Evangelicalism & American Life

From the September 1999 Forum in Prouts Neck, Maine

Dr. Nathan Hatch, Professor of History & Provost, University of Notre Dame

Dr. Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History, Duke Divinity School

The growth of Evangelicalism is a major development in the American cultural landscape. Three speakers present on different dimensions of Evangelicalism and its place in the modern United States. Dr. Nathan Hatch explains the development of religious freedom from colonial America to the present and how the growth of Methodism influenced and shaped the greater national culture. Dr. Grant Wacker provides a cultural profile of Evangelicals in modern America. He describes their noteworthy behaviors, how they think, the place they occupy in American society, and the tenets of the religion. Hanna Rosin reflects on whether Evangelicalism is a temporary counterculture, or whether it will amass significant cultural sway in the long run. She discusses what the religion is becoming and the forces shaping it.

Transcript


DR. NATHAN HATCH: Americans have long considered religious liberty to “be a crowning achievement of their revolution and at the heart of their national identity. They have also naturally linked liberty of conscience to such legendary heralds as Roger Smith and William Penn, who struggled against heavy odds to achieve religious freedom during the colonial era. After independence a strange coalition of humanists and evangelicals — including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Baptists Isaac Backus and John Leland — joined forces to ensure that religion would not serve as an engine of civil policy.

To focus on such individuals creates a narrative of religious freedom as a heroic enterprise. Without underestimating the symbolic role of these champions of liberty, however, we may usefully consider whether there truly was such a close connection between intention and outcome. Perhaps, as the historians Sidney Mead and Perry Miller argue, most early Americans were not following the cloud and pillar of high principle but rather walking down the road to religious freedom without knowing it.

In retrospect, the evolution of religious freedom in North America seems so natural and uncomplicated — almost foreordained — that it is easy to overlook how unusual, even extravagant, was the hothouse of religious diversity within those colonies that became the United States. By the middle of the eighteenth century, any traditional European churchmen would have found the religious environment of America disruptive and disorienting. Colonial America surged with religious diversity well before any theory could fully explain or justify it. The weakness of the English state and the strength of commercial capitalism conspired to make North America a haven for a variety of British and European dissenters, many of whom had compelling religious or ethnic reasons to flee the Old World. Religion became massively deregulated in the English colonies, not by design, but because of governmental and ecclesiastical weakness. This functional deregulation of religion is a stark contrast to the centralist tradition that characterized both the Spanish and the French experience in America.

English North America was also distinctive for the remarkable and unprecedented wave of immigration that mixed English, German, Swiss, Scottish, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, and African ethnic groups. Religious persecution accounted for some of them. French Huguenots barred from Quebec helped build Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York, while Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Brazil also established communities in Charleston and New York.

In the twenty years before the American Revolution, about 300,000 people poured into English America — a number equivalent to the entire Spanish migration to America during the colonial period. As many as 16,000 flooded into the English colonies each year, more than the total number of French settlers to Quebec in 150 years. “The movement of hundreds of thousands of displaced Europeans and Africans into the half-billion acres that lay east of the Mississippi,” Bernard Bailyn has written, “produced a culture unlike any other then known.”

I would suggest that within this culture religious liberty developed, in a legal sense, by default: the withering of state and ecclesiastical authority allowed rampant religious improvisation. At the time of the Revolution, for instance, South Carolina had what Richard Hofstadter called a “vacant establishment.” On paper, the Anglican church was the official establishment, and around Charles-ton it had some institutional coherence. Yet for commercial reasons South Carolina had always welcomed promising settlers, whatever their religious convictions, and Presbyterians actually outnumbered Anglicans. The back country of the colony, moreover, simmered with religious and ethnic dissent. With the exception of New England, the British colonies in North America had given up a monopolistic relationship between religion and the state prior to the adoption of the First Amendment.

The experience of the revolution and of building a democratic polity further undermined the already fragile foundations of church tradition. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists, closely tied to elite institutions and civil authority, had a difficult time competing in the religious free market of the early republic. While they commanded a certain high ground of culture and power, they were too weak to restrain upstart vernacular religious movements that blurred the distinction between church and popular religion. Lay driven, voluntary, participatory, and enthusiastic, these movements became endemic. Methodists, a counterculture in England, outstripped all other churches in the United States and helped to define its core culture.

Colonial America bequeathed a unique and untidy diversity to the United States. The early republic, in turn, profoundly altered the relationship of class and religion in America. The upper classes in the United States would never control religion; nor would its diverse and democratized churches allow the state to control or centralize cultural life. No other Western democracy, not even Canada, would develop a system of higher education so decentralized, independent of state control, and open to the entrepreneurial efforts of religious dissenters.

Recognizing the religious diversity within the thirteen states, members of the Constitutional Convention adopted the First Amendment, which prohibited any governmental establishment of religion and guaranteed free exercise of religious choice. Jefferson’s drive for religious liberty had arisen from his assumption that religious corruption sprang from the privileged status of established churches. Freedom of religion, Jefferson thought, would release churches from ecclesiastical hierarchy and sectarian enthusiasm and set them on a path of rationality and restraint.

What Jefferson actually witnessed, however, was anything but measured decorum. He and other Founders who lived into the first decades of the nineteenth century were deeply disturbed by the rising revivalist and populist faiths that were transforming the classical republic of their dreams into a “fiery furnace of democracy.” The early republic was swept off its feet by what Sean Wilentz deemed “one of the most extraordinary spells of sectarian invention that the nation and world has ever seen.” The most powerful social movement of the new nation was the very embodiment of enthusiasm and authoritative religion — the Methodists.

That the Methodists would achieve such a formidable position in the new United States was curious and unexpected. At the dawn of the American republic, New England Congregationalists, Middle Colony Presbyterians, and Southern Anglicans cast a dominant shadow in society, politics, and religion. While a few followers of John Wesley had made their way to colonial cities, the Methodists were not yet a separate church from the Anglicans and were insignificant in the American religious economy.

The explosive growth of the Methodist Episcopal Church was a surprising development in a republic that shunned state-sponsored religion. The American followers of John Wesley, who could boast no more than four ministers and 300 lay people in 1771, were threatened with extinction during the revolution. All their leaders except Francis Asbury returned to England, leaving the Methodist faithful to struggle with the stigma of Toryism throughout the war.

Under the tireless direction of Asbury, however, the Methodists advanced from Canada to Georgia by emphasizing three themes that Americans found captivating: God’s free grace, the liberty of people to accept or reject that grace, and the power and validity of popular religious expression–even among servants, women, and slaves. Led by uneducated preachers committed to sacrifice and travel, the Methodists organized local classes — or cells — and preaching circuits at a rate that alarmed more respectable denominations. Between 1776 and 1850, Methodists in America experienced a miraculous growth. Comprising less than 3 per cent of all church members in 1776, Methodist ranks swelled to encompass more than 34 per cent of all church members by 1850, becoming by far the largest religious body in the nation.

Unlike Methodism in Great Britain, moreover, which remained a dissenting movement despite its strength and never occupied the high ground of culture and power held by the Church of England, Methodism in America came to embody the nation’s preeminent religious and cultural ethos. The whole American style, which emphasized sincerity and openness rather than form and privacy, became “Methodist.” While the culturally prestigious style remained Anglican in England, enthusiasm of all kinds — religious, cultural, and personal — reigned in America.

