Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, 576 pp., $17.43
American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism
Belknap Press, 2014, 480 pp., $22.00
America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation
Belknap Press, 2014, 448 pp., $13.37
Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism
Oxford University Press, 2013, 209 pp., $19.36
To outsiders, at least, the evangelical transformation of America has been one of the most startling and significant of all modern social changes. Millions of Baby Boomers were “born again” during what may fairly be called the “third Great Awakening”, a spiritual revival that extended from the 1960s until the 1980s and that appealed to presidential candidates, Bay Area “Jesus freaks”, and just about every kind of person in between. This mass religious movement was driven by a hunger for community and for moral certainty in a world that suddenly seemed to lack both; the Cold War crises of mid-century fueled fears of global apocalypse, while the collapsing social consensus of the 1950s and 1960s mirrored changing attitudes to privacy, race, family, and reproductive rights. At the same time, the political scandals of the 1970s raised questions about the integrity of trusted institutions.
Evangelicals responded to this multifaceted cultural change with a heady cocktail of condemnation and self-confidence. Drawing on the lessons of Scripture and American history, they sought to understand the significance of what seemed to them the self-evident crisis of contemporary American civilization. Their most prominent preachers and best-selling prophecy writers convinced believers that the sudden social changes could be explained. Audiences of hundreds of thousands attended sermons in sports stadia, while tens of millions of readers consumed popular prophecy books like The Late Great Planet Earth (1970). As their minority print culture expanded into a burgeoning and occasionally scandalous media empire, evangelicals honed the interpretive tools to offer moral and political certainty to millions of Americans.
The new evangelical movement transformed the lives of its adherents and shaped the social and political condition of the nation, helping to fuel the electoral successes of almost every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. It provided an almost universal language of political aspiration and national exception at the same time as it drove the bifurcation of American ideals and values between believers and, presumably, everyone else. It provided the cadences of hope in the speechmaking of Presidents Clinton and Obama, while offering their critics a powerful and often implicit vocabulary of protest. But the character of evangelicalism changed as its influence extended, and as a newer focus on sentiment overtook the older emphasis on dogma. The movement’s impact can be measured in the paradox that its success was made possible by its failure: Evangelicalism divided and weakened as America itself was born again.
Some recently published books chart the re-sacralization of American culture and the difficulties it has presented to the movement that made it possible. Taking a cue from a growing body of scholarship on the history and culture of American religion, these accounts offer rich explanations for the transformations both of popular Protestantism and of American culture. Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (2013) develops a complex but compelling intellectual history of evangelicalism over the course of the past century. The narrative outline is familiar, but Worthen offers new subtleties and greater depth to the accounts offered by D.G. Hart’s From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (2011) and Steven P. Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years (2014). Worthen illustrates the growing tension between the movement’s political Right and Left, and illuminates the populism that first fueled and then resisted the leadership of charismatic individuals.
One minor character in Worthen’s history is the subject of Michael J. McVicar’s Christian Reconstruction: R. J. Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism (2015). Rushdoony (1916-2001), the son of immigrants fleeing the Armenian massacres of the World War I era, was an ordained Presbyterian minister who sought to fashion a world-affirming program of social, cultural, and political renewal. But his views morphed into extreme Cold War anti-communism through a series of strategic alliances with ultra-conservative groups. Rushdoony reprogrammed traditional Calvinism even as he contributed to new trends in American conservatism. His lectures and publications encouraged the development of anti-statist ideology, most obviously reflected in the exponential growth of homeschooling, and facilitated a new political confidence among believers.
Rushdoony’s small but noisy group of “Christian Reconstructionists” generated fears that large sections of the political Right were being hijacked by highly intolerant theocrats. The fears were outsized, but Rushdoony’s movement has always punched above its weight. Its growth and diversification is illuminated in Julie J. Ingersoll’s enthography and intellectual history, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction (2015). Explaining her experience within the movement and her gradual disillusionment with its strongly patriarchal and patriotic mores, Ingersoll moves beyond the legacy of Rushdoony to consider the movement’s recent ideologues and institutions. She worries about their impact upon Tea Party conservatives and warns of the potential for violence perpetrated by radicalized evangelicals (for which, it must be said, there is very little evidence).
Not all of the recent work on American religious history has been driven by alarm or a penchant for studying the relatively obscure. Within this expanding scholarship, three recently published books may rise to dominate the field.
The first of these, Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2014), sets out, among other aims, to critique that large body of popular historical writing that represents the Founders as being driven by Christian purpose, and to explain why “a reputedly godly country came to be founded by so many ungodly leaders.” The first Tea Party, Stewart contends, represented not the ideals and aspirations of an emerging Christian republic, but those of a small but significant group of “heretics”—deists, freethinkers, and atheists whose reading of political ideas and possibilities was made possible by their rejection of supernatural religion.
