Crawford Gribben, Professor of History at Queen’s University Belfast, has written a compelling review of recent scholarship on American evangelicalism for The American Interest. Surveying the most important research of the last several years, Gribben shows how there has been a ‘Third Great Awakening’ within contemporary American evangelicalism. He describes the character of this awakening among leaders and followers, including its internal diversity, influence on politics, and turn to emotionalism.
Three of the key books he analyses are Matthew Stewart’s Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic (2014), Matthew Avery Sutton’s American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014), and Grant Wacker’s America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation (2014). All three look like required reading for anyone interested in what makes evangelicalism in the United States so significant.
Gribben also cites my recent book, co-authored with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014). He agrees with one of our key arguments that “it is relativist “emergents,” rather than absolutist theocrats, that may best represent the evangelical future. While critics may worry about the impact on the Tea Party of theocratic politics, the “emergent church” may yet turn out to be the more significant turn within recent American religious history.”
I have reproduced a short excerpt from Gribben’s review essay below, but recommend that readers get stuck into the full article.
Crawford Gribben – Holy Nation: America, Born Again in The American Interest
Taken together, Stewart, Sutton, and Wacker offer important new perspectives on the means by which America was born again. America has become a holy nation, but those who are most responsible for it so often refuse to recognize it. But these books also suggest the extent to which evangelicalism itself has been born again. In the course of the past century, even as its cultural power steadily increased, the “old-time religion” has been revolutionized. Across the board, the doctrinal and political specifics that once shaped popular Protestantism have given way to what evangelical-turned-Catholic sociologist Christian Smith has described as a “moralistic therapeutic deism.” This religious style mimics the structure of evangelical theology while advancing only a few of its ethical demands.
Investigating this trend, Todd M. Brenneman’s Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (2014) analyses the rhetorical and media strategies of several best-selling evangelical ministers. Despite some differences, Brenneman argues, Max Lucado, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and other celebrity preachers share a common exhortative style. Their pitch mixes ideas that are often atypical of the evangelical theological heritage in a mélange of unreason and sentiment. In their presentations, theology is reduced to clichés that reiterate the image of a “fatherly God desperately in love with his children…a God who is infatuated with human beings.”
… These new evangelical leaders have plenty of followers. Those who offer the most radical critique of evangelicalism’s “logocentric” norms are associated with the “emergent church” described by Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel in their The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (2014). “Emergents” have turned away from the traditional institutions of church and state. They offer a radically individualized spirituality in which traditional emphases on ethics have been replaced by an affirmation of ritual aesthetics, and in which new forms of community are explored in a liturgical bricolage that supports a profound skepticism of the old certainties of evangelical religion. “Emergent” Christianity, which often disavows the evangelical label, resonates with the concerns of former fundamentalists and recruits strongly from their ranks, critiquing the top-down social trajectory of the religious right and the bottom-up agendas of the Reconstructionists to focus on issues of social justice, community, and creativity. It experiments with spirituality and liturgy even while borrowing styles from those parts of the evangelical movement it critiques.
Of course, in posing as newly born, and in dismissing the longer history of the church, the “emergent church” follows in the well-trodden path of evangelical innovation, and brings together without any attempt at systemization a large number of the anti-formal ideas that are changing the movement it has abandoned. As such, it is relativist “emergents,” rather than absolutist theocrats, that may best represent the evangelical future. While critics may worry about the impact on the Tea Party of theocratic politics, the “emergent church” may yet turn out to be the more significant turn within recent American religious history.
As the recent books discussed here suggest, the religious and political divisions that have so often beset born-again Protestants have become increasingly pronounced. In this era of “designer” religion, as believers become increasingly divided in their religious and political convictions, their moments of common purpose become ever more difficult to identify. Evangelical religion has won America at the price of its own evisceration. Contemporary evangelicals might have much more in common with those associated with “the heretical origins of the American republic” than they could ever have imagined. They tried to change the nation by re-inhabiting the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist swallowed them in mid-transformation. For the evangelicals who made it all possible, the redemption of America has come at enormous cost.