Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief

Conservative religious thinkers and their intellectual crusades.


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.

Apostles of Reason, Molly Worthen’s anatomy of the modern evangelical quest for surer footing in questions of scriptural authority, highlights some of the better-known excesses of the conservative religious world: its mania for absolute moral certitude, its unquestioning embrace of biblical inerrancy, its attraction to badly truncated and distorted accounts of doctrinal and church history—all are symptoms of a common modern intellectual malaise. Yet Worthen, who is not an evangelical herself but takes the intellectual struggles of the community quite seriously as a scholar, depicts the movement in a light that is at once far more nuanced and sympathetic than what passes for serious analysis on the left, while also supplying an intellectual profile of modern evangelical thought that’s at least as damning as the far more visceral secular denunciations of the religious right.

In Worthen’s account, conservative religious thinkers aren’t a perverse breed of demagogue possessed by crude reveries of cultural power; instead, they are—much like their counterparts in the secular world of intellect—convulsed by waves of doubt, status anxiety and existential drift. And much like their less orthodox academic cousins, these figures have sought to tamp down their personal and intellectual anxieties with institutional remedies: new academic concentrations, seminaries and departments; greater fealty to the rites of credentialed scholarship; and closely monitored modes of internal message discipline.

Such measures point to what should be an obvious trend, at least for dispassionate students of modern religious controversy: evangelical thinkers recognized the general thrust of the secular academic world’s indictment of the intellectual shortcomings of faith, and sought to refute it with their own parallel set of professional initiatives and scholarly canons, designed to one-up the achievements of culturally influential skeptics while also securing the eternal verities of faith within their own protective bounds.

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One key plank of this ambitious project was the doctrine of “presuppositionalism”—a typically multisyllabic mouthful from the movement that made a popular slogan, earlier in the twentieth century, of “premillennial dispensationalism.” Presuppositional thought began as a campaign among Dutch Reformed theologians to situate the ultimate authority of the Bible amid the broader currents of modern cultural and religious pluralism. It largely originated with Abraham Kuyper, a dynamic religious theorist who would become the prime minister of the Netherlands. Kuyper argued that believers could sustain competing faith commitments in a religiously pluralistic society on the basis of their broader shared outlook of faith—the presuppositions, in other words, that informed their most intimate assumptions about how the world should be understood. Because they rarely encountered a Teutonic word cluster they didn’t like, the early fundamentalists also commonly referred to this body of presuppositions—and those that informed the competing “secular” mind-set of relativism and skepticism—as a Weltanschauung.

In the great tumult of America’s fundamentalist/modernist divide, Kuyper’s doctrine was sharpened and refined by a Princeton theologian and Dutch émigré named Cornelius Van Til. In Van Til’s hands, the genial pluralism of Kuyper’s public theology hardened into a far more unstinting assertion of absolute—and incommensurate—assumptions about the world, separating out the believers from the nonbelievers. As Worthen writes:

Van Til reacted strongly against…the emphasis on proving Christian truths with the aid of worldly evidence outside revelation. He argued that a nonbeliever cannot interpret such evidence accurately because, without faith, he reasons from the wrong assumptions. Van Til denied the Enlightenment ideal of the pure, objective fact, insisting instead that no assumptions are neutral, and that the human mind can comprehend reality only by proceeding from the truth of biblical revelation. It is impossible, then, for Christians to reason with non-Christians.

This sounds like a curiously postmodern gloss on the limits of objectivity and impartial inquiry—except that Van Til conceived his strictly rationalist methodology as a heightened defense of biblical certitude rather than an open-ended invitation to undermine a grand narrative. Indeed, for Van Til and his fellow presuppositionalists, the Bible was the only grand narrative that mattered. It was something to be handled with the utmost deference—and dismissed, scorned or mocked at the gravest peril. A hard-line Calvinist colleague of Van Til, the theologian Gordon Clark, was in dead earnest when he proposed that “if humanists wish to be completely consistent, they ought to kill themselves.”

