• August 31, 2015

Among the Evangelicals

Inside a fractured movement


Benjamin Rasmussen for The Chronicle Review

Congregants leave New Life Church in Colorado Springs. The megachurch is estimated to have about 11,000 members.

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Benjamin Rasmussen for The Chronicle Review

Congregants leave New Life Church in Colorado Springs. The megachurch is estimated to have about 11,000 members.

In December 2003, at a national conference on religion and undergraduate life in New Orleans, a representative of a major donor to higher education asked how many of the hundred-plus professors and administrators in his audience had heard of Rick Warren. One hand started to go up, tentatively, then drew back. The rest of us were blank, including me. Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life, published a year earlier, was already well on its way to becoming the best-selling hardcover in the country's history, having been on The New York Times' best-seller list for hardcover advice books for 46 weeks and at the top of the Christian Booksellers Association best-seller list for over a year. His Purpose-Driven Ministries, a church-development organization based on his 1995 Christian best seller, The Purpose-Driven Church, was already well known among hundreds of thousands of pastors and lay people, many thousands of whom attended the annual conferences he hosted at Saddleback Church, his Orange County, Calif., megachurch. Yet his name hardly rang a bell.

No doubt many other huge names in evangelical Christian circlesT.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, or Joel Osteen, for example—would have met similarly void looks from that audience of academics, though it was brought together by a shared interest in religion's changing role in the social and cultural landscapes of our campuses. And no doubt those names would have gotten the same nonresponses from most of our colleagues at our home institutions.

Not that scholars of religion had been ignoring roots and branches of the various revivalist, fundamentalist, and charismatic movements that feed into contemporary evangelical Christianity, a broad movement that centers on personal conversion to a "born again" experience of faith in Jesus Christ, a missionary zeal to share this faith with others, and a high regard for the authority of the Bible. For more than two decades, historians of religion like Randall H. Balmer, Joel A. Carpenter, and Mark A. Noll had been exploring these dimensions of American Christianity. Balmer's now classic Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America (1989), which explored a variety of evangelical movements and communities in a way that both historicized and personalized each, has been especially influential, reaching far beyond the rather narrow audience of American scholars of religion. Carpenter's Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997), which unpacked fundamentalism's sectarian withdrawal in the early 20th century and its postwar popular revival in the form of neoevangelicalism, drew our attention to the movement's rapid adoption of new media formats, like radio and television, and its imitation of popular trends in the secular entertainment industry.

Still other scholars of religion had undertaken influential social-scientific studies of particular aspects of evangelical Christianity. Nancy T. Ammerman's pioneering field studies of fundamentalist and evangelical churches in Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (1987) and Congregation and Community (1997), for example, not only illuminated the cultural identities, social organizations, and worldviews of particular congregations but also provided an enduring model for subsequent work in congregational studies. In a similar vein, since the late 1990s, Vincent Wimbush and collaborators at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures at Claremont Graduate University have drawn particular attention to scriptural-interpretive practices among African-American groups, even while pushing biblical scholarship more generally in the direction of sociological and cultural analysis of other "Bible believing" communities.

In another direction, Robert Wuthnow's quantitative analysis of the rise of small groups in Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community (1994) demonstrated the increasing importance of evangelical Bible study and fellowship groups in the changing landscape of American religious life. And his edited collection of qualitative small-group studies in "I Come Away Stronger": How Small Groups Are Shaping American Religion, published the same year, emphasized the ways such groups create space both for individual expressions of personal faith and for the collective process of exploring and articulating a shared experience of communal faith. Moreover, along with Wade Clark Roof, the University of North Carolina professor of religious studies and author of Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (2001), Wuthnow emphasized the ways evangelical leaders and churches are engaged in a highly competitive market for religious consumers.

Still, such academic studies of American evangelicalism and related movements have been fairly few and far between compared with those of other religious subjects—such as early American religious history and religion and politics—and their authors have written primarily for audiences of their disciplinary peers. More recently, however, there appears to be a growing intellectual interest in the subject among nonevangelical readers and outside academe. Some of the most popular trade books on the subject are first-person accounts of non-Christians who have immersed themselves in particular evangelical or fundamentalist communities. Most notable are Jeff Sharlet's remarkable exposé, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, 2008), and Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (Grand Central, 2009), that is, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Sharlet is a religion scholar and journalist, and Roose is a former Brown University undergraduate and now a writer.

At the same time, field researchers in the social sciences, both within and without departments of religion, are becoming more interested in things evangelical. Particularly striking are the number of books by first-time authors, most of whom are indebted to the pioneering work of senior scholars like Ammerman and Wuthnow. It appears that American evangelicalism is finally coming into its own as a subject of social research and academic attention well beyond the scope of those who identify with it as insiders. It seems we now realize there is more to know than what we learned from the Simpsons' neighbor Ned Flanders.