The message and structure of Methodism also embodied a liberal conception of reality that broke decisively with the pre-revolutionary pursuit of homogeneous community. As a movement of self-conscious outsiders, Methodism embraced pluralism, competition, and the marketing of religion in every sphere of life — far beyond the narrow confines of ecclesiastical space. The Methodist itinerant Peter Cartwright recounted how a Presbyterian minister objected to his starting another church within the “bounds of his congregation.” Cartwright responded that his were a free people in a free country and they would do as they pleased.

Disestablishment in the early republic was not attributable solely to law. Rather, the free religious market emerged as the presumptive authority of traditional churches withered. While European churches were shoring up their authority following the convulsion of the French Revolution and Napoleon, America’s established churches and their college-educated ministers continued to read sermons and staid liturgies despite a tremendous assault. In The Churching of America, 1776-1990, Roger Finke and Rodney Stark point out that, as a percentage of religious adherents, between 1776 and 1850 Congregationalists dropped from 20 to 4 per cent, Presbyterians from 19 to 11.6, and Episcopalians from 15.7 to 3.5.

It is difficult to give a coherent account of this period. Churches and religious movements after 1800 operated in a climate of tottering ecclesiastical establishments; the federal government had almost no internal functions; and the rampant migration of people continued to short-“circuit old networks of personal authority. Established religious institutions linked to the upper classes remained too weak to make a whole society accept their language and analysis. In America’s rapidly expanding society, fluid structures of institutional control allowed new and dynamic religious movements to take root and thrive. There was virtually unlimited social space, without hardened distinctions of social class or religious denomination.

 

“The sense of being besieged is discussed by many different groups. All talk about how the rest of the world is intruding on them. But not all react the way evangelicals react. Evangelicals react organizationally. They do something about it. They have the resources, the money, and a social location that makes it possible for them to mobilize, to organize, to publish, to get on the air waves, to create schools.”

As Americans moved into new areas — from the hill country of New England, to the Ohio River Valley, to central Tennessee and Kentucky — staid churches could not make the transition. On the New England frontier, the slow-growing Congregationalists established only five churches during the 1790s while Baptists started twenty-six new congregations and the Methodists started nine. By 1800, these dissenters outnumbered Congregationalists by three to one. By 1810, only one in eight back-country communities had a Congregational church. Similar conditions prevailed on the frontier in Kentucky and Ohio, where the Methodists easily outstripped the Presbyterians.

In the young United States, religious power, influence, and authority were dispersed and based on popular appeal. Nothing better illustrates this fact than the marked pluralism of religious publishing, which exploded in the early nineteenth century and stood in sharp contrast to the tightly controlled and centralized traditions of publishing in Quebec and in Latin America. The historian Gaylord P. Albaugh has estimated that, of the 605 distinct religious journals founded in America by 1830, only 14 had existed before 1790. Journals appeared as quickly as they vanished, creations of common people for a broad popular audience. Before 1789, all religious journals had issued from either Boston, New York, or Philadelphia. By 1830, religious journals had been published in 195 different cities and towns and in every state but Mississippi. Of the 70 locations with such publications still active in 1830, over half were west of the Alleghenies.

These vernacular religious movements, which arose in the wake of religious liberty, blurred the distinctions between church and popular religion. While outbreaks of enthusiasm were common in European and British Christianity in the era of the democratic revolutions, America was unique because of the absence of a revived state church. In the United States, high culture was too weak to inhibit or restrict enthusiastic popular religiosity, and the cultural periphery remained far more powerful and unobstructed. In this ideal climate for churches growing out of the popular culture, the Methodists and Mormons thrived.

Both Methodism and Mormonism broke decisively with the kind of churches that had dominated the American colonies. They succeeded because they were willing to market religion outside traditional ecclesiastical space and to cater to the interests of specific market segments — a proliferation that Adam Smith had predicted would result with government deregulation of religion. Both movements empowered ordinary people by taking their deepest spiritual impulses at face value, by shattering formal distinctions between lay people and clergy, by providing an arena for the entrepreneurial instincts of religious upstarts, and by communicating the gospel message in the vernacular — in preaching, print, and song. Methodists and the Mormons were also strikingly alike in two other ways: in their focus on the reality of the supernatural in everyday life, and in their recruitment and organization of disciplined bands of young followers who were hungry for achievement, sacrificial in their zeal, and driven by a sense of providential mission.

In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, Methodist experience brimmed with overt enthusiasm, supernatural impressions, and reliance on prophetic dreams and visions, as is evident from Methodist journals and autobiographies. Methodism dignified religious ecstasy, unrestrained emotional release, and preaching by blacks, by women, by anyone who felt the call. Two African-American women who became successful Methodist exhorters, Jarena Lee and Zilpha Elaw, were dramatically converted through direct revelation and found guidance in prophetic dreams. The most celebrated and notorious Methodist itinerant of his day, “Crazy” Lorenzo Dow, was celebrated as a holy man with unusual powers. Even Nathan Bangs, who eventually set his face to rid Methodism of the stigma of enthusiasm, began his itinerant career as a white-hot enthusiast. The historian John Wigger argues that the defining characteristic of American Methodism under Francis Asbury was not a theological abstraction but a quest for the supernatural in everyday life.

In America, the rapid expansion of Methodism created conditions that allowed women and African-Americans to assume religious leadership. The Methodists gave women extraordinary freedom to speak, encouraging them to share their religious experiences in public, and also granted African-Americans the right to preach the Gospel. They even ordained black ministers, though some attempted to keep black leaders on the fringe of the movement. This gave rise to independent black churches, the first being the African Methodist Episcopal Church found-ed by Richard Allen in Philadelphia.

By the time Joseph Smith announced his prophetic mission, the Methodist Episcopal Church was pushing enthusiasm to the margins, but the popular yearning for divine intervention in day-to-day experience remained. Joseph Smith issued a clarion call to a militant supernaturalism: a demonstrable revelation from heaven, the reality of miracles and apostolic gifts, and a sure and ongoing channel of prophecy. “I am a God of Miracles,” the Lord proclaimed in the Book of Mormon, and the “Latter-day Saints insisted on taking that claim literally.

Mormons and Methodists shared a common longing for the miraculous power of the biblical world. They also shared a genius for organizing and consolidating the expansion of their faiths. Methodists and Mormons were, at their core, youth movements with an extraordinary capacity to mobilize people for a cause and to build an organization sustained by obedience and discipline rather than ties of parish, family, and patronage. In both movements a battery of young leaders without elite pedigree constructed fresh religious ideologies around which the movement coalesced.

Mormons and Methodists were also both driven by a consuming passion to convert the unconverted. They saw an urgent missionary purpose as the principal reason for their existence, and their preaching was aimed at warning people of the wrath to come. Their proselytizing took the form of a relentless and systematic deluge. Unlike the young itinerants of the early eighteenth-century Great Awakening, whose efforts were largely uncoordinated and short-lived, these movements developed regimented and ongoing schemes for sending out lay preachers to the most remote pockets of American civilization. Both Methodists and Mormons, furthermore, rejected the Puritan tradition of painstaking study. Mormon preachers — who included hatters, cobblers, glaziers, potters, and farmers — were advised against using careful forethought, written notes, or detailed plans. Their overriding goal was to convince the unconvinced by whatever means possible.