That particular presupposition isn’t apt to win many skeptical or humanist converts. Nor did it prove all that fortifying to the cohort of thinkers Worthen calls “neo-evangelicals”—religious intellectuals earnestly seeking an equal footing in debates over the place of science and faith in the modern world. As Worthen observes, the presuppositionalist outlook offered little in the way of the vital and unquestioned authority that the postwar cohort of neo-evangelicals so conspicuously craved. Like other blanket assertions of dogmatic truth, the presuppositionalist gambit wound up revealing far more about the inward anxieties of the enforcers of orthodoxy than it did about their improved understanding of our common world.

Even as neo-evangelicals experimented with new elaborations of fundamentalist thought—and new outlets for its expression, such as the weekly magazine Christianity Today, founded in 1956—their efforts succumbed to their own well-honed penchant for schismatic absolutism and separatism. It was a central irony of the movement that, as it redoubled its claim to preserve an incontrovertible faith, the actual reach of its thought was hamstrung by the separatist logic of that claim. Put another way, neo-evangelicals were pretty much washouts as institution builders. “The neo-evangelicals were refugees from churches conquered by modernists a generation earlier,” Worthen writes, “and this freed them to preach across denominational lines. Yet when it came to institution-building, a separatist hangover combined with the ideological mindset of the early Cold War to dampen any ecumenical spirit.” As a result, their bids for greater cultural outreach were distinctly neurotic—preach doctrinal purity as diligently as they might, “their efforts did not calm evangelical anxieties over the place of the Bible in modern life: Instead, they institutionalized them.”

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Neo-evangelicals weren’t disposed to dwell on such cultural ironies. Instead, later thinkers and activists would try to burrow their way out of the movement’s core and defining anxiety to cultivate more robust modes of evangelization, the better to demonstrate the expansive reach of God’s favor, even in the fallen modern world. In the field of evangelical missionizing, for example, the Church Growth movement deployed the insights of the social sciences—anthropology in particular—to make the case for conversions predicated less on the inner state of the individual soul (the traditional currency of evangelical revival in the United States) than on the basic social units of family and tribe in the developing world. In addition, the advocates of Church Growth, such as the celebrated midcentury missionary Donald McGavran, steered evangelical leaders past their reflexive ethnocentrism, especially when it came to the movement’s generally reactionary views on race. “To Christianize a whole people, the first thing not to do is to snatch individuals out of it into a different society,” McGavran taught. “Peoples become Christians where a Christward movement occurs within that society.” Exhibit A for McGavran’s position, at least in the wider popular culture, was the success of the great midcentury revivalist and missionary Billy Graham—an anthropology graduate of the prestigious evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois, who refused to segregate his revivals in the Jim Crow South while also conducting phenomenally successful evangelical crusades in South America and Asia.

The Church Growth movement sprang from the same set of impulses that fed the scholarly appeal of presuppositionalism, Worthen notes:

The [Church Growth] discipline appealed to evangelical intellectuals for the same reasons that presuppositionalist apologetics often did, even if Church Growth’s claims of scientific objectivity seemed to contradict Van Til’s old objection that such impartiality was impossible. Both systems of thought equipped evangelicals to embrace the modern vogue of cultural relativism—to acknowledge that human beings’ worldviews arose from culturally informed assumptions—without relinquishing the ultimate truth of Christianity.

But here, too, ironies would abound. Much of the momentum behind Church Growth, in the United States and abroad, came at the behest of the great charismatic revival of the 1960s and ’70s—an intensely experiential mode of worship that restored the individualist model of conversion to the center of the missionizing enterprise, while also pointedly overthrowing the lovingly crafted regime of consistent reason erected in the presuppositionalist academy. What’s more, within another generation the principles of Church Growth would receive their fullest application in the exurbs of America—fueling the monumentalist and anti-theological mega-church boom that now occupies the vanguard of evangelical expansion in the United States.

