When America Was Born Again – By Neil J. Young

Neil J. Young on Steven P. Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years

Steven P. Miller, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, Oxford University Press, 2014, 221pp., $24.95
Steven P. Miller, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, Oxford University Press, 2014, 221pp., $24.95

In 1976, as Jimmy Carter campaigned for the White House, he flummoxed the reporters covering him by offhandedly mentioning he was a born-again Christian. Carter had not thought this simple fact was particularly confusing or controversial, but the comment sent shockwaves through the mainstream media. What did it mean to be born again, they asked each other nervously. And where had all the evangelicals who rushed to Carter’s defense come from? Hadn’t evangelicals disappeared after the embarrassment of the Scopes Trial in 1925?

Today, most Americans, especially our media, would hardly admit such unfamiliarity with evangelical Christianity. At the same time, the questions those reporters raised in 1976 linger in a nation not known for its religious and historical literacy. Steven P. Miller’s slim but forceful The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years offers a compelling and provocative guide to anyone seeking to understand the prominence and power of evangelicalism in modern America.

By “the age of evangelicalism,” Miller means the forty-two-year span from 1970 to 2012. This, Miller argues, was a period of evangelicalism’s rise and fall, an era that produced the sense, as Miller quotes political scientist Alan Wolfe, that “we are all evangelicals now.” Wolfe meant this to describe the state of American religion at the start of the twenty-first century when the individual-centered theology of the suburban mega-church had cast a shadow over the country’s varied religious expressions. Miller, however, suggests an even larger meaning, as his title contends. As he argues in his introduction, “born-again Christianity provided alternatively a language, a medium, and a foil by which millions of Americans came to terms with political and cultural changes.”

But who are evangelicals? What is evangelicalism? Miller does not bother much with definitions, a task that has weighed heavily in other scholars’ treatments of the faith. In a brief comment, Miller just describes evangelicalism as “the label commonly given to the public expression of born-again Christianity,” a definition that feels almost circular. Other scholars like George Marsden have tended to define evangelicals by three fundamental traits: belief in the Bible as the inspired and revealed Word of God, experience of a “born again” conversion, and commitment to proselytizing others.

More recently, Molly Worthen, in her path-breaking Apostles of Reason, has suggested we ought to understand evangelicalism not as a matter of doctrines, but rather as a shared set of questions, including how believers reconcile spiritual and rational knowledge, how they translate private beliefs into the public square, and how they obtain personal salvation and holiness in their earthly lives. Worthen’s model allows her to expand her study of evangelicals to groups not usually considered part of the mix, including Wesleyans, Anabaptists, and Pentecostals.

Miller, too, casts a wide net in populating his study of American evangelicals. The usual suspects appear: Southern Baptists and nondenominational megachurches; Billy Graham and Rick Warren; Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson; the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition; Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. But Miller draws us into a far richer and deeply entertaining story of lesser-known evangelical actors and forces that exerted an outsized influence on American culture and politics.

That story largely begins in California, the hotbed of nondenominational Christianity and the birthplace of the Jesus Movement. There, amidst the wreckage of free love and free-flowing psychedelics, thousands of burned-out hippies turned from the counterculture to born-again Christianity, meeting Jesus through evangelical ministers who set up shop in Bay Area coffee houses or at beachside worship services in Southern California.

The Jesus People or Jesus Freaks, as they were known, made an arresting sight. It would be hard to imagine these long-haired, tie-dyed, barefoot converts fitting in to the staid evangelical churches of the Bible belt, but the Jesus Movement had reverberations far beyond California. Adopted first in California-based church associations like the Calvary Chapels and the Vineyard Churches, the relaxed but enthusiastic worship style of the Jesus Movement quickly became de rigueur in evangelical churches across the nation. The pulsating rhythms of “Jesus Rock” and the nearly hypnotic refrains of Contemporary Christian Music replaced traditional hymns. Pastors traded in their suits and clerical robes for casual wear. Fire and brimstone sermons gave way to messages about God’s abundant love and grace. Hardline theology remained but it adjusted to an American society suspicious of authority (religious or otherwise) in the wake of Watergate.

