Evangelical History Overturned

Editor’s Note: This is part 3 in our Lyceum Disputation series from various historians considering competing visions of historical methodology. See Part 1 here and part 2 here. Stay tuned for further installments. As with all our work, the London Lyceum publishes a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

Imagine writing the history of a religious group that had just been the decisive part of the electorate that gave the victory to a controversial presidential candidate. Throw in that many Americans had known for a while about this group’s politics and the policies of the candidate they supported. If you were a young historian, setting out on a career, what would your attitude be? Would you try to explain this group’s political profile and so add to some of the elite opinion makers’ contempt for these Americans who helped a disreputable figure in office? Or would you try to explain these believers as believers, as a distinct branch of western Christianity and American Protestantism? Remember that you have little support in mainstream academic circles which are dominated by the antagonists of the group you are studying.

That was in some ways the predicament facing not historians studying evangelicals after the election of Donald Trump but young scholars, recently out of grad school, after the election of Ronald Reagan. Indeed, when George Marsden, Mark Noll, and Nathan Hatch set out on a remarkable tag team effort (with lots of help from a bevy of scholars and hefty sums from foundations) to understand American evangelicalism, they were writing in a fairly hostile environment. Neither academic elites nor newspaper editors were inclined to think well of a group of Protestants, recently anointed as the Moral Majority, who had voted in large numbers for Reagan. If journalists had ever considered born-again Protestantism before Jimmy Carter’s claim to be such a Christian, they associated it with Billy Graham who had associations with revivalism, perfectionism, anti-Communism, and appeared to be a pawn for presidents. Two weeks before the 1980 national election, Anthony Lewis, then one of the New York Times’ heavy weights on its editorial pages, wrote that the “most important issue” of the impending vote was not inflation or foreign policy but “the role of religion in American politics.” The reason was that Ronald Reagan had encouraged “evangelical groups” to intervene “forcefully . . . on behalf of right-wing causes.” Lewis added that James Madison “would not recognize the First Amendment in Reagan’s” campaign rhetoric.

Despite difficult origins, within thirty years, evangelicalism, at least in its intellectual aspects, had gained respectability. That is one way, at least, of reading the cover story in the Atlantic monthly with the title, “The Opening of the Evangelical Mind.” In that piece, the sociologist, Alan Wolfe, exclaimed that because of the work of historians such as Mark Noll, George Marsden, Joel Carpenter, and Nathan Hatch, “no serious student of American history can any longer dismiss evangelical Christianity as little more than a backward reaction against modernity.” In addition to observing evangelical contributions to law, philosophy, publishing, and even psychology, Wolfe praised evangelical scholars for keeping “alive a humanistic tradition of writing about poetry and fiction “at a time when humanities departments at American universities are obsessed with theory.” Part of the reason for Wolfe’s praise was that evangelicals were “trying to create a life of the mind” at the very same moment that many in American higher education questioned whether “a mind was worth having.”

How did these scholars, led most visibly by historians, polish a faith that when it started in the 1940s labored under the stigma of fundamentalism? James Turner, an intellectual historian at Notre Dame, traced the success of the evangelical mind to two factors. One was the proliferation of learned societies – Conference on Faith and History, the Society of Christian Philosophers, Christians in Political Science – which provided spaces for evangelical scholars to reflect on the relations between faith and scholarship. The other source was the influence Abraham Kuyper and neo-Calvinism, an outlook that rippled out from Calvin College in Grand Rapids to Wheaton, Gordon, Trinity College, and Westmont. Kuyper’s model, often applied selectively, inspired evangelical scholars to regard intellectual labor as a means of serving God. Equally important to the revival of the evangelical mind was the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals (ISAE), the brainchild of Noll and Hatch, headquartered at Wheaton College, which between 1980 and 2014, functioned as the intellectual hub of evangelical scholars. As Turner wrote, the ISAE established itself as not merely the “intellectual and organizational center of New Evangelical History,” but it had recast the history of the United States in such a way as to reveal “the centrality of American evangelicalism” in the nation’s history.

Soon after the ISAE closed its doors, thanks to decisions at Wheaton College and the declining involvement of the scholars who were responsible for its success, the election of Donald Trump put evangelicalism back in the news. Most coverage of conservative Protestants was unflattering. People who promoted sanctity and faith, the logic ran, had voted in overwhelming numbers for a presidential candidate who was as sordid as he was a huckster. What would happen to evangelical history at the moment when its chief storytellers were retiring and evangelical Protestants seemed to be responsible for the election of a candidate who represented the opposite of born-again faith?

An early answer in the Trump era was France Fitzgerald’s 2017 book, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. A feminist and left-leaning journalist, Fitzgerald produced a massive study that relied on the scholarship that evangelical historians from the 1980s to the 2010s had produced. In The Evangelicals, which must have been finished before the 2016 Republican primaries, none of the traits that many Americans associate with evangelicals after four years of Trump were obvious. Fitzgerald attempted to show how a populist religious movement in colonial North America became a major force in post-1960s American politics. A book that was a finalist for the National Book Award received praise in the New York Times as a “fair-minded overview of this vitally important religious sensibility.” Thanks to almost six years of denouncing white evangelicals, Fitzgerald’s assessment now looks naive. And yet upon its release in 2017 it reflected the dominant understanding of evangelicalism thanks to the historians who had cultivated the study of conservative Protestantism in the Reagan era.