Yet as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits. Indeed, taken together, recent studies by more-or-less outsiders show there is no such thing as evangelicalism. The term represents a broad range of significantly different theologies, practices, and religious movements within Christianity, and there are often tensions among and within them. Which is no revelation at all to most more-or-less insiders, who call themselves evangelicals, however qualified, and who argue as much with others who do the same as with those of us who don't.

Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009), by Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, turns critical attention to five of today's most well-known celebrity "evangelical innovators," namely T.D. Jakes (the subject of Lee's first book), Brian McLaren, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Paula White. Heirs of the religious-economy approach of Roof, Wuthnow, and others, Lee and Sinitiere—an associate professor of sociology and African diasporic studies at Tulane University, and a visiting assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University—see these five figures as supply-side free agents who succeed not because of their status within a particular ecclesiastical hierarchy but because they are able to market their content, indeed themselves, in ways that embody changing American sensibilities.

Their approach challenges the "strict church thesis" of earlier sociologists of religion, which argued that conservative, hard-line suppliers of religion (fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals) thrive, while lenient ones (liberals, progressives) decline. On the contrary, these five profiles suggest that the key to success is not theological or political strictness but effective marketing. Indeed, part of what allows these evangelical innovators to be so successful is that they find ways to "overtly avoid (yet subtly address)" potentially controversial issues among their constituents, Lee and Sinitiere write. One of the big take-aways from their research is that the evangelical movement is, they say, "far more elastic, far more complex, and far more contradictory than what popular accounts reveal."

A hallmark of American evangelicalism, at least since the 1940s, has been its ready willingness to adapt its theological content to new media technologies and popular trends in the entertainment industry. Implicit in that openness is an evangelical counterdeclaration to Marshall McLuhan's: The medium is not the message; the message, or the Word, transcends whatever media are used to convey it. But in the long run, is the constant evangelical adaptation of the Word unwittingly proving McLuhan right? I think so. That is partly why we find so little coherence within and among the various groups and movements and productions that pass as evangelical.

Indeed, it's impossible to imagine the likes of Osteen or Warren or Jakes without the teams of creators, editors, and marketers who publish them beyond their home churches, in books and on the radio, television, and Internet. It is not too much to say that their media producers actually create and sustain them as pop-culture icons. Their relationships with their publishers in the production of both medium and message are not unlike those of pop-music stars with their labels. Lady Gaga has Universal Music and Max Lucado has Thomas Nelson.

In that light, Jonathan L. Walton's social-historical and theological-ethical study of African-American religious broadcasting in Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU Press, 2009) is an especially welcome recent study. Since the early 20th century, black evangelists have often been on the cutting edge of media history, adopting and creatively adapting new electronic technologies in keeping with trends in the entertainment industry. Yet they have been largely ignored by African-American religious historians, who have treated them as unworthy of serious attention, and by media theorists, to whom they have been virtually invisible. Walton, an assistant professor of African-American religions at Harvard University, draws critical attention to this important yet often ignored aspect of black religious history and media studies. As a theologian and cultural critic, he offers rich semiotic analyses of three contemporary black televangelists (T.D. Jakes, Eddie L. Long, and the married team of Creflo and Taffi Dollar) and their television shows as rituals in and of themselves, rather than simply as audio-video recordings of actual, "real" services.

The megachurch service, he argues, cannot be separated from its broadcast. The mass-media production of the megachurch event is not supplemental to the event itself but symbiotic with it. The worship experience resides as much in the editing and production of the show—in the "slow-motion images of a pastor laying hands on the heads of parishioners and zoom-in shots of a parishioner feverishly taking notes during the sermon"—as it does in the service or the evangelist. Indeed, the megachurch event is rendered an "incarnation" of the television show. The event is designed to approximate the show even as the show is designed to create an idealized reproduction of the event—a McLuhanian illustration if there ever was one.

Walton goes on to reveal how the "constructed spaces" created by televangelists and their production teams play host to ritual events that embody deep religious tensions between liberation and repression in the lives of participants. On the one hand, as "rituals of self-affirmation," the events speak directly to the realities of unjust suffering endured by African-Americans. On the other hand, as "rituals of social accommodation," they distract participants from critical examination and transformation of those unjust systems, encouraging them instead to find hope in common cultural myths, namely: American success and the self-made man, black victimology in a supposedly postracist society, and the "strong black man" as the savior of black family and society.

Those pervasive, broadly popular myths, the author argues, not only "anesthetize" participants to systemic social injustice but also "flatten internal contradictions" among African-American Christians, thereby creating a false sense of commonality within and among otherwise diverse communities. Here again, as in Holy Mavericks, the closer we look, the more contradictions emerge, and evangelism begins to seem at least as much about playing down tensions and avoiding potential conflicts as it is about spreading the Word.

