The Intellectual Civil War within Evangelicalism: An Interview with Molly Worthen

By Tiffany Stanley | December 3, 2013

(Loomis Dean/Time & Life).

A canvas tent, seating over 6,000, which was erected for the Billy Graham revival, Los Angeles, California, 1949. (Loomis Dean/Time & Life)

Last month, Molly Worthen traveled to the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics to take part in a symposium for the inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture series at Washington University in St. Louis. During her stay, she sat down with Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley to discuss her latest book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, published in November by Oxford University Press. The book charts the intellectual history of modern American evangelicalism, chronicling the movement’s paradoxes, diversity, and internal struggles over the reconciliation of faith and reason. 

Worthen is also the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill. She has written for such publications as The New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and Religion & Politics. In 2012, she joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an assistant professor of history. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

R&P: How did you come to this project?

MW: I came to this project out of my background as a journalist. I had observed certain things going on among contemporary American evangelicals that I wanted to explain, particularly trends among young evangelicals. I got very interested in young evangelicals who were protesting what they perceived to be their parents’ Religious Right. These young folks called—or began to call themselves in the 1990s and early 2000s—the Emergent Church. These were Millennials or, in some cases, Gen-Xers, who had grown up in big, white, suburban, politically conservative megachurches and were challenging that heritage by appealing to other parts of the church tradition, acquainting themselves with theology that they had never been exposed to and even looking toward the Catholic tradition.

I just thought: What is the story here? What’s going on? And I tried to reverse-engineer their process and create a kind of genealogy of their ideas. As I did that, I ended up uncovering for myself this story of how one particular theological and political tradition within evangelicalism had come to be so dominant and come to be the public face of evangelicalism in America—despite the fact that evangelicalism is an incredibly diverse, sometimes self-contradictory world. My book tells the story of the intellectual civil war within evangelicalism, the backstory to the rise of the Christian Right. Scholars usually describe this in purely political terms, as a story of backlash against the liberation movements of the 60s and a continuation of the anti-Communist movement. But increasingly, I felt that to really understand what’s going on in this country, even just politically, you have to get into the ideas. You have to start looking at what’s happening in missions, spiritual revivals, the way worship is changing, how all these different communities within this huge subculture that we call evangelicalism are interacting. That’s the only way you can understand today’s landscape.

R&P: From the outset, in the introduction, you note that unlike a lot of these histories, this book is not “a chronicle of the Christian Right.” While that history figures into the book and your narrative has political implications, you write, “We cannot comprehend conservative Protestants, or their place in American culture, solely in terms of ‘values voting.’” By that did you mean that we have to look at the intellectual history and the theology and other factors as well?

MW: I think we have to treat evangelicals seriously as thinkers. That requires going fairly far back in history and tracing their intellectual genealogy back several centuries. Even though the book is focused really on the 1940s forward, I had to do some homework tracing the deep origins of this tradition that I’m calling evangelicalism to explain the more modern context. I ended up with a way of defining evangelicalism that is much broader than ways other scholars have approached it, certainly far broader than one particular political position, and broader than the standard list of doctrines that many scholars find useful. I think talking about a list of doctrines is important and helpful, but I came to think of evangelicals as Protestants who have, for centuries, circled around a shared set of questions rather than shared doctrines. And for any person with a religious worldview, politics is part of a coherent worldview. You can’t break it off and treat it in a vacuum. It is connected to what they are up to in church, the way in which their church is interacting with the world beyond America through missions, the way they’re thinking about their own tradition in liturgy and spiritual experience, and what counts as an authentic connection to the divine. All of this has ramifications for how they live out their faith in the world and at the ballot box. And so it seemed to me that an accurate intellectual and political history had to pay attention to those things.

R&P: Absolutely. And the term evangelical can be pretty unwieldy. You seem to define it in terms of the questions they’re asking. How would you define that term for a lay audience? How did you pinpoint, “These are my evangelicals”?

MW: I wanted a way of defining evangelicals that would allow me to corral people who seemed to be part of the same conversation, who seemed to care about what one another got up to, even if they disagreed radically on nearly every point of doctrine.  I wanted a way to include Mennonites and Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, even if some of these folks would adamantly reject the label of evangelical if you applied it to them because it often implies a particular political position. As I looked at the long stretch of history, the definition that I found interesting and useful was this: evangelicals are Protestants who since aftermath of the Reformation have been circling around three questions. Those questions are: First, how do you reconcile faith and reason? How do you maintain one coherent way of knowing? Second, how do you become sure of your salvation? How do you meet Jesus and develop a relationship with him, to use the language that some evangelicals prefer. And third, how do you reconcile your personal faith with an increasingly pluralistic, secular public sphere?