Nature’s God offers a new and lively account of the religious transformation of early America. Like some other recent writing on the subject, Stewart’s work emerges from a specific biographical context—in his case, the chance rediscovery of Ethan Allen’s Oracles of Reason (1784) as well as a new awareness of the importance of the “forgotten founding father” Thomas Young. Stewart awoke “from a dogmatic slumber”, he explains, to realize that “much of what I thought I knew about the people and the ideas that guided the American Revolution wasn’t quite right.” He distilled what “wasn’t quite right” into a quest: to explain the relationship between revolutionary politics and Enlightenment philosophy.
Of course, the American Revolution was a watershed moment in American intellectual history. In the early 17th century, many of the New World colonies were founded to provide freedom for religion. By the middle of the 18th century, in Stewart’s account at least, leading citizens in these colonies wished to secure freedom from religion. These enlightened thinkers continued to use the language of national exception, but their deployment of familiar tropes disguised a paradigm shift in political and religious intention. America was still to be a city on a hill, but its terms of reference had changed. Preachers and philosophers understood its significance in very different ways, and the perspectives of both seem to differ from those of modern historians. After all, Stewart explains, “When we look back to the New England of the historical imagination, we sometimes like to see a city upon a hill, where everyone prayed to the same God and all were united under the cope of the same heaven. When Jonathan Edwards looked around, he saw a people slouching toward Gomorrah.” For better or worse, in the minds of 18th-century religious leaders, America could not help but be exemplary (even if that era’s historians must allude to Old World writers to make the point).
Stewart’s book is a long analysis of the literary culture of late 18th-century religious radicalism. Drawing on a broad range of evidence, he concludes that the reference to the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence, so commonly cited as evidence of the orthodox piety of the Founders, instead invoked a rationalism that promoted both skepticism and intellectual freedom, and that amounted to “an emancipation of the political order from God.” America was to become a republic of religious communities, tolerating but never formally establishing the “servitude” that Stewart sees in adherence to revealed religion.
Moreover, he argues that many of these religious communities were themselves supportive of this enlightened critique of traditional orthodoxy. The American captivity of the church allowed congregations to maintain traditional routines of spiritual “servitude” while their leaders dabbled in advanced thought. Men from a wide variety of backgrounds came together around radical ideas that remained unrepresentative of the country at large. They took part in an international conversation, sharing ideas and ideals with revolutionaries in France, until the changing articulation of liberty, equality, and fraternity made such connections impolitic. And, Stewart insists, evangelicalism was complicit in this religious change. Revivalism clarified the processes through which Christianity was democratized, as within the church “sovereignty over religion [passed] from the pulpit to the pews”, and as outside the church philosophers who advocated for “freedom of religion” ended up in essence achieving a “religion of freedom.” Evangelicals were a cause and consequence of religious modernity; “wandering infidels flourished alongside itinerant preachers”, Stewart writes, “because both were a species of infidelity.” And this, Stewart argues, is why “the Enlightenment, not the Reformation, was the axis on which human history turned.”
As this intellectual energy suggests, Stewart’s argument is deeply personal, and represents a calculated intervention in debates about the public expression of private religious faith. The “persistence in modern America of supernatural religion and the reactionary nationalism with which it is so regularly accompanied” demonstrates that the American revolution still has “unfinished business.”1 The solution he proposes is an almost Hobbesian establishment in which the state should more critically oversee the spiritual life of its people.
Stewart argues that the Enlightenment separation of church and state does not require that government should be neutral with respect to the religious life of its people. Instead, “this separation at least implicitly involves the creation of a certain kind of public religion. This new, public religion is indeed tolerant of every religious belief—but only insofar as that belief is understood to be intrinsically private.” That is because, he avers, the religion that his subjects had “hoped to bring to America…was that which measures piety in terms of doing good rather than believing rightly; that which imposes a duty on oneself, as opposed to one’s neighbors; and that which builds the bonds of community even while robbing the priesthood of its corrupting influence.” This was, in short, the religion of “popular deism.” And, Stewart argues, “it is only to the degree that religion is not what it once was…that we can and ought to tolerate it, and may hope to find in it some limited utility for modern society.” Happily, he concludes, “America’s mainstream religion is at bottom one form or another of popular deism”—an argument with which some conservative evangelicals are beginning ruefully to agree.