Still other, more ethnographically minded studies are revealing similar diversity and tension within much tighter, seemingly coherent cultural forms of everyday evangelical belief and practice. In Words Upon the Word: An Ethnography of Evangelical Group Bible Study (NYU Press, 2009), for example, James S. Bielo, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Miami University, offers a window on to such differences in a most particular context, the small-group Bible study, which, along with weekly worship and prayer, forms the most common core of evangelical Christian life. Bielo observed 324 Bible-study meetings of 19 groups of evangelicals over more than a year and a half. Within those meetings, he often noticed tensions among different readings of particular biblical passages, as well as different understandings of the Bible itself, that potentially threatened group identity and coherence.

Bielo found that successful group facilitators were able to inculcate certain "textual practices" with the Bible and "textual ideologies" about the Bible that played down those differences and fenced the table, so to speak, from participants who could not conform. The strongest textual ideology was the idea of the Bible as the only absolute, infallible authority for faith and life. While studying Proverbs 11-12, for example, a participant in one group questioned the text's proclamations that the righteous always prosper while the wicked suffer: "I see faithful people take it on the neck. How do you square that?" Without dismissing or directly challenging the question, the facilitator steered the discussion back to the group's agreed presupposition of biblical authority: "I don't have all the answers. All I'm saying is that this is a book of promises from beginning to end. ... We have life, and a better life, by claiming all the promises in this book as ours." Although the man's experience may appear to contradict scriptural authority in that moment, the leader suggests, continuing to claim that authority as such will in the long term be a blessing—not only to the individual but to the group. That man, Bielo later notes, quietly quit attending the group.

A similar lack of internal cohesion is discovered among Christian anti-abortionists, the vast majority of whom identify with evangelicalism. In The Making of Pro-Life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization Works (University of Chicago Press, 2008), Ziad W. Munson, an associate professor of sociology at Lehigh University, reveals a much more complex web of relationships among beliefs and actions within this movement than most of us on the outside would presume. Based on close study of 32 anti-abortion organizations in four cities, as well as intensive interviews with more than 100 people with anti-abortion theological beliefs (some activists and some not), Munson identifies four stages of mobilization: first, direct contact with the movement at a personal "turning point" in life that makes the person open and available; second, an initial experience in the movement through participation in a rally, counseling session, or other activity; third, the development of anti-abortion beliefs; and fourth, full movement participation. Even in the final two solidifying stages, Munson found no single, commonly shared belief system. In fact he discovered "a surprisingly broad spectrum of ideas" that "fracture the movement into different social movement streams, consisting of mutually exclusive sets of organizations, people, and activities." Munson argues that those differences are central to an individual's motivation to join one activist stream over another. Differences and tensions both drive and fracture the movement.

Likewise within the Christian home-school movement, according to Robert Kunzman, author of Write These Laws on Your Children: Inside the World of Conservative Christian Homeschooling (Beacon, 2009). Over the course of two years, Kunzman, an associate professor of education at Indiana University, conducted close studies of six home-schooled families in five states. To be sure, the movement has been able to present a uniform political front, thanks especially to broad participation in the evangelical Home School Legal Defense Association. The organization's chairman and co-founder is Michael P. Farris, who is also chancellor of Patrick Henry College, the first college for Christian home-schoolers and the subject of Hanna Rosin's God's Harvard (Harcourt, 2007). Yet Kunzman's intimate profiles of these six families reveal a great deal of diversity in terms of both educational methods and curriculum content. Their shared sense of distinction from secular public-school systems tends to mask such internal distinctions.

In light of all this difference, contradiction, and tension within evangelicalism, how has the "evangelical bloc," or the "Christian right," composed largely of self-described evangelicals, managed to muster such remarkable political power and influence in the United States? That is a central question for Jon A. Shields in The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009). Based on extensive fieldwork among conservative Christian political leaders and their organizations in six different cities, Shields, an assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, calls for a reassessment of the Christian right's contribution to American democracy. Whereas many outside the movement presume that its effectiveness derives from a common, relatively narrow ideological-theological worldview and value system, seen by many on the political left as borderline fascist, what Shields found was in fact much more diverse and heterogeneous. He argues that Christian-right leaders—whom he is careful to distinguish from militant Christian extremists who have abandoned the democratic process (white supremacists, militant anti-abortion activists, etc.)—have successfully mobilized conservative evangelical Christians not by appealing to a commonly shared ideology but by inculcating the very "deliberative norms" that are idealized by political activists across the spectrum, including the New Left. Those norms, which include the practice of civility, the cultivation of dialogue, the use of moral reasoning, and the rejection of appeals to theology, enable the Christian-right movement to maintain a degree of effective unity despite the many theological and political differences among its adherents.

