D.G. Hart on American Protestantism.
Jun 30, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 41 • By ROBERT W. PATTERSON
That Old-Time Religion in Modern America
The Lost Soul Of American Protestantism
EVANGELICALS number in the tens of millions in the United States, but you'd hardly know it from their intellectual, moral, and cultural influence on the rest of the nation. Compared with the prestige of Catholic colleges and universities, evangelical schools appear to be second class. Compared with Jewish public thinkers, evangelical intellectuals create very little of the nation's stock of public ideas. This observation is nothing new and, in fact, evangelicals themselves are often the first to concede the point, as did historian Mark A. Noll in his acclaimed 1995 volume "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." What many Americans may forget, however, is that this was not always the case, but appears to be a casualty of the twentieth century.
Exactly how evangelical Protestants lost this cultural capital is a complicated story, but one that Darryl G. Hart of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute skillfully dissects in "That Old-Time Religion in Modern America." The book begins with the first two decades of the twentieth century, when Protestantism had not yet fragmented into the mainline and the anti-mainline, and nearly all Protestants considered themselves evangelical. It then traces the evangelical story through the Scopes Trial of 1925 and the fundamentalist-modernist battles of the 1930s, after which conservatives went underground and started building new educational institutions, communication networks, and independent churches, forging a separate Protestant identity under the term evangelical with a narrower reference. This emerging subculture still felt much at home in mid-century America; witness the endlessly popular Billy Graham. But Hart documents how--after the cultural revolution of the late 1960s when mainline Protestantism lost its cultural hegemony--evangelicals began to assert themselves aggressively in the public square, particularly in politics, only to find themselves "unwanted, expendable, and in some cases a nuisance."
HART PACKS this standard outline with fascinating detail. He highlights, for example, the role that an unlikely missionary to the Swiss Alps, Francis A. Schaeffer, played in shifting the evangelical center of gravity from Fuller Theological Seminary and Christianity Today at mid-century to the popular southern televangelists and their explicitly conservative political agenda by the 1980s. While conceding that the transition from "the homogenous culture of the late nineteenth century to the multicultural United States in late twentieth century" played a role in the Protestants' fall from social grace, Hart identifies the internal dynamics he believes most responsible for the current awkwardness of evangelicals in America. The heart of the problem: Evangelicals fundamentally misunderstand the nature of human society and how religion relates to society, especially a secular one. Consequently, "evangelicalism does not give its adherents the tools to adapt to a secular United States because this faith cannot separate religious concerns from public ones." Unlike Catholics who can "distinguish the affairs of the church from those of civil society," evangelicals reverse or simply confuse the sacred and the secular.
"Another way of putting this," Hart writes, is that evangelicals follow a form of Christianity--which, for lack of a better word, we might call "pietism"--that "demands and looks for evidence of genuine religion in affairs not typically considered sacred or religious." This helps explain the success of James Dobson and Pat Robertson in developing financially profitable communication empires that "blur the lines between religious programming and entertainment with religious themes." In both cases, Hart points out how these entrepreneurs exploit "forms of communication that are decidedly different from those experienced in church" and that aim less to evangelize or build the church than to provide an alternative to mainstream entertainment.