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Do We Need a Better Country Now More Than Ever? A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, by Steven P. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, viii + 221 pages, $24.95.

When did Christian America end? That is a question on the minds of many Christians in the United States since Obergefell v. Hodges (June 26, 2015). The court’s decision to declare unconstitutional laws prohibiting marriage between persons of the same sex has not only provoked various degrees of discouragement but even prompted some commentators, like journalist Rod Dreher, to propose the Benedict Option. This refers to Benedict of Nursia’s determination after the fall of the Roman Empire to form a monastic community, in other words, to withdraw from the decay of the larger society and preserve the distinct beliefs and patterns of life prescribed by Christianity. Dreher himself is not literally suggesting the formation of monasteries. But he believes that Christians need to recognize the impossibility of preserving Christians standards in the wider society and that this may require finding ways of being Christian that are intentionally in opposition to or isolated from the wider culture. This Benedict Option looks increasingly plausible now that the United States’ highest court has opened the Pandora’s Box of marriage and family life.

Steven P. Miller argues in The Age of Evangelicalism that the recent period of American history has witnessed the end of one version of Christian America and that it was happening even before the debates over same-sex marriage. Between roughly 1975 and 2008 the United States experienced what Miller calls its “Born-Again Years.” From the Jesus People who offered a sanctified alternative to drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, to George W. Bush’s presidency, evangelicalism was the lens through which pollsters, scholars, journalists, and political operatives evaluated religion in the United States. The Age of Evangelicalism as a history of born-again Protestantism from the 1970s on offers very little new material. Miller assembles the usual suspects—Billy Graham, Hal Lindsey, Jimmy Carter, Jerry Falwell, Rick Warren, Pat Robertson, Jim Wallis, and Ralph Reed—not so much to add to a subject that has arguably received more attention than any other aspect of American Christianity. Instead, Miller’s point is subtler than that. He uses the standard evangelical narrative to demonstrate how born-again Protestantism, even though its adherents thought of themselves as a minority fighting against the secular majority, dominated discussions of religion in the United States during the last quarter of the twentieth century. Miller’s point is worth pondering, and it makes sense of the Red-State–Blue-State divide of recent electoral politics. But the book also leaves out what makes evangelicalism tick as a religious faith. Born-again Protestantism did have a large influence on American politics and that in turn transformed evangelicalism into a partisan faith. But Miller’s account almost completely ignores evangelicalism’s religion—debates about inerrancy, the rise of the megachurch and its effects on worship, the decline of dispensationalism. In fact, readers may well wonder if evangelicalism would have received all the attention it has if it were primarily a means of evangelizing and cultivating a desire for holiness in converts.

Curiously enough, Miller observes that evangelicalism rose to prominence precisely at a time when American civil religion experienced a crisis of faith. Billy Graham was, of course, the icon of evangelicalism. At the beginning of the 1970s he was a reliable supporter of American patriotism and regularly appeared with and counseled President Richard M. Nixon. But the Watergate scandal tarnished Nixon’s overt brand of civil religion. (Does any American remember worship services in the White House?) Still, Graham escaped the cynicism that fed the efforts to impeach Nixon, and evangelicalism emerged as the vehicle that transported America’s Cold War civil religion past the troubles of Vietnam and objections to the arms race into the Reagan and Bush years. Miller himself does not connect the dots between the 1950s mainline Protestant project of sustaining an America “under God” and the later evangelical effort to defend and maintain a Christian nation. Still, the book supplies important evidence for understanding where the God-and-country enthusiasm of the 1950s went—an enthusiasm which put “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on coins. The Christian nationalism that mainline Protestant leadership abandoned during the 1960s over discomforts about race, gender, and sex found a home in 1970s evangelicalism, of course, with help from Republican Party operatives. Born-again Protestantism may have infused the GOP with electoral vigor, but after three decades it came to an end with the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Miller interprets the Democratic president’s victory as a rejection of the “excesses of the Christian Right and the Republican Party that seemed bound to do its bidding,” as well as an indication of the evangelical left’s resurgence (154). Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, thought to be the future of evangelical political engagement in the 1970s, had finally come into their own after three decades of the Moral Majority and family values. Whether the Obama administration is what the evangelical left had in mind is another matter. Campolo may applaud the legalization of same-sex marriage, but Wallis is decidedly uncomfortable with federal funding for Planned Parenthood after the recent release of videos about the agency’s trafficking in fetal body parts.