Evangelism is at root about telling a good story. The Greek word behind it, euangelion, means "good news" or, more literally, "happy message" (eu, "happy" plus angelion, "message"). Whence comes our word "gospel" via the Old English godspel, "good spell" or "story." In that light, it can be argued, as it often is, that all forms of Christianity, including those way on the left, are essentially evangelical, insofar as they are about proclaiming the Christian gospel, the good story. Disagreements quickly emerge, of course, in the often radically different interpretations of what that gospel is and means.

Growing up conservative evangelical in the 1960s and 70s, I learned to see it primarily in terms of personal sin and salvation. The most popular version of that gospel message was the Four Spiritual Laws, created as an evangelism tool in 1952 by the late Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. They are: God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life; sin separates you from God; Jesus on the cross paid the price for your sin; you need to accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior. (My mom occasionally pulls out an old reel-to-reel tape of me, age 5, singing, "What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus! Oh, precious is the flow, that can make me white as snow.") Most nonevangelicals assume that is the one and only gospel among all evangelical Christians. But that's far from true.

When I left home in Anchorage in 1982 to attend Seattle Pacific University, an evangelical Christian college, I discovered a very rich and intellectually stimulating theological community in which a diversity of evangelicalisms were arguing with one another. Some looked like the highly personalized Four Spiritual Laws, but others, especially those promoted by my professors, were quite radical, both socially and theologically, bearing the influences of liberation theology, feminist theology, and universalism, among other things. Embracing those influences, I came to call myself a "liberal evangelical," a term that may seem oxymoronic to many people these days but was in heavy circulation back then.

Why has there been such a lack of familiarity, indeed, of interest, among academics in the cultural depth and complexity of American evangelicalism until so recently? Perhaps we don't do as much book browsing as most people do in Wal-Marts and Targets, and so are less likely to encounter evangelicalism in everyday life. Being among the least-churched populations in the United States, moreover, most academics don't hear about it on Sunday mornings, when we're more likely to be reading The New York Times than listening to a sermon. Beyond that, I wonder if there is a sense among many of us that the whole world of evangelical Christianity represents academic culture's other, the antithesis of who we are as scholars and educators. As Shields suggests, many of us see it as representing the opposite of liberal democratic ideals, perhaps even a theological aberration of intellectual history in the way Walton shows black televangelism to have been among historians of African-American religious history.

One of the greatest values of social-scientific research is its power to defuse our tendency to see unfamiliar cultural beliefs and practices as totally foreign; it helps us recognize ourselves in the stranger and the stranger in ourselves. These recent studies do just that, drawing broader and deeper attention to American evangelicalism in all its complexity. In the process, they help bring to life the lively differences and tensions that have always energized the evangelical movement, even while threatening its coherence. 

Timothy Beal is a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University and author of The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


1. 11319582 - December 13, 2010 at 08:50 am

Try also "It's All About Jesus: Faith as an Oppositional Collegiate Subculture" by Peter M. Magolda and Kelsey Ebben Gross.

2. nacrandell - December 13, 2010 at 09:29 am

A good start would be studying the healing practices and the disappearance of Sister Aimee.

3. jdraine - December 13, 2010 at 09:56 am

As someone who grew up among evangelical communities and who still identifies with a faith trandition that is evangelical--I often cringe when I hear the 'outsider' scholars talk about this topic. There is a corrective force against overgeneralizing about a group when a member of that group is likely to be sitting across the seminar table from you. My concern is that the evangelical community is less likley to benefit from that corrective force--because they are less likley to be across the seminar table... or at least less likley to want to be open about it. Sound familar?

4. drj50 - December 13, 2010 at 10:11 am

Thank you for a wonderful survey of recent literature and for suggesting that understanding others matters.

5. reader - December 13, 2010 at 11:39 am

I also recommend two books from Gerardo Marti: A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church and Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church. Both are ethnographies of evangelical churches in Southern California.

6. goldenapple - December 13, 2010 at 01:34 pm

One reason for a lack of scholarly work on evangelicals is that, even in their diversity, they differ from groups like Lutherans, Mennonites (and certainly from Catholics) in their interest in their own history. Much important work on different religious communities has been done from within those groups, or has had important contributions from those who were both scholars and members of the community under study. And clearly, it is easier to study a group's history of there are collections of letters, memoirs, and local histories to use as a basis.

Baptists and Pentecostals, to name just two branches of the American evangelical tree, have not produced the same amount (in proportion to their numbers) of historical work on their own traditions as have other communities.