While these are, in some sense, universal human questions that all human beings who care about the supernatural wrestle with at some level, they have a unique power over evangelicals because evangelicals don’t have a magisterial, central authority to guide them. Now, I know that we should not exaggerate the power that the Vatican has over Catholics. But no matter how furiously many Catholics may quarrel with what the pope says, the pope is still an immensely powerful center of gravity. The magisterium is a structure that frames one shared conversation relating to a shared tradition. Likewise, I would say that liberal Protestants, in practice, treat human reason as their magisterium—either allowing reason to adjudicate their relationship with religious authority, or allowing reason to rule in its own separate sphere. They don’t get too angsty when faith suggests other things about reality than reason does.

In contrast, evangelicals sincerely try to please all the sources of authority in those three questions that I mentioned. They try to satisfy the standards of secular reason and spiritual experience and scripture and do right by the public square. Because they’re torn in these different directions—this is the “crisis of authority” in the book’s subtitle—they have a fraught relationship with the sphere of secular, intellectual life and also politics. I think this is a way in which observers have misunderstood evangelicals. They toss out this epithet “anti-intellectual” and they say, “Evangelicals are anti-intellectual because their community is totally authoritarian and they unthinkingly obey their pastor.” To me, that’s actually the opposite of what’s going on. The truth is that they’re torn by these conflicting authorities, and the resulting confusion and anxiety explains their relationship with secular, modern life. 

R&P: So when you say “crisis of authority,” you’re saying evangelicals are being pulled in all of these different directions by what is authoritative for them? It’s interesting to me—and you touched on this in terms of the magisterium—that it’s not that evangelicals lack leaders, but that they just have so many. You chronicled them in the book, from Billy Graham to Francis Schaeffer and everybody in between and before. So is the crisis of authority just being pulled in different directions?

MW: I think that’s true. Certainly it’s a community that encourages these sorts of intellectual warlords, you could say. But more than that, it’s an epistemological problem. Evangelicals are trying to reconcile two ways of knowing, to keep faith and reason fused in a way that is really hard to do nowadays. Just as an example, I think this is crucial to understanding the creationist movement today. I think it’s a mistake to understand creationists as “anti-science,” at least if we want to understand how they see themselves. The reality is that the creationist movement comes out of a tradition of Biblical interpretation that understands itself as deeply rationalist, deeply scientific, that rests on the premise that God’s revelation is all one, that God is perfect and unchanging, and therefore his revelation must be perfect and unchanging too. Our two modes of encountering his revelation, in scripture and in the created world, cannot contradict each other. One theologian associated with this tradition named Charles Hodge famously said that scripture is a “storehouse of facts.” A theologian’s job is to “arrange and harmonize” those facts just as a scientist gathers data in nature and makes sense of that data. And so to really understand the creationist movement, you have to see that creationists see themselves as being good scientists, as using the faculties of human reason as God intended, and in a much more effective, truer way than secular, non-believing scientists do. To understand reality accurately, they say, you must take as your founding assumption the truth of God’s revelation. I think that is crucial for understanding the frame of mind of creationists and how they view their project.

R&P: On that topic of faith and reason, the battle over Biblical inerrancy becomes central in the book and it becomes a touchstone for the struggle over faith and reason. Why was the concern over Biblical truth so important in evangelical intellectual formation?

MW: In some sense, the idea of Biblical inerrancy, the idea that the Bible has no error, is an ancient one. The earliest Christians were concerned to safeguard the Bible as a source of perfect truth. But that project developed a new dimension in the century after the Reformation as a certain group of Protestant theologians—mainly those in the Reformed tradition descended from John Calvin and his Swiss and French colleagues, although there were some Lutherans in the mix, too—found themselves surrounded on the intellectual battlefield. On the one hand, they were fighting off the foes of the atheistic Enlightenment who were challenging the Bible’s truth claims. On the other hand, they were facing the scholastic theologians of the Catholic Counter-Reformation who were picking apart Protestant ideas in that annoyingly logical fashion that scholastics have. So these Protestant theologians were caught in a bind, and they responded by trying to out-rationalize the Enlightenment philosophers and be just as logical as the Catholic scholastics. They are really the founding fathers of the modern doctrine of inerrancy and this hyper-rationalistic, pseudo-scientific approach to scripture.