Aside from Miller’s intriguing proposal to name the period between 1975 and 2005 as “the evangelical age,” the book repeats the highlights of recent evangelical history that is well known to most people who either follow the news or US religious history. Even so, Miller’s book is also provocative for considering the Orthodox Presbyterian Church’s relationship to the wider evangelical world. Prior to the 1970s the OPC was ambivalent about evangelical leaders and institutions. The church refused to join the newly formed National Association of Evangelicals in the 1940s and continued to find ecumenical outlets that were intentionally Reformed. In less institutional ways, Orthodox Presbyterians also expressed caution about the new evangelicalism. Think of E. J. Young’s refusal to serve on the editorial board of Christianity Today because the magazine included mainline Presbyterians. Consider also Westminster Seminary’s determination in 1961 not to cooperate with Billy Graham’s Philadelphia crusade. Then there is Cornelius Van Til’s critique of neo-evangelicalism in a small manuscript from 1964. Evidence like this suggests that the OPC’s founding generation saw itself as maintaining and defending a form of Protestantism—Reformed—that was distinct and in some ways opposed to the born-again Protestantism that became popular after World War II.

But that ambivalence about evangelicalism changed in the 1970s when the OPC experienced a crisis of identity. There at the beginning of Miller’s “evangelical age” the second generation of Orthodox Presbyterians began to think that militancy was no longer the best stance for the church. Instead, the OPC needed to be positive, reach out, and implement new ways of worship and evangelism. The New Life churches were one example of this, but so was the OPC’s desire to join other denominations, first the RPCES and then the PCA. In effect, the old reasons for being Orthodox Presbyterian were obsolete. New times called for new reasons. And with the rise of the Religious Right, some Orthodox Presbyterians felt even more compelled to identify with evangelicalism. Here was an opportunity to belong to something bigger than the small communion the OPC represented. It was also a chance to do something that could affect the health of the nation.

Nevertheless, the appeal of evangelicalism, still there in some ways, did not overwhelm the OPC. As the church recovered a sense of its own history, as New Life congregations realigned with the PCA after the failure of Joining & Receiving in 1986, the OPC recovered some of the older militancy that had characterized the founding generation. The church is still not part of the NAE, is still ambivalent about cooperative endeavors that would compromise its Calvinist theology, and is still wary of identifying the gospel or church with partisan politics. A useful reminder of the OPC’s self-awareness as a distinctly Reformed communion was its General Assembly’s 1956 report on the Boy Scouts of America. Here was an institution as wholesome and as American as apple pie. Yet the advice the committee report gave to sessions and presbyteries was to avoid sponsoring troops within OPC congregations. The reasons were a defective understanding of God, an attitude of tolerance that discouraged maintaining and defending doctrinal truth, a fusion of patriotism and piety, and a belief that boys (and people more generally) were capable of keeping God’s moral law apart from regeneration. Well before evangelicals carried on the old civil religion that had infused mainline Protestantism in different versions going back to the Second Great Awakening, Orthodox Presbyterians understood that a healthy nation was different from a faithful church and that to preserve the latter, loyalty to the former needed to be qualified.

Now that America has entered its post-Christian stage of life, or as Miller would put it, the nation’s post-evangelical years, Orthodox Presbyterians have good reasons for not being surprised or despondent. Since its founding in 1936, the OPC (along with a number of other Protestant communions) has known existentially the meaning, in Peter’s words, of being “aliens” and “strangers” (1 Pet. 2:11). This understanding emerged in the context of the first generation’s leaving behind tall-steeple churches and well-appointed manses to hold services in schools, store fronts, and homes. It grew stronger from the biblical exposition of Geerhardus Vos and John Murray, whose biblical theology recognized that Christians in this age between the advents of Christ, in the words of the writer to the Hebrews, “seek a better country.” This outlook avoided both the despair of dispensationalism and the over-confidence of postmillennialism. Now that the United States national government has rejected certain Christian norms, some pundits are calling for different strategies—like the so-called Benedict Option—for believers to regroup and create enclaves where they can cultivate and pass on their faith to the next generation. Orthodox Presbyterians should not need disappointing rulings by the federal courts to consider Christian existence and witness on the cultural margins. Since its founding, the OPC has been aware of the discrepancy between Christian faithfulness and broader trends in American society. Steven Miller’s book is yet one more reminder of the ambivalent relationship between the gospel and the United States—an ambivalence that has long been familiar to Orthodox Presbyterians.

Darryl G. Hart is distinguished visiting assistant professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian in Hillsdale, Michigan.