7. chhammer - December 13, 2010 at 02:19 pm

I was surprised that Randall Balmer's 2006 book, "Thy kingdom come: how the religious right distorts the faith and threatens America, an Evangelical's lament" wasn't mentioned as it has a lot to say about the breadth of the evangelical movement and the distaste many of us have for its more visible manifestations.

8. iris411 - December 13, 2010 at 03:45 pm

The reality is we don't consider religious studies a valid enough field yet. Or rather, in modern era, we tend to ignore or dismiss people's religiocity as a cultural and social force, while in reality, even atheists are not too far from being religious one way or another.

9. lotsoquestions - December 13, 2010 at 04:43 pm

I just looked at the cites for Randall Balmer and none of his work is peer-reviewed nor published by an academic press. It's upsetting that someone is so willing to find "scholarship" that backs up his own beliefs and allows him to dismiss those who disagree with him that he values polemic over substance.

10. johnweaver8 - December 13, 2010 at 06:28 pm

Randall Balmer is commonly considered a great scholar of evangelicalism by both evangelicals and non-evangelicals, even if his work is not peer-reviewed. He's focused a lot on documentary film and histiographies, if I remember correctly. That being said, I agree with the sentiment of your response to chhammer, since all these "religious right threatens America titles" by Hedges, Clarkson, and company are clearly very poor scholarship (I've read works by both men). Basically, in evangelical scholarship there is a good rule of thumb . . . the more emphasis a writer puts on Christian Reconstructionism and or The Family, the less trustworthy they are (Sharlet himself is an exception to this of course, but many of his disciples are not). That's not to say that Christian Reconstructionists, like Rousas Rushdoony (hope I'm spelling his last name right) weren't important influencces on certain Christian thinkers (particularly Francis Schaeffer), but by and large their role in American evangelicalism has been greatly over-emphasized.
I am not an evangelical, though I grew up as one. But I totally understand why evangelicals are suspicious of scholarship on their community. Though much of it is excellent, there are huge gaps in the scholarship, and in general a great deal of looseness about terms that evangelicals use quite precisely. I think Fritz Detwiler's Standing on the Premises of God is the only title to really have gotten an accurate outsider's view of what evangelicalism is like. I am particularly disappointed at how much secular scholarship ignores the difference between Reformed and Arminian forms of evangelicalism. As Detwiler points out, it was primarily Reformed thinkers, not Arminian fundamentalists, who were the brains behind the religious right.
I also would add that most of the distaste most Americans feel about evangelicals, and about fundamentalists in particular, has to do with the fact that these groups are perceived as being working class, and therefore ignorant. And in fact, evangelicals do hail primarily from the working class and lower bourgeoise, from the statistical studies I've been able to find (check out Thaddeus Coreno's Fundamentalism as Class Culture). Of course, pointing out that evangelicals are an oppressed working class population might interfere in the bourgeoise dreams of oppression of Marxists driving Volvos, but unfortunately it happens to be backed up with hard social science evidence. I am all for
power to the people, but maybe that means caring about people whose views you dislike as well.

11. johnweaver8 - December 13, 2010 at 06:31 pm

And why, oh why, has there been no scholarship on the biblical counseling\nouthetics movement, which has done more harm to mentally ill people than Christian Science and the Church of Scientology combined?

12. ghmus7 - December 13, 2010 at 06:51 pm

The arrogance of the academic world simply takes my breath away. just calling the Evangelical church a subculture is astounding. Listen gentlemen, your academic world is truly a tiny sub-sub-culture of this country, and no one listens to your silly little psuedo-freudian academic babble.

13. agnana - December 13, 2010 at 07:10 pm


One would hope that before accusing somebody of not having published in the peer-reviewed literature a reader of the Chronicle of Higher Ed would at least do *some* research.

Just looking at Balmer's CV, here


I note from Oxford University Press

A Perfect Babel of Confusion, Grant Us Courage, and Religion in American Life, A short history.

From Columbia University Press

Protestantism in America

From Baylor University Press

Encylopedia of Evangelicism, 2nd edition

Not to mention a fair number of articles including

The Social Roots of Dutch Pietism in the Middle Colonies.” Church History, 53 (June 1984), 187-199.

which won the Sidney Mead prize from the American Society for Church History.

The parochialism of the academy was nicely illustrated to me a few years ago when Mark Noll gave a talk at Princeton on the history of the college, and my colleague introducing him noted bemusedly that he had written a book called "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind"- never mind that that book had had an impact many times greater than what he was lecturing on that day!

And no- I'm not Balmer writing in disguise- though I am a liberal evangelical scientist. By which I mean that the pursuit of redemption through Jesus Christ encompasses the pursuit of the truth through science and social justice through politics. And from what I've seen many of my religious brothers and sisters are far more committed to helping the poor on a daily basis than most of my academic colleagues. Certainly they put me to shame.