The organizational genius of Methodists and Mormons was to embrace and empower common people in a system that was centrally directed in a fixed, even authoritarian way. In their early years, both movements were volatile and unstable, as a variety of fledgling and self-ordained leaders vied for influence, tested the limits of the prescribed authority, and frequently defected to form their own churches. Yet Mormons and Methodists, unlike Disciples and Baptists, swore by institutional coherence. In the face of clamoring dissent — sometimes fueled by democratic impulses, sometimes by visionary ones — Methodists and Mormons were willing to exercise discipline, even ruthlessly, to preserve a movement in the name of God.

In their authoritarian extreme, the Latter-day Saints symbolize the disorienting instability that accompanied a free-market religious economy — its crisis of authority and its failure to integrate meaning or to care for the lonely and forlorn. The primitive Mormons were an apocalyptic sect, intent on expansion and willing to unsheathe the sword in retaliation for the persecution of their own. At its inception, Mormonism throbbed with diversity, multiple revelations, and an array of spiritual gifts, but internal dissent and external threats led Smith to deny freedom of thought and demand the strictest loyalty to his commands. In 1843, Smith announced that all earthly commitments were null and void save the ones sealed by himself. No human obligation — even the solemn vow of marriage — had any meaning unless it was sanctioned by the prophet Joseph. As divine prophet, military general, political boss, and even candidate for the presidency of the United States, Smith consolidated power into his own hands and equated obedience to his will with compliance to the divine will. In submitting to their prophet and revelator, Mormon followers were willing to dismiss the architecture of classic Christian theology and practice. In Missouri and Illinois, such radicalism led to persecution that, far from disbanding the movement, set in motion the pilgrimage to Utah, where the Mormons flourished.

This religious marketplace — what one Congregational missionary to Illinois called in 1829 “religious anarchy” and “a sea of sectarian rivalries” — could give rise to intolerance and sometimes even persecution. As in the case of Joseph Smith, denials of religious liberty were generally a function not of government but of popular action, of mobs. It was not the oppression of the powerful that dissenters had to fear in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted, but the tyranny of the majority. During the 1830s and the 1840s, mob action was rampant in America — against Catholics in Boston and Philadelphia, against Mormons in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and against abolitionist preachers in a variety of locations.

Intolerance and persecution, nonetheless, were rarely effective in suppressing religious dissent. Instead, the availability of space in the United States meant that dissent and pluralism generally proceeded apace. America’s vast hinterland allowed the oppressed Mormons to trek beyond the writ of law or mob rather than be crushed in Missouri and Illinois. The very experience of that pilgrimage solidified the identity of the Latter-day Saints and helped Brigham Young turn a highly fragmented and fragile apocalyptic sect into a major religious community.

Severe popular prejudice against Roman Catholics, particularly with respect to education, emboldened the immigrant Catholic Church to begin its own system of parochial education and, in time, its own colleges and universities. To a lesser degree, mid-nineteenth-century Methodists felt discriminated against by Calvinists, who controlled most colleges. They responded by founding thirty-five colleges between 1840 and 1860 and another thirty-five plus between the Civil War and 1900.

In the United States, religious liberty proceeded with almost unrestrained fury, generating a popular culture “awash in a sea of faith” and unmediated by traditional religious leaders or government officials. The people of America turned out to be more free to practice religion than their European cousins. This does not mean that Americans possessed greater foresight or tolerance; it simply means that their institutions were too weak and their communities too diverse to restrain the religious whirlwind that descended upon them. At the founding of the republic, no one wanted or envisioned such a state of religious freedom. However, the deregulation of religion, the popular contagion of the American Revolution, the vast expanse of land, and the continual mixing of peoples all conspired to make religion a pervasive, if divisive, reality in American life.

DR. GRANT WACKER: I would like to offer a cultural profile of evangelicals in modern America, that is, in post-World War II America. Some historical references are inevitable, but my primary focus is on the modern scene.

To offer a profile, of course, I must first identify the people I am talking about. Who are these evangelicals? Anecdotal insights can be revealing. Suppose someone comes up to you on a big-city bus and says, “Is this seat saved? Oh, incidentally, are you?” That’s a tip-off that you are probably sharing your seat with an evangelical rather than a high-church Episcopalian. An evangelical can also be defined as someone who really, really likes Billy Graham, while a fundamentalist is someone who really likes Billy Graham but worries that he’s going soft on liberals. Another chestnut, which historian Joel Carpenter borrows from Bob Jones, Sr., is that an evangelical is someone who says to a liberal, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.”

Social science probably gives us less insight than the anecdotal evidence does into what the evangelical animal is. First, the data vary wildly. Under the strictest definition, evangelicals number only a few million, but with some criteria the figure can go as high as 50 million. I think the best estimate, which I draw from Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, is that roughly 25-29 per cent of Americans are associated with conservative Protestant churches. Smith bases this figure on massive polling that his research team has done, as well as on general surveys. But whether it’s 20 million or 40 million, we’re dealing with a lot of people.

I call these people “culturally self-conscious evangelicals,” which is a much broader category than “Christian Right.” Politically active members of the Christian Right probably number no more than a couple hundred thousand, but the number of evangelicals who could be mobilized on a given issue swells rapidly to millions. Though the definitions become very loose when the count goes that high, I would argue that what evangelicals believe is central to any reasonable definition.

Belief is important, because that is how evangelicals instinctively define themselves. While the Jewish community, for instance, may give preeminence to ritual rather than to doctrinal affirmation, evangelicals give preeminence to belief. There is a great deal of flexibility in how they manifest those beliefs in ordinary life, but no evangelical would ever say, “Oh, well, it really doesn’t matter what you think about the birth of Jesus Christ.” To them it does matter. Belief counts. That is the first crucial tenet of evangelicalism.

Its second crucial tenet — the theologian’s “formal principle” — is the authority of the Bible. All Protestants believe in the authority of the Bible, of course, and all Christians believe in the Bible in one way or another. But evangelicals distinguish themselves on the religious landscape by their insistence that the Bible be interpreted without benefit of the church, the community, or the clergy. In other words, one reads the Bible and makes a judgment as to what it means. A well-known Pentecostal once said, “We believe that God has no grandchildren.” That reveals a great deal about the ethos and the deepest assumptions of the movement. There are no grandchildren. All evangelicals are responsible for doing their own reading and making their own decisions — which is not to say that they actually do so, only that they have the desire to do so. Most evangelicals will add to the point about the authority of the Bible their belief that the Bible doesn’t make mistakes–the doctrine of inerrancy — and that the best way to understand it is to interpret it as literally as possible. But the bottom line is the authority of the Bible.

