The Age of Evangelicalism

America's Born-Again Years

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Steven P. Miller
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2016.
     240 pages.
     $19.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780190636692.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years, Steven P. Miller deftly weaves a rich tapestry of the history of public US evangelicalism from an astonishingly wide range of sources, beginning in the 1970s through the first decade of the 21st century. He “explores the place and meaning” of evangelical Christianity in the United States, paying particular attention to the use-value that “a diverse array of Americans—self-proclaimed evangelicals, of course, but also movement conservatives, secular liberals, journalistic elites, and sundry others” have found for this faith (4). Miller examines what he sees as the rise and subsequent fall of evangelical presence in the US public milieu, arguing that it experienced a rebirth in the 1970s from and through the moral vacuum created by the Watergate scandal. It then reached its peak during George W. Bush’s second term in the White House, before subsequently splintering as campaigns started getting underway for the 2008 presidential election. Miller takes his cues of a unified and wide-reaching born-again faith from Alan Wolfe, a political scientist at Boston College, who wrote that in the beginning of the 21st century, there was “a sense in which we are all evangelicals now” (3). Miller notes that although Wolfe was writing about the megachurch and not the White House, “these spheres blurred in the minds of many commentators” due to the political prominence of George W. Bush’s evangelical faith (3). Although Miller identifies the Age of Evangelicalism as beginning in the 1970s, his argument would have benefited from a deeper consideration of how exactly evangelicals moved from the 1925 Scopes trial through the 20th century to the Watergate scandal—and then contrasted with how we see a shift in their public influence post-Nixon. 

Miller defensively argues that evangelicalism is an age, not a subculture (which is the subtitle of his introduction—"An Age, Not A Subculture”). He defines the Age of Evangelicalism as a roughly forty-year epoch when “born-again Christianity provided alternately a language, a medium, and a foil by which millions of Americans came to terms with political and cultural change” (5). Although Miller does not name his subculture interlocutors directly here, I believe that he is responding most directly to Randall Balmer’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America (Oxford University Press, 1989) as well as Christian Smith,Michael Emerson, and James Davison Hunter, who all also name evangelicalism specifically as a subculture, peripheral to politics at the center. Miller desires to fashion himself as an objectively neutral scholar (“I offer neither an insider’s scoop nor an outsider’s anthropology”), yet there are also moments when Miller shows his cards, as in this statement that evangelicalism’s influence emerged not only from the political right, “but rather from the interplay of its left and right factions, even while the latter almost always maintained a decided upper hand” (5). He deserves kudos for including those on the political left as key players in this narrative. 

Miller employs helpful, albeit forced, framing devices for each decade, situating the complex and sometimes dizzying number of sources and influences he has gathered for the reader. For example, he writes that the evangelical chic of the 1970s was defined by several celebrity converts and evangelical bumper stickers, as well as Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman (a born-again self-help book designed to teach married women how to cater to and complement their husbands); that the 1980s ushered in a decade of evangelical rage centered on fighting abortion; and the 1990s were characterized by thoughtful born-again intellectuals intent on prayerful engagement with secular society. 

One of Miller’s strengths lies in his ability to pull from sources as varied as campaign slogans, The Left Behind series, Playboy, the novel Fried Green Tomatoes, and TIME Magazine, while also engaging with critical scholars of US religious history such as Darren Dochuk,  Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch. Miller touches on the academic work of these and other scholars just enough to position the book amidst intellectual debates about the context of US public evangelicalism. However, both his writing style and his extensive use of popular sources render the final product generously accessible to audiences outside of university classrooms. Indeed, one of the best ways to engage with Miller’s book is as though it were a type of evangelical encyclopedia: take advantage of the incredible work he has done to contextualize myriad players amidst an overarching narrative and then continue your research on specific topics of interest elsewhere. This is certainly not a slight on the cursory glance Miller gives each subject; rather, he achieves his goal of providing a complex cultural narrative. 

While The Age of Evangelicalism painstakingly brings together historical evidence and primary sources, Miller’s dedicated drive to argue for the untapped centrality of public evangelicalism in the last forty years ultimately seems a somewhat flat argument. He posits a two-part “evangelical problem” within which he places his intervention: “Many Americans have not acknowledged the full impact of born-again Protestantism on their society, or they have held a one-dimensional interpretation of it” (4). Miller argues that evangelicals “have not conceded their status as something other than an oppressed or marginalized minority” and that they need to realize their utter centrality within American religious history: “If recent American evangelicalism has been so significant, then perhaps it is not really a subculture after all. Perhaps American evangelicalism resides at the very center of recent American history” (7). Miller’s points are clear, but his overarching argument does not ring as groundbreaking as he imagines and ultimately serves to re-entrench hierarchical notions of Protestant Christianity as the most central and most important set of religious forces in recent US political and public spaces.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Becca Henrisksen is a doctoral student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
June 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Steven P. Miller is the author of Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, as well as numerous articles about the history of American religion and politics. He resides in Saint Louis, Missouri, where he teaches at Webster University and Washington University.

 

 

 

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