Review of The Future of Evangelicalism in America: The Definitive Scholarly Examination of Contemporary American Evangelicalism
It’s been a long time coming and way overdue when it finally arrived. A week ago I received my complimentary copy of The Future of Evangelicalism in America edited by Candy Gunther Brown and Mark Silk and published by Columbia University Press (2016). I wrote my chapter entitled “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” (pp. 92-123) in 2012! The editors are not to blame for the delay; that appears to have been due to the publisher. (And the delay between 2012 and 2016 does not seem to have affected the content as the editors updated statistics and other information that may have changed in the interim.)
This is a comprehensive scholarly examination of contemporary American evangelicalism including its history. The statistical information is partly based on the 2008 Trinity ARIS (American Religious Identification Survey) funded by Lilly Endowment. According to that social-scientific survey, approximately 80 million Americans across most denominations (including non-denominational and “nones”) identify as evangelical and/or “born again.” I have my doubts about the reliability of all 80 million people’s awareness of and commitment to “born again Christianity” or “evangelical Christianity,” but the naked statistic itself is startling given the fact that far fewer would have identified that way decades ago.
Editor Candy Gunther Brown (Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University) claims that “Since the middle of the twentieth century evangelicalism has reemerged as the normative form of non-Catholic American Christianity, supplanting what is usually referred to as mainline Protestantism.” (1) The socio-scientific research behind the book and reported in it strongly supports that claim. At the same time, I must say, it seems to me the meaning of “evangelicalism” in this claim is extremely thin. As some of the authors admit, beginning in the 1970s when Time declared 1976 the “Year of the Evangelical” and a self-identified evangelical Baptist was elected president of the United States, being evangelical became popular. Increasingly, however, among those who are intensely committed to historical-theological-spiritual evangelicalism (as represented by Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley), self-identification as “evangelical” has begun to wax problematic. Many serious-minded evangelicals are backing away from the label as mega-church pastors like Joel Osteen are identified with it.
I must insert here that Brown’s claim is not absolutely new. Randall Balmer has been saying something similar since at least 1989 when his popular book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture of America was published by Oxford University Press. Balmer referred to evangelicalism as America’s “folk religion.” Both Brown and Balmer regard evangelical Christianity—defined as a spiritual-theological ethos—as having been America’s grassroots form of Christianity throughout most of the 19th century. Both agree that it waned in importance and influence, if not numbers (or percentages) throughout the middle of the 20th century. Both books examine evangelicalism’s “reemergence” to prominence during the last quarter of the 20th century.
Here are the chapters in The Future of Evangelicalism in America: Introduction by Brown (a brilliant essay opening the book and previewing it), “American Evangelicalism: Character, Function, and Trajectories of Change” by Michael S. Hamilton, “Sound, Style, Substance: New Directions in Evangelical Spirituality” by Chris R. Armstrong, “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology,” by Roger E. Olson, “Evangelicals, Politics, and Public Policy: Lessons from the Past, Prospects for the Future” by Amy E. Black, “The Changing Face of Evangelicalism” by Timothy Tseng, and “Conclusion” by Brown.
Virtually every facet of contemporary American evangelicalism is covered in these chapters—from fundamentalist roots to cultural accommodation, from strict doctrinal and moral boundaries to increasing pluralism, from mostly middle class white identity to cultural-ethnic diversity, from cohesion to fragmentation, from mostly Baptist to increasing “pentecostalization.” One unifying theme of the book, based on social-scientific research, is increasing diversity among evangelicals.
One tension within the book is fully recognized and acknowledged by its authors—that between 80 million Americans’ self-identification as “born again” and/or “evangelical” and the widely accepted scholarly identification of the evangelical movement with the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today, Inc. and the Billy Graham ministries and historians David Bebbington’s and Mark Noll’s “evangelical quadrilateral.” The latter includes, of course, “biblicism,” “conversionism,” “crucicentrism,” and “activism” as markers of the evangelical ethos. These traditional scholarly “markers” of American evangelical identity do not seem especially important to the 80 million grassroots evangelicals.
Another unifying theme of the book is hope for American evangelicalism’s future. Every chapter except one expresses optimism about American evangelicalism’s future. The exception is “The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology” by pessimist (or realist) Roger E. Olson who regards American evangelical theology hopelessly divided.
This is an expensive book, but it is well worth the price. (And I say that as one chapter’s author who has no prospects of any financial gain from its sales; I’ve already been paid all that I will be paid for it.) Although it is scholarly, it is not esoteric. Anyone with a college degree (or working on one) will find its chapters accessible. The main difference between this book and the numerous others recently published on the same subject (viz., “American evangelicalism”) is its basis in social-scientific research.
In my opinion, Candy Gunther Brown’s “Conclusion” is worth the price of the book. It is a substantial interpretive summary of the book’s findings supplemented by Brown’s own insights. Hoping to avoid treading on copyright, I will offer a fairly lengthy quotation to give you a “taste” of the Conclusion:
As of 2016 American evangelicalism can be characterized by its biblicism, nondenominationalism, magnetic leadership, selective adaptation to popular culture, pentecostalization, globalization, ethnic diversification, political realignment, and general change. (204) … As American public opinion on sexual practices shifted, younger evangelicals became more likely to interpret sex outside of marriage and same-sex marriage as consistent with biblical principles. If younger evangelicals can read their Bibles in a way that reverses traditional evangelical views of issues that the Bible appears to address directly, it seems unclear how much the biblical text itself will matter to biblical justifications the rising generations use to authorize adaptations to American culture. (204-205)
This is just a taste of this trenchant “Conclusion” to the book. One cannot read this book without concluding two things: 1) Today’s “evangelicalism” is not your grandfather’s or grandmother’s “evangelicalism”—although some continuity exists–, and 2) Contemporary American “grassroots” evangelicalism is strikingly adaptable to culture—as opposed to being countercultural or culture-transforming. The latter point is both positive and negative. For example, Tseng helpfully points out the increasing ethnic-cultural diversity of American evangelicalism. That’s positive; evangelicalism can adapt to and absorb racial-ethnic-cultural diversity. At the same time, however, on the negative side, without any strong, central leadership such as Billy Graham once provided, the American evangelical movement tends to become endlessly adaptable to the winds of changing culture to the detriment of its own identity.