This maddening, recursively atomistic logic continued to dog the neo-evangelical project into its functional moment of implosion. Having largely failed in their efforts to establish revived institutions and on-message missions, the neo-evangelicals went on to sow another brand of ironic and destabilizing doubt around the most pivotal of all evangelical institutions: the Bible itself. By the mid 1970s, the central doctrine of scriptural inerrancy was in retreat among neo-evangelical thinkers—and in a cruel mimicry of the ruptures that had broken out in mainline Protestant denominations in the 1920s, the rock-ribbed bastions of literalist belief were descending into their own brand of Bible wars. Dozens of new interpretive studies and Bible translations battled for supremacy in the unruly marketplace of evangelical ideas about Scripture. Southern Baptists, the largest evangelical denomination in the country, had signed on to a moderate scheme of Bible interpretation in 1960; once-reliable strongholds of inerrancy such as California’s Fuller Theological Seminary now harbored a slew of moderate and historicist-minded Bible scholars; and a new generation of evangelical thinkers ranged much more freely in the debates over the Bible’s authority and literary history than the presuppositionalist old guard ever could have imagined possible. If Gordon Clark’s dogmatic vision of the great and incommensurable biblical truth-in-revelation still held sway, the field of evangelical Bible study might well have been littered with suicide victims.

* * *

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.

Unwieldy metaphor aside, the crucial intellectual lapse of the midcentury liberals was to act as if they were administering a coherent moral order they had inadvertently lost sight of. So long as the sturdy precepts of Cold War cultural assertion and political unity held firm, Marsden maintains, liberal pragmatists did not need to dwell on the abysses opening up just beyond the reach of their seminar rooms and small magazines. The bulwarks of this worldview certainly looked impressive enough, as Marsden ticks them off: “World War II patriotism, Cold War anxieties, inherited American ideals, similar religious and moral heritages, and a burgeoning economy that provided most people with at least the hope of sharing in the American dream.” With this battery of moral and cultural resources behind it, “pragmatism could draw on shared moral capital and act both as an effective broker and as a moderating influence that could help build further consensus.”

But in a deeper, metaphysical sense, the vision of such a consensus was receding into the sloughs of relativism and pluralism. The high priests of pragmatism, devoted to a serenely self-satisfied gospel of incremental muddling through, could only dimly sense the approaching moment of crisis. And this enormous secular blind spot, Marsden maintains, was what created the great moment of opportunity for conservative evangelicals—much more so than any of the self-inflicted weaknesses and ironies recorded in Worthen’s study of intellectual drift on the evangelical right. In Marsden’s telling, the prophets of the religious right were agents of desperately needed cultural and moral certitude. For all their well-known inclinations toward schism and cultural separation, the leading lights of the evangelical right “were heirs also to an even more deeply rooted American evangelical heritage…when Protestant dominance was taken for granted…. Furthermore, almost no matter how separatist and ardently premillennialist the fundamentalists and other conservative evangelicals became, they had remained fervently patriotic and anti-Communist.”

When the dust settled on all the core upheavals of the ’60s—the antiwar New Left; the Freudian, neo-Marxist and structuralist boomlets in the academy; the rise of second-wave feminism; and the collapse of the religiously inspired early phase of civil rights activism into theatrical and destructive Black Power gambits—the stage was set for a resurgent, and deeply conservative, grand narrative of cultural ruin and renewal. As in Worthen’s book, Francis Schaeffer emerges as a key thinker in Marsden’s chronicle, articulating a gathering sense of millennial urgency on the newly militant evangelical right. And Marsden clearly shares Worthen’s view of Schaeffer as a crude oversimplifier of intellectual history: by substituting the bogey of “secular humanism” for the once-reputable tenets of liberal pragmatism, Schaeffer gave his following a chiliastic vision of cultural conflict, in which a “Christian base” had to be roused to join the final conflict against “the tyrannical, secularist, humanistic power.”

* * *

But unlike Worthen, Marsden doesn’t place Schaeffer at the demoralized rear-guard of a massive breakdown of intellectual discipline on the evangelical right. Indeed, one of Schaeffer’s unacknowledged oversights, Marsden suggests, was that he unwittingly shared in the very Enlightenment tradition that he was attempting to banish to the margins of the American spiritual consensus. “The strictly biblicist heritage fosters a rhetoric that sounds theocratic and culturally imperialist, and in which a Christian consensus would seem to allow little room for secularists or their rights,” Marsden writes. But these same figures remained in thrall to an Enlightenment legacy that privileges “the necessity of protecting freedoms, especially the personal and economic freedoms of the classically liberal tradition.” As a result, Marsden argues, when evangelical thinkers like Schaeffer talk “about returning to a ‘Christian’ America, they may sound as though they would return to the days of the early Puritans; yet, practically speaking, the ideal they are invoking is tempered by the American enlightenment and is reminiscent of the days of the informal Protestant establishment, when Christianity was respected, but most of the culture operated on more secular terms.”