Evangelicals’ third item of belief, or their “material principle,” is the necessary affirmation of Jesus Christ’s redeeming act on the cross. Theologians call it “justification by faith”; most evangelicals would simply say, “God has taken care of the past. He has taken care of our brokenness, our sins, whatever defiles us.” Sometimes this affirmation can generate a kind of unappealing smugness: “My problem has been taken care of. Now what about yours?” So there are both positive and negative implications to this manifestation of faith.

A fourth, more implicit belief among most evangelicals is that some parts of the Bible are more significant than others. Such variations in emphasis have, in fact, generated the variety of denominations within the evangelical family: Pentecostals, Holiness groups, Advent-ists, Baptists, African-American Baptists and Methodists, and several others. Almost all these bodies have come into existence because they have stressed one particular part of the Bible, usually a passage in the New Testament. Pentecostals, for example, focus on the practice of speaking in other tongues, which the book of Acts describes as having occurred on the day of Pentecost; this they take to be normative for the devout believer.

A fifth evangelical tenet is that time counts. Evangelicals talk about millennialism of all sorts. The great majority of them are pre-millennialists, who think that Christ will return to earth before the millennium, a period when peace and righteousness will prevail on earth. Some are post-millennialists, who think he will return after the millennium. A few are a-millennialists, who believe that the millennium is in the heart rather than being an actual time on earth. But however they see the future, all their eschatological schemes involve a sense that time counts; we fritter it away at our peril. Of course, evangelicals may be as likely to fritter away their time as anyone else, but they feel guilty about it. They feel that they should be doing the Lord’s work.

Lastly, evangelicals believe strongly in the autonomy of the individual, and particularly the individual decision. They stress that every individual must, of necessity, make a personal decision to follow Christ. God has no grandchildren; everyone must make his or her own decision. If you had asked evangelicals back in the 1950s to name their favorite radio program, they might well have said, “The Hour of Decision.” They probably would have liked it, not only because of Billy Graham, but also because of the title itself. This emphasis on autonomous decision-making, moreover, bleeds into a related emphasis on autonomous churches. Even those that are hierarchically structured, like Methodist churches, display considerable freedom at the local level.

In addition to these distinctive beliefs, evangelicals display distinctive behavior patterns. The first distinctive behavior is evangelizing. One simply does not have the good news of the Gospel unless one shares it. Though Christian Smith’s recent work and extensive polling data show that evangelicals are very reluctant to buttonhole people and share their faith, they feel they should do so, and they try to. A very important Southern Baptist periodical is called Tell — not Take It and Hold It, or Keep It to Yourself, but Tell. One prominent evangelical preacher insisted that it was important to keep the cookies on the bottom shelf. In other words, make the message accessible.

The second noteworthy behavior is the embrace of social reform. The particular causes change — from temperance in the 1820s and abolition in the 1840s, through prohibition in the 1920s, to abortion and school prayer more recently — but evangelicals’ desire to change society is part of their cultural DNA. This effort to reach out creates inevitable friction with the elite secular culture. In many of their reform campaigns, evangelicals deny the validity of the public-private distinction so precious to the Enlightenment culture. If abortion is wrong for me, they reason, it’s wrong for everybody. If it is wrong for everybody, it’s wrong for me. These are social concerns, corporate concerns.

A third behavioral characteristic — especially glaring in the last twenty years — is the adversarial posture toward the wider culture. In the past this posture has at times receded, and evangelicals have become more accommodating toward the culture. In the last quarter century, however, the adversarial posture has been dominant. Such representative voices as Tim and Beverly LaHaye describe a great secular humanist conspiracy out there. Most evangelicals also see the wider culture as full of defrauders: pseudo-scientists who know the scientific evidence for creationism but refuse to let it enter the classroom; dishonest educators who tell local school boards they are teaching value-free social science when in truth what they teach is packed with an agenda; historians of religious history who hijack the American story and suppress the role of Christians; liberal clergy who leave out a vast amount of the historic Christian story when they preach. These people and others like them are duplicitous and cannot be trusted. While evangelicals don’t have much of a problem with the openly unsympathetic John Deweys of the world, they fear and resent the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Their disgust at such duplicity has not only animated the Christian Right but also created an unprecedented pan-evangelical sense of a common threat. In recent years — very recent — Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, and Mormons have begun joining hands, despite their deep theological differences, to oppose defrauders.

In dealing with the outside world, evangelicals favor a variety of tactics. One is what Robert Wuthnow has called “procedural rationalism.” By this he means that they file lawsuits, elect people to town councils, follow the rules, do what they can do to set venues. While I don’t think that such actions have been terribly effective, procedural rationalism is certainly part of the evangelical tool kit.

A more important tactic is the effort to gain control of the key symbols of society. Think about the title “Moral Majority.” Who is going to claim to be part of an immoral minority, except tongue in cheek? Most people want to think of themselves as part of a moral tradition that is widely shared. Think how evangelical groups try to do their work, in one way or another, in Washington, D.C. Most have some kind of an organization there; others, like Promise Keepers, have made symbolic gestures “there. Washington itself is key. The desire to gain symbolic control is also behind the issue of school prayer. I doubt that any evangelical thinks prayer in schools has much catechetical value, but most do credit its symbolic significance.

The last behavior pattern I would highlight, and probably the most important of late, is the effort among evangelicals to take control of their own lives. The burgeoning home-schooling movement offers the premier, but not the only, example of this tactic. Evangelicals are trying, in a very pragmatic way, to create parallel institutions where their values can be played out.

This catalogue of evangelical beliefs and behaviors does not address, of course, two crucial questions: What brought evangelicalism into existence in the first place? What gives it its particularly visible, aggressive edge in American life today?

To understand the origins of the evangelical tradition, and its prominence, we need to look at the ideology of modernity. One critical feature of modernity is the Enlightenment emphasis on individual choice, which lies at the heart of the church-state distinction. David Bebbington, a marvelous historian of evangelicals in England, has in fact argued that evangelicalism is properly understood, not as a reaction to the modern world, but as an expression of it. Evangelicalism is the premier expression of modernity, precisely because it emphasizes choice and the conscious embracing of one’s life. But the downside of that choice is the denial of tradition.

Here’s the rub. Evangelicals embrace part of modernity, the emphasis on individual choice, but they worry about and react against other parts, especially those that would deprive them of God’s special acts in the Bible and in history. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, traditional supernaturalism came under attack in many spheres, and especially in biblical criticism. The Bible became a book among other books, opened to tools of investigation. In addition, the study of evolution, the emergence of anthropology, and the growing awareness of world religions all supported the assumption that God does not act in special ways. In other words, God is accessible to all, and the divine is simply a part of culture. This notion of the divine is what we often call romanticism, and it can be argued that romanticism is far more important than secularism for understanding evangelicals. Secularists are not the problem; romantics are the problem. Because they see the divine in all of culture, in all of history, they neutralize it. Secularists we can deal with; romantics are dangerous because of their perceived duplicity.

 

 “There is extraordinary strength and density in the evangelical infrastructure. Part of this is historic, part a sense of mission, part has to do with the real or perceived necessity of defending themselves. Their aim is to restore a traditional world, even if that world is for the most part an illusion — a world of small towns and summer nights and stable values. It never existed, but they think it did, and they are mobilizing to restore it.”