14. tookt - December 14, 2010 at 09:09 am

goldenapple has it right here. As one who grew up Pentacostal, with many family members who were Southern or Free Will Baptists, and as one who spent some time in a Baptist school, I can speak with some authority that MOST evangelicals of those groups know nothing of church history or of their own group's history, nor do many evince interest in those areas. In fact, anti-intellectualism in Southern evangelicalism runs high. Unfortunately, this means few real scholars of evangelicalism are likely to come "from within" although a few (almost all male) may do so.

Personally, I have little interest either way. Growing up an intellectual female in Southern, particularly Southern evangelical, culture was no picnic. I hope those apologists for this movement's history speak to its smotherning oppression of women and intellectualism as they foment in its history.

15. texas2step - December 14, 2010 at 09:16 am

Worthy of mention as a topic of study is the 'Gospel of Prosperity' element in American Protestantism. Only in America would the teachings of Jesus be distorted into believing that he rewards his followers with cash.

16. rightside - December 14, 2010 at 09:33 am

Full disclosure: I graduated from a Conservative Christian school, went on to work in the ministry, and have since realized the error of my ways. To really understand Evangelicalism, you've got to read the work of Francis Schaeffer. If you're learned and well-read in intellectual and cultural history, you'll find his writing tortured and embarrassingly inaccurate. But, it's foundational to the Evangelical worldview, which itself rests on a quasi-mythological structure that everything must begin with an initial paradise, followed by a fall, then an increasing degradation, then a final redemption. This is how Schaeffer sees the world, though he thinks the world begins with the Renaissance, presumably because that's the period where his favorite paintings come from. This is also how Evangelicals see the world (note their fundamentalist understanding of America and its constitution: the US begins as a paradise (the "Founders"), there's a fall (FDR?), followed by degredation (the 60s), then comes the redemption (the Christian Right).

Schaeffer's son, Frank Schaeffer, was with him for much of his career, but has recently left the Evangelical fold. His book "Crazy for God" is a must-read for anyone who wants a behind the scenes look at contemporary Evangelicalism and its influence in America.

17. rightside - December 14, 2010 at 09:39 am

BTW: imagine if a similar article had been posted here at the Chronicle, only covering the sub-culture of Socialism, or Anarchism, or White Supremacism. All of these sub-cultures are equally viable, are popular in some circles, make use of mass media, and the like. They're all protected by the 1st Amendment, and you'll find professors and students who adhere to them throughout the US. We're all entitled to our hobby-horses and soap boxes, but I sincerely doubt the editors of the Chronicle would have given a forum to an Academic who wanted to tout the merits of, say, the Marxist subculture in the United States or recommend that we all go off and study it dilligently, since it has a lot of really good insights for us. This is a political article, since, as I like to say in an SAT-style analogy--Religion:Politics::Politics:Religion

Tell me your religion, and I'll tell you your politics. Tell me your politics, and I'll tell you your religion. In any case, I don't particularly want to hear about either here on the Chronicle.

18. princeton67 - December 14, 2010 at 10:08 am

In Evolution as Fact and Theory, Stephen Jay Gould writes, "We are all attempting to explain the same thing: the tree of evolutionary descent.... Creationists pervert and caricature this debate by conveniently neglecting the common conviction that underlies it, and by falsely suggesting that evolutionists now doubt the very phenomenon that we are struggling to understand."
So, will evolutionists now seize upon Dr. Beal's astute observation, "Yet as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits. Indeed, taken together, recent studies by more-or-less outsiders show there is no such thing as evangelicalism. The term represents a broad range of significantly different theologies, practices and religious movements within Christianity, and there are often tensions among and within them" to declare that evangelicals now "doubt the very phenomenon (they) are struggling to understand"?

19. anonprof2 - December 14, 2010 at 11:19 am

I'm surprised George Marsden's scholarship on this topic escaped mention:
Evangelicalism and Modern America
Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and The New Evangelicalism
Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism

20. ejb_123 - December 14, 2010 at 11:44 am

According to the article: "Why has there been such a lack of familiarity, indeed, of interest, among academics in the cultural depth and complexity of American evangelicalism until so recently?"

I was raised Catholic, and for some reason, I have no interest, and never have, in the Protestant or the Evangelical sects. I understand that they are important and influencial, especially here in the U.S., but I just lack any interest. So for me, it's probably just cultural.

21. tbstoller - December 14, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Dr. Mark Noll was the best professor I have ever had--he is a gentleman and a scholar. Since my family background was not Evangelical,I had noticed that evangelicals did not seem to see themselves as rooted in history. New Testament, yes, social agendas of the late 1800s, no. It gave me a wonderful perspective to see the progression of American evangelicalism.