Millions of Americans poured into these evangelical churches in the 1970s, as Miller documents, transforming the nation’s culture and politics. Outside of the sanctuaries, Americans made bestsellers out of books from evangelical authors like Hal Lindsey and Marabel Morgan. Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth translated premillennial dispensational eschatology — an end-times theology popular among conservative evangelicals — into a page-turning potboiler about the terrors that await unbelievers in the period between the rapture and Jesus’ second coming. Published in 1970, it sold ten million copies by the end of the decade to an American public receptive to prophetic interpretations of the tumultuous events shaking the Middle East at the time. Meanwhile, Morgan’s The Total Woman offered a self-help guide for those women who believed wifely submission rather than liberation promised the best route to personal fulfillment and marital happiness. If that sounded like an especially prim prescription, Morgan sprinkled her book with sex tips so naughty it read more like Cosmopolitan magazine than an evangelical primer. The Total Woman became the best-selling nonfiction book of 1974.

Other books from evangelical authors like James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Tim and Beverly LaHaye, and, of course, Billy Graham flew off the shelves. Christian rock filled the airwaves. And celebrities like Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton testified to a born-again experience. Everyone, it seemed, had caught the evangelical bug. The Gallup organization pronounced 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical,” but Miller makes a case that the entire decade had really been theirs.

That cultural and political power revealed itself most plainly in Ronald Reagan’s presidential election in 1980, achieved in part by the nascent Religious Right movement. Of course, Reagan had booted Carter, the first president to tout his evangelical bona fides, from office. But by the end of Carter’s first term most evangelicals wondered if he really belonged in their camp given his support for liberal policies on matters of gender and sexuality. After the White House, Carter would resuscitate his public image through humanitarian work with Habitat for Humanity, but most evangelicals continued to eye him suspiciously.

Other evangelicals on the left endured similar treatment from their conservative friends, though this tended to play out in the much more insular world of evangelical institutions and publications. For a time, the prominence of folks on the evangelical left like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider suggested that evangelicalism could span a broad spectrum of political conviction. By the conservative 1980s, however, liberal evangelicals looked like a dying breed. Miller paints this state of affairs mostly as consequence of shifting politics, but the marginalization, if not demonization, of liberal evangelicals was foremost a theological matter, an underdeveloped theme of this book.

As a people deeply committed to religious faith, evangelicals have worked hard to define and defend their beliefs. In the 1970s, those efforts erupted in the “battle for the Bible” over biblical inerrancy, on which Miller touches only briefly. The inerrantists — those who insisted the Bible was without error in all matters — largely won the fight, and they pushed moderate and liberal evangelicals out of their denominations, seminaries, agencies, and publishing houses. This is what left Jim Wallis and others like him outside the established evangelical fold — at least as far as the triumphant conservatives were concerned. When conservative evangelical leaders wrote Wallis disapproving letters — and I have read dozens of them stored in the archives of the evangelical Wheaton College — they remonstrated him not for his politics, but for his theological positions on the Bible, sin, and personal salvation.

Miller is right, of course, to include Wallis in his study of evangelicals, not least because Wallis himself has insisted on his evangelical self-identity. But how do we understand a subculture, to borrow Randall Balmer’s term for evangelicals, that ranges, at least in Miller’s accounting, from the shapeless theology of mega-church pastor Joel Osteen to the hardline orthodoxy of Francis Schaeffer, the noted evangelical intellectual? Does anyone who calls themselves an evangelical get to be one?

It seems Miller would say yes. And honestly, given the rigid border-defending of the faith by evangelical leaders and the tight defining of evangelicalism by scholars, Miller’s expansive vision seems refreshing, generous, and fair, although this capaciousness also strains against his own argument. If evangelicalism does not have an exact meaning then it is hard to know if we have been living in an evangelical age.

Instead, it seems that historians covering the same period as Miller have a more convincing case that it had really been an era of conservatism or the age of Reagan — an argument that would include evangelicalism as a component of the age but not its defining feature.

Despite Miller’s best efforts, readers may still conclude that evangelicals are those white suburbanites who want abortion outlawed, oppose gay marriage, and vote Republican. That reputation was secured in the heady days of 1980s conservatism. Even as the Religious Right crumbled through the political setbacks and religious scandals of the late 1980s and 1990s, as Miller richly details (his account of the public embarrassments of several televangelists is particularly delicious), the conservative evangelical voter has remained a potent image in America’s political and cultural consciousness, a tired foil the media constantly pulls out to set against the nation’s secularizing trends. But, as Miller masterfully shows, American evangelicalism is far more than what happens at the ballot box. We may not now be or ever have been living in an evangelical age. But we can hardly know ourselves or our nation if we do not understand how much evangelicals have been trying to make it one.