Of greater consequence for evangelicals even than the ideology of modernity, however, are the distinctive social arrangements that have accompanied modernization, such as compartmentalization, centralization, and bureaucratization. Modernization forces a mixing of communities and of world views. The interstate highway system, for example, has had the effect of mixing up society, of forcing people into proximity, in ways that were unimaginable before the 1950s. Effective contraceptives have dramatically increased the possibility of both geographic and occupational mobility. All kinds of late-twentieth-century social arrangements bring about a mixing that would not take place in a less modernized society.

Faced with such mixing, evangelicals have become enormously self-conscious about who they are. And their awareness of this identity is particularly evident in their reactions to the federal government. Perhaps the feature of modernization that has had the profoundest effect on evangelicals is the growth of the federal government. That growth increases the ability of government, and of other mass structures, to intrude upon the enclave, and this is what creates in evangelicals their sense of being besieged. Kevin Phillips has written, “The world of Manhattan, Harvard, and Beverly Hills was being exported to Calhoun County, Alabama, and Calhoun County did not like it.”

Now, this sense of being besieged is discussed by many different groups. All talk about how the rest of the world is intruding on them. But not all react the way evangelicals react. Evangelicals react organizationally. They do something about it. They have the resources, the money, and a social location that makes it possible for them to mobilize, to organize, to publish, to get on the air waves, to create schools. They don’t create universities — they are singularly inept at that — but they are very good at creating schools and colleges and para-church organizations.

There is extraordinary strength and density in the evangelical infrastructure. Part of this is historic, part a sense of mission, part has to do with the real or perceived necessity of defending themselves. Evangelicals follow the maxim “the best defense is an offense.” Their aim is to restore a traditional world, even if that world is for the most part an illusion — a Norman Rockwell world of small towns and summer nights and stable values. It never existed, but they think it did, and they are mobilizing to restore it.

What then keeps them going? I suggest that there are three sustaining factors that go beyond all the cultural reasons already discussed. The first, which is counterintuitive, is that they provide a place for women. While women may be excluded from the pulpit, they have an extraordinary range of obligations and opportunities within the evangelical world. The second factor that helps evangelicals continue to thrive is the emphasis upon biblical authority, which provides a great sense of security. And lastly, most evangelicals believe in an eschatology that tells them they are part of a larger design. Life isn’t just an accident. As Martin Marty has said, “Religion makes sad hearts glad or it does nothing at all.” That’s true of all Bible-based religious traditions, and it’s certainly true of the evangelical tradition at its best. Historians, journalists, and social scientists should keep that in mind.

HANNA ROSIN: My experience in the evangelical world is that of an outsider, and I can speak about it only as an outsider and a journalist. I’ve tried to discover the wider cultural significance of today’s evangelical fervor. Do America’s evangelicals represent a certain cultural vanguard about to usher in another Great Awakening and an era of social reform, or do they merely represent pockets of seething nostalgia, some sort of counterculture?

But first I want to talk about my credentials as an outsider. I come from a family that, like many, has become successively less religious over the generations. The easiest way to summarize this heritage is to describe a time when I was in Israel and four generations of my family were living in the same house. On the Sabbath, my great-grandmother would just not move — not because she was 100 years old but because she believed it was a sin even to chew on the Sabbath. We would sit at the table and not move so as not to offend God. My grandmother would move, but only to go to the synagogue. I remember going with her to her Orthodox synagogue, where the women were confined to a dark chamber behind dingy curtains. The rationale for this was that the women would distract the men, which struck me as preposterous at the time because my dear grandmother didn’t pose that sort of threat.

Meanwhile, my mother was the first generation formed by a Zionist education, which turned all religion into Israeli national myth. She could tell you everything about the Jewish resistance to the Romans at Masada, for instance, but almost nothing about the importance of Yom Kippur. And then there’s me, now out of Israel and wondering what it’s all about.

I now find myself, moreover, a religion reporter. I wrote about evangelicals a little bit at The New Republic, mostly contemptuously and without much understanding. When I first heard the former California congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, I thought that her descriptions of her apocalyptic visions of California and the Second Coming were absolutely off the wall. But after a year of spending a lot of time in the evangelical world, I’ve come to think it’s the Washington Post newsroom that’s crazy. I now have the feeling that everyone is an evangelical, that I could get on any plane in America and ask the person sitting next to me, “When did you accept Jesus Christ?” and he or she wouldn’t even blink. Back in my newsroom, however, no one will believe me when I tell them that 44 per cent of Americans are biblical creationists. They think it’s time to transfer me off my beat.

Grant Wacker was right to draw attention to evangelicals’ refusal to recognize the validity of the public-private distinction. My own experience entirely confirms this. Some of the people I write about call me at home all the time because, to them, there is no distinction between my public life as a reporter and my private life as a person.

I am also the target of their missionary zeal. When I’m out on the beat, people always ask, “What are you?” I’m not a reporter, I’m an opportunity for evangelizing, so they want to know who and what I am. When I tell them I’m Jewish, they’ll say, “So you’re a Messianic Jew,” as if that were the most natural thing in the world. One time, at a Waffle House, a preacher I was interviewing just kept staring at me. I became uncomfortable and couldn’t eat, and he finally said, “You know, you look just like Jesus Christ. You have the blood of Jesus running through you!” Another time, in Kansas, a guy played good cop/bad cop in his efforts to get me to convert. He stared at me intently, without blinking, and said, “Hanna, I love you.” And I thought, “God, we just met!” That was the good cop side. Then the bad cop started to talk to me about the Second Coming and the pit of hell. Neither of those tactics worked, but they impressed me. As I’ve wandered through the world of evangelicals, I’ve discovered that their religion is not theoretical. It is a living faith for them. As Grant Wacker said, it affects their behavior all the time.

My day-to-day experience, however, doesn’t answer the fundamental question: Do these small episodes in Kansas, Alabama, and elsewhere add up to anything? To the Fourth Great Awakening? To a cultural vanguard? Can we put it all together? At the end of his great book Revivals, Awakening, and Reform, William McLoughlin speculated about the religious meaning of the 1960s. Was that decade an example of a Great Awakening? Are we in another period of, as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell say, a great spiritual revival? When I look around, this period does not seem comparable to the one in which nineteenth-century New England teemed with religious prophets and the quest for the supernatural in everyday life lasted a generation. That period added up to something large — to a definition of what it means to be an American and what America’s place is in God’s universe. It actually redefined the culture.

Today’s ferment seems to have less transformative potential. The structure of churches and the craving for respectability are obstacles. With Methodists now exemplars of the middle class, the churches seen as heralding a great revival are the evangelical Calvary churches and the charismatic Vineyard churches that started out in California. A short time ago the Vineyard churches were quite radical, converting barefoot surfers to go out into the world and work for Jesus. But they’ve already begun their quest for respectability. Like the Methodists before them, Vineyard churches have already moved on to wanting to populate the country with Vineyard churches and develop an institutional structure. So they’ve lost a bit of their spontaneity and spark.

The megachurches may also sabotage a more sweeping spiritual revival. They are so media-ready and so ready to respond to all their members’ needs that they may subsume discontent too quickly. Lastly, new churches that thrive because of a cult of charisma and one personality, such as that of Lon Solomon at the McLean Bible Church in Virginia, are unlikely to survive into the next generation.

