square. The authors might deplore the way in which the media normally take an interest in the movement only when it impinges on elections, but they themselves devote substantial space to public affairs. One of the two longest chapters in Sheler's book is on politics; the root of El-Faizy's concern about the nostalgic efforts of evangelicals to return to the 1950s is anxiety that they want to exert political muscle to ensure that everybody else follows them. The coverage does not distort reality. Members of the movement are often highly politicized. "Life is political," remarks Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Seminary. The people of the United States believe in a participatory democracy and practice its virtues far more than most inhabitants of other lands, even those living under democratic governments. To that extent, evangelicalism in the United States is indeed Americanized.

Most commentators would say that the type of politics associated with American evangelicals is conservative. That is true, in the main. A cowboy preacher, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, remarked in the course of an evangelistic address that his hearers ought to "stand up" for President Bush. On the day after the president gained his second term in office, a Pentecostal church visited by Sheler was in celebratory mood; "you wanted your man to win," declared the preacher, "and now you must be feeling better." James Dobson has turned into one of the most influential figures of the Religious Right.

Yet a good deal of evidence is assembled here to show that political conservatism is not intrinsic to evangelicalism. Jim Wallis holds aloft the flag of Christian radicalism. Younger evangelicals, more pragmatic and less doctrinaire than their predecessors, are coming to the fore. As early as September 2004, half the Wheaton students disagreed with the invasion of Iraq. The range of policies associated with evangelicals is broadening, with Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals urging a stand against global warming (though it is instructive that he adopted that position after a conference in Oxford). Right-to-life issues are for many the sticking point. Insofar as Democrats take up such causes, there may be a shift in evangelical political allegiance. As El-Faizy observes, the real indication of the power of the evangelicals will be when they begin to shape the program of the Democratic Party.

Another feature that strikes this foreign observer about the image of evangelicalism projected in these books concerns its history. If evangelicalism has long been a phenomenon common to both sides of the Atlantic, it is likely that the historical trajectories of the movement in America and Britain have been in large measure parallel. In Britain there has been a continuous evangelical tradition since the 18th century, strong throughout the 19th century and touched only marginally by fundamentalism in the 20th.

That is not the impression of the American past given by these volumes, faithfully representing the general consensus. The story here in all the four books that offer a historical analysis is that in the wake of the Great Awakenings, first and second, America was thoroughly impregnated with evangelical values in the years down to the Civil War. Afterward, however, there arose the challenges of industrialism, non-Protestant immigration, Darwinism, and higher criticism that together toppled the evangelical dominance. Fundamentalism arose in the 20th century to oppose the debasement of the faith, separating from the liberal mainline denominations and so becoming socially marginal. Only with the emergence of neo-evangelicalism from fundamentalism in the 1940s were the foundations of the modern movement laid. There was therefore a period of evangelical decay in the late 19th century and a hiatus in the evangelical tradition during the early 20th century. Neither of these propositions would be true of Britain. Is either really true of America?

In relation to the 19th century, it may well be that the story was more similar to the British experience than the received view would suggest. The Second Great Awakening generated not so much "an Arminianized Calvinism" (as Kyle has it) as a full-blooded paradigm of moderate Calvinism that retained its hegemony in the pulpits of America down to the end of the century and beyond. Alongside it among the Methodists was a warm-hearted Arminian theology. The two seemed increasingly similar as the century wore on, but both remained thoroughly orthodox sanctions for vigorous evangelism. D. L. Moody, who could count on supporters from both camps, made his enormous impact because the culture was still permeated with evangelical assumptions. Black Christians were far more numerous and far more committed to evangelical doctrines in 1900 than in 1850. Liberal theology was admittedly beginning its course, especially at Andover Seminary, but it was stoutly resisted. Darwinism and higher criticism did not appear to be serious problems to most ministers, let alone most laypeople, until well into the 20th century. Their corrosive force on Christian profession has been seriously antedated. Industrialism was generating a structured response, for many of the early social gospel advocates were, as Sweeney notes, evangelical. Non-Protestant immigrants were seen as a threat to be combatted and a community to be evangelized, not as an irresistible tide that had swept evangelicals away. Evangelicals were still in the ascendancy in America at the end of the 19th century.

Likewise the relationship of fundamentalism and evangelicalism in the 20th century may have been misunderstood. Fundamentalism played a much larger part in American life than in interwar Britain, but it was not the sole repository of evangelical convictions at that time. There was a great deal of continuity in older evangelical bodies from the earlier period down to the later 20th century. Methodism, which was barely touched by fundamentalist controversy, remained substantially orthodox (with some notable exceptions) and generated fresh evangelistic ventures. Newer bodies that could hardly be called fundamentalist, such as the Salvation Army and the Nazarenes, possessed clear evangelical credentials. The South as a whole, while sharing many views with fundamentalists, maintained the vigor of its earlier evangelical attitudes and practices. It is only by appreciating that there was such continuity in evangelicalism, much of it within so-called mainline denominations, that the phenomena of the late 20th century can be explained. For Billy Graham to be sponsored by the New York Council of Churches in 1957, for instance, indicates that there were many in denominations not normally described as evangelical who agreed with his message. These were people whom Graham himself thought of at the time of the founding of Christianity Today (1956) as "open to the biblical faith in the mainline denominations." It is highly significant that in the 2006 Baylor survey more people in the same mainline denominations embraced the label "Evangelical" than did those regarded by the investigators as belonging to evangelical bodies. The 20th century witnessed far less interruption of the evangelical tradition than the usual emphasis on fundamentalism would suggest.

These amendments to received opinion about the main patterns in the historical evolution of American evangelicalism may help our understanding of the strength of the movement in contemporary America that is catalogued so vividly in these pages. Evangelicalism remained a powerful force for longer than has usually been suggested, down to the end of the 19th century and even beyond. The movement's broader-minded section continued to maintain its old emphases alongside the rise of fundamentalism. Hence there were more sparks to fan into a flame in the late 20th century than has normally been supposed. The permeation of popular culture and political life that these books chronicle was all the more possible because of the enduring vigor of the movement. Evangelicalism has been and remains an emphatically global force, with characteristics that outcrop in every land under the sun, and it would be a mistake to suppose that it ever has been uniquely American. Yet its American expression, for all its accommodation to various currents in the modern life of the nation, has been and remains unusually successful.

D. W. Bebbington is professor of history at the University of Stirling. He is the author most recently of The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon And Moody (InterVarsity).

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