Apocalypse Now: The New History of American Fundamentalists–A Review

Apocalypse Now: The New History of American Fundamentalists–A Review June 24, 2016

Matthew Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism is beautifully written, thoroughly documented and, in many ways, a deliciously wicked look at a highly successful religious movement—radical apocalyptic evangelicals—a movement that remains strong despite its endless predictive failures. One of my favorite lines in the book is “They [radical evangelicals] had a knack for picking losing battles” (p. 182). This is an understatement. Sutton writes on the beginnings of early American fundamentalism, concentrating on what he calls radical evangelicals in the 20’s and 30’s before they broke into the evangelicals that we know so well in the 70’s and 80’s. It is a bumpy ride as one might expect, but despite all the failed predictions the movement spawned a less abrasive and more worldly evangelicalism at the end of the century. This early brand had its raw edges and I was gobsmacked by this sometimes duplicitous, and even racist rumble through American culture, and now, global history. How can this all be?

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I’ve written and thought about American evangelicals for some time now, and in many ways, I’ve come to a real sense of respect for them. Evangelicals do far more social service than liberal Christians do—as I showed in my book comparing Evangelicals vs. Liberals in the Pacific Northwest. But there is no doubt a dark subculture in this community that has often established their bona fides by accusing others of heresy or worse. David Gushee’s recent lament over the end of the rapprochement between conservative evangelical Christians and their more progressive evangelical friends, catalogues how the majority of evangelicals remain secure in their relative suspicion of anyone who is not like them.

As a sociologist, I’ve looked carefully at evangelicals, and found signs of real strength even in the more secular Pacific Northwest. I also know that there is much more of diversity in their present ranks, from more conservative and close-minded fundamentalists to more moderate, outward looking and culturally engaged evangelicals, to more progressive types who nonetheless maintain core evangelical loyalties to evangelism and biblicism.

So, I have questions about Sutton’s overall narrative of presenting American evangelicals more broadly as a relatively homogenous band of “premillennial radical evangelicals.” There is no doubt apocalypticism is a powerful undercurrent in many strains of American evangelical tradition. But is it the aortic valve of the evangelical heart? Is it really the main piston of this machine that numbers nearly 50 million Americans? In recent polls it shows that nearly 60 percent of white evangelicals believe that Christ will return in the next fifty years—but a near majority of American Christians think the same. So this is an important feature of their belief but as Sutton also clearly shows, this doesn’t cause them do less service in the world but in fact to do more.

But again, is apocalypticism  the core determinant of faith and action in their lives? And has it been the critical key to American evangelicalism in this last century? I’m just not sure. From my work on Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, from 1910 to 1990, John Timothy Stone, who pastored Fourth Church from 1908 to 1929, was a leading Presbyterian evangelical and deeply in tune with the evangelical Protestant establishment, including President Woodrow Wilson. Stone led crusades to send missionaries overseas and to transform American city life. Stone was powerful in culture and in politics, but in my reading of Stone’s sermons across this period I never came across one mention of apocalypse. This is not to say Stone didn’t have connections to the more radical evangelicals of that time. Stone evangelized Henry Crowell. Crowell, who was president of Quaker Oats, as Sutton explains, became a key figure in supporting and funding the Moody Church. Crowell, by the way, made faithfulness to the dogma of his conservative belief system a condition of Moody’s ability to use his vast endowment.

Moreover, I was struck again and again, that following the First World War, the power of the American Christian community was muted by the First World War, particularly in the Depression, including a loss of attendance and funds to the churches. Churches, whether mainline or evangelical struggled during this period—each had to find a way to deal with the trauma and disenchantment following the Great War. To be sure, liberal Protestants won the modernist/fundamentalist debate but it did them no good in rallying their troops.

So, Sutton’s broad brush of radical evangelicals maintaining and really leading the evangelical movement with a steady and upward trajectory following the First World War, strikes me as fascinating but I want to know numbers and real effects of this movement. Andrew Preston’s 2012 Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, narrates the long history of American religion, war and foreign diplomacy. Preston clearly shows the interwar dominance of the Protestant mainline in leading and forming American foreign policy. At least during this interwar period, the American evangelical community was at best at the periphery of American power.