In exploring how the legacy of the sixties fosters or undercuts spiritual revival, I’ve noticed another interesting phenomenon. The therapeutic jargon that evangelicals so love to hate has become, ironically, the idiom of many of evangelicals’ own churches. It is common in these churches to hear that the parable of Moses and the burning bush is a story about depression, and that David is a story about leadership. At the close of a rousing sermon at a megachurch in Virginia, the minister declared, “Jesus is your greatest anti-depressant.” Songs refer to Jesus as your buddy. At the church Kenneth Starr attends, the emphasis is on the members’ various self-help groups. While religion is ostensibly about something larger, it often seems to be about something small and narrow, such as whether you are depressed or what happened to you at home that day. As Robert Wuthnow has written, God has become quite domesticated.

At the same time, this therapeutic impulse co-exists with a kind of traditionalism. A study of child-rearing practices concluded that while evangelicals use physical forms of discipline more than others, they also hug their kids and cry with their kids more than others. This synthesis seems to encapsulate the traditional and therapeutic sides of evangelicals today.

As evangelicals now embrace the therapeutic, they resist the supernatural. The tale of Cassie Bernall, the young woman who died in the Columbine shooting, is revealing. A sort of teenage revival sprouted around her, but people quickly became uncomfortable with the view of Cassie as a spiritual martyr. Her parents published a book detailing her troubled childhood, saying she had simply found happiness in one way. They tried very hard to bring the story many notches down, from being about something big and supernatural to being about something much smaller, domesticated, and manageable.

Lastly, I think that affluence is hindering a sweeping revival. It’s true that increasing modernization and sub-urbanization have generated many new anxieties and that modern evangelicals react viscerally to the soul-lessness of the suburbs, of the malls, of public education. They feel that they have too much contact with the world. On the other hand, however, the suburbs provide a competing idea — the idea that there is too much to lose. It’s hard to think about the end of the world when you’re somewhat affluent. A survivalist family I met in Kansas was worried about the Second Coming. They talked to me about how they wanted to buy a generator in case the power went out, but they wondered where to put it so that it wouldn’t ruin their garden. A nice suburban life creates problems for apocalyptic visions.

There is a contradiction. Ken Starr’s evangelical congregation is typical of many. It defines itself as a place that heals broken people, but it looks like a sterile suburban church. It doesn’t display much bleeding in the hallways. Rather, it is a very orderly place, where people come in to worship for an hour and then leave. Several cycles of people come through on a Sunday morning. It feels very proper and suburban; it’s already straining for respectability. The same is true of the Calvary churches and Vineyard churches: they may rail against modernity and over-sexualized teenagers, but they do so in sermons that are full of references to Madonna.

All this makes evangelical social work quite convenient but not radical or transforming. Changing the world comes entirely through individual reform. No larger dimension is required. If you believe you have the power to change yourself, and are working every day to change yourself, you don’t need to think about the structural reasons for poverty or about what should be done for the underclass. You see poverty and AIDS and other problems as symptoms of human flaws. If people just found Jesus, then they would overcome their problems. Social reform at a large level is unnecessary.

MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thanks to you all. I’d like to ask Grant Wacker to tell us a little about the data in Christian Smith’s new book Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want.

DR. WACKER: Smith’s data come from a multi-year project that involved a lot of telephone sampling and assiduously focused on what ordinary people in the pew think. Most striking is how paradoxical, how inconsistent the data are. By standards of systematic theology, many of those interviewed made little sense. They readily affirmed virtually contradictory claims at the same time. The other key finding, Smith says, is that evangelicals are a great deal more likable than their leaders. They are very humane people who have the same problems that everybody else does. It’s their leaders who often display this kind of jut-jaw mentality.

KATHY LEWIS, Dallas Morning News: I have a basic journalistic question for Hanna. How do you arrange your visits to churches? Do you go invited or unannounced?

MS. ROSIN: It depends. Another thing I’ve learned about evangelicals is that they are not phone people. You can call them 800 times and they won’t call you back, but they love you when you show up. So if I need to talk to a pastor who’s not calling me back, I just go. As soon as evangelicals see your face, they love you. In a way, they are nice people to report about; they are very easy to get along with, just as Grant said. In another way, of course, I’m uncomfortable hearing “I love you” from people I’ve never met before. It’s not part of my tradition, and it’s certainly calculated. In effect, Southern Baptists give out guidebooks about how to treat strangers in a church, how to invite them over immediately. Their extreme friendliness is almost a caricature.

Whether they trust me or not is also beside the point, because they have a mission to accomplish. They are sort of fatalistic about my writing. They expect someone at the Washington Post not to be on their side, and they are pleasantly surprised when sometimes I am. But all their interactions with me give them a chance to reaffirm their faith, to define themselves in reaction to me and my clinical, evaluating attitude. A reporter has the opposite mentality of an evangelical. That makes my job hard because I’m exactly what evangelicals don’t like.

DR. HATCH: A wonderful book called Defenders of God, by Bruce Lawrence and Frederick Denny, points out that no traditional religious fundamentalists — be they Jewish, Islamic, or Protestant — like to be studied, to be the objects of analytic attention. (Nor do historians, for that matter.)

E. J. DIONNE, The Washington Post: My questions relate to politics, and the first is for Professor Hatch. Two prominent Methodists are running for office in 2000 — George Bush and Hillary Clinton — and it strikes me that the two represent two different sides of Methodism. She represents a very strong social-reforming tradition, and he repre-sents reform through individual self-improvement. Would you comment on that?

DR. HATCH: I think your perception is accurate. In some ways Methodism is like America — a big tent with many different ways to fit in. Radical Pentecostalism and Holiness had Methodist roots, after all. But despite their fiery beginnings, Methodists were building Gothic churches by the 1850s. It’s a full, amorphous tradition that certainly has a strong activist element. Hillary Clinton comes out of that, with a 1960s sort of coloring. And among Southern Methodists, Texas Methodists, there is still a strong revivalist tradition, which Bush reflects.

DR. WACKER: Looking at a cross section of America at its core is a lot like looking at the Methodist church today. In a sense, saying that somebody is a Methodist tells you nothing anymore.

MR. DIONNE: My other question is whether something is shifting in terms of the political engagement of evangelicals. Not that the Christian Coalition is going to go away, but there is a sense — from people like Paul Weyrich and Cal Thomas, as well as on the ground — that evangelicals are entering a period of radical withdrawal similar to their withdrawals after the Scopes trial and Prohibition. I’m curious about where you think this movement is going.

DR. WACKER: I’ll try to separate my answer into two entities: the culturally self-conscious evangelicals I discussed, and the much smaller, more active subgroup called the Christian Right. It does seem to me that the Christian Right is in a moment of retrenchment. Certainly its leaders — Paul Weyrich, Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed, Cal Thomas, and Chuck Colson — are in a tempered mood. They are not despairing but reflective, eager to stop and reassess.

