Beyond Belief | The Nation


Beyond Belief

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Ralph Winter, Vergil Gerber, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. (Wheaton College)

Apostles of Reason
The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.
By Molly Worthen.
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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment
The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief.
By George M. Marsden.
Buy this book

Once again, though, appealing surrogate battles loomed in the foreground. The restive evangelical world espied a new set of worldly pressure valves that might release its own intolerable sense of uncertainty in the face of the historically unyielding demands of biblical certitude. This time, as Worthen writes, the outlet of first resort was to be national politics:

Commentators persist in understanding the rise of the Christian Right narrowly, in terms of conservative Christians’ mobilization to fight secular liberals at the ballot box and in the courts over issues so familiar they are now cliché, ranging from the secularization of public education to women’s and gay rights. However, these contests unfolded alongside an intellectual awakening, and their outcome owes as much to evangelicals’ internal struggles over authority as it does to their campaigns against secular liberals. The “battle for the Bible” was so brutal because something greater than the lessons taught in Sunday sermons was at stake.

Sensing new opportunities for attention and influence, a new breed of evangelical leader—what Worthen calls the “evangelical guru”—stepped forward to market popular new Bible certainties and to depict themselves as heroic last-ditch defenders of the faith. Francis Schaeffer, who spent much of his life maintaining a Swiss counterculturalist evangelical enclave called L’Abri, barnstormed the United States in the 1970s on a tour that repackaged evangelical piety as nothing less than the last firewall holding back an apocalyptic secular humanist assault on the very idea of Western civilization. Around the same time, a former Campus Crusade for Christ operative named Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth, a tortured literalist effort to read the drama of the final pages of Revelation into the recessionary, ennui-laden headlines of the 1970s. Lindsey’s heavy-breathing prophecy tract has clocked more than 28 million in sales to date, and by the end of the ’70s The New York Times proclaimed it the bestselling book of the decade.

In intellectual terms, Schaeffer and Lindsey were hacks at best, charlatans at worst—but as Worthen notes, both men took great pains to stud their end-times preachments with learned references to classical history, modern philosophy and, of course, the inerrant word of God as preserved in Scripture. The net effect “made the reader feel smart, in the know, and personally involved in history’s climax.” Both authors had imbibed enough of the neo-evangelical gospel to preserve at least the facade of the engaged public intellectual. More successfully than any of their predecessors in the neo-evangelical world of theology and letters, Schaeffer and Lindsey institutionalized their own heightened sense of cultural and intellectual anxiety; but instead of pursuing the finer points of biblical doctrine or denominational orthodoxy, they made use of the far more capacious canvas of end-of-the-world alarmism to render their message in the broadest, brightest strokes of fulfilled prophecy.

Thus was the final irony of the neo-evangelical uprising brought to garish fruition: from a movement bound and determined to best its intellectual detractors at their own game, the evangelical right’s great twentieth-century quest for authority had devolved into a militantly oversimplified and slogan-driven gospel of end-times preparedness that required little more of believers than to scan the day’s headlines—and then bless the Lord’s grander design in reflexive fear and trembling.

* * *

What lay ahead, as recent Protestant history glumly testifies, was a decades-long land rush for opportunists, political consultants and garden-variety purveyors of snake oil. But the great virtue of Worthen’s pathbreaking and gracefully narrated book is its capacity to document the cynical heyday of the religious right as the final act in a serious—and serially unresolved—effort to place the foundations of evangelical piety on a more rigorous intellectual footing. The tremendous popular and political success of the evangelical right, in other words, is inadvertent testimony to the intellectual failures that made its rise to power possible in the first place. The ascendancy of the religious right, she writes,

was the product of a long struggle within evangelicalism, in which leaders with very different opinions and priorities vied to convince believers of their true duties to God and to their fellow man. In a religious tradition in which no single authority had ever reigned for long, in which sola scriptura [the theology of salvation by the Bible alone] had released a cascade of quarrels and no faction could resist issuing a creed, a declaration, a “call,” or a list of “fundamentals” to define itself against its kin, Schaeffer, [Jerry] Falwell, and other self-appointed spokesmen of the Christian Right appeared, to casual observers, to reflect some kind of consensus. One must not underestimate the power in this illusion of solidarity—but one should not take it for reality, either.

Worthen’s disclaimer here is especially valuable when laid alongside George Marsden’s quite divergent account of midcentury intellectual history, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment. Marsden’s paean to a vanished moment of broad intellectual consensus—and resurgent Protestant piety—at the outset of the Cold War serves as a photographic negative of the argument that Worthen advances in Apostles of Reason. In Marsden’s telling, the central crack-up of the last century came about via the decomposition of liberal pragmatism, the broad philosophical outlook that united agenda-setting thinkers of the age such as John Dewey, Reinhold Niebuhr, David Reisman, Daniel Bell and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

These figures, and the kindred artists, philosophers and cultural critics who clustered around their point of view, represent the unwitting twilight hour of confident liberal moral prescription, Marsden argues. They “were living in the last days before a cultural revolution” and succumbed to the characteristic liberal sin of complacency:

Although they had no idea what was coming, they were correct in identifying a deep crisis regarding the quality of their civilization. They in fact anticipated some of the complaints that young people would take to the streets in the later 1960s. Yet, in retrospect, we can see that they had no solutions beyond more of the same. Their responses to the perceived emptiness of much of modern life typically amounted to shoring up the levees of the consensus culture, and these levees were wildly inadequate for holding back the floodwaters of cultural upheaval that were about to crash against them.

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