Of course this changed with the Ronald Reagan presidency and in particular with George W. Bush, but my work with my graduate student, Randy Thompson, has shown that Bush’s foreign policy was much more influenced by the social gospel than apocalyptic thought in the lead-up to the Iraq War. The neoconservative movement sought to transform the Middle East, to democratize it. Cynics will say, and perhaps rightfully so, that this “crusade” was motivated by the lust for oil, and no doubt that was a part of it, but their own plan revealed a deep commitment to a social gospel inspired in large part by the tutelage of Senator Henry Jackson,  a key foreign policy figure—and his assistant Dorothy Fosdick. Fosdick was the daughter of Henry Fosdick, a key liberal Protestant who preached the famous 1922 sermon “Shall the Fundamentalist Win?” Dorothy Fosdick was more of a political conservative as well as less religious than her father. She was trained by Reinhold Niebuhr, and like Niebuhr became a hawk, galvanizing a kind of neoconservative social gospel. Fosdick was keenly motivated in her desire to first win the Cold War and then to democratize our enemies—a true liberal Protestant social gospel rather than an apocalyptic ideology of premillennialism. Thus, I have argued that when evangelicals have been in the White House, at least in foreign policy, they acted more like social gospellers than radical evangelicals.

But there is no doubt that these radical evangelical premillennialists have been an important subculture of American evangelicalism. And Sutton reveals in exquisite detail the core paradox of this movement, one that expects the end but which also works its head off to make things happen in the meantime. Sutton makes clear that the solution to this paradox comes from the claim that while the world is coming to an end, evangelicals are called to the biblical injunction that one should “occupy til [Christ] comes.”

One of the endless ironies is that despite the failure of radical evangelical predictions, they are the Protestants that have grown the most in the twentieth century, while liberal and mainline Protestants, who so actively and proudly embraced the social gospel, human evolution and German hermeneutics have come close to closing their doors. Indeed, liberal Protestants are experiencing their own apocalypse.

And Sutton simply outdoes himself in showing the weird ways that this evangelical religious movement creates such strange bedfellows out of discordant individuals and groups. He gives a wonderful account of the friendship between William Blackstone (the nineteenth century Chicago businessman and author of Jesus is Coming), and Louis Brandeis (the first Jewish Supreme Court Judge). The story captures the beginning of the evangelical love affair with Israel—a communion of radical pre-millennialists, who actively encouraged Jewish conversion as well as a new state for the Jews, and secular Zionists who have depended upon these conservatives for their political and economic support. I knew the support that evangelicals had for the Jewish homeland, but I had not seen the detailed nature of this relationship and how significant evangelicals were in pushing for a Jewish state. As Brandies said, Blackstone was the true “father of Zionism” (Sutton, p. 72).

And this relationship continues as strongly today as it ever has. Benjamin Netanyahu (the Prime Minister of Israel), at least while Jerry Falwell was alive, would first visit Falwell’s Lynchburg Church before coming to the White House. This relationship continues just as potently today despite the mind shattering miss-alignment of belief and hopes. And I can’t help but ask, who is actually being played in this rather strange and odd partnership!

Moreover, Sutton’s devastating revelation of the way minorities, women and blacks in particular were treated and ignored by the evangelical movement, makes me one wonder again why Sutton doesn’t simply call this a white supremacist, patriarchal protest movement, when in fact that is what it has been for much of its history.

Finally, Sutton’s book, without coming right out to say it, interprets the evangelical premillennialist tradition as a shell game. It reminds me of Three Card Monty—which I naively fell into in my first trip to New York City as a seminary student at Princeton—the hope is that someday, someone will finally turn over the right card. At least that is the promise. Sutton shows how the game works and why it is so powerful. By the way, I lost $60 and I never played the game again!

My main take away is that the game just continues. More than 50 million Americans are said to be evangelical in some form or another today. It is one of the few portions of the Christian community that continues to grow or at least maintain its strength. Clearly, many and perhaps most, know premillennial apocalyptic warnings, are just that, warnings.

And so I keep wondering, with all this prophetic failure, is anyone listening? Are evangelicals listening? I wonder if any evangelicals will read this book? I doubt it. If they did they might be ashamed, or at least, a bit shell shocked. This is quite a history, and what has it achieved?

Amazingly, due to our own global stupidity, we may just be on the verge of a real apocalypse, related to a climate change catastrophe (it was 84 degrees in mid-April in Seattle!). It has been shown that the Presidential candidate who denies climate change has most of the white male evangelicals—a potent patriarchal protest movement if there ever was one. I wonder how the dramatic effects of climate change will fit into this radical apocalyptic evangelical vision?  The ironies abound, perhaps on all sides of the ideological spectrum.  I’m sure there is an explanation. Maybe a new timetable is on the horizon, or perhaps a new movie.

Do tell, Mr. Sutton.

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