Marsden is persuasive here—until he overreaches. It’s true that in annexing the American founding and most of its skeptical Enlightenment apostles to the broader sweep of a redeemed Christian history, Schaeffer and others like him at least paid lip service to the rationalist ideals of religious toleration—a tradition, moreover, that was deeply imprinted in the history of dissenting Protestant denominations such as Baptism. But there’s little suggestion, in the general brunt of the emerging religious right’s brief against the secular humanist enemy, that the ideals of toleration merit much more than lip service. As a result, the fussy and procedural details involved in the pluralist accommodation of conflicting beliefs were decisively swamped by the far more grandiose narrative of secular and religious forces locked in a permanent power struggle. Indeed, Marsden’s consensus-minded interpretive scheme deliberately downplays the most salient feature of Schaeffer’s thought: his depiction of the secular/religious divide as an all-out culture war, permitting no real accommodation beyond the ultimate and grisly outcomes spelled out in the Book of Revelation.

It’s difficult, in surveying the arc of Marsden’s argument, to avoid the conclusion that the author is imposing his own set of theological presuppositions on the scene before him. For starters, the collapse of sober Enlightenment consensus into the rancor of interest-driven identity politics is more than a simple fable of religious declension. As Todd Gitlin, Russell Jacoby, Christopher Lasch and other critics of the university left’s overeager repudiation of Enlightenment reason have made clear, the chief culprit isn’t a destructive suspension of belief. Rather, the Enlightenment’s atrophy in America would seem to stem from a much broader retreat into a vision of politics as therapy by other means. Would that this dynamic could be remedied by something as relatively straightforward as a recovered sense of agreeably democratic Protestant purpose; in reality, it had far more to do with the high-capitalist ethos of rampant consumerism that the New Left and its legatees were rhetorically committed to undo.

Indeed, the trouble with The Twilight of the American Enlightenment stems from a misplaced sense of revivalist enthusiasm—the notion that, despite all the excesses of the oppositional Christianist elite, its members and adherents can be won back to a more spiritually robust version of the culturally passive modes of religious tolerance naïvely preached by the American Enlightenment and its self-appointed guardians in the house of midcentury liberal pragmatism.

Pinpointing the source of this ardent faith in a so-far-mythical strain of enlightened evangelical pluralism is difficult. Marsden is, more than any other living scholar of our religious history, a vital and engaged chronicler of the often-tangled byways of dissenting Protestant faith and the ur-American quest for a higher cosmic purpose. His landmark 1980 study Fundamentalism and American Culture single-handedly rescued his subject from the condescension of a secular posterity; and his 2003 biography of the great eighteenth-century Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards is a towering achievement, an unequaled work of intellectual biography. In The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, he wrestled candidly with the dilemmas of spiritually committed historical inquiry and made a persuasive case for its critical importance—a case that many of his students have gone on to prove further in their own pioneering works of religious history. So it’s more than passing strange to see Marsden now trying to remedy an alleged state of advanced liberal cultural exhaustion with fresh infusions of anodyne civic-Protestant faith, as though the perils of post-Enlightenment life in the United States could be dispelled by simply reviving familiar, if largely forgotten, first principles of toleration.

The contradictory impulses on display in The Twilight of the American Enlightenment may well help explain why Marsden’s study finally alights on the author’s own plea for a sort of Protestant revival—by suggesting that American thinkers more closely examine, and appropriate to their own ends, the model of plural religious observance advanced by Abraham Kuyper. That’s right: Marsden is proposing that we move beyond the present impasse in the annals of evangelical controversy by returning to the Dutch theologian and statesman who inspired Cornelius Van Til to envision an evangelical order of pure and absolute presuppositionalist certainty. The testimony that Molly Worthen has painstakingly assembled in her tale of evangelical intellectual declension makes it bracingly clear just how calamitous such an experiment could prove to be.

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