Review: The Making of Evangelicalism
Randall Balmer. The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010. 120 pp. ISBN 978-1-60258-243-9.
Academic historians are trained to eschew counterfactuals when writing and teaching; trading in speculative claims is for the novelist, they’re told, not the professional in pursuit of the cold, hard facts. Yet who among us hasn’t entertained the occasional “what if” question when trying to add color to a text or motivation to a class of disengaged undergraduates? In The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond, Randall Balmer teases out a host of “what ifs” in order to elicit dialogue about the “what now” and “what next” in modern American evangelicalism. With both a playful edge and moral purpose, he centers his story around four pivot points—“Four times when, in Robert Frost’s memorable words, ‘two roads diverged in a yellow wood’” (6). Each juncture, he insists, invites speculation. “What if evangelicals had gone another way, had taken a different road back there in Robert Frost’s woods? Might history have been different?” (6)
Balmer’s first inquiry concerns the foundational period of revivals and reform in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was during the Great Awakening, he writes, when the potent blend of New England Puritanism, Continental Pietism, and Scots-Irish Presbyterianism “created a strain of evangelicalism unique to North America” (11). This amalgam fused “the obsessive introspection of Puritanism, the doctrinal precisionism of the Presbyterians, and the warmhearted spiritual ardor of the Pietists” into a one-of-a-kind American creed (12). Thanks to the entrepreneurialism of preacher George Whitfield and his peers, first-generation evangelicals were able to fasten this creed to a strategy of “populist communications” (13). Aided by the First Amendment’s proscription against religious establishment, which encouraged their free market sensibilities, a second generation of preachers perfected this strategy during the Second Great Awakening. The Whitfield of his generation, Charles Finney shifted evangelicalism’s theological emphases further into the capitalist mode by substituting his predecessors’ Calvinist determinism for Arminian accents on personal empowerment. Along the way he crafted “new measures” for revivalism that called for “protracted meetings, the use of advertising, allowing women to testify at religious gatherings, and the ‘anxious bench’ or ‘mourner’s bench,’ where those deliberating their eternal fates could come for counseling” (20). Finney’s “supple” style “fit the temper of the times,” Balmer notes, and thus became the standard for clerical success (20). To be sure, this marriage would have downsides for evangelicalism: susceptibility to “demagoguery” and a “theology of the lowest common denominator,” for instance (15). But like it or not, Balmer concludes, America’s early awakenings allowed evangelicalism to commandeer large market shares with “intelligence, vigor, and savvy” (22; 25).
If the Second Great Awakening’s Arminian emphases facilitated evangelicalism’s ascent in the here and now, its millennial expectations caused it to focus increasingly on the hereafter. In his second chapter, Balmer outlines the next juncture, transpiring in the late nineteenth century, as the movement shifted from a postmillennial outlook, which held that Christ’s return would come after a millennium of righteousness (thus inspiring confidence in social reform) to a premillennial outlook, which accepted social crisis as the precursor to Christ’s return prior. His explanation for this turn is erudite, yet also entertaining. With characteristic humor, he underscores the existential import of end-times theology. “Although this may appear to be a recondite doctrinal debate, the unfortunate detritus of people with too much time on their hands,” he jibes, “this distinction [between postmillennialism and premillennialism] has had enormous repercussions for the ways that evangelicals approach society” (29). While postmillennialist teachings of Finney’s day compelled Christians to build God’s kingdom on earth, the premillennialist teachings of Dwight L. Moody’s era convinced Christians that saving souls before Christ’s impending return, not improving society, was all that mattered. This was John Nelson Darby’s view, and it led him to fashion an eschatology that allowed Moody’s peers to announce that they “had cracked the code” of biblical prophecy and “understood the mind of God” (35). Evangelicals brought this unbending, despairing schema with them into the twentieth century, killing in the process any optimism they may have had in the ability of humans to “make the world a better place” (36-37). In Balmer’s eyes, this was to evangelicals’ great detriment, for dispensational premillennialism quenched their interest in important worldly things, like environmental preservation, social justice, and fine architecture.
Evangelicalism’s preoccupation with dispensationalism set the stage for a third pivot, the construction of a subculture (45). Just as more radical, anti-establishment groups emerged within their movement (notably Pentecostalism), evangelicals began to wall-in their churches and churchgoers from the secularism outside. They published theological treatises that defended orthodoxy against modernism, fought evolutionary science, and constructed a stunning array of “congregations, denominations, missionary societies, publishing houses, Bible institutes, Bible colleges, Bible camps, and seminaries—all in an effort to insulate themselves from the larger world” (49). In the mid-twentieth century, many within this enclave sought to jettison the fortress mentality. No one was more important, in this regard, than Billy Graham, who advocated an accommodating evangelicalism that could use its powerful operational base to affect (rather than avoid) mainstream America. By the 1970s, Balmer notes, evangelicalism had entered a new era of influence. With popular leaders like Graham, Charles Colson, and Democratic presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter urging them to take responsibility for their society, evangelicals took their nation by storm. They built megachurches in their shiny suburbs, flooded the market with Christian radio and television, and courted politicians who claimed a born-again faith (58). The problem, Balmer says, is that in the meantime, evangelicalism lost some of its healthier hesitation with “worldliness” and “materialism” (58). It may have still been a subculture, Balmer concludes, replete “with its distinctive jargon, mores, and celebrities,” but by 1980 “it was no longer a counterculture” (58).
