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So Long, Jerry Falwell: Reconsidering Evangelical Public Engagement

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 42, Number 1, March 2014
pp. 174-180 | 10.1353/rah.2014.0023

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Environmentalists, antiwar demonstrators, and Nobel Prize–winning scientists are not always the first people who come to mind when considering the American evangelical. Aside from the occasional post by Jim Wallis on The Huffington Post, those who run in secular circles seldom encounter signs of just how ideologically and philosophically broad the evangelical world is. Thankfully, within the space of a year, two books have assumed the task of exploring key undercurrents of the evangelical community, while acknowledging that a resilient majority remains invested in the culture wars. Collectively, these two books do their readers a great service, challenging the stereotypical perception of evangelicals in ways that may surprise even the evangelical community itself.

Public ignorance of American evangelicals’ breadth and diversity is paralleled by an enduring scholarly silence on the matter. To be sure, the Christian Right has gotten plenty of attention, with William Martin’s With God on Our Side and Daniel Williams’ God’s Own Party leading the pack. Yet collectively, these works project a more or less unified Religious Right reacting against the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Until recently, one would need to till very carefully through older works from the 1980s, such as Erling Jorstad’s The Politics of Moralism: The New Christian Right in American Life or Robert Booth Fowler’s A New Engagement: Evangelical Political Thought, 1966–1976, to find some of the last thoughtful words on evangelicals who did not neatly line up with the Reagan Revolution. Thankfully, Randall Balmer’s provocative and quasi-autobiographical pieces like Thy Kingdom Come (2011) considered the unexplored places of evangelical society, as did Pamela Cochran’s underappreciated Evangelical Feminism: A History (2012).

Randall Stephens and Karl Giberson’s The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age and David Swartz’s Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism are two worthy developments in that vein. Moral Minority turns its gaze to the Evangelical Left that formed in conversation with, rather than opposition to, the social movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Anointed, meanwhile, is decidedly presentist, exploring how some contemporary evangelicals acquire their understanding of science, American history, child rearing, and other topics through a litany of dubious authorities. Giberson, a physicist, and Stephens, a historian, approach this question with contempt and admiration in turns; for they bring to light not only evolution skeptics and ex-gay therapists, but also accomplished evangelical scholars in the fields of genetics and history, whose contributions often go unnoticed.

At the heart of The Anointed is the question of how authority, credibility, and trust are built within evangelical society. As the authors put it, the book examines “why intellectual authority can be obtained so cheaply” and uncritically among the faithful (p. 243). It asks the questions that vex those peering into the evangelical world from the outside. Why does the Rapture-obsessed Left Behind series routinely top the bestseller lists? Why has Texas amended its educational standards to teach creationism and evolution as equally valid? And how can “young-earth” creationists who manage the Answers in Genesis website reach an audience far larger than any conventional scientist could hope to attain?

Much of the book delineates how evangelicals receive the information that informs their approach to contemporary issues, particularly from poorly credentialed sources. To demonstrate, Giberson and Stephens introduce the reader to a motley cast of self-appointed but media-savvy leaders. This includes David Barton, an undergraduate history major and Texas Republican chairman who purports that the Founding Fathers intended America to be a distinctly Christian nation. Also involved are Ken Ham, a prominent creationist, and James Dobson, the child-development specialist whose arguments for physical discipline have been the cause of controversy since the 1970s.

The authors argue that Ham, Barton, and company succeed by generating distrust of the secular world. The evangelical worldview perceives itself as an unwelcome cultural outsider fighting a hostile and antireligious elite. The evangelical public responds by finding safe havens such as the Answers in Genesis website, which promotes belief in a young earth, and in the Left Behind novels, which theorize that the United Nations is a tool of the Antichrist. These conduits...



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