The Future of Evangelicalism in America

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Candy Gunther Brown, Mark Silk
The Future of Religion in America
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , April
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In the era of a shrinking journalism industry, one of the few growth areas in US journalism is prognostication about that odd tribe known as evangelicals, and especially about the way they vote. One day, the evangelicals are bringing conservative hegemony to America; the next, there’s a sudden liberalization in the ranks, notably among younger evangelicals. The truth, as the contributors to The Future of Evangelicalism in America reveal, is far more complicated than either of these stories. Armed with the findings of the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey [ARIS]—also conducted in 1990 and 2001—the editors draw on the self-identification of 54,000 subjects to offer informed analysis on who evangelicals really are, and just how porous that group is.

ARIS is significant in that the study of American religious demography is notoriously difficult. On the one hand, the US Census Bureau is constitutionally-prohibited from asking questions about religious identification. On the other hand, denominational membership reporting, as compiled by the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches (Abingdon Press, 2012), is incomplete due to both inconsistent reporting on the part of denominations and the increasing religious disaffiliation of Americans. That disaffiliation is the major trend revealed by ARIS and analyzed by contributors to this book.

Although some kind of secularization is probably happening in the US, that perpetually debated issue is not the big story unveiled by ARIS. The main trend identified is that Americans and, indeed even churches, are rapidly moving away from traditional denominations. While this has partly led to the rise in numbers of the “Nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation—it has also greatly benefited evangelicalism due to the character of that movement. Both Michael S. Hamilton in his chapter on the character of evangelicalism, and Chris R. Armstrong in his chapter on evangelical spirituality uncover why this is so. Hamilton describes the rise of parachurch forms of organization in mid-twentieth century evangelicalism, forms that have become only more significant in the decades since. Armstrong recounts the influence of counterculture Jesus freaks, hippies, and charismatics on evangelical worship practices. Both of these trends, it seems, underlie the success of evangelicalism in an age of individualized spirituality and decentralized religion. The data from ARIS also shows that the move toward tradition and liturgy that Armstrong mentions is primarily a factor among elite evangelicals.

The next three chapters seem slightly dated after the 2016 US presidential election. Timothy Tseng’s chapter on racial/ethnic aspects of evangelicalism ably outlines the characteristics and histories of African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, and Native American evangelicals. Although mainline Protestant churches were not flawless by any means, they did historically engage more productively with racial or ethnic minorities. Tseng points to the lack of systemic or social-scientific thinking among early twentieth century Fundamentalists as the root cause of persistent white evangelical racism, and provides historical background for the findings of Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2000 book Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (Oxford University Press). This long-standing divide probably won’t be resolved as quickly as Tseng optimistically hopes it may in his conclusion.

Roger E. Olson’s chapter on evangelical theology is as well informed and perceptive as one would expect from a leading figure in that field. Olson traces the history of the divide between conservative evangelical theologians and their moderate or progressive counterparts. Being part of the latter camp, Olson understandably highlights the increasing exclusion of non-conservatives from organizations such as the Evangelical Theological Society [ETS]. He is right to focus on the debate over open theism as a key moment in this recent history, pointing out that conservative evangelicals confuse biblically minded open theists for process theologians or theological liberals. Olson ably addresses another spectrum within evangelical theology that does not always fit the moderate-conservative paradigm: for some evangelicals there is an authoritative role for theological tradition—ranging from ancient orthodoxy to Reformation theologies—while others insist on the authority of the Bible alone, without tradition as a guide—a position that Timothy George has memorably labeled “nuda scriptura.” Although Olson clearly knows and understands the content of this theological landscape better than almost anyone alive, he does not call attention to what is missing: the lack of female voices from an ETS that is becoming more patriarchal; and the absence of racial/ethnic minority theologians from most evangelical theological discussions. To the extent that evangelical theology remains a playground for white men, it will remain evermore disconnected from its ecclesial constituency and irrelevant for much of US society.

In a chapter on evangelical political engagement, Amy E. Black lays out the recent history of evangelical politics, with a focus on the rise and fall of the Religious Right. Her analysis is astute, but like most experts, in 2017 she is likely rethinking her opinion that evangelical politics has moderated and become less acrimonious with the rise of megachurch pastors such as  Rick Warren and Joel Hunter.

These contributions are all well informed and helpful, but they are made even more coherent by the excellent introduction and conclusion by editor Candy Gunther Brown. She manages to summarize the key themes of the chapters while providing additional analysis that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. She outlines the broad trends of evangelicalization in American Christianity, and pentecostalization in US evangelicalism. Trends in ARIS data make these changes evident. Even many Catholics and mainline Protestants identify as evangelical, while a variety of evangelicals call themselves charismatic or pentecostal. The main cloud on the evangelical horizon is the racial/ethnic divide noted in Tseng’s chapter.

There are two small problems with this volume: first, any reader who is familiar with the Bebbington Quadrilateral will encounter even more commentary on that overanalyzed idea; and second, the focus on quantitative data from the ARIS—around which the series featuring the book is built—is not complemented by qualitative exploration of US evangelical identity. What are their hopes and hatreds? How do they explain their individual worldviews beyond self-identification with theological labels? Nevertheless, anyone looking for informed scholarship on the current status of evangelicalism in the US should read this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Waldron has an MA in Systematic Theology from Marquette University.

Date of Review: 
February 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Candy Gunther Brown is professor of religious studies at Indiana University. She is the author or editor of five books, including The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880 (2004).

Mark Silk is director of the Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College in Hartford. He is the coauthor, with Andrew Walsh, of One Nation, Divisible: How Regional Religious Differences Shape American Politics (2008)


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.