Ever since Luther’s Reformation almost immediately led to Anabaptist spinoffs, Catholic observers have been pointing out that Protestants have an authority problem. “The Bible alone” inevitably leads to many conflicting interpretations of the Bible and to seemingly endless organizational fragmentation. The magisterial Reformation managed to limit Protestant diversity for a time by using state authority to impose regional uniformity. But after the era of religious wars and then the Enlightenment, ideals of religious tolerance eventually prevailed, especially in Protestant lands. In that new setting, of which the United States was a prototype, voluntary religion flourished. Evangelicalism, emphasizing “the Bible alone” and the conversion experience, became the most characteristic religion in young America. Evangelicalism also came in bewildering varieties that seemed to fulfill Catholic predictions of ever-increasing Christian fragmentation and the anarchy of competing claims to stand solely on the authority of the Bible.

Evangelicalism is still very much around in America (something like 80 million people, or 26 percent of the population, can be identified as evangelical), and understanding such a diverse movement is a formidable challenge. Molly Worthen is to be commended for helping to meet that challenge. She takes on the daunting task of providing an overview of major evangelical developments from the era of Billy Graham just after World War II until the present. She does not claim to offer a complete history, but only to look at the sprawling movement through one of its dimensions: the book “traces the past seventy years of evangelical intellectual life,” defining “intellectual” somewhat broadly.

An intellectual history of recent evangelicalism is no easy task. Not only is the movement bewilderingly diverse; it is also notable for the gap between its scholars and the anti-intellectualism of its popular constituencies. Theologians and intellectuals may attempt to guide evangelicals, but more often the people in the pews turn to popularizing gurus. These preachers offer simplistic, quasi-intellectual answers, as for instance in young-earth “creation science.” Worthen helpfully points out that evangelicals as a whole are not any more intellectually shallow than most Americans. But because evangelical groups are market-driven, simple answers are going to sell better, or preach better, than complex, nuanced ones.

Part of the challenge in approaching this multidimensional history is making it into a somewhat coherent narrative. Worthen follows the most typical storyline, which starts after World War II with efforts by intellectually oriented friends of Billy Graham to rehabilitate evangelical intellectual life. The fundamentalist-modernist debates among American Protestants in the 1920s had left fundamentalists with few respectable educational institutions and with constricted intellectual resources. Some of the heirs to fundamentalism, who began to call themselves “neo-evangelical” or just “evangelical,” hoped to resuscitate a more substantial Protestant theological heritage. Billy Graham’s immense popularity enhanced their hopes of providing leadership for a national evangelical coalition. In the years after the war, they founded new institutions, such as Fuller Theological Seminary (1947) and Christianity Today (1956), which play prominent roles in Worthen’s narrative.

Worthen correctly points out that, despite their rhetoric and hopes, these neo-evangelicals did not speak for the whole of the movement. They represented mainly the Reformed side of evangelicalism, which tended to be more intellectualistic than was popular revivalism, and which was especially concerned to offer rationally grounded defenses of biblicist faith. Typically they still argued for an “inerrant” Bible as the bedrock source on which they could build their belief system. Such views had wide influence that touched many evangelical subgroups. But, as Worthen shows, many in these subgroups also resisted such emphases. Worthen documents resistance from within diverse denominations such as Nazarenes, who placed more emphasis on dramatic spiritual experience and the holy life, or from Mennonites, whose tradition emphasized the ethical dimensions of Jesus’ teachings. Even within the Reformed side of evangelicalism, neo-evangelical emphasis on an inerrant Bible led to sharp debates and struggles for institutional control. Fuller Seminary, for instance, was taken over in the 1960s by those who rejected biblical inerrancy. During the ’70s many evangelical groups experienced controversies over “the battle for the Bible.” By the ’90s, strict conservatives who insisted on inerrancy took over the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical denomination. Meanwhile, in many other evangelical groups biblical inerrancy receded as a test of the faith.

Worthen’s impressively wide-ranging account touches on many other innovations and divisive issues, and she is helpful in pointing out that recent evangelicalism is about a lot more than just politics. There has always been something of a political dimension to this strain of Protestanism, but it was greatly enlarged after the late ’70s with the rise of the Moral Majority, the religious right, and the culture wars. Nor were all evangelicals politically conservative. In fact, the rise of the religious right was preceded in the ’70s by a smaller, progressive, social-reform-oriented “evangelical left” that never entirely disappeared. Worthen notes also that the religious right to some extent grew out of debates within evangelicalism over issues such as biblical inerrancy. Those who insisted on inerrancy were more likely to be conservative political activists. Other evangelicals, including most of a rising evangelical intellectual community, tended to be political moderates who resisted simplistic either-or solutions to social problems.

