From European Calvinism to American Evangelicalism

From European Calvinism to American Evangelicalism

By Marcia Pally

Conference on Religious Ambiguities and Pluralities

Institute for Advanced Study, Berlin

June 22, 2007

As I understand my mandate today, it is to describe something about the evolution from European Calvinism to US-American evangelicalism. My unnovel assumption is that not only religious practice but doctrine, as they develop in situ, shift with the situation—with the physical, geographical, economic, military, political conditions of believers. So I’ll suggest some of the key ways in which European Calvinism interacted with the American situation and came to differ from its European parent. I’ll further try to show how tenets of American evangelicalism contributed to the values and assumptions of the nation, first as a radically progressive force and then as a conservative one. I’ll look at three phases: the colonial era and antebellum period, briefly the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th century, and the period between 1965 and the present. What most impresses me in this story is how opposing, contradictory phenomena emerge from a core nexus of  belief. From one set of evangelical, doctrinal beliefs came a radically progressive movement and some of the most conservative frameworks in American thought.

To being with, some definitions. It has helped no one to understand American evangelicalism that the terms “fundamentalist,” “born again Christian” and “evangelical,” are used interchangeably. These overlap but are not identical. To begin with, all adhere to the central principles of Protestantism with which you are familiar, original sin, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, belief in God’s grace, Biblical inerrancy, and individualist Bible-reading without priestly intermediary.[1] Distinguishing itself from “evangelical” and “born again,” “fundamentalist” was the name taken at the turn of the 20th century by radical Protestants who felt other churches, particularly the Social Gospel, were focusing unduly on social and political projects that aided the poor, to the neglect of saving souls. Fundamentalism was, if you will, a conservative response to these socially-minded churches. These conservative Protestants were alarmed too by imports of the New Bible criticism (the Historical Critical Method) from Germany, which they took to be both elitist and elastic in Biblical interpretation, where their readings had been more home-grown and literalist. And they were scandalized by the godless Bolshevik revolution, by socialist movements in the US, and by the immoral jazz age. Seeking a return to the reliable Christian basics they had known, they became, for the first time, fundamentalist—a term coined by two oil magnates who published a series of pamphlets—Fundamentals, between 1905-1915. The pamphlets outlined what they felt were the basic tenets of America’s homegrown evangelicalism and were distributed free of charge to preachers across the country. Fundamentalists have tended toward two sorts of community action, one, a self-purifying withdrawal from the world; British Pentecostals and the American Amish are examples. The other is an active engagement with the world to move it toward the true Christian way. Fundamentalists have had relatively little influence on American life as their numbers have been small: few can sustain the acetic lifestyle and exclusion from the American mainstream.

Born-again Christianity, the second popularly-used term, is a sub-set of evangelicalism and refers to adult baptism—when one emerges from the baptismal waters and is “born again” into the community of Christ–that is practiced by Europe’s Anabaptists and American Baptist communities. Where other Christians take baptism to symbolize membership in the covenant community to which even infants may belong, born-again Christians hold that only adults (or near adults) are mature enough to choose church membership. They note that Scripture includes no mention of infant baptism and believe it cannot be justified as Christian practice.

And that’s the last I’ll say about these two groups. On to American evangelicalism, America’s dominant religious practice from the colonial era to WWI.  It is an approach to Christian worship that clearly falls within Protestant tradition but which gives weight to specific doctrines and practices owing to its interaction with the American environment.

How did it come about? In Europe and America of the mid-18th century, an evangelical revival emerged from the inward-looking and “enthusiast” aspects of Puritanism and the Anglican churches, and from the pietistic and Moravian movements on the European continent, especially in the German states. Their new evangelical search was for an “inner” Christianity, a move of the heart toward a personal, living relationship with Jesus. This is not to say that Christian practice was discarded but that fear of antinomianism[3] lessened. These evangelicals—be they “New Light” Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopal charismatics, Mennonites, Methodists or Pentecostals–held to the basic Protestant tenets but with certain foci. That is, the difference between evangelicals and their Calvinist heritage began not as one of basic doctrine but of emphasis:

* not only belief in Jesus but in a ‘conversion’ experience to a personal relationship with him that would be holistic and life-transforming

* the ‘mission’ to bring others to that life-changing conversion, often through innovative methods of preaching and expressions of faith

* the covenant between God and all his people, each individual, with strong echoes of the covenant described in the Hebrew Bible

* the priesthood of all believers rather than reliance on a priestly class.
* not only Biblical inerrancy (where one will not err if one follows its precepts) but faith in the literal word of the Bible, with little need for scholarly interpretive tradition.

