Is there such a thing as evangelicalism?

24 Feb

Molly Worthen’s book Apostles of Reason has received some attention, including here.

At my college, a faculty reading group will be starting a discussion of the book in a few weeks. In the nick of time (arguably), acquaintance D.G. Hart offers a review of Worthen’s book at Religion in American History. Hart is reliably iconoclastic in the non-Kuyperian Reformed tradition of J. Gresham Machen–an early 20th-century Presbyterian stalwart about whom Hart is an expert. Hart’s review questions the evangelicalism that Worthen constructs:

To her credit, Worthen recognizes the diversity of her subject and employs the fissiparous character of heart-felt Christianity to propel her narrative. For instance, Francis Schaeffer and Hal Lindsey are arguably as important to this book as Billy Graham, maybe more so. Worthen does not merely include individuals but adds nuance to standard accounts of evangelicalism by paying attention to Anabaptists, Holiness groups, charismatics and Pentecostals, feminists, and liberal activists. She is aware of studies that have leaned heavily on the Reformed or Calvinistic side of born-again Protestantism. What is not clear, though, is whether someone like Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners magazine and voice for social gospel convictions among evangelicals, grew up in a home, attended churches, and enrolled at schools that followed the affairs of Fuller Seminary or the exploits of Billy Graham. In other words, where do Worthen’s characters come together in a common enterprise other than in the pages of her book? Again the analogy with history: where do Americans with historical awareness share a common space or enterprise? We have institutional outlets for making that judgment. But people with historical awareness are not a movement. What scholars – Worthen included – do not ask is whether those Christians characterized as evangelical, with all their diversity of schools, congregations, celebrities, media, and quirks – whether they constitute a single movement. Can anyone seriously call this a religious tradition akin to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or Thomism? The answer may be, “yes, because it is big.” But the skeptics responds, “why count a Free Methodist as evangelical and not as a Free Methodist?”

Well, if this doesn’t give our reading group pause, it will certainly give us something to talk about.

For the entire review, see here: Religion in American History: D. G. Hart on Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason.

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