Rewriting evangelical history, with special guest D.G. Hart

D.G. Hart seems disappointed that Molly Worthen wrote Apostles of Reason, rather than the book he wishes she had written instead.

That’s never a promising approach to a book review. But Hart’s review stands out for its conclusion, which offers a spectacular example of a favorite switcheroo move beloved by the tribal gatekeepers of white evangelicalism.

This switcheroo is a defensive move — a means of fending off legitimate criticism directed toward the most prominent, most popular, most vocal, most central and most influential leaders of the tribe. It’s simple enough: just pretend that these folks are not prominent, popular, vocal, central or influential. And then find somebody somewhere who seems less vulnerable to whatever the critics are saying and then pretend that this person is actually the real prominent/popular/vocal/central/influential leader of the tribe — nevermind that almost nobody in the tribe has ever heard of them or of their ideas.

Saw a lot of this switcheroo recently surrounding the Ken Ham-Bill Nye debate. “Ken Ham is a meaningless fringe figure,” I was told. Or, at least I think that’s what I was told. It actually sounded more like “Keh hannnhz meegles fring figuh,” because the person saying this couldn’t stop kissing Al Mohler’s papal ring long enough to speak clearly.

But you rarely see this move performed as elegantly and flamboyantly as D.G. Hart pulls it off in the conclusion of his review of Worthen’s book:

This “exotic” figure sold more books than all of the “normal” figures Hart mentions put together.

Born-again Protestants over the last seventy years have beefed up their academic credentials and done so in part by imitating the professional academic organizations of the university world.  The Society of Christian Philosophers and the Conference on Faith and History were two expressions of this evangelical initiative.  Both relied significantly on the leadership provided by Dutch-American Calvinists who taught at Calvin College, intellectual descendants of Abraham Kuyper, the man who popularized the concept of Christian worldview.  And these organizations became platforms for some of the most significant work (at least as the mainstream academy judges it) by evangelical scholars – George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nick Wolterstorff, and Alvin Plantinga.  Yet, as important as these institutions may be in answering the questions that Worthen uses to define evangelicalism, they do not appear in her narrative, while Marsden, Noll, Wolterstorff and Plantinga at best make cameo appearances.   This was a missed opportunity since Worthen did so much work on the constellation of contexts that allowed made these scholars’ careers plausible.  And since several of them have retired from teaching, historical assessments of their work – both in writing projects and in forming associations of like-minded scholars and students – is now possible in ways it had not been in the heyday of their work.  At the same time, because these scholars used Kuyperian themes, sometimes mediated directly through Cornelius Van Til (as in the case of Marsden), to question epistemological assumptions of the mainstream academy, Worthen had a chance to test her assessment of evangelicalism’s crisis of intellectual authority not against the two-dimensional characters of Francis Schaeffer or Hal Lindsey but against academics whose scholarship is highly regarded and whose Christian commitments have not been questioned.

Yet, Worthen did not take this turn.  Because she did not her history of post-World War II evangelicalism has more the feel of a study of evangelical exoticism than of evangelical normalcy.  If she had followed carefully the evolution of serious evangelical academic life – from Fuller Seminary to the University of Notre Dame – rather than the popularizers who incite the evangelical mob, she might have produced a study of people who are apostles of reason in ways much more profound than talking heads at religious assemblies or marches on the National Mall.

That’s the switcheroo. The best-selling authors who reshaped white evangelicalism in America during the 1970s and 1980s are dismissed by Hart as “exoticism.” A handful of well-regarded academics are presented, instead, as the standard-bearers of “evangelical normalcy” — even though the vast majority of white evangelicals have never heard of them, or of their ideas.

Hart adds a little flourish to this switcheroo — one that strikes me as disingenuous. Describing Noll, Marsden, et. al., he says their “Christian commitments have not been questioned.” That’s true. But surely Hart knows that the only reason that is true is because the mass and majority of the white evangelical tribe — the normal evangelicals whom Hart excludes from “normalcy” — have never encountered those scholars’ ideas. If the vast majority of white evangelicals were familiar with, say, what Mark Noll has had to say about young-Earth creationism, then his Christian commitments would be questioned on a daily basis.

These academics have avoided controversy only because they have avoided notice. If their ideas appeared in popular formats, we’d be seeing “Farewell, Mark Noll” tweets from tribal gatekeepers and never hearing George Marsden’s name without the adjective “controversial” attached.*

Like D.G. Hart, I wish these folks and their work was better known within the white evangelical subculture. Like D.G. Hart, I would prefer to live in a world in which credible scholarship was the norm while the hackery of a Hal Lindsey or the toxic self-righteousness of a Francis Schaeffer was merely fringe exotica.

But unlike D.G. Hart, I’m not going to pretend I live in that world.

I live in this world. In this world, Hal Lindsey’s pop-premillennialism was a publishing phenomenon. He wrote the best-selling book of the 1970s, influencing a generation of Christian clergy, musicians and other culture-makers. His books paved the way for Tim LaHaye’s books in the 1990s, which sold even more millions of copies, promoting his idea of neo-Bircherism as the essence of Christianity. LaHaye’s white evangelical audience is today inextricably entangled with the neo-Bircher political movement of the “tea party.”

In this world, no member of the white evangelical tribe will ever allow themselves or others to question the proposition that abortion is murder. They will not even allow the hint of an idea of a shadow of a doubt. To question that proposition is to cease to belong — to withdraw from the tribe. That proposition is the essential, central tribal marker. Within the tribe, no other possibility is permitted or imagined or imaginable.

That was not true for white evangelicals before Francis Schaeffer. It is pervasively true for white evangelicals after Francis Schaeffer.

I wish that hadn’t happened. I wish that Hal Lindsey hadn’t convinced tens of millions of Christians that their faith was an otherworldly business that consisted of little more than sitting around waiting for the Rapture. I wish that Francis Schaeffer hadn’t transformed American evangelicalism into a movement that identifies itself as an anti-abortion Van Helsing chasing after Satanic baby-killers and therefore is no longer capable of identifying itself as a movement having anything to do with Jesus. I deeply, devoutly wish that those two widely influential writers were nothing more than “exoticism.”

I wish that all those evangelicals had, instead, been sitting at home reading their copies of Fundamentalism and American Culture and nodding sagely at the nuanced insights of Marsden’s prose. I wish that all those tens of millions of people whose faith was shaped by Lindsey and Schaeffer had, instead, been buying copies of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, allowing Mark Noll to open their eyes to the way their dominant hermeneutic arose in defense of slave-owning.

But that didn’t happen. The alternate universe of D.G. Hart’s sleight-of-hand switcheroo does not exist.

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Update: You know who else thinks the “exotic” Francis Schaeffer was far more influential in reshaping American evangelicalism than guys like George M. Marsden? George M. Marsden.

Salon has an excerpt of Marsden’s new book The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief. It’s good stuff, although it’s odd to read so much about evangelical nostalgia for the 1950s and the way it was invoked and exploited by folks like Falwell and Reagan — but without mentioning race.