A note on "sub-culture": The very term always seems patronizing, no matter which group it is applied to. Academics don't want to be considered a sub-culture, we want to be "academe". That is the same with Evangelicals. People don't want outsiders to put their group in a box with a label.

22. rsmulcahy - December 14, 2010 at 06:32 pm

#12 wrote:

"The arrogance of the academic world simply takes my breath away. just calling the Evangelical church a subculture is astounding. Listen gentlemen, your academic world is truly a tiny sub-sub-culture of this country, and no one listens to your silly little psuedo-freudian academic babble."

A few points in return:

1. I can only hope your breath never makes it way back
2. Anyone who can thinks the "arrogance" of academics outdoes the the blinding hypocritical arrogance of the Catholic Church is clearly suffering arrogance issues. Seek counseling.
3. Calling something a sub-culture is not an insult. Look it up.
4. Um, it's 2010, not all academics are men anymore, check out a local campus.
5. So academics is associated with particular cultural paterns, no one is arguing this.
6. And lastly, so the study of the human mind is "silly," wow, that is certainly not arrogant. And this article had nothing to do with Freud or his studies so WTF? If you are going to try to play the "smart game" you might want to actually do the research. Better yet, go back and play with your bible and leave Chronicle to people are are interested in thinking.

23. drmclawhon - December 15, 2010 at 12:42 pm

TD Jakes and Joel Osteen are not "evangelical." Jakes is not Trinitarian (or at least does not take a stance on the issue) and Osteen preaches a "prosperity gospel." Yes, I understand this points out the split in evangelicalism.

24. 12105442 - December 15, 2010 at 01:01 pm

It seems the main if not the only reason those in academe are interested (if they have any interest) in evangelicals is that in one way or another it has access to the halls and levers of power. No doubt such interest is benign--deconstructing threats to Reason is an Enlightenment cottage industry and times being what they are it helps foster cohesion among the bullied and book sales and profits for those who jump in and join the fun. And the fun continues because no matter the criticism and its dropouts, it seems to grow in number and influence.

Of particular value in this crusade are those who either testify to their wrong-headedness by having once been a part of evangelicalism when they were naive, or those who insinuate themselves as "spies" so as to give us the scoop as to what they're really up to and how far they've gotten.

These folks should be lionized because they are saviors of and messiahs for Reason. They are protectors of our most cherished ideals and our own power. Daily they reinforce our group-think, save us from irrationality and protect our precious bodily fluids.

Who else could do that?

25. natnabob - December 16, 2010 at 05:16 pm

I agree with Johnweaver8. I read Michelle Goldberg's _Kingdom Coming_ and she missed the entire Calvinist/Reformed/neo-Calvinist movement that is threatening to tear the Southern Baptist Convention apart. Kathryn Joyce touched on it in _Quiverfull._ Sharlet missed it too although I have not read _C Street_, only _The Family._

I don't think this is a small movement. It's quiet, except for their blogs, but those are the evangelicals with real power. While most of the uninitiated are focusing on the sweating TV preachers--holy rollers, Prosperity Gospel, Falwell, etc.--wealthy and connected evangelicals with the real power have been building a successful (in my opinion) movement that the mainstream seems to know nothing about.

I keep trying to understand this movement but I'm an "Arminian" (Methodist) and I can never quite understand it. It seems so cold and forbidding to me. But here's what many, even the book writers, have missed: Much of this neo-Calvinist movement is disseminated by home schooling networks and materials, now including lots of blogs. Several prominent Southern Baptist seminaries are headed by adherents of this neo-Calvinist movement and the Baptists are just trying to keep it from taking Baylor and Liberty (as far as I know.) Falwell, supposedly, before he died, said "Liberty will never go Calvinist." Or something like that. Patrick Henry College, too, had some kind of blowup over St. Augustine who is one of the darlings of the neo-Calvinists. Liberty just got rid of the main guy standing against Liberty going to this movement, Ergun Caner. Forgive me if I get some of this wrong--I would LOVE to read ALL about it accurately, but even the Michelle Goldbergs and Jeff Sharlets miss this whole movement. I am convinced this is why Kenneth Starr, a non-Baptist at the time, was made head of Baylor. The Baptists didn't want Baylor to go the way of Southwestern and Southern Baptist Theological Seminaries (I THINK.)

At the heart of this movement is, as someone else pointed out, a strong desire to undo the 1960's, especially feminism. Many in this movement teach that women shouldn't go to college. I thought that would get y'all's attention. Mark Driscoll, a "four-point Calvinist" who heads a very popular megachurch in Seattle, preaches that women shouldn't "waste money" going to college. Patriarchs in the neo-patriarchal movement (just a step to the right of the "Complementarian" movement in Baptist and Neo-Calvinist circles) say that no unmarried daughter should live out from under her father's roof, even to go to college. Google "Visionary Daughters" to see about this movement.