The anti-authoritarian, individualist emphasis is already strong in these evangelical movements, but in America it grew stronger as believers brought to their faith and church the influence of the American experience, most notably, sparse settlement, dispersed power, immigration, and the need for self-reliant initiative for survival. Indeed, the importance of leaving the hierarchically-organized, relatively crowded, settled and tradition-bound ancien regime cannot be overemphasized. While mecantalist government in the colonies regulated some aspects of public life–mostly international trade–much was left to America’s enterprising immigrants and their local councils. As Tocqueville noted, “in America one may say that the local community was organized before the county, the county before that state, and the state before the Union.” [4] In a population inheriting British liberalism[5] and left relatively alone, liberty as absence of restraint was not a theory but a quotidian practice in matters of conscience, mobility, and economic and political behavior. Immigration de facto supported “liberty as absence of restraint” in matters of faith. To survive, the colonies needed anyone fool enough to cross the Atlantic, and the freedom to practice one’s religion was an advertisement to risk the new world.

The influence of these factors–America’s vast land mass, sparse settlement, immigration, and individualist self-reliance–was evident by the First Great Awakening of the mid-18th century. Evangelical preachers told people to trust in “self-examination” and declared the “absolute necessity for every Person to act singly”[6]—an idea present in European Protestantism and evangelicalism but given an extra push in America. Moreover, as itinerant preachers in the colonies rallied people to this idea and moved them away from the mainline churches, it became obvious that people had a choice about their confession—further emphasizing individual choice and liberty as absence of restraint.

I’d like to highlight three doctrinal changes that began in 18th century American evangelicalism and came to full flower in the 19th. The first is the shift in emphasis from God’s grace to the individual’s role in salvation. Accept Jesus and you are saved; the critical step is yours. To be sure, European Calvinism had already set the stage for putting more of one’s fate in one’s owns hands rather than in hoping for God’s grace[7] (salvation in spe, hope, not in re, reality). Europe’s Pietists for instance held that with fervent intention, feeling, and asceticism man could enjoy community with God even in this world. European Calvinism, in contrast to Lutheran belief, offered the doctrine of “eternal security.” That is, those who believe in Jesus’ sacrifice have the gift of perseverance-in-faith until death, itself a sign of salvation. Moreover, in Calvinist doctrine, those who act as God wills them to act may take their own good deeds as a sign that God works through them. They too know they are saved.

So while Europe’s Calvinists worried whether they indeed had true faith and whether their deeds were truly enabled by grace, the God-to-man shift had nevertheless begun. “Truly believing unto death” and “acting as if God were working through you” are things man does, not God. They laid the ground for the American evangelical focus on man’s role in his own salvation: accept Jesus and you are saved. You are in a position to do it. American Methodists, heirs of the Dutch Reformed Arminian teachings popularzied in America by the brothers Charles and John Wesley, went so far as to include the human acts of repentance and church practices as movement towards salvation. The heirs of the 17th century British Laudian tradition[8] too held that man can influence his eternal fate by his goods works. That is, they gave significant role to man’s active will. The 18th century Calvinists thought this dangerous, and Jonathan Edwards, among America’s most influential colonial ministers, preached against this Methodist-Arminian tendency to rely on human action for salvation. But in self-reliant America, his opposition was a losing cause; the God-to-man shift “fit” existence in America—”fit” in the sense of the American pragmatists—too well.

The second doctrinal shift noteworthy in early American evangelicalism was the idea—again strong in the Arminian-Methodist tradition–that salvation is offered not to an elect but to all who accept it. This notion softened the concept of the predestined elect and democratized salvation. This sat quite well with Americans, who found hierarchical structures repugnant and who were in any case making the important choices—to revolt against British authority, to elect their own government, and most critically to run much of their lives without much appeal to authorities.

The third doctrinal shift is the idea that man can be not only forgiven for sin but free from sin –belief in the perfectibility of man—advanced again by the Methodist-Arminians. They held that man’s free will, given by God’s prevenient grace (grace before redemption), allows man to fall into sin but also to choose salvation and the Christian life. Thus man may achieve not only forgiveness but Christian perfection in this world. This made American evangelicals great strivers for betterment–with interesting results. The Calvinist obligation to strive for a system of lifelong moral behavior at first meant improving asymptotically towards God. But in America, it came to support striving and self-improvement more broadly, in the secular arenas—which is what immigrants to the United States came to do. Inscribed on the body—on the self–hope trumps history. Start over; be born again. And one can improve not only the self. Confident in their can-do initiative, Americans saw that they could help perfect others. The New Jerusalem would be not only model but purveyor of its way of life.