But I don’t see retrenchment in the larger group. While not exuberant, perhaps, that basic, church-going component of many millions of people is quite stable. These evangelicals are expecting neither huge successes in the near future — although that would please them — nor a great deal of loss. In a wonderful book called Redeeming America, Michael Lienesch likens evangelicalism to the cyclical spectacular phenomenon of a comet. When a comet comes back, it looks flashy and aberrational, but it does so with quite a bit of regularity. The press, nevertheless, always seems to be taken unawares by the evangelical phenomenon and looks like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

DR. HATCH: I think that Hanna made some good points about the effect on evangelicals of suburbanization, materialism, and therapeutic Christianity. Their universe is not radical; it’s very much part of core, middle-class society. Evangelicals face all the dilemmas that other middle-class people face. In a culture that is fragmenting, that is becoming more secular and more religious at the same time, they are just trying to make some sense of it all. I don’t see anything that could be called revival.

JAY AMBROSE, Scripps Howard News Service: It may not be a revival, but I think that a lot of people, not just evangelicals, are responding to the large problem of modernity by asking religious questions. They recognize that modernism has brought us to extreme relativism and left us with little to hold on to. For instance, we hear all the time that all cultures are of equal value, and yet we know that they are very different in some important respects. We are told that there are no final truths that can be objectively ascertained. I once heard Carl Sagan say on TV, “This is science: there is no difference in kind between humans and other animals.” What I wonder is whether we aren’t seeing many Americans today reaching out for something more than our modern-day culture is delivering. Isn’t this why bookstores are now filled with religious books? I know this is a big question.

DR. WACKER: And it’s a terribly important question, but it may have a surprising answer. One interesting finding of Smith’s extensive religious survey is how little the distinctive questions of modernity trouble ordinary people. What trouble them are the enduring questions that have troubled folks for millennia: Why did my wife die? Why did my children go astray? Why is there so much suffering, disease, and poverty? While the elites may worry about the problem of modernity, most people seem more consumed by the perennial human problems.

DAVID SHRIBMAN, The Boston Globe: I’d like to shift back to politics. Prior to the elections of 1988, 1992, and 1996, religious conservatives seemed to be a far more prominent and consequential group of voters, particularly in the Republican primaries, than they are now, at a similar point in the political cycle. God does not seem to be taking part in this election. Is that true? If so, why?

DR. WACKER: It seems true, but I don’t know why.

DR. HATCHI sense there’s a backlash against the kind of shrill, partisan message that people heard during the impeachment crisis. A lot of evangelicals are good, middle-class, suburban people who want morality but morality without the partisan rancor.

MR. SHRIBMAN: Do you consider the religious conservative movement that began with Carter and continued through Reagan and Robertson to be one of the main moments in twentieth-century religious history? Is it historically significant?

DR. HATCH: Yes. I think the decline of the mainline churches and the rise of evangelicals is indeed a central story of the second half of the twentieth century. The fact that George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole are both self-proclaimed evangelicals is significant, and I suspect that they are more representative of evangelicals than the Christian Coalition is. They take a certain stance, but it’s not shrill.

JODY HASSETT, ABC News: I’d like to know more about why a large number of evangelicals are now defecting to Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I tend to think that says more about the psychology of evangelicalism than about its theology.

DR. HATCH: A lot of thoughtful people within the evangelical world do seek a real religious tradition and are drawn to Orthodoxy and to the Roman Catholic Church. The structures and seeker-friendliness of evangelical Christianity can make it seem more like a market than a church. By always catering to people’s feelings and needs, evangelicals undermine their ability to sustain a viable religious tradition that focuses on human obligations to a transcendent being.

MS. ROSIN: The early Methodists created a more emotional witnessing. Why do their religious responses seem more authentic and transcendent to you than those of their current heirs?

DR. HATCH: The early Methodists wanted real conversions from one thing to another. They would tell you to take off your fancy clothes, cut your long hair, and radically change your life. They didn’t appeal to people to make them feel better; they made a transformative demand by preaching that the divine was very active in the world.

MICHAEL BARONE, U.S. News & World Report: Having described much of the politics of the last dozen years or so as an argument between therapy and discipline, I am fascinated to discover the amount of therapy that exists in the culture of churches I had assumed embraced discipline. Now I discover that they rely on therapy, just as many therapeutic organizations — Alcoholics Anonymous, for example — rely on discipline. Some drug rehabilitation programs even put you back in jail if you slip up. Most institutions now recognize, as parents long have, that a mixture of therapy and discipline is the best way to achieve desired results. The problem is finding the most effective balance.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, Ethics & Public Policy Center: I’d like to know whether the evangelical population is more or less fixed, like the American Catholic population or the American Jewish population, or do different people float in and out of the movement? Stability certainly affects any movement’s political impact.

DR. JOHN GREEN, University of Akron: Evangelicals are a very fixed portion of the population who are able to retain their young in the faith better than most traditions. There’s been much less change over the last fifty years than we might imagine. It’s an identifiable population that persists. There is, however, a lot of flux in American religion, period — particularly among Catholics and mainline Protestants — and even more so in the large secular population. If anybody moves, secular people move.

DR. HATCH: We should also note that new religious influences continually sweep across denominational traditions, introducing new kinds of worship and music in both Protestant and Catholic congregations. How does Elizabeth Dole, whose family is deeply Presbyterian, suddenly become an evangelical? She considers herself both Presbyterian and evangelical.

DR. WACKER: In the last twenty years we have witnessed a growing willingness among evangelicals to identify themselves generically. We see that elsewhere as well. For example, when the occasion demands, Native Americans do not identify themselves tribally but as Native Americans.

BARBARA BRADLEY, NPR: According to statistics, about 40 per cent of the people who join megachurches leave within a couple of years. That certainly indicates a kind of churning. Is the megachurch simply a demographic phenomenon that appeals to baby-boomers who like self-help groups and professional-sounding music? Is it, therefore, likely to fade and be replaced in the evangelical movement by a different model, like the first-century model of home churches? Is the megachurch running out of steam because its theology is shallow? Will it evolve into something else? What might supplant it?

DR. HATCH: I don’t see it running out of steam. In suburban areas the megachurch is a multifaceted organization that can target a lot of people. It’s in tune with the shape of modern society.

DR. WACKER: A distinguished sociologist named Steve Warner has spoken about the internal structure of megachurches and revealed that the “mega” is an illusion. In fact, these churches break up into a great many cells. Each is an aggregation of cells that mirrors small-town America drawn together in one large parking lot.

MS. ROSIN: I’ll add that the children of baby-boomers really like megachurches. Every suburban megachurch has a youth cell and a youth minister, and sponsors all sorts of youth revivals and meetings.

DR. WACKER: One thing that megachurches don’t have, however, is cemeteries, which indicates a lack of long-term commitment to traditions over generations.

DEBORAH HOWELL, Newhouse News Service: I’d like to turn to the supernatural element, which was so strong in America’s early history, and ask, Why did supernaturalism go away? Is there evidence that it might return? Many New Age religions certainly manifest supernaturalism.

DR. HATCH: Growing respectability stamps it out. The early Methodist leader Nathan Bangs had visions and dreams early in his career and believed in the miraculous. Then he went to New York, became more respectable, and worked to purge that element from the movement. His own tradition bothered him.