Now, this is only one of a number of approaches to Biblical authority that evangelicals developed. Take evangelicals in the tradition of John Wesley. John Wesley was generally very humble in his claims about what a human being could really know, and he developed what is now summarized as the Wesleyan quadrilateral, the idea that to discern God’s will, a Christian has to bring scripture into conversation with personal experience, human reason, and church tradition. And on top of this, Wesleyans came to emphasize Christ himself as God’s word, God’s central revelation, more than scripture. This gave them, historically, a little bit more wiggle room to accommodate the fruits of scientific discovery. Another example of an alternative approach to Biblical inspiration is the Anabaptist tradition. Traditionally, Anabaptists didn’t have a highly developed theory of Biblical inspiration. They were more concerned with the Bible as a guide to day-to-day living and weren’t so inclined to use it as a science textbook.

In the context of the battles between fundamentalists and modernists in the early twentieth century in America, many conservative Protestants across all of these traditions became very alarmed about cultural changes they saw, the way in which the authority of the Bible over human life in America seemed to be wobbling. Many of them were persuaded by this call to defend the inerrant Bible that originated among these Reform fundamentalists, so the doctrine of inerrancy filtered into these other traditions as well. And in some ways, they suffered from theological amnesia: some members of these traditions lost touch with their own heritage. So this one particular theory of how you interpret the Bible and apply it to modern life became seductive, persuasive, and certainly had the advantage of some very effective activists, people like Francis Schaeffer, who really created, I think, the theological ballast for the political platform of the ascendant Christian Right in the 70s and 80s.

R&P: The second half of the book, when you get into the 70s and 80s, there’s a kind of resurgence of dissidents: the new evangelical left and evangelical feminists. It seems that there has always been this conversation and dissention. You have the Reformed and the Wesleyans and everybody’s in conversation with each other and arguing all the time. How difficult was that to depict in your project and what effect do you think that has on evangelicalism today?

MW: This is why I got frustrated trying to come up with a bullet-point list of doctrines. The born-again experience is often considered the quintessence of evangelicalism, but there are plenty of people that I wanted to include as evangelicals who viewed conversion as a more incremental, rational process, so that didn’t really work for defining them. But you’re describing exactly why I thought this community has squabbled through its whole history, and so maybe the way to define it is really as a conversation or an argument among parties who disagree, but who are interested in shared questions and that’s why they keep participating.

I think the fight that emerges in the 70s and 80s among these folks that we come to call the “evangelical left” is a struggle to get control of the conversation, to say that they are not radicals or revisionists but authentic evangelicals. They asked: why can’t we say that Billy Graham and these fundamentalists who are embracing conservative politics are actually the revisionists? This fight over intellectual authority became a fight over history. Proof texts only get you so far, and so you see these different evangelicals appealing to the history of their own tradition, to try to say, we are the authentic representatives of what it is to be Southern Baptist or what it is to be Pentecostal. They turned to history as source of authority, but a source of authority that’s really no less contested than other theories of the Bible.

R&P: Billy Graham figured prominently in the book and he just celebrated his 95th birthday. Since you’ve spent a lot of time with his legacy over these last years, what, in your opinion, accounts for his status as an icon and his hand in all of this? It just seems that he’s kind of everywhere.

MW: I think that his prominence owes a lot to the era in which he began his career. Of course, he was an incredibly charismatic, dynamic preacher. But good timing is the main reason that he became the icon he did. His first major crusade—his breakout crusade in 1949 in Los Angeles—happened the same year that President Truman told America in a radio broadcast that “the basic source of our strength as a nation is spiritual.”  A few years later, Congress added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” to our currency. This was a time when many national politicians saw Judeo-Christianity, if not Christianity, as part of the fight against Communism and America’s role in the free world, and Americans were attending church in record numbers. I think Graham’s stature owes something to that context. I think, too, people sometimes caricature Billy Graham, the actual content of his message, as simplistic and jingoistic: convert to Christ, for we Americans are God’s chosen people. If you actually go back and look at his sermons, his sermons were far more balanced and I think he hit the perfect mix of self-criticism and encouragement. Certainly, his sermons are full of anti-Communist sloganeering, but also he’s clear that God loves us no more than he loves the Russians—he says that.

What I found in my own research is that evangelicalism was an immensely diverse community from its very origins but, in the context of World War II and its aftermath, Billy Graham and a circle of colleagues made the decision to appoint themselves as the spokesmen to the intelligent, secular mainstream on behalf of conservative Protestantism. They decided to be the face of evangelicalism. Billy Graham and his circle are associated with the founding of the magazine Christianity Today, the National Association of Evangelicals, and a couple of academic institutions—he was on the board of a new seminary in Pasadena, Fuller Theological Seminary, founded in 1947. This institution-building compelled other evangelicals to pay attention and define themselves against Billy Graham. In many cases they embraced him as one of their own; from Mennonites to Pentecostals, he had fans in all circles. But he also compelled people in these other traditions to think about who they were in relationship to the evangelicalism that Billy Graham seemed to represent. I do not think that Billy Graham has a successor. I don’t think there will ever be another figure who can give the appearance of consensus, even if that consensus was never real, in the way Graham did.

