They know us by our politics. That is the sobering conclusion that evangelical readers will take away from Steven P. Miller’s seminal book, The Age of Evangelicalism: The Born-Again Years (Oxford). I do not know of another book that more effectively tells the story of American evangelicalism’s ascendancy and (perhaps) its political collapse, from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. Although some evangelical readers may not appreciate Miller’s critical tone, this is medicine worth taking for any conservative Christian who cares about politics and public policy.
Miller packs dense details on the past five decades of American evangelical development into this slim volume. Anyone with personal background in evangelicalism will find the book a trip down memory lane. The journey runs from some of Christianity’s most formidable thought leaders, such as Mark Noll and Robert George, to some of the kingpins of evangelical kitsch. It features figures from the expected (Jerry Falwell) to the surprising—until Miller I knew virtually nothing, for example, about Marabel Morgan’s wifely advice book The Total Woman, America’s bestselling nonfiction title of 1974.
Miller, professor at Webster University and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and author of Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), argues that the key to understanding “The Age of Evangelicalism” is to see that evangelicalism—especially its political manifestations—defined American culture in the roughly 40-year era from 1972 to 2012. In spite of its adherents’ oppositional mentality, evangelicalism was not subcultural in those years, Miller tells us. It was hegemonic.
Hegemony means power, and here, power means politics. Through politics, broadly understood, evangelicals defined the age. With the rise of Jimmy Carter, and the backlash that led to the Moral Majority, the distinctive political movements of the era were religious and mostly evangelical. The presidency of George W. Bush, the paradigmatic evangelical of the time, capped the evangelical age. “Progressive” evangelicals were always waiting in the wings to assert their own priorities, but Bush’s two terms—with his conversion testimony, agenda of “compassionate conservatism,” faith-based initiatives, and ill-fated sense of America’s divine mission in the world—came to define evangelical and Republican politics. His leadership fueled another backlash, one that has largely left evangelicals on the outside looking in during Obama’s two terms.
The cultural upheavals of the 1960s, and 1973’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision, meant that whatever evangelicals’ political passivity in earlier decades, conservative Christians in the 1970s necessarily adopted a politically reactive mode, one championed by Falwell. He and legions of supporters drew on a powerful conviction that America had once respected biblical norms of life, family, and morality. Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others expected that when given a chance, a majority of Americans would rally to that Judeo-Christian standard again—and elect candidates who supported it. Finding the ideal champion of those values was more complicated than evangelicals realized, however, as they settled on former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan, who affirmed many of the evangelicals’ beliefs but disappointed them at some important turns.
Then in 1988 they supported the Republican heir apparent, George H. W. Bush (Bush 41), who had more vague connections to evangelicals than Reagan did. But Bush’s adversary, Michael Dukakis, gave evangelicals no option. By the late 1980s white evangelicals had become the GOP’s “base,” but from school prayer to the right to life, they learned that supporting the Republican Party earned them few practical victories on the issues they cared about most.
The media, and the secular left, loved the political story of the Religious Right, and opposition to Christian conservatives became absolutely indispensable for keeping the ACLU and similar groups in business. Some traditional Christians had long realized that by political engagement on abortion and other cultural issues—understandable as that engagement was—they risked becoming defined as a political advocacy group, or worse, a lapdog of the GOP. But neither support for the Democrats, nor a third party (Tea Party notwithstanding), nor withdrawal from politics, seemed like good options.
By George W. Bush’s presidency, evangelical Republicans seemed to stand in for traditional American Christianity in the public eye. So when President Bush’s popularity plummeted, not least because of the debacle in Iraq, Christianity’s poll numbers seemed to drop too, at least in the media’s telling. It was not coincidental that the late 2000s started to see (oft-exaggerated) stories about the rise of the “nones,” and the renewal of the secularization thesis as applied to America. Maybe we were really headed in Western Europe’s irreligious direction after all?
When Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate, appeared as the new evangelical hope in 2008, and then went through her series of bungled interviews and reality TV shows, it seemed evangelicalism really was finished. (Though Miller largely neglects the significance of Palin, who is only briefly mentioned at the end of the book, she’s had more staying power as an object of media derision since 2008 than George W. Bush has.)
Many readers will already see the problem I am suggesting: whatever their personal sincerity as believers, do we want George Bush and Sarah Palin defining evangelicalism? Championing those with political prominence, or notoriety in the media (the Duck Dynasty crew, Joel Osteen, and so on), has perhaps not brought our most theologically or culturally astute spokespersons to the fore. Miller notes the presence of the “Thoughtful Evangelicals”—primarily academics—and political moderates and liberals as alternatives to the big evangelical personalities. (He implies that his own preference is for the evangelical political progressives.) But, in a pattern that has marked evangelicalism since its beginnings, those who master the media—and its associated political contests—typically command the biggest platforms in America.
Though his book is quite detailed, it is instructive to note what Miller leaves out, including some of the most dynamic (if still controversial) movements in the past four decades of evangelical life. These include the New Calvinism, the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, the global growth of evangelical and charismatic Christianity, and that worldwide expansion’s implications for missions, religious liberty, and trends in Methodism, Anglicanism, and other denominations. None of these developments garners more than allusions from Miller. Figures such as John Piper, Albert Mohler, and Wilfredo de Jesús do not appear in the index. Part of the reason for this neglect is that Miller has already covered a lot of ground in 166 pages, and he’s primarily telling a story of political Christian conservatism. Even though global charismatic revival, the New Calvinism, and the conservative resurgence have political implications, they do not fit as easily into Miller’s narrative. I am sure that leaders of these movements would say that while they have political opinions, they want to be known primarily for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the face of ongoing assaults on the value of life, the traditional family, and religious liberty, Christians in America still find that they have no choice but to engage with politics in appropriate venues. The quandary for traditional Christians is how to take political stands without becoming defined by ephemeral campaigns and candidates. The history of the American politics since the 1970s would suggest that we have not yet solved that dilemma.