American evangelicalism interacted synergistically not only with sparse settlement (to yield self-reliant, liberal individualism) but also with the colonies’ democratizing forces, to yield a revolution. Unlike Europe’s churches–which tended to curry favor with the noble and monarchist powers (who decided, thanks to the 1648 Westphalian Treaty, which churches could operate in their region)–America’s churches were on the side of the rebels. Emerging from Europe’s dissenting faiths, they mistrusted both states and state churches, which had been happy to persecute them. Given the chance in America to free themselves of monarchist power, they took it. The Baptist John Leland, one of the most popular if controversial figures in early America, wrote, “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” He inscribed this on a 1,235-pound wheel of cheese and presented it as a gift to Thomas Jefferson.

Indeed, by the mid-18th century, religious thought and the new republicanism had several key tenets in common. Both were wary of man’s capacity for evil—evangelicals focusing on man’s tendency to sin, the republicans focusing on man’s tendency to abuse power. Evangelicals saw the good life as the absence of sin, possibly as freedom from sin; republicans took the good life as freedom from tyrannical government. Both saw history in Manichaean terms: the evangelicals as the struggle between good and evil, the republicans as a struggle between liberty and despotism.

It’s worth noting some of the key affinities between democratic development and America’s evangelicals: First, by the mid-18th century, America’s churches embraced republican self-rule in the British tradition: tripartite mixed government (an authority, elite parliament and popular lower house) and checks and balances. The Presbyterian Benjamin Rush in 1791 wrote to the Baptist minister Elhanan Winchester saying, “Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel.”[10]

Second,America’s evangelicals embraced the Commonsense Moral Philosophy of the Scottish Sentimentalists, with its emphasis on the common man’s ability to make moral and political judgments, and thus govern himself. Though a few of the more orthodox 18th century colonial ministers lambasted Commonsense Moral Philosophy, its most ardent defenders were American ministers themselves. For it allowed ministers to believe their flock would nonetheless remain Christian and moral out of their own reason and common sense, though they were rejecting the usual guardians of morality: social hierarchies, tradition, and the monarchy and state churches.

Commonsense Moral Philosophy in combination with the God-to-man shift and American self-reliance had profound implications for the nation’s sense of doubt. While European Calvinists worried deeply about whether they had the sort of true faith that guaranteed salvation, among Americans, confident in their God-given commonsense reason, worry lightened. They knew they believed in Jesus, and Commonsense Moral Philosophy told them they could be secure in that knowledge; thus they knew they were saved. One can imagine a tacit syllogism: I know I believe>I can trust that knowledge>believing is key to salvation> ergo, I am saved. From doubt-ridden Calvinism they wrought the appealing idea, roughly put, that if you believe, Jesus loves you, and you are redeemed. This had lasting impact on American self-confidence about its political role in the world.

This leads to the third affinity between progressive political ideas and American religious thought: the assumption of God’s blessing for the revolution. This came to mean his benediction upon all American action in the name of liberty, both political and economic.[11] Here we have a conflation between the idea of America as the New Jerusalem and America as the purveyor of righteous force. The New Jerusalem, whose revolution and continental expansion seemed to be blessed by success, was maturing with a positive experience of aggression. It would be not only model and purveyor of a new way of life but one whose use of force was also justified by God.

Illustrating American self-conception as the New Jerusalem, colonials drew parallels between the trip across the Atlantic and the ancient Red Sea crossing, and between the settling of America and the settling of the Promised Land. For the second and third mottos of the United States, after E Pluribus Unum, the Founding Fathers chose Annuit Coeptis (God had favored our undertakings) and Novus Ordo Seclorum, a new order for the ages. Illustrating the justification of force, the Rev. Witherspoon of Princeton University said of the American revolution: “If your cause is just—you may look with confidence to the Lord and entreat him to plead it as his own… At this season, however, it is not only lawful but necessary, and I willingly embrace the opportunity of declaring my opinion without any hesitation, that the cause in which America is now in arms in the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”[12]

Note that liberation does not entail what we now call nation building. The value of liberty as American understood it was thought to be evident. Its arrival, like the arrival of the gospel, would surely be recognized as good and embraced by all.

This Trinity of affinities—republicanism, Commonsense Moral Philosophy, and God’s blessing for America’s liberating efforts (economic and political)—was absorbed by Americans of every religion and background and thus had sweeping influence on America’s values and politics. The individualist aspects of American evangelicalism had contributed to the rise of anti-authoritarian, individualistic republican thought, which suited the physical conditions in America, and the physical conditions in turn encouraged the individualist aspects of evangelicalism. From this synergy came a mythopoetics of individualist, self-reliant, missionary, optimism sometimes called America’s “civil religion.”[13] These values and assumptions can be found in both secular and religious expression:

Secular Religious
individualist self-reliance in economics and politics individual’s acceptance of Jesus, as the path to salvation
the value of the initiative and common sense of the ordinary man in business and politics belief in the common man’s ability to understand the Bible and to obey its precepts by his own initiative and will; literalist readings of the Bible
freedom from illiberal tyrannies of this world freedom from the tyranny of the devil/temptation
liberty as absence of restraint in economics and politics liberty as freedom of conscience unrestrained by ecclesiastical or political leaders
anti-authoritarianism and suspicion government anti-papism and suspicion of church authorities
anti-elitism; anti-authoritarianism; possible anti-intellectualism anti-clericalism and belief in the common’s man grasp of the Bible without priestly intermediary
the belief in the perfectibility of man and thus in future-orientedness, optimism and can-do-ism belief that man may not only be forgiven for his sins but become free of sin; the continual improvement of mankind
belief inAmericaas the model and purveyor of economic and political freedom—the American mission belief inAmericaas the model and purveyor of freedom, which Jesus blesses over tyranny; the American mission blessed by God

After independence, the Constitutional disestablishment of religion boosted rather than undermined religion’s importance. Disestablishment had two purposes: keeping religion out of government, and government out of religion. By mandating the first—religion out of government–the Constitution rescued America’s churches from the hypocrisies and corruption of politics, and allowed religion to continue to be seen as a force for good, associated with republicanism, self-reliant individualism, man’s perfectibility, and anti-authoritarian optimism. Mandating the second—removing the state from religion–allowed a pluralistic public sphere and the free exercise of religion for America’s much-needed immigrants. This too boosted American religiosity, for those who wished to try their luck in the New Worlddid not have to abandon something so intimate as their God; they immigrated and remained believers.[14]

The number of Methodist churches rose from 20 in 1770 to 19,883 in 1860, a 994.1 multiple of increase, the number of Baptist churches, from 150 in 1770 to 12,150 in 1860, an 81 multiple of increase. By the middle of the 19th century, during the Second Great Evangelical Awakening, the Methodist and Baptist churches accounted for two thirds of Protestants in the U.S.[15] [16] Evangelicals created voluntary associations that touched every area of civil and spiritual life. The largest US government operation of the era was the postal service but by mid-century, evangelical groups had double the employees, twice as many facilities, and raised three times as much money as the post office.[17] Evangelicals were active in public education, in the temperance movement; they supported liberation movements overseas, female education and protested sexual trafficking, Chinese foot-binding, and Indian suttee. Evangelicals argued on both sides of the slavery issue. Many were boldly populist, anti-Federalist, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, for squatters land rights, against bankers and supporting women preachers and black churches.

Yet, two points must be made: evangelicalism was not a lower-class movement, as it held great sway with elites and the educated,[18] and it was not socialist, as were many 19th-century populist protest movements in Europe. The American evangelicals were individualist and liberal, seeking access to private land and competitive markets for themselves.

Building on their faith in the common man, evangelicals increasingly stressed Biblical literalism, applying a straightforward, Baconian empiricism to Scripture. Commonsense Moral Reasoning told them they could apprehend God’s natural laws from straightforward empirical observation, using the tools God had given them for that purpose. So too should they be able to apprehend his moral laws from their own reading of the text. The primacy of this sort of home-grown reading (over scholarly approaches) was a great comfort to those isolated on the frontier, far from centers of learning.[19] It allowed those who were moved by the Holy Spirit to set themselves up as preachers without formal training. Two mid-19th century Kentucky revivalists, Robert Marshall and J. Thompson, offer this dismissal of church hierarchy, “We are not personally acquainted with the writings of John Calvin, not are we certain how nearly we agree with his views of divine truth; neither do we care.” [20]

Doctrinal shifts too continued in democratic and optimistic directions. For one, there was increasing acceptance of the Arminian doctrine of salvation for all immediately upon conversion. Another was the optimistic idea of actional sin (sin that results from specific human action, not from original sin passed down since Adam). This stresses man’s free will to resist the heritage of the sinning Adam. “The will is free…,” the popular revivalist Charles Finney wrote, “sin and holiness are voluntary acts of mind.” [22]

One might wonder, from this optimistic, populist history, how evangelicals became associated with some of the most conservative frameworks in American thought and politics. The first phase we’ve already touched on: the conservative turn to fundamentalism at the turn of the 20th century in response to the Social Gospel, New Bible criticism, the Russian revolution and the jazz age—all of which were, to many Americans, leading the country away from self-responsible, anti-elitist liberty toward the bondage of state planning, state welfare handouts, and self-indulgence. I’ll mention only one further point from this era: the evangelical turn against Darwinism, which had not been a focus of evangelical opposition in the 19th century. Then, evangelicals typically held, as Lewis W. Green had in 1854, that “The theology of natural science is in perfect harmony with the theology of the Bible.” [23] The creation story was in many cases taken as a metaphor. Many evangelicals believed that God had given man a soul after allowing him to evolve by natural selection. Since science could not disprove such belief, the two did not seem incompatible.[24] Two contributors to the Fundamentals pamphlets[25] incorporated evolution in their understanding of God’s creation.[26] Importantly, Darwinism was associated with modernity, and most Americans–including evangelicals–saw themselves as modern, even as radically so, as I suggested from the concept of the New Jerusalem. Familiarity with Baconian empiricism made Darwinian empircism seem not such an alien method.