Their brief flirtation with Carter notwithstanding, evangelicals approached the twenty-first century as a vanguard for the Republican Right. It is this fourth pivot—the rise of the Religious Right—that frustrates Balmer most. Bucking the scholarly trend, which tends to single out Roe v. Wade (1973) as this political juggernaut’s impetus, Balmer locates its origin in a lesser-known court ruling: Green v. Connally (1971). This ruling allowed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to deny tax-exempt status to any charitable institution that “engaged in racial discrimination” (62). Threatened, in their minds, by big government and the secular humanist agenda it seemed to enforce, evangelicals followed the lead of Paul Weyrich into the ranks of the Religious Right. Balmer holds that racism was a motivation for some who enlisted in this political army, but stresses that it was not the sole reason for their political awakening. Evangelicals, rather, “saw themselves as defending … the sanctity of the evangelical subculture from outside interference” (64). From this point forward, Balmer explains, the fundamentalism of right-wing politics took hold; anti-abortion, anti-feminism, anti-homosexuality, and anti-humanism, became the pillars that glued the new Religious Right together and in line with the GOP, paving the way for Ronald Reagan and ultimately the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. With his heaviest-hitting language, Balmer ends his fourth chapter lambasting the Bush-evangelical accord. By forging this alliance, he proclaims, evangelicalism broke two precious rules: that the “church should remain separate from the state,” and “religion always functions best at the margins of society and not in the councils of power” (74). This wayward drift has delivered evangelicalism “into the captivity of right-wing politics,” he laments, and Biblical essence has, as a result, given way to partisan expediency (7).
Wanting to infuse his history with moral conviction stirred by current events, Balmer concludes his book with commentary on evangelicalism’s future trajectory. His core criticism is that by hankering “after political power” evangelicalism has lost its “prophetic voice” (77). Since the 1970s, he charges, evangelicals have made their mark in every sector of society, yet at the cost of being co-opted by powerful interests. Each of the four junctures outlined in his book has paved the way for this deleterious effect, but it is the fourth phase that truly draws his ire for the way it has allowed evangelicalism’s expansive gospel to be manipulated into a narrow, hypocritical political agenda. “For thirty years,” Balmer charges, the Religious Right’s singular focus on culture wars has “blinded evangelicals to other moral issues: poverty, AIDS, global warming, and the invasion of Iraq” (79). A damning indictment indeed, but Balmer refuses to end on this bitter note. It is time for a fifth juncture in evangelicalism’s development, he asserts, and time for a refashioned evangelicalism, one that is sensitive to the pitfalls of politicking, seductions of influence, and “blandishments of culture,” and more fully committed to speaking for peace, the poor, and on behalf of justice for all humans and their environment (82-83).
Balmer’s edgy assertions rouse a range of healthy emotions in the reader, but at times they also promote a slightly imbalanced view of evangelicalism. When talking about evangelicalism’s first three pivot points, Balmer, it’s worth noting, leaves room for the movement’s constructive potentials—its appeal to ordinary people and reforming zeal, as well as its openness to feminism and outsiders living on society’s fringe. He needs to in order to prove that evangelicalism still holds the potential for the progressiveness he admires. But this approach skews the record a bit. Whereas Balmer stresses the egalitarianism and activism of nineteenth-century evangelicalism, for instance, he does so always in sharp contrast to the pessimistic and politically compromised characteristics of late twentieth-century evangelicalism. And while he highlights (and applauds) the counter-cultural sensibilities that seemed to run through early evangelicalism, he is quick to show how they have dissipated in recent years. Had he chosen to, though, Balmer could have shaped his narrative differently to show that evangelicalism has always been vulnerable to modernity’s excesses and unsettling contradictions, even as it has strived to rise above them, and that it has always courted councils of power and locked arms with the state at the same time it empowers the weak and downtrodden. After all, just how counter-cultural was evangelicalism when riding the wave of commercialization that consumed America in Finney’s day? When endorsing the corporatism and imperialism of Moody’s era and white nationalism of Billy Sunday’s? And just how egalitarian was evangelicalism when encountering Jim Crow in the 1890s, or industrial unionism in the 1900s, or women’s rights in the 1920s? Most historians would say not very much. On the flip side, Balmer could have incorporated other plotlines when talking about evangelicalism’s fourth stage—how, for instance, globalization and generational change have nudged it into realms of identity and influence well beyond the pale of right-wing politics. The point isn’t to undermine Balmer’s compelling thesis but to suggest that by choosing his emphases in this way, he gives the evangelicalism of yesteryear too much credit and evangelicalism of today less than it deserves.
Granted, this is all part of Balmer’s plan, for his goal isn’t necessarily to add nuance to scholarly understandings of those who have gone before as much as it is to frame an argument that angers his contemporaries and causes them to recapture evangelicalism’s founding spirit. And in this sense, his book sparkles. Indeed, The Making of Evangelicalism exhibits the acumen we have come to expect from its author. In eighty-four pages of sharp, passionate prose, Balmer manages to illustrate, instruct, redefine, excite, entertain, and most of all provoke, all the while tweaking the conscience of evangelicals as much the curiosity of outside observers. His approach results in a remarkable book, one that can (and should) be read by anyone who wants to learn the basic history of this movement and measure its profound and enduring impact on American society.