If Nature’s God considers the religious politics of the First Great Awakening, other books consider those of the Third. Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014) is a comprehensive, lucid, and detailed account of the political commitments of born-again Americans through the course of the 20th century. Sutton views his subject through the lens of biblical prophecy, demonstrating the wide range of uses to which believers put their millennial beliefs. His narrative begins in the run-up to World War I, as American evangelicals were coming to terms with the fact that they could no longer make confident assumptions about broader cultural values. Evolving into a series of special interest groups, these believers developed their understanding of biblical prophecy to establish paradigms by which they could explain rapid changes in church and state. Evangelicals in the early 20th century fashioned themselves as the embattled legatees of the American Christian tradition, abandoning anti-Catholicism and Democratic Party politics as they moved toward ecumenism and Republican Party ideals.
Sutton’s work confirms the value of the history-of-ideas approach that has come to typify work on evangelicalism. His focus is on elite white males; the narrative regularly reaches out to engage with the African-American experience, but black evangelicals are presented as a rather static bloc. Across denominations and across decades, black evangelicals’ positions stayed largely unmoved, as they remained perplexed and angered by the racialist assumptions of white fundamentalist leaders. Still, Sutton does hint that black evangelicals were gradually developing a more radical reading of their situation. That this new approach was never formalized is perhaps best explained by the sudden social changes of mid-century, which led to the civil rights revolution and the formal end of Jim Crow. The mainstreaming of apocalyptic fear, and its ubiquity in the popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s, then fed into a narrative of impending global destruction that, when combined with slowly arriving civil rights for African Americans, pulled evangelicals across the races into a coalition of interests that found common purpose in the polls.
One of the key weaknesses of the recent focus on “the evangelical mind” is that we have yet to see how these intellectual changes affected ordinary evangelicals. The history-of-ideas approach, that is, has its downsides as well as its benefits: It suffers generically from being cut off from less abstract social change—one does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate that ideas do not always, or regularly, circulate only in the ether. Future writing in this field will need to consider how the new strategies of evangelical leaders were received and resisted by their followers who, whether they realized it or not, were tasked with linking substructure to superstructure as they also tried to make a living. Someone, after all, had to iron out the ambiguities: Sutton’s argument describes an apocalypse that was constantly being invoked, but which was pushed ever further into the distance.
Of course, no one has become more emblematic of the changes in American evangelicalism than its undisputable “star”: Billy Graham. Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (2014) is a valuable addition to the already-crowded market of Graham biographies. As the subtitle suggests, the intention of this book is two-fold: to chart Graham’s changing identities and to match those identities against those of the nation he called to faith. Wacker focuses on three key questions: Why does Graham matter? Why did the religious movement with which he was identified become so popular? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about the relationship between religion and mainstream American culture?
Like Stewart, Wacker is honest about the presuppositions that shape his work, describing himself as a “partisan of the same evangelical tradition Graham represented, especially the irenic inclusive, pragmatic form of it that he came to symbolize in the later years of his public ministry.” But this is no uncritical eulogy. Wacker is alert to Graham’s political flip-flopping, his careful crafting of public image, his bold tactics and uncertain strategies in relation to racial justice, and his public support for and (as White House wiretaps recently revealed) private criticism of American Jewish elites.
Graham’s career was one of constant change. His own position changed from a zealous fundamentalism to a more irenic pragmatism. Concurrently, he helped to reposition the evangelical movement, establishing its premier journal, Christianity Today, and lending his support to a range of institutions, as well as to individuals whose ministries pushed popular Protestantism ever further from the reactionary positions with which its century had begun. Within his religious community, Graham liked to lead from the front on some issues, including his surprisingly early reconsideration of whether he might be able to work with Catholics, Jews, and Mormons. Nationally, he seemed to lag behind on numerous key issues, not least on finding himself out of step with the public in continuing to support President Nixon (even as Nixon’s aides were secretly recording conversations that Graham would later find embarrassing).
Graham was chastened in his political maneuvering, despite his surprisingly close relationship with the famously ungodly Lyndon B. Johnson (they skinny dipped together in the White House pool), but his influence was always extending. He courted power in the 1950s, and was courted by power in the following decades. Graham participated in eight presidential inaugurations and spoke at most presidential prayer breakfasts. No other person in any other field, as Time journalist Nancy Gibbs once noted, “enjoyed such access to the pinnacle of American power.” But America’s pastor changed with the nation he served. As his influence grew, as his “star” quality was created, Billy Graham led evangelicals in their conquest of America even as he helped to redefine what being evangelical really meant.
