Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture

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Richard G. Kyle
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , October
     2017.
     220 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781138297968.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture probably should have been titled “popular culture in American evangelicalism.” Author Richard G. Kyle blends historical research with a jeremiad about evangelicals’ crass populism. American evangelicals, Kyle argues, have lost any sense of distinctiveness from popular culture. They have become what their parents and grandparents warned against. 

In nine thematic chapters, Kyle charts the changing nature of evangelical belief and practice. The third chapter, for instance, details evangelicals’ increasing comfort with market capitalism during the Gilded Age and follows that story through the mid-20th century marriage between business leaders and leading evangelists. Chapter 6 tracks the rise of the prosperity gospel, arguing that “biblical illiteracy” and an “emphasis on feelings” encouraged teachings that appealed to the masses (112). The subsequent chapter takes on megachurches, which cater to Americans’ desires for “quick answers and easy solutions” (131). Kyle weaves a declension narrative into most chapters, underlined by his dry and sometimes dismissive assessments of contemporary evangelicalism. 

Popular Evangelicalism in American Culture surveys a wide array of white evangelical leaders. Kyle’s chapter on millennialism deftly narrates the theologies of Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards, John Nelson Darby, Cyrus Scofield, and John Walvoord. He demonstrates how late-20th century evangelical apocalypticists like Hal Lindsey, John Hagee, and Billy Graham merged Christian millennialism with popular culture. A chapter on the electronic church tracks the evolution of religious broadcasting from Oral Roberts and Graham to Jimmy Swaggart and the Bakkers. 

The book concludes with a lament: “no religious group has been as controlled by the popular culture as has American evangelicalism” (191). While Kyle never posits an evangelical golden era, he contends that evangelicals once stood for something. Nineteenth and early-20th century evangelicals certainly utilized mediums of popular culture, but according to Kyle, their message stood apart. No more. 

Kyle’s arguments rest on a wide reading of secondary sources. His analysis of evangelicals’s Christian nation arguments draws on the foundational work of Mark Noll, George Marsden, Nathan Hatch, and Grant Wacker. His critique of evangelicals’ various departures from their predecessors relies on important books by D. G. Hart and Randall Balmer. With a few exceptions, Kyle does not engage as fully with more recent scholarship on evangelicalism. 

The major omission in Kyle’s narrative is race. After a couple brief mentions of black evangelicals in the first chapter, African Americans mostly disappear from the narrative. Nearly all of the evangelicals mentioned in the book are white, yet Kyle does not interrogate the role of white supremacy in the history of evangelicalism. The civil rights movement merits just half a paragraph. Analysis of white evangelical support for Donald Trump (and the sharp contrast in voting patterns among black evangelicals) does not appear in this volume. 

The lack of engagement with recent scholarship and race compromises the overall effect of Kyle’s argument. Kyle makes a compelling case that evangelicalism’s populist character has ultimately resulted in the collapse of its distinctiveness and the erosion of its witness. This argument would have been stronger if put in deeper conversation with Molly Worthen’s treatment of evangelicals’ ongoing crisis of authority in Apostles of Reason (Oxford University Press, 2016). It would have been more gripping if connected to white evangelicals’ history of defending racist systems and beliefs. 

In his book The Age of Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2016), historian Steven Miller contends that the period from 1976-2008 marked “America’s born-again years.” This period corresponds with the timeframe in which Kyle believes evangelicalism fully capitulated to popular culture. Miller—writing before the 2016 election—argued that the age of evangelicalism is over. Kyle—writing after the election—sees a tradition still on the rise numerically, if not theologically. These divergent assessments of contemporary white evangelicals reflect both the time in which each book was published and the two authors’ different perspectives. The books converge, however, in their contention that evangelicalism more often mirrors popular culture than counters it. Evangelicals and interested outsiders who wonder why evangelicals seem so at ease in the currents of popular culture will find Kyle’s argument worth considering.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Seth Dowland is Associate Professor of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Richard G. Kyle is professor emeritus of history and religion, Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.

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