R&P: You lament that you really had to limit this intellectual history to white evangelicals. You could not include Latino, African American Protestants, Asian evangelicals. Why that decision? Was it just a matter of scope? What kind of project would it have been otherwise, if you can speak to that?

MW: In my journalistic work, I’ve done some research in, for example, conservative Protestant African-American communities. What I have found is that conservative Protestants in the black community, while they share many theological beliefs with white evangelicals, they are often very reluctant to use the evangelical label. I’ve encountered the same hesitation among Latino Protestants. They perceive “evangelical” as a white word. I think that much of what we’re talking about when we talk about evangelicalism—the heritage of the fundamentalist-modernist fights, the struggle over faith and reason—historically these have not been points of obsession or emphasis among nonwhite conservative Protestants. Certainly they have not had the same relationship to the American political system. Jerry Falwell’s anxiety in the late 1970s about getting involved in politics, his debate with other white conservative Protestants about whether they should just focus on saving souls in preparation for the end times—that conversation would strike many black conservative Protestants as absurd. For much of African-American history, the church was the only sphere of anything resembling political or cultural autonomy. It’s the cradle of the civil rights movement.

What I have found is those non-whites who do claim the label of evangelical do so for very thoughtful, considered reasons and it’s because they want to opt into certain conversations. The debate about the end times is not an issue that historically has preoccupied black or Latino conservative Protestants. Neither has the fight over creationism. If you really grilled black or Latino Protestants on this question, many of them would say, “I prefer the Genesis narrative to Darwin’s account, but do I get worked up about it? No. I’m more concerned about educational opportunities for my kids and more concerned about structural injustice.” It seemed to me that the narratives of black conservative Protestants or Latinos or Asians, while there are certainly important points of connection, are narratives that need to be treated on their own terms. Now, toward the end of my book, as I found myself writing about white evangelicals’ engagement with the Global South, with non-white potential converts and non-white Christians, I ran up against the limits of my own definition of evangelicalism. I think it works as a historical definition that describes evangelicalism pretty well from its origins through its expansion in the northern half of the western hemisphere, but it begins to break down once you get out beyond the purview of the European enlightenment and the fundamentalist-modernist battles. The meaning of the word evangelical is just so complicated. Elsewhere in the world, in Latin America, “evangelical” simply means you’re not Catholic. So I’m very aware of the limits of what I’ve done.

R&P: I’m going back to something you had mentioned earlier: journalism led into this project. You have pursued your writing in academia and in journalism, and readers will remember your New York Times magazine pieces and that you’ve written for R&P. As a young scholar, how do you balance those two passions and how do they inform one another?

MW: I was strategic in how I framed my studies. I went to graduate school because I wanted to be a religion writer, not because I knew I wanted to have an academic career. I positioned myself to study the twentieth century so I would have something to say. I had doubts about that at first because I am a closet medievalist. I would have been very happy studying fourteenth-century Carthusians. But I quickly realized that to understand what’s going on today, I had to do my homework in previous centuries, so I could indulge all those interests.

I went into graduate school with the goal that I would try to do some freelancing on the side, so I would always try to be attuned to connections between my research and the news headlines. The key to cultivating this habit is to simply make time, ideally once a week, to develop a file on your computer called “story ideas” where you brainstorm connections between what you’re reading in your studies and what you’re reading in the newspaper. It is a matter of training your mind to see those links, and once you’ve begun to do that, you’ll see them frequently. Then of course it’s a matter of developing relationships with editors. I had none when I began. I just emailed editors cold. You strike out a lot but eventually you get lucky. You land something on an editor’s desk at exactly the moment they are looking for something like that, and you do a couple more things for them and they begin to trust you. And it’s hard because it is such a volatile industry. I’ve developed relationships with editors only to see them leave for another job or get fired and then I have to start over from scratch. Another key is developing the ability to turn around a short text in a very quick period of time to keep up with the news cycle we live in now. You do have to be able to just sit down and pound it out and not worry too much if it’s not the most perfect thing you’ve ever written. Just make peace with that and send it into the world. That’s what editors really value. Once you start to do that I think it gets easier each time. Lately I’ve been doing what I would call more “deep trend” pieces that are not so dependent on coinciding exactly with the right moment in the news cycle but rather explain some general thing that’s going on in our culture. I work on them for months and do a lot of phone interviews. I can’t travel as much as I used to; in graduate school you have more free time than you’ll ever have again, and I urge grad students to use it.

R&P: We’ll stop there. Thank you so much for being a part of this conversation for the journal.

MW: Thank you for having me. 

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