Because of its complexity, evangelical history can be difficult to follow as a story, even when one looks at it just through the lens of its most characteristic ideas. Every trend has a counter-trend, and there are many subthemes that must be touched on. Worthen recounts, for instance, the revolution in relations between evangelicals and Catholics over the past few decades, especially as conservatives in each camp found kindred spirits in the other. Some highbrow evangelicals were attracted by Catholic worship and a few prominent figures converted to Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Meanwhile, considerable numbers of cradle Catholics turned to evangelicalism. Worthen notes these and other complexities, but readers may sometimes wonder what is tying the whole narrative together. The title Apostles of Reason does not help much. It is true, as Worthen emphasizes, that the neo-evangelical rebuilders of evangelical intellectual life were especially concerned to show that biblicist Christianity was rationally defensible, as have been some others since. Yet as Worthen’s own account makes clear, many other sorts of evangelicals emphasized other authenticating dimensions of the faith and could hardly be characterized as putting a disproportionate emphasis on reason.

Worthen might have tied things together with a more explicit interpretive point of view. Her characterizations of individuals and movements reveal that she prefers some approaches to others, but she does not explicitly state what her standards of evaluation are or provide analysis of the intellectual strengths or weaknesses of the various outlooks. So her accounts, although consistently informative, sometimes get lost in evaluative generalities. The evangelical views she finds less attractive, for instance, are to be explained as reflecting their proponents’ “anxieties” regarding the relation of their faith to modern intellectual life. But positing anxieties does not tell us much as an analytic tool. All sorts of religious believers have anxieties regarding the intellectual viability of their faith in the diverse modern world, and there is no way to document that those on one side of a contested issue had more anxieties than those on the other side.

Worthen is on more solid ground in pointing out that evangelicals routinely have to cope with problems of authority, which often leads to superficial panaceas. She also recognizes well that such problems are not new. So, even though evangelical history of recent times can be properly said to involve a “crisis of authority,” such crises do not seem to undercut the vitality of the movement. Rather, as Worthen briefly notes, evangelicalism seems to flourish on competition, simplistic formulations, controversy, and division. And whatever its intellectual struggles and weaknesses, evangelicalism has a flexibility and resilience that has proved effective in winning converts in all sorts of cultural settings in America and around the world. Of course, world Catholicism is also flourishing through very different approaches, so there is no one road to evangelical success.

It is also worth noting that evangelicalism, for all its many faults and weaknesses, is not anarchical and incoherent. Just looking at the United States, it is remarkable that for all the differences, divisions, subdivisions, and conflicts, there is still a discernible entity that can be plausibly identified as a single religious tradition. Given the many local pontificators on what the Bible says, one might have expected such revival-oriented, market-driven religion to disintegrate into an overwhelming number of heresies. Certainly it does generate its share of heresies, as the popularity of the “health and wealth” gospel illustrates. Yet probably most evangelical preaching still presents a version of a core Gospel message that the eighteenth-century Great Awakener George Whitefield would recognize.

Moreover, five hundred mostly acrimonious years after the Reformation, these seemingly free-floating Protestants are not as far away from core Catholicism as one might assume. By far the most popular intellectual among American evangelicals is C. S. Lewis. Mere Christianity has sold more than 3 million copies in English alone since 2001. Many Catholics also like Lewis, but among evangelicals he has been virtually canonized. One of Lewis’s most prominent characteristics is that he emphasized the core historical teachings of the church on which Protestants and Catholics can agree. So, whatever the centrifugal forces that would drive evangelicalism toward total fragmentation, they seem to be countered in part by some centripetal forces that allow a core Christianity to survive and flourish as well. Worthen does not say much about that degree of coherence, but it is also part of this puzzling story. Fragmented, contentious, institutionally divided, and often intellectually shallow evangelicalism may not be the ideal for the church, but despite its perennial crises in authority, it is not nearly as incoherent as one might expect.

Published in the February 21, 2014 issue: View Contents

George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney professor emeritus at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale). His forthcoming book is The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (Basic).

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