To the “culture war” opponents of American evangelicalism, the movement presents itself, reassuringly, as a towering monolith—if, that is, monoliths can come in the shape of a cross. The anti-clerical left has rehearsed a long and familiar litany of evangelical perfidy: they’re theocrats, anti-intellectual propagandists, political power brokers and fear-driven purveyors of superstitious folly. Such caricatures may hold water in extreme and absurdly shallow cases, such as Michele Bachmann or Pat Robertson. But ascribing this blunt, authoritarian set of motives to a group as vast and diverse as the American evangelical community—which accounts for 25 percent of the country’s adult population—is like saying that Rob Ford is the archetypal Canadian.
In reality, evangelicals run much the same gamut of cultural,
political and intellectual passions, reflexes and fixations found in
almost any other religious or ethnic subgroup. Yes, they’ve been a solid
conservative voting constituency during the past thirty years or so of
culture warfare, but to judge by recent electoral results, their ardor
for certain crusades, such as the war on gay marriage, has notably
cooled. Desperate GOP strategists gambled that a Hail Mary
get-out-the-vote effort among the evangelical right could turn the 2012
presidential election for Mitt Romney, but nothing like that came to
pass; in states explicitly targeted for such initiatives, such as Iowa
and Ohio, Obama prevailed by a comfortable margin.
Another happy sign of evangelical diversity is the remarkable ongoing
boom in evangelical history. An impressive range of scholars who have
lived and studied within the evangelical tradition, such as Joel
Carpenter, Kate Bowler and Mark Noll, have produced sharp analytical
treatments of its twentieth-century resurgence, while plumbing the more
recondite questions of doctrine, theology and political organizing among
the born-again faithful. Now, a pair of historians from this cohort—one
a venerable emeritus professor who is a dean of the field, the other an
enterprising young scholar—have both produced books taking fresh stock
of how evangelical faith has developed into a public philosophy amid the
considerable sound and fury of right-wing religious activism.
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