Yet in the years before and after WWI it was just such empiricism that became the problem. As Baconian empiricism took the Bible as natural “facts,” Darwin’s empiricism, with its different facts, came to be seen as simply wrong. In other words, the scientific method was not in dispute as much as the results. Perhaps this contributes to the situation today where those arguing for the religious position of “intelligent design” use quite sophisticated science to prove it. At least in America, the debate about evolution may be less between the scared and secular science but over whose interpretation of the science will prevail.

In the 1920s, when the Prohibition-era ban on alcohol was achieved, temperance was no longer a political issue for evangelicals. Creationism moved to the foreground as a banner cause[27] and served as an in-group marker. The matter reached the Supreme Court in the 1925 Scopes v. State case, about teaching evolution in the public schools, a case which the evangelicals lost. For the next two decades, they became associated with a “backward” mentality unsuited to America’s new internationalist position and global role. Evangelicals, who had been the dominant religious and cultural force through the Civil War and a dominant force till Scopes, found themselves in a minor role.[28]

The evangelical return to the public sphere actually began in the 1950s, but I’ll focus here on the more important period since the 1965. Shared opposition to social progressivism and to the foreign policy of the Democratic party led evangelicals and populists for the first time to make common cause with Republicans. From this shared perch, the nation’s problems looked like this: (1) runaway secularlism, evinced in a series of Supreme Court decisions which prohibited prayer, Bible reading, and other religious activities in the public schools[29] The Court’s aim was to preserve the secular public sphere which ensured religious freedom to America’s multi-faithed millions. Yet the rulings alarmed evangelicals and business elites, who believed that religiosity—especially of the Protestant sort–ensured social cohesion and a well-ordered society with an energetic, self-reliant work ethic. (2) communist encroachment: the upright, liberal, individualist (entrepreneurial) traditions of America were being undermined by godless communism–a concern aggravated by the Manichaean thinking of the Cold War. (3) moral decline: evangelicals and Republicans faced the black Civil Rights movement, the hippy counter-culture, the anti-war movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement–all of which we seen as self-indulgence and lack of spine. In 1962, when the Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not require official prayers (Engel v. Vitale), Congressman George Andrews told Time magazine, “They’ve put the Negroes in the schools and now they’ve driven God out.”[30] Adding insult to injury, a “left” evangelicalism emerged—the progressive Sojourner community and journal were founded at that time–and the Civil Rights movement was itself spearheaded by the black evangelical churches –which aggravated fears among conservatives.[31] [32] (4) foreign policy failure: the Democratic party looked to be failing in the obligation to bring political and economic liberty the world over–failing in Vietnam in the 1960s and in the 1970s, in OPEC negotiations and the Iran hostage crisis. (5) economic decline: inflation, in part due to the oil crisis, hit double digits. The working and middle classes expected the Democrats to protect them as US firms moved to low-wage countries, which the Democrats did not do. But these working and middle classes also did not warm to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” social service programs, which were associated with hand-outs from the government, state encroachment on individual liberty, and loss of self-reliance.

In response, evangelicals and Republicans made common cause to redirect the country back to its individualist self-reliance and the mission to fight illiberal tyranny—communism–the world over. Evangelicals may have felt the need to become directly involved in party politics, where they had not been earlier, because in the 19th century they had such overarching sway that they did not need to risk being soiled by politics in order to have transcendent influence on the nation. The period of withdrawal between the 1925 Scopes trial and the 1960s may have persuaded them that political engagement to save the country was worth the risk.

Key to the persuasiveness of this New Right political coalition was the alignment of classic Republican business policies with America’s traditional individualist values and assumptions. Liberal economics, “small government” (limited government regulation of the market), low social insurances, low taxes were seen as traditional anti-elitist, self-reliant and self-responsible individualism. Opposition to abortion, to pre-marital sex, to drug use, and again to social insurances was seen as the moral spine needed for the strong, self-disciplined characters that made America a great power. It was an optimistic message: strive, and your well-being and the nation’s will soar.[33] The echoes to early evangelicalism—its base in individual will, Calvinist striving not only for redemption but towards perfectibility—is loud. In foreign policy, the New Right called for a government and military that would succeed at destroying illiberalism overseas. [34]  Again, the echo to the New Jerusalem, uniquely obligated to bring liberty worldwide, is loud. In the face of cultural and economic upheaval and foreign policy failures, the Republicans seemed to have what G.W. Bush later called “moral clarity.” Their platform found a wide audience.

