Monday, July 4, 2016
Book Review 369: The Making of Evangelicalism
This is the real Book of Revelation, although most people will find it hard to believe the sensational disclosures Professor Randall Balmer makes toward the end of his little essay.
As Balmer is quick to mention, evangelicals come in several flavors. Balmer was raised in a Scandinavian, Pietist sect, different in style from the ranting Baptists of the South and California. But most evangelicals would probably agree that all of them have the same goal, however much they disapprove of the style the other guys use.
If you have ever had to chase evangelicals off your porch, you will perhaps be amused to find that Balmer divides gall into four parts:
Three influences — Scotch-Irish Presbyterianism, continental Pietism and New England Puritanism — fed into a distinctly American religion. Balmer does not mention that the colonials were virtually unchurched, especially on the southern and western frontiers. That left them open and defenseless for the first phase:
— The Great Awakening and revivalism. From the point of view of all non-evangelicals, the key factor was the intense competition and hatred of each cult for each other. That led them to reject state religion and embrace — even if only tactically, locally and temporarily — civic freedoms.
Balmer, largely sympathetic to evangelicalism, portrays this as a big break, competition giving Americans a church (or churches) they liked and thus leading to a density of religiosity unmatched in any other advanced country.
It was a time of optimism (unless you were a slave or an Indian) which led to a crisis. Evangelicals expected the return of Jesus real soon (none sooner than the Millerites, now our Seventh-day Adventists, who are heartily loathed by most evangelicals); that is, they were Postmillenial in outlook. Their disappointment led to a phase of:
— Premillenialism and pessimism. If Jesus wasn’t coming to fix everything (from the skewed view of evangelicals; the prophecy was for a millenium of ghastly war and suffering), then good Christians would have to fix up the joint themselves: thus their work to reform slavery, prisons, saloons, schools etc.
From a secular point of view (which is not Balmer’s), this was the only positive effect evangelicals were to have on American society.
It didn’t last. As America became more Catholic, Jewish and immigrant, and in some ways secular, evangelicals saw themselves being eclipsed. They withdrew into:
— Fundamentalism. The Fundamentals, written just over a century ago, were a cri de coeur, an attempt to get Christians to agree on the real message. America, or the trendsetting organs in it, said phooey, causing evangelicals to withdraw psychically, socially and above all politically until a new message of:
— Aggressive revivalism, in the form of a noisy Religious Right movement that was more about political power than any spiritual preachment.
It can be argued how much success this has had, but Balmer doesn’t like it. The election of an real evangelical of the best sort, Jimmy Carter, ought to have marked success, but the new evangelicals were having none of it. Carter was attacked by “lavishly funded, highly organized and fiendishly deceptive opponents who would do almost anything to undermine him.”
That is inaccurate but can be made accurate by removing the word almost.
If it meant ignoring the clear teaching of Jesus and generations of evangelical preaching against divorce to support a radical like Reagan, the new evangelicals didn’t even have to swallow hard. And here is where the sensational revelation comes in.
The rise of the religious Radical Right had nothing to do with abortion. Balmer quotes chapter and verse, For example, W.A. Criswell, “one of the most famous fundamentalists of the 20th century,” welcomed Roe v. Wade with this statement:
“I have always felt that it is only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.”
Other evangelicals welcomed Roe as a support of the separation of church from state, another tradition they have since given up.
If you have any evangelical friends, you can easily recover the cost of Balmer’s excellent book by carrying it around and making bets about, eg, the Baptist position on abortion in 1973.