The Evangelical Century? Reappraising the Significance of Religion in the Modern United States

AHA Session 184
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Kansas City Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Anthea Butler, University of Pennsylvania
Paul W. Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs

Session Abstract

The twentieth century United States, according to the standard narratives, was defined by growing secularism and pluralism. Heavy immigration of Jews and Catholics in the progressive era, and of Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims since the 1960s, created what scholar Diana Eck calls “a new religious America,” one in which no single group has a monopoly on power. The members of this panel are not so sure. While there is no doubt that the United States is far more diverse today than it was in 1900, American evangelicals have nevertheless managed to shape the nation’s trajectory in important ways in the last one hundred years. Building on new archival research, these papers seek to reappraise the significance of American evangelicalism in the modern United States.  

Alison Greene focuses on an important shift that began in the 1930s. Until the Great Depression, the nation’s established churches were on an upward trajectory in both numbers and influence. But the Great Depression crippled the Protestant establishment. At the same time, the economic crisis made room for evangelical and pentecostal churches that emphasized individual salvation and authentic religious experience. While the established churches struggled to maintain programming and participation, upstart evangelicals and pentecostals employed creative techniques and a core of committed volunteers to keep church operations afloat and expand membership. While it would be decades before evangelicals and pentecostals rivaled their established counterparts in numbers and national influence, the Great Depression marked the beginning of a gradual transition of power from the mainline to its upstart rivals.

Matthew Sutton’s research builds on Greene’s findings and tells the story of the 1940s and 1950s, when evangelicalism emerged as a major cultural force with a political lobby located in Washington D.C. (the National Association of Evangelicals) and a new, powerful spokesperson (Billy Graham). He argues that the key to understanding evangelical ascension can be found in the context of World War II. First, the war illustrates the significance of global events in defining evangelicals’ notions of faith. Although historians have long treated evangelicalism as a native species nourished by local and regional concerns, the movement grew and evolved more often in response to international events. Second, the war demonstrates the preeminence of evangelicals’ apocalyptic ideology in shaping their worldview. Their conviction that the rise of the Antichrist was imminent defined evangelical engagement with the nation throughout the Cold War. 

Steven Miller examines more recent expressions of evangelism. He argues that the growing prominence of Reagan-era evangelicalism produced two metaphors that profoundly informed subsequent discussions of faith and public life: Richard John Neuhaus’ “naked public square” and James Davison Hunter’s “culture war.” Neuhaus argued that secular elites had “systemically excluded from policy consideration the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief,” while Hunter described a conflict between “progressive” and “orthodox” forces in American society. In the end, neither metaphor could transcend a defining characteristic of late twentieth-century America: the complex, often ironic influences of evangelicalism on U.S. politics and culture.

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