What is important to note here is that the evangelicals were not duped or instrumentalized by the Republican party. Such is the Faustian bargain argument, [35]  where evangelicals begrudgingly accept an unwanted Republican economic program in return for Republican support on evangelical priorities, such as a ban on abortion and gay marriage. This quid pro quo may occur at times but it is an uninteresting aspect of the New Right coalition. More important is the evangelicals’ direct support for Republican policies based on their own understanding of individualist liberty, self-reliance, and small government. As I’ve suggested, American economic liberalism, preferences for “small government,” and missionary foreign policy have evangelical roots. In the coalition with the Republicans, evangelicals were drawn to their own robust premises.

In sum, when the evangelicals began working with the Republicans, they did not change their views or enter into a pragmatic deal with the devil. Rather, in the post-60s political context, the liberalism of early evangelicalism—indeed the radical stance for self-reliant individual liberty—seemed to have become Republican. .

A short note about recent trends within evangelical communities. While many remain with the Republicans for their individualist, self-reliant economics and missionary foreign policy, others are generating something of another Great Awakening. As in the Awakenings of the past, the newest churches are moving away from the merely new ones, toward a self-purifying critique. It began with overseas aid and environmental protection movements. In February, 2006, 86 prominent evangelical leaders issued a warning about climate change; a year later, the National Association of Evangelicals published “An Evangelical Call to Action on Climate Change,” explaining, “This is God’s world, and any damage that we do to God’s world is an offense against God Himself.”[39] [40] In the area of overseas aid, evangelicals have focused on reducing world poverty, AIDS, and human trafficking. With their prodding, Bush in 2004 increased overseas development assistance to $19 billion, up from less than $7 billion in 1997, under Clinton.[41]  [42]

More recently, a loose movement known presently as “Revolutionaries” has begun preaching a nonviolent, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, anti-globalization theology. Its members remain socially conservative, opposing abortion rights, gay marriage, pre-marital sex, etc. but they seek a return to Jesus’ path of personal sacrifice and devotion to the downtrodden—away from what they believe is the self-absorbed creed of suburban living and power politics.

A few examples: Barnard Professor Randall Balmer’s 2006 book is titled Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America — an Evangelical’s Lament.[43] The Rev. Gregory Boyd, pastor of a suburban St. Paul megachurch, holds that the church should eschew politics, avoid moralizing on sexual issues,[44] cease calling the United States a “Christian nation,” and stop glorifying American military campaigns. “When it [the church] conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”[45] Surprising the policy experts in Washington, the former deputy director of Bush’s White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives accused evangelical leaders of ”taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy.”[46]  Among Democrats, former presidents Carter and Clinton in 2007 began the New Baptist Covenant, a coalition of moderate, black and white Baptist denominations.[47]

“Revolutionaries” is neither a small movement at over 20 million Americans,[48] nor an elite one. Rob Bell, who tells his congregants exactly where in Grand Rapids they can drop off their wealth, preaches Sundays to 10,000 people; 50,000 listen online. Evangelicals are also seeing an influx of Latinos, both converts from Catholicism and those who remain Catholic but have a charismatic form of religious practice.[49] This is unsurprising: if one comes to America for self-betterment and upward mobility, as Latinos do, evangelicalism—with its emphasis on individualist self-reliance and perfectibility—is congruent with that upwardly mobile worldview.

Interestingly, the new “revolutionaries” may be less revolutionary than they think, as they share the premises of their forefathers. Like evangelicals of the past, they are individualist, anti-authoritarian, and self-reliant. Their focus is on converting individuals to Jesus because they believe, as in the past, that grace is offered to all if only one accepts it; they hold that all are perfectible and may improve their lives. Their programs are on individual or private group action, not state action. In the long duree of US history, the close coalition between Republicans and evangelicals may be the exception, but all of the evangelical movements, in and out of party politics, have to date been inspired by common core beliefs.

I’d like to conclude by coming back to America’s accident of size and diversity–the vast landscape and immigration—which were critical to its (relative) religious tolerance, individualist self-reliance, anti-authoritarianism, sense of opportunity, and exceptionalism. American evangelicalism, under the same advantages and pressures, “steht dort und kann nicht anders”—it “could do no other”—if I may abuse Luther’s famous 1521 declaration at the Diet of Woerms. It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of these two factors in the nation’s worldview. While successful in recent years, Republicans have no special purchase on this worldview, but those who explain the world in this way, have a purchase on America.


