This book explores the place and meaning of evangelical Christianity in the United States from the 1970s through the first decade of the twenty-first century. It pays particular attention to the uses that a diverse array of Americans — self-proclaimed evangelicals, of course, but also movement conservatives, secular liberals, journalistic elites, and sundry others — found for born-again faith. Beginning with the Jesus vogue of the early 1970s, evangelical Christianity was seen and heard, then seen and heard again. During these years, evangelicalism (the label commonly given to the public expression of born-again Christianity) influenced American history in profound, but only partially appreciated, ways. As befits the subject matter, this is something of a story of rebirth. Public evangelicalism gestated in the space created by the Watergate scandal of the early and mid-1970s. Out of that context emerged both a born-again president, Jimmy Carter, and his equally evangelical arch-nemesis, the Christian Right. The climax came three decades later with the presidency of George W. Bush, who synthesized the former’s therapeutic Jesus talk with the latter’s political agenda. Along the way came two evangelical scares, innumerable born-again spectacles, and several broad reconsiderations of the place of faith in American politics and culture.
• The Age of Evangelicalism
• • •
That, my friends, is the context in which I’ve lived my so-called evangelical life.
Today, part one — the 1970’s and 1980’s.
And what shall I say of Billy Graham, Hal Lindsey, the Jesus People, the charismatic movement, David Wilkerson, Bill Bright and the Four Spiritual Laws, Chuck Smith, Calvary Chapel and Maranatha! Music, Pat Boone, Explo ’72, Francis Schaeffer, Charles Colson (Born Again), Eldredge Cleaver (Soul on Fire), Bob Dylan’s gospel period (Slow Train Coming), the LaHayes and Marabel Morgan (The Total Woman) and the invention of Christian Sex™, Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schafly, James Dobson and a new focus on the Christian Family™, the NIV Bible, Harold Lindsell and the doctrine of Inerrancy™, and of course, televangelists and pastors like Jim Bakker, Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson (who himself ran for president in 1988), and Jerry Falwell, the Christian Right’s™ most public spokesperson in the 1980’s.
Then, because my so-called evangelical life has spanned the years when evangelical Christianity embraced political activism in a way not seen before, we must note the politicians. In the seminal years of the “Age of Evangelicalism,” they were quieter about their faith and were mostly moderates and liberals — people like George McGovern, John Anderson, and Mark Hatfield. Those who supported them advanced a more progressive agenda — men such as Jim Wallis and Ronald Sider. Even Republicans like President Gerald Ford, who took his faith seriously, were more moderate, talking and acting much differently than the rightward leaders who wore evangelical religion proudly on their sleeves in the 1980’s. Jimmy Carter, who became president in 1976, “The Year of the Evangelical,” was the first politician to bring evangelicalism out of the prayer closet and into mainstream media consciousness.
But it was 1980 that formed the real dividing line. Steven Miller says, “If 1976 was the Year of the Evangelical, then 1980 was the Year of the Evangelical Right.”
Of course, 1980 was the year that brought us President Ronald Reagan, the first president to use “God bless America” in a major speech (except for one time when Richard Nixon was trying to save his butt during Watergate). Steven Miller observes that Reagan “was more an evangelical’s president than an evangelical president,” but that didn’t stop Jerry Falwell from proclaiming that Reagan was “the greatest thing that has happened to our country in my lifetime.” This, despite the fact that evangelicals saw few actual substantive policy changes amid an abundance of symbolic actions and gestures. Still, their leaders and spokespersons had unprecedented access to the halls of power, and that was heady stuff.
A new set of political issues and interest groups were also formed in the 1970’s, becoming more focused in the 1980’s. The Equal Rights Amendment. Abortion. Homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. Issues like these pitted the Moral Majority, Eagle Forum, and Concerned Women for America vs. the ACLU, People for the American Way, and the National Organization for Women. Republican vs. Democrat was taking on new meanings. Culture War lines were being etched ever deeper in the sand.
But battles that were more personal and “spiritual” also got our culture’s attention in those decades.
The rise of charismatic Christianity and talk of “spiritual warfare,” along with movies like The Exorcist, fueled a new dualistic supernaturalism among Americans. This was given credibility when we watched the news and witnessed the evil, grisly acts of murderous cults like the Manson “Family” and Jim Jones and the People’s Temple (Jonestown). A “satanic panic” arose in the 1980’s fueled by revelations of “repressed memories” indicating that large numbers of children had been subjected to Satanic ritual abuse (SRA). A new diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder looked a lot like demon possession. Christian comedian Mike Warnke made a meteoric rise to popularity, with outrageous claims of having been delivered from Satanism. He told stories that scared the pants off Christian parents and youth alike who flocked to hear him speak and to buy his books and recordings. Preachers engaged in a focused critique on rock music’s occult influence on young people, especially in the “heavy metal” genre. These years saw the rise of the “New Age” movement. Popular Christian fiction writer Frank Peretti wrote best-selling books about “spiritual warfare against a vast, seductive New Age conspiracy” that was taking place in towns like yours and mine.
A few things are unfortunately missing from the otherwise invigorating overview Steven Miller gives in The Age of Evangelicalism. In choosing to focus on the public face of evangelicalism during these years, he doesn’t paint much of a picture of the massive transformation that took place on the ground in the experiences of ordinary evangelical Christians.
First, Miller doesn’t discuss in detail what was happening in the churches. He does mention the work of sociologist Peter Berger and an influential book by Dean Kelley, Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Both Berger and Kelley were Christians in mainline traditions, trying to give answers to why the historic mainline Protestant churches were losing so much ground as “the [moral and spiritual] guardians of American society” and why evangelical congregations were growing so fast. But Miller does not detail what was actually happening on the ecclesiastical level, especially with regard to the influence of the parachurch ministries (see below), the Church Growth Movement (birthed at Fuller Seminary) and its later developments, such as the Seeker Sensitive approach of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Community Church.
In conjunction with this Miller neglects to discuss the rapidly expanding Christian Culture™ of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), the evangelical publishing industry and bookstores, religious television programs, and evangelical colleges and seminaries. These years witnessed the birth of evangelical megachurches, contemporary Christian worship, new uses of technology and media, the promotion of small groups as a primary method, and an explosion of new curricula and programs so that churches might stay “on the cutting edge.”
Third, one must not forget the impact of parachurch ministries. Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, InterVarsity, Youth for Christ, and a thousand other ministries (or “missions”), many of which were formed in the post-WWII years, were strong engines of growth in evangelicalism during these decades. They brought missiology and a renewed missionary zeal right into the churches themselves. Their emphasis on “evangelism and discipleship” influenced those who developed the Church Growth movement, the Willow Creek approach, the church-planting “community church” type movements, and other examples we see today. Traditional Protestantism had long defined the church as a community where the Word of God is truly preached and the sacraments truly administered. Largely because of parachurch approaches, the evangelical church today is defined by many as a community that practices evangelism and discipleship.
But back to evangelicalism’s public face —
By the end of the 1980’s, Steven Miller writes, some of the evangelical intensity which characterized the Reagan years had subsided, in no small part due to several scandals involving televangelists in the latter part of the decade. Another problem facing the Christian Right at that time was deciding who would replace Reagan as president. Though George H.W. Bush was not particularly enamored of evangelicals, he nevertheless courted them, even choosing one, Dan Quayle, as his running mate, and the Republicans and their evangelical friends retained control of the White House.
And before you knew it, we had reached the 1990’s.
• • •
The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years
By Steven P. Miller
Oxford University Press (2014)