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A Review of
The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born Again Years
Steven P. Miller
Hardback: Oxford UP, 2014
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Reviewed by Betsy Shirley
I nearly choked on my sandwich. A remake of the movie Left Behind? In 2014? I was sure my friend had misread something.
But a quick Google search and there it was, incontrovertible IMBd.com evidence: due in theaters October 3, starring Nicholas Cage, with a budget that one Wall Street Journal blogger simply described as “expensive.”
What does it mean, when Hollywood produces a 2014 remake of a 2000 movie based on a bestselling 1990’s book series? Is Left Behind is simply the newest offspring of Hollywood’s desperation for profit coupled with our infatuation for remakes and sequels, like so many installments of Transformers and X-Men before it?
Historian Steven P. Miller might suggest otherwise. For Miller, Hollywood’s willingness to shell out millions to produce a post-rapture apocalypse based on a fundamentalist author’s literalist reading of Revelation should tell us something about the state of American evangelicalism: namely, its enduring influence in American history.
“Many Americans have not acknowledged the full impact of born-again Protestantism on their society, or they have held a one-dimensional interpretation of it,” writes Miller in The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born Again Years, a 2014 release from Oxford University Press. “Many self-described evangelicals, in turn, have not conceded their status as something other than an oppressed or marginalized minority” (4).
Convinced that “American evangelicalism resides at the very center of recent American history” (7), Miller presents a 163-page tour of American evangelicalism from 1970 to 2010, with special emphasis on how this so-called “subculture” has actually wielded significant political and cultural power in the mainstream American public.
Highlights of Miller’s tour include Marabel Morgan’s 1973 The Total Woman, Jimmy Carter’s 1976 election, the emergence of anti-abortion campaigns, the “satanic panic” of the 1980’s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, “culture war” rhetoric, Amy Grant, Colorado Springs, Intelligent Design arguments, using “faith-based” as a modifier, The Purpose Driven Life, and the enduring willingness of politicians to talk about their own religiosity—all phenomena, Miller argues, steeped in evangelicalism whose reach far exceeded the confines of family bookstores, megachurches, and Bible studies.
Histories of American evangelicalism abound, but the uniqueness of The Age of Evangelicalism is its insistence that born-again history is not simply the story of evangelicals themselves. While most histories of American evangelicalism focus on its most prominent voices—the Billy Grahams, Jimmy Carters, Pat Robertsons, Rick Warrens, and Jim Wallises—Miller begins with a different inquiry: what has evangelicalism meant and how has it been understood by American society?
He argues that “during the Age of Evangelicalism, born-again Christianity provided alternately a language, a medium, and a foil by which millions of Americans came to terms with political and cultural changes” (5). For example, Miller shows how evangelicalism was used during the 60’s and 70’s as a counter-example to widely-held theories that America was becoming a secular nation. Or how, following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, public expressions of American evangelicalism like the Christian Right were viewed as alarming parallels to militant fundamentalists in other nations. And during the years of George W. Bush’s “faith-based” presidency, American evangelicalism was seen as the face of compassionate conservatism.
Miller recreates these various “meanings” of evangelicalism by comparing evangelical books, movies, music, politicians, pastors, buzzwords (W.W.J.D., anybody?), organizations, and even eHarmony with their portrayal in journalism and earlier scholarship.