[1] The last– individualist Bible-reading–emerged among the Northern European Humanists, with their emphasis on theApostolicChurch, and then was advocated by both Luther and Zwingli. The Apostolic line of Christianity held that the church had come down uncorrupted from Jesus and the Apostles. Being a good Christian involved less Catholic ritual and more the imitation of Jesus’ life as described in the Bible. Thus, their emphasis on reading the Holy Book, in the original languages if possible, or in accurate translation by scholars of the ancient works.

[2] Marty, M., & Appleby, R. S. (Eds.). (1991-1995). Fundamentalism comprehended. The Fundamentalism Project.Chicago:

UniversityofChicagoPress. vol. 1, p. 835.

[3] , the move away from formal practice to personal links to Jesus,

[4] Tocqueville. A. de (1966/1969).  Democracy in America (G. Lawrence, Trans.; J. Mayer, Ed.)New York: Harper & Row.

Original work published Vol. 1, 1835, Vol. 2, 1840) p. 44

[5] Tripartite government (executive, elite upper house and popular lower house) and checks and balances

[6] Wood, G. (2006, June 8). American religion: The great retreat. New York Review of Books, p. 61

[7] expressed by Augustine and Luther

[8] after the Archbishop ofCanterbury William Laud

[9]

[10] Rush, B. (1791, Nov. 12). In Letters of Bejanmin Rush a Vols, (1951). L H. Butterfiled (Ed.)Princeton,NJ: 1:6111.

[11] Economic freedom was conflated with political, as the key dispute withLondon involved the right of government to deprive people of their property (in taxation) without their consent in political representation.

[12] Sandoz, E. (Ed.) (1999). Political sermons of the American founding era, 1730-1805.

vol. I, p. 549.

[13] Myrdal. G. (1944). An American dilemma. New York : Harper & Row. p.3; Schieder, R. (2001). Wieviel Religion vertraegt Deutschland?Frankfurt: Germany: Suhrkamp Verlag; Wald, K. (1997). Religion and politics in the United States.Washington,D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, pp. 59-72.

[14] As Tench Coxe of Pennsylvania noted, “The liberty and virtue of America in establishing perfect equality and freedom among all religious denominations and societies, will no doubt produce to us a great reward, for when news of it shall reach the oppressed dissenters from the established churches of Britain, Ireland, Holland, Germany, France, Spain, and Italy, and they shall find it encourages both protestants and catholics (sic), they will at once cry out, America is the ‘land of promise’.”Jensen (1997) (Ed.) The documentary history of the ratification of the Constitution. Vol. 18, J. Kaminski & G. Saladino, (Eds.). Commentaries on the Constitution, public and private: 10 May to13 September 1788.Madison,WI:MadisonState Historical Society ofWisconsin, vol. 18, 278-285

[15] see also Carwardine, R. (1985). Methodist ministers and the second party system. In R. Richey & K. Rowe (Eds.), Rethinking Methodist history: A bicentennial historical consultation. Nashville. p. 134; Smith, T. (1957). Revivalism and social reform: American Protestantism on the eve of the Civil War. Nashville, p.22; Goss, C. (1866). Statistical history of the first century of American Methodism.New York, p. 106).

[16] In the same period, the more traditional Congregationalist churches increased by a factor of 3.6, Anglican by a factor of 6, German Reformed by 4.7, Dutch Reformed by 4.4 and Roman Catholics by a factor of 51, owing to the large increase in immigrants from Ireland; Finke, R., & Stark, R. (1989, March). How the upstart sects won America: 1776-1850. Journal for the scientific study of religion, 28, p. 30;  Noll, M.  (2002) America’s God: From Joenathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.New York,OxfordUniversity Press, p. 166.

[17] Noll, M.  (2002) America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln.New York,OxfordUniversity Press.

p. 182, p. 200-201

[18] To accommodate the Bible-reading public, publishers turned on the presses. Between 1790 and 1820, the number of editions of the Bible doubled each decade; between 1830 and the Civil War, 27 new editions were published each year. By 1830,America had 605 religious journals.

[19] In 1872, the Presbyterian Charles Hodge (Princeton University), wrote in his Systemic Theology, “The Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store-house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches…The duty  of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to him. These facts are all in the Bible”; Hodge, C. (1952). Systematic theology, 3 vols.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1, pp. 10-11

[20] Hatch, N. (1989). The democratization of American Christianity.New Haven:YaleUniversity Press, p. 174

[22] Finney, C. (1851). Lectures on Systematic Theology.London, x-xi

[23] Green, L. (1854). Lectures on the evidences of Christianity.New York, pp. 463-464.

