An Attempt to Redefine the Narrative of Evangelicalism
A Review of
Christianity’s American Fate: How Religion Became More Conservative and Society More Secular
David A. Hollinger
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
From my current vantage point, I frequently look back on my tender, early years as a dutiful student in grade school who understood “history” to be a purely objective subject, one in which the task of the learner was simply to master and memorize the “correct” sequence of facts, dates and names so as to understand with certainty what exactly happened in the past that led to now. Of course, any avid reader of history will know this to be a hopelessly naive way to approach the subject, but it is nevertheless one that I look back on with some wistful fondness. In other words, sometimes I miss the simplicity of that view.
Rather, as someone with a lifelong interest in the subject, I am regularly reminded that every historian, and every historical account, is inevitably situated. Each and every historical account is an attempt to explain phenomena by drawing connections and making interpretations, and every such account can likely be put in tension with a varying account that contests its conclusions. Hopefully, in the dialectical process that emerges, both teacher and student can arrive closer and closer to an approximation of the truth of history, of our own past.
I start with these reflections because David Hollinger’s new historical account of Christian religion in America, Christianity’s American Fate, is an attempt to revise and question a commonly-held narrative of the role evangelicalism has played in the United States. For this reviewer, the experience of reading it was a bit disorienting, at times illuminating, occasionally frustrating, and thoroughly provocative.
The commonly-held narrative I’m referring to is this: in reaction to social and cultural changes (eg. industrialization, European biblical criticism) in the early twentieth century in America, two broadly-definable Christian “factions” emerged. The tension between these so-called “fundamentalists” and “modernists” culminated in events like the Scopes Monkey Trial, and in the aftermath the “fundamentalists” retreated into more strident and certain conservative religion, while the “modernists” sought to maintain a more peaceable alliance with mainstream American culture, which included left-wing political movements and the cutting edge of scientific progress. In the decades surrounding World War II, new religious leaders like Billy Graham, Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga emerged in a united effort and explicit vision to chart a middle ground between these diverging factions, and thus “evangelicalism” or “neo-evangelicalism” (the label “evangelical” certainly preceded these events) was born in America. As someone who holds to the label “evangelical” today, I find this narrative appealing. It portrays American Evangelicalism as a movement that successfully distanced itself from the anti-intellectualism of fundamentalists, and also the cultural capitulation of the modernists. Meaningful critiques can be made of leaders like Graham, but he was certainly more ecumenical than his fundamentalist counterparts. On good days, this narrative compels me to contribute towards a similar “third way” approach in our deeply divided and polarized cultural moment, and so I find solace in it.
Hollinger thinks differently. In his view, rather than courageously pioneering a moderate path, these evangelicals created a safe harbor for the perpetuation of a deeply racist, anti-intellectual and culturally regressive religious expression in America. The modernists, Hollinger prefers the label “ecumenical,” Protestants were the healthier religion. “Evangelicalism made it easy to avoid the challenges of an ethnoracially diverse society and a scientifically informed culture” (5).
While most of the evangelical history I’ve encountered is deeply critical of the modernists for loosening their adherence to biblical authority, or prioritizing cultural acceptance over fidelity to tradition, Hollinger twists the critique and levels it at the more traditional-conservative wing of American Christianity for resisting progress in a globalized world. Hollinger does bring strong historical backing to this critique, particularly in two chapters exploring specific historical phenomena: the mass immigration and inclusion of Jewish people into American life in the 1900s, as well as the wide reach of the Protestant missionary movement in the same era, which exposed American Christians to global cultures and religious practice it had hitherto been unaware of. Both profound demographic changes at home and this broader global exposure presented American Christians with the choice to expand and accommodate their religious practice, or retreat into homogenous and intolerant enclaves. Modernists, mainlines and ecumenists, in Hollinger’s telling, opted for the former; evangelicals, under the leadership of the likes of Graham and Ockenga, were able to opt for the former, while simultaneously able to distance themselves from their brash fundamentalist cousins.
Ultimately, while I am impressed with Hollinger’s historical acumen, I remain unconvinced by his larger effort to redefine the narrative of evangelicalism as merely a refuge for backwards religion, partly because his individual data points don’t quite come together in a cohesive manner by the end of the book, but more so because he does not reckon with the accusation of cultural capitulation that has plausibly led to the ultimate downfall of the mainline denominations (which, anecdotally, I see happening throughout my own very-progressive New England city). In fact, in a telling passage, Hollinger states the assimilation of ecumenical Protestantism into mainline American culture is probably a good thing. “Only if one approaches history as a Christian survivalist is it invidious to recognize ecumenical Protestantism’s historic role as a way station to something else. Was that ‘something else’ really so bad? . . . Might ecumenical Protestantism take some pride in facilitating post-Protestantism?” (130-131, emphasis added)
I actually do wonder if, on a strict historical-interpretive level, Hollinger is right, and that the modernist wing of American Christianity merely acted as a sort of leavening agent to incorporate elements of Christianity into broader American culture only to disappear into the larger thing it had played a role in creating. But on a theological level, I can’t agree with him that this is a good thing. Call me a traditional evangelical if the label fits, but I simply can’t imagine that the church, which the New Testament repeatedly labels as “called out” (ekklesia), can or should ever fully accommodate whatever human culture it lives and acts within. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is too transcultural, transhistorical, and transgressive to align so neatly with any human-constructed cultural container. As such, to stretch and mix some metaphors, rather than a leaven that disappears into what it produces, I see the church as an agitator that can exist within any culture while simultaneously standing separate with a prophetic voice, endeavoring to remain faithful until the eschaton, the arrival of the Kingdom in its fullness.
I suppose only time will tell.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com
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