To the Editor:
"Among the Evangelicals," by Timothy Beal (The Chronicle Review, December 17, 2010), provides a welcome survey of an important field within American religion. Yet it is particularly glaring that the author cites only one female scholar and one journalist in the entire article. He also neglects to mention the substantial and growing body of scholarship on evangelicalism and questions of gender and sexuality.
To his list, I would urge readers to look at the following texts, among others:
Tanya Erzen, Straight to Jesus: Sexual and Christian Conversions in the Ex-Gay Movement, University of California Press, 2006; R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity, University of California Press, 2004; Susan Friend Harding, The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics, Princeton University Press, 2001; Julie Ingersoll, Evangelical Christian Women: War Stories in the Gender Battles, New York University Press, 2003; and Arlene Stein, The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community's Battle over Sex, Faith, and Civil Rights, Beacon Press, 2002.
Associate Professor of Comparative Religious Studies
Ohio State University
The following comments are from chronicle.com:
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 if 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.
As one who grew up Pentecostal, 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 smothering oppression of women and intellectualism.
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 he or she is (Jeff 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 weren't important influences on certain Christian thinkers, but by and large their role in American evangelicalism has been greatly overemphasized.
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 bourgeoisie, from the statistical studies I've been able to find (check out Thaddeus Coreno's Fundamentalism as a Class Culture). Of course, pointing out that evangelicals are an oppressed working-class population might interfere in the bourgeois 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.
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 United States begins as a paradise (the "Founders"), there's a fall (FDR?), followed by degradation (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.