[24] America’s foremost 19th century opponent of Darwin, the Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, was a liberal Unitarian while one ofDarwin’s main advocates was the evangelical Asa Grey, also at Harvard.

[25] James Orr and B. B. Warfield;Princeton Theological Seminary

[26] Noll, (1994). p. 189

[27] The Seventh-day Adventist George McCready Price in 1923 published The New Geology, which held that God created the world 6-8,000 years ago and used the Flood to create older-looking geological formations. [27]Though the reasons for the trompe l’oeil were unexplained, the book became one of evangelicalism’s most popular responses to an increasingly scientificAmerica.

[28] Roughly 45% of Americans today accept evolution while 80% in other industrialized nations do; 2/3 of Americans hold that creationism should be taught along with evolution in public schools.Kansas in 1999 prohibited the teaching of evolution, though its Supreme Court in 2001 ruled that natural selection may be taught alongside the Biblical creation story, and evangelicals were later voted into the minority on the Kansas School Board. In 2005,Oklahoma andAlabama required that all textbooks carry the advisory that evolution is an unproven theory. [28] Both home schooling and removing children from school classes that run counter to religious doctrine are popular among evangelicals. Over two million American children are home-schooled, roughly 75% are evangelical.

[29] Everson v. Board of Education; McCollum v. Board of Education, 1948

[30] 1962, June 26, http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,841299,00.html

[31] In 1971, students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, protesting the evangelical establishment, organized The People’s Christian Coalition and founded the important Sojourners journal, which remains in print today.

[32] John Lewis, a leader of the 1965 march in Selma, Alabama, said of the new black activism, “It was religion that got us on the buses for the Freedom Rides; we were in Selma that day because of our faith;” Meacham, J. (2006) American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the making of a nation. New York: Random House,  p. 192

[33] Starting in the 1980s, it became even more attractive, as the middle classes, labor unions, and pension programs began investing assets in the stock market, giving millions a “business interest.”

[34] In 1980, the evangelical leader Rev. Jerry Falwell lamented that “The United States is for the first time in my lifetime… no longer the military might of the world… We are not committed to victory. We are not committed to greatness. We have lost the will to stay strong”; Falwell, J. (1980). Listen, America!New York: Bantam Books,  pp. 6-10

[35] put forth for instance in Frank, T. (2004). What’s the Matter withKansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart ofAmerica.New York: Henry Holt.

[36] McKibben, B. (2005, Aug.). The Christian paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong. Harper’s magazine,  p.36

[37] 2007, March 22. Pew Report on Political Values and Core Attitudes 1987-2007. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=312

[38] Guth, J., Green J., Kellstedt, L., Smidt, C. (2005, Fall). Faith and foreign policy: A view from the pews. The Review of Faith & International Affairs.

[39] http://www.theglobalist.com/DBWeb/printStoryId.aspx?StoryId=5942

[40] Though not all evangelicals agree, the Rev Richard Cizik, vice-president of the National Evangelical Association in January, 2006 announced that, “We, as evangelical Christians, have a responsibility to God, who owns this property we call Earth. We don’t own it. We’re simply to be stewards of it. And if climate change is occurring, can we simply … pretend it isn’t happening?” see Cornwell, R. (2006, Feb. 9) Evangelists’ coalition demands White House acts on environment. The Independent. news.independent.co.uk/world/americas/article344214.ece.

[41] Kristof, N. (2005, Nov. 6). Bleeding Hearts of the World, Unite! The New York Times. www.nytimes.com

[42] In Sept., 2005, the National Association of Evangelicals reprimanded President Bush for failing to stop the genocide in Darfur; Kristof, N. (2005, Sept 18). A wimp on genocide. The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com

[43] Balmer, R. (2006) Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America — an Evangelical’s Lament. New York: Basic Books.

[44] Revolutionaries oppose abortion and extramarital sex, but encourage female leadership in the church

[45] Goodstein, L. (2006, July 30). Disowning Conservative Politics, Evangelical Pastor Rattles Flock. The New York Times. www.nytimes.com.

[46] Kuo, D. (2006). Tempting faith: An inside story of political seduction.New York: The Free Press.

[47] Cooperman, A. (2007, Jan 21). Carter, Clinton Seek To Bring Together Moderate Baptists: Exiles From Conservative Group Targeted. The Washington Post, p. A03

[48] Barna G. (2006). Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. Tyndale House Publishers. http://www.tyndale.com

[49] More than half of Protestant Latinos are evangelical; 54% of Catholic Latinos are “renewalist,” including Pentecostal practices as divine healing and speaking in tongues.

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Marcia Pally

Professor Marcia Pally

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