These recent accounts suggest how—not for the first time—America has been born again. The aspiration for religious freedom that drove the hope for a “city on a hill” was undermined by Enlightenment secular values. But the aspiration for freedom from religion that drove the revolution similarly failed to be sustained. The sequence of religious revivals that extended throughout the 18th and 19th centuries crafted a powerful new justification for American exceptionalism. By the beginning of the 20th century, popular Protestantism provided Americans with the basic tropes of their dominant public and political culture and the staple motifs of civic faith. And as the century unfolded, the political and cultural power of evangelical religion steadily increased.
But many evangelicals preferred not to recognize this (and many historians of their movement took that refusal at face value). Time and time again throughout the 20th century, prominent preachers rewrote the history of the movement to emphasize failure and marginality. Their apocalyptic theory could not explain their growing power, and so they chose to deny the existence of that power. The “Third Great Awakening” proved inimical to the theories of those believers who expected to experience powerlessness and persecution, and whose identity as a godly remnant depended upon the realization of these fears.
Taken together, Stewart, Sutton, and Wacker offer important new perspectives on the means by which America was born again. America has become a holy nation, but those who are most responsible for it so often refuse to recognize it. But these books also suggest the extent to which evangelicalism itself has been born again. In the course of the past century, even as its cultural power steadily increased, the “old-time religion” has been revolutionized. Across the board, the doctrinal and political specifics that once shaped popular Protestantism have given way to what evangelical-turned-Catholic sociologist Christian Smith has described as a “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This religious style mimics the structure of evangelical theology while advancing only a few of its ethical demands.
Investigating this trend, Todd M. Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (2014) analyses the rhetorical and media strategies of several best-selling evangelical ministers. Despite some differences, Brenneman argues, Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and other celebrity preachers share a common exhortative style. Their pitch mixes ideas that are often atypical of the evangelical theological heritage in a mélange of unreason and sentiment. In their presentations, theology is reduced to clichés that reiterate the image of a “fatherly God desperately in love with his children…a God who is infatuated with human beings.”
Recognizing the significance of his subjects within the broader evangelical media culture, Brenneman argues that too much recent scholarship has focused on the evangelical mind, “not recognizing that most evangelicals have abandoned the life of the mind in favor of a religious life of emotion.” This astute observation’s startling quality can be explained by the relative strength of the well-established history-of-ideas approach over relatively recent emphases on the history of the emotions, but also by the fact that so many of the historians who write about evangelicalism do so as a form of self-justifying autobiography (the present author not entirely excluded). And with the abandonment of the life of the mind came a theological shift; Brenneman argues that the most prominent heirs of Billy Graham have pushed his movement away from the theological claims he recognized.
These new evangelical leaders have plenty of followers. Those who offer the most radical critique of evangelicalism’s “logocentric” norms are associated with the “emergent church” described by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel in their The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014). “Emergents” have turned away from the traditional institutions of church and state. They offer a radically individualized spirituality in which traditional emphases on ethics have been replaced by an affirmation of ritual aesthetics, and in which new forms of community are explored in a liturgical bricolage that supports a profound skepticism of the old certainties of evangelical religion. “Emergent” Christianity, which often disavows the evangelical label, resonates with the concerns of former fundamentalists and recruits strongly from their ranks, critiquing the top-down social trajectory of the religious right and the bottom-up agendas of the Reconstructionists to focus on issues of social justice, community, and creativity. It experiments with spirituality and liturgy even while borrowing styles from those parts of the evangelical movement it critiques.
Of course, in posing as newly born, and in dismissing the longer history of the church, the “emergent church” follows in the well-trodden path of evangelical innovation, and brings together without any attempt at systemization a large number of the anti-formal ideas that are changing the movement it has abandoned. As such, it is relativist “emergents,” rather than absolutist theocrats, that may best represent the evangelical future. While critics may worry about the impact on the Tea Party of theocratic politics, the “emergent church” may yet turn out to be the more significant turn within recent American religious history.
As the recent books discussed here suggest, the religious and political divisions that have so often beset born-again Protestants have become increasingly pronounced. In this era of “designer” religion, as believers become increasingly divided in their religious and political convictions, their moments of common purpose become ever more difficult to identify. Evangelical religion has won America at the price of its own evisceration. Contemporary evangelicals might have much more in common with those associated with “the heretical origins of the American republic” than they could ever have imagined. They tried to change the nation by re-inhabiting the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist swallowed them in mid-transformation. For the evangelicals who made it all possible, the redemption of America has come at enormous cost.
1Michael Walzer’s The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions (2015) struggles with the fact that secular revolutions—in India, Algeria, and Israel—were eventually overtaken to some significant degree by the religious traditions they were meant to supplant. If so, perhaps Stewart’s account qualifies late 18th-century America as another example of the same phenomenon: the philosophical secularists ultimately being undone by the traditional believers in supernatural cosmologies.