DR. WACKER: I differ with Nat on this. I think supernaturalism is always there. It just moves from one group to another. Today Pentecostals and Mormons still exhibit some supernaturalism, and charismatics, many of whom are Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, are as wide open to it as they were generations ago.

KENNETH WOODWARD, Newsweek: I have been studying contemporary miracles. The miracles of the Bible are signs and wonders that were given meaning by an interpretive community. The miracles people claim today, on the other hand, are very vague. They don’t belong to a particular community but have to do only with the self, the transcendent self. They are less religious than spiritual. This spiritual tradition is important to Pentecostals, but the Catholic tradition, my own tradition, is very rational. We believe that God operates in the world through special divine action, so we need miracles and process them through the saints. We prove where God has acted and where he hasn’t in an interesting combination of faith and rationalism. I also happen to think that when everything becomes a miracle — when people claim that God found their car keys and the like — then nothing’s a miracle anymore.

PETER BEINART, The New Republic: I’m interested in group identity and have been struck by the way evangelicals and members of other religions differ when they speak about themselves. Catholics, like Ken Woodward, and Jews almost always use the pronoun “us,” but my sense is that people who have an evangelical background never talk about “us.” They talk about “them.” Obviously, this is related to the fact that evangelicals see the elite institutions — the media and the universities — as adversarial in a way that most Catholics and Jews don’t. But doesn’t this pose a problem for journalists and academics? The media and the universities should try to figure out a way in which evangelicals can speak as self-consciously evangelicals. It’s important to control the dissemination of knowledge about one’s own group, to write one’s own history, as Jews do, for instance.

DR. HATCH: That’s a most interesting observation. Evangelicals continue to be very populist, and when their leaders acquire more education, they tend to develop a certain distance from their own tradition. I would say that I am an evangelical Presbyterian, but I am also a believer who feels like a person without a country. I’m the son of a mainline Presbyterian minister, a graduate of an evangelical college, and a professor at a Roman Catholic institution, and I feel somewhere in between. Like a lot of my evangelical peers who have become scholars, I think of myself as evangelical but with a sense of distance and of appreciation of other Christian traditions.

MS. BRADLEY: Are intellectuals embarrassed to be classified as evangelicals because evangelicals are considered anti-intellectual? Are they anti-intellectual, across the board?

DR. HATCH: Evangelicalism is a popular movement with many of its own institutions that parallel those in mainline culture. It has separate colleges, separate Bible institutes, separate seminaries. People who come out of those institutions do have to adjust when they move into the mainstream. They are not immediately accepted, even though the general understanding of evangelicals is more sophisticated today than it was twenty years ago.

Elias Smith, Joseph Smith, and other interesting figures of the early republic were popular geniuses, but they were untrained in traditional ways. They were substantive, but they didn’t read Aristotle. The same holds true today among many Pentecostals, evangelicals, and fundamentalists. Their leaders are talented but populist, and they come across in angular ways. They are not on the same page as those who received their liberal arts education at Yale. People of learning who come out of the evangelical tradition, therefore, are ambivalent about acting as its spokesmen. Over the last generation, on the other hand, there has been an intellectual maturing of the movement as more evangelicals have become more educated.

MR. AMBROSE: Why do evangelicals inspire such extraordinary fear? The Christian Coalition especially inspires fear, and yet what impact is it having? The popular culture is certainly immune. Evangelicals are accused of wanting to impose their values on the whole of society, but so do environmental groups and many other liberal groups.

DR. WACKER: To some extent, evangelicals bring criticism on themselves by talking about missionizing all the time. It’s not surprising that outsiders sometimes take them seriously. Most groups hold normative views about the way society ought to be structured, but evangelicals make such a big deal of it that it gets them into trouble. For a couple of centuries, evangelicals did indeed have a broad power base. Historically, they have been associated with power, with the ability to impose their will upon broader segments of the population. This creates the impression, false though it may be, that they have power now and can use it in malign ways.

The behavior of irresponsible evangelical leaders also casts light on the subject of embarrassment. Many faithful evangelicals may shun the designation because they are embarrassed by a lot about the tradition and find it hard to defend publicly.

JACK WERTHEIMER, The Jewish Theological Seminary: I’m interested in hearing about internal religious coercion, rather than about imposing values on others. To what extent do peer pressure, ostracism, or other forms of coercion operate within the institutions themselves?

MS. ROSIN: Coercion is definitely present. James Dobson and others like him are very absolutist. For example, Dobson doesn’t make a distinction between Penthouse and Vogue; there’s no continuum of “bad culture.” It’s bad or good, and his followers must conform at every level. He’s particularly adamant about the evils of homosexuality. The only thing he has relented on is divorce. For whatever reason, divorce has become vaguely acceptable, in certain situations. You cannot be a gay person and be in James Dobson’s empire, but you can be a divorced person.

GREGG EASTERBROOK, The New Republic: I’d like to ask how immigration affects the growth of religious movements. Where do the million recent immigrants fit in? Do they become evangelicals or join more established churches?

DR. GREEN: The data show that about 20 per cent of Hispanic and Latino immigrants are Pentecostals, and many of the rest are nominally Catholic but may not be particularly religious. When they come to the United States, they confront our enormous religious kaleidoscope and, like many immigrant groups in the past, they begin to join churches. Evangelical churches have been particularly effective at recruiting both Latinos and Asian immigrants. A large portion of Asians attend evangelical churches, and another substantial group are attracted to mainline Protestant churches. One of the fastest growing components of the United Methodist Church is Korean Methodists. So immigration does have an effect. It both reinforces existing churches and generates new ones. Many churches we now take for granted were considered to be new and strange a hundred years ago. American religion has always been, and continues to be, reinvigorated by immigration.

MR. BARONE: I have examples from my own travels. Many Brazilian immigrants in Framingham, Massachusetts, belong to the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that has more members in Brazil than in the United States. In Latin America, as well as among Latinos here, the evangelical and Pentecostal churches are truly competitive with the Catholic Church. Contrary to their image among many American political commentators, Latinos are not ready to vote in the way that the bishop tells them.

MR. WOODWARD: I’d like to return to the question of just who evangelicals are. As a working journalist, when should I use the word evangelical? I would lop off most Pentecostals and also Southern Baptists. But if I eliminate those two communities, who’s left? The number of evangelicals is then substantially reduced.

DR. WACKER: In the 1920s, a pastor named J. C. Massey noted that there were fundamentalists and damn fundamentalists. One draws distinctions as the occasion requires, and I think that in some ways Southern Baptists and Pentecostals are indeed different from Wheaton College evangelicals. But historians and journalists gain a great deal by thinking in terms of a small e. Evangelicals do share a common culture that has increasingly seen itself as a counterculture, and this has created a sense of fidelity to a pan-evangelical group.

MR. CROMARTIE: Thanks again to our three speakers, Nathan Hatch, Grant Wacker, and Hanna Rosin, and thanks to each participant in this stimulating conversation about evangelicalism and American life.

Full Session Video


Listen to Audio


Speakers


Dr. Nathan Hatch

Professor of History & Provost, University of Notre Dame

Read Bio

Dr. Grant Wacker

Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History, Duke Divinity School

Read Bio

Related Sessions