People think this is fringe, but the people behind this movement are wealthy and stealthy. I just wish some of the trained journalists and writers would figure all this out and put it in a book, because I've been trying to understand it on my own. The poster who posted about Francis Scheaffer has a lot of it right.

For those who associate the Prosperity Gospel with Southern USA, don't look now, but fourteen of the twenty largest megachurches in the world are in South Korea, and from what I hear, they're Prosperity Gospel. Evangelicals are making huge numbers of converts in Latin America too. Google Luis Palau. I don't really know his particular brand of evangelical. He is hugely popular and Americans hardly know anything about him. I think he's big in Africa too. My only reason for mentioning him is that American writers completely miss whole huge swaths of the larger evangelical worldwide picture, some of which are scarier than others but the least powerful ones get all the press and are easily dismissed because they sweat and holy roll on TV.

From what I understand, many in this neo-whatever-it-is movement I keep trying to describe--the one with more power and much less press--teach that everyone (especially women it seems) must be under the explicit authority of a designated authority person such as elder, father, brother. Unmarried women must be under a male authority such as her father, brother, or elder until she marries, no matter what age. From what I heard, someone at a Southern Baptist seminary went as far as to say there was a hierarchy of authority in the Trinity so therefore authority on earth should be a hierarchy to reflect this. From what I heard, this was too much for some of the heads of other Baptist seminaries, and they are just trying to hold it together as the proponents of this neo-what-ever-it-is movement gain power.

Someone please write a book that explains this better--I've been trying to figure it out from the bottom up. They have a lot of blogs. There's a book named "Young, Restless, Reformed" by Collin Hansen which I've not read yet that probably comes the closest to knowing about this (in my opinion large and powerful) movement. The people in this movement aren't holy rolling. They're too busy wielding real power. Sorry I sound like a nutjob. Investigate for yourself.

26. natnabob - December 16, 2010 at 05:24 pm

Oh sorry, when I said much of the neo-Calvinist movement was disseminated by homeschooling materials and blogs, I should also have said seminaries. Many young graduates of seminaries are into this movement. They get preaching jobs and bring neo-Calvinism with them from their teachers in the seminaries into their congregations where they get jobs. I have peeked at Collin Hansen's "Young, Restless, Reformed" and that book speaks about this. There are Baptist blogs about trying to fight this influence, but the young men under 30 (maybe up to their 30's) are very into this movement. There are several preachers and theologians they all quote and praise a lot--names you will never hear in the press. Again, the mainstream has missed this entire movement.

27. triplebogey - December 18, 2010 at 11:01 am


I don't think #12's comment brought up the Catholic Church at all. Furthermore, "but they are more arrogant than us so that makes us fine" isn't really a defense.

28. zevgoldman - December 31, 2010 at 01:06 pm

What percentage of damage has each organization that you mentioned done? Furthermore, how did you arrive at your conclusions?

29. pinni - January 01, 2011 at 04:31 pm

Something rather strange and preposterous is happening when an author admits that he had never heard of Rick Warren before December 2003, and yet within a few short years that same person has the audacity to write a book called: The Rise and Fall of the Bible. Sounds like a treatise of religious intellectual somersaults clearly not grounded in reality of the life-changing effect of the Bible in people's lives.

30. teacher_alex - January 01, 2011 at 09:58 pm

Interesting article and discussion. I am not a professional scholar of religion, but I am part of both the academic and evangelical sub-cultures and as such pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness and depth of this piece - and the books mentioned in the article and the comments.

On a nit-picky note to # 15. texas2step: you are completely correct in noting that the 'gospel of prosperity' needs serious research, but your assertion that this particular creed could only be preached in America. It's actually a very popular theme for pentecostal and other evangelical preachers all over the world, most notably in Africa and Latin America, but also in Central and Eastern Europe and Asia. In fact, the largest Christian church of South-Korea puts 'prayer for personal financial success' at the core of its values and that goes further than many evangelicals in the US.

31. ltwist - January 05, 2011 at 07:09 pm

The best new book out on the history of evangelical Christianity: "The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family" by Andrew Himes. "Christian fundamentalism in America emerged a century ago, the faith of generations of immigrants who had experienced war and revolution, removal and upheaval. The Scots-Irish who had settled the South inherited both an evangelical legacy of abolitionism and social reform on the one hand, and complicity in human slavery and racial oppression on the other. This book brings the story of fundamentalism to life through the generations of the Rice family--immigrants, soldiers, farmers, slaveowners, refugees, and preachers. This is a work of history, memoir, and personal testimony about the changing shape of a faith that seeks to transform the world." See www.swordofthelordbook.com.

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