Almost overnight a new but hardly improved version of evangelical history has emerged, often from historians who studied with the older group of historians (like Marsden and Noll), which sounds much more like coverage of Trumpist evangelicalism in the New York Times and Washington Post than the pages of Reforming Fundamentalism or America’s God. However respected authors like Fitzgerald may have evaluated evangelicals, many mid-career historians working at evangelical colleges and universities received the news that eighty-one percent of white evangelicals had voted for Donald Trump poorly. The year 2018 may have been the tipping point. It began with Timothy Gloege, a University of Notre Dame graduate and author of a well-received book on Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, who questioned directly FitzGerald’s contention that evangelicalism is chiefly a religious phenomenon. How much did conversion, Gloege wondered, explain born-again Protestants when conversion was also part of Islam’s history? A high view of the Bible, for Gloege, was similarly unreliable as a guide to what made evangelicals stand apart. Historians had invested too much into “respectability” scholarship to hide evangelicalism’s dark side (the one capable of voting for Trump). Gloege concluded that a religious definition of evangelicalism “needed to be retired.”

The year 2018 concluded with a peculiar debate about whether scholars could count the eighteenth-century African-American poet and former slave, Phillis Wheatley, as an evangelical. Perhaps the debate was ephemeral because much of it played out on Twitter. But a major contention by those who wanted to deny Wheatley’s evangelical identity was her own silence about identifying as born-again. Other historians pushed back. Wheatley was clearly part of a group of people who had experienced conversion during the so-called First Great Awakening and penned a poem about George Whitefield on the occasion of his death. What gave the question gravity was again Trump. The 2016 vote gave room for scholars to consider white supremacy within evangelicalism and the propriety of including African-Americans in a religious identity so racially constructed. Few seemed to realize that asking Wheatley to self-identify as an evangelical was anachronistic since the category itself arose primarily as a marker for American Protestants outside the mainline denominations only after World War II.

Since 2018 books and articles, often from authors with ties either to the first generation of evangelical historians or to colleges and universities in the movement, have appeared at a fevered pace, all with Trump looming as the White Witch in the evangelical Narnia. In the post-2016 context, old definitions and stories became suspect because they could not account for a group of Christians, long known for family values and personal integrity, voting for a presidential candidate known for the opposite of evangelical sanctity. John Fea, a historian of colonial America at Messiah University, was the first to try to explain appeal to evangelicals in Believe Me (2018). He boiled the attraction down to fear of the other, the pursuit of worldly power, and nostalgia for a simple past. Fea did not try to define evangelicals beyond specifying that he was writing about whites who self-identified as such and who voted for Trump. His book highlighted Protestant bigotry, from anti-Catholicism to racism and xenophobia after 9/11. But Fea interacted little with the body of scholarship from the last forty years. His book was good for readers who wanted to understand why voting for Trump was inherently defective. It also raised questions why someone like Fea, who identifies as evangelical, would continue to.

Books such as Fea’s have generated an understanding – more like a dismissal – of evangelicalism that relies on categories often foreign to those who study religious history. These markers funnel into associations with Trump which in turn inspire pieces such as Elizabeth Spiers’ article on Jerry Falwell, Jr. for the New York Review of Books. She used the salacious details and allegations about the Liberty University president and wife (written about a week before Falwell was forced to resign) to build on her own experience as a child in the Southern Baptist Convention. There masculinity was toxic and pervasive. Falwell had received barely a shrug from evangelicals because “men are allowed, even expected, to behave this way.” Evangelicalism’s patriarchal culture also explained the pro-life position for Spiers. The point is “not to prevent abortion but to police sex” and women because “sexuality belongs to men.” They are “its custodians.” (By way of comparison, when Garry Wills reviewed Fitzgerald’s book for the New York Review of Books, Jerry Falwell the elder received no special attention beyond the mention that he had been a separatist who, as most separatists do, “came out of his cave.”)

Calvin University historian, Kristin Kobes Du Mez, traced the history behind Spiers’ article in her recent book, Jesus and John Wayne: How Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020). It begins, as most commentary on evangelicalism since 2017 has, with the hypocrisy of “family values” Protestants supporting a presidential candidate “who flouted every value they held dear.” Du Mez raises the stakes of historical scholarship about evangelicals by arguing that the 2016 vote was no aberration. It was actually the culmination of evangelicalism’s long standing “militant masculinity, an ideology that enshrines patriarchal authority and condones the callous display of power, at home and abroad.” This outlook explains for Du Mez why evangelicals are more likely to oppose immigration, support a border wall, suspect Muslims of violence, condone torture, and affirm the death penalty. Another historian trained at the University of Notre Dame, Du Mez conceded that two groups of believers comprised evangelicalism, one cultural and one elite. For the latter, the older history and definition that reigned prior to Trump made sense of evangelicalism as chiefly a set of beliefs and devotional practices. Beneath the surface of institutions and respectable publications was a “cultural” evangelicalism that included everything from contemporary Christian music to books on child-rearing and romance novels. That broader evangelical populace prevailed with Trump’s election as POTUS.

In his review of Du Mez’s book (and others) for The New Republic, Matthew Sutton, spelled out the implications of the recent exposure of evangelicalism’s dark side. A historian who has challenged the main narrative of evangelicalism even before 2016 with books on Aimee Semple McPherson and millennialism, Sutton was ready and possibly eager to demonstrate that evangelical leaders “projected a whitewashed vision of their movement.” The older generation of evangelical historians (and journalists), however, “swallowed” that sanitized version. Trump revealed the true state of affairs. “Fear, anger, and anxiety” were as central to born-again Protestants as were “forgiveness, love, understanding, and compassion.” In fact, separating evangelicalism from the “racism, sexism, and xenophobia that gave rise to the movement” was impossible.

Sutton seconded Du Mez’s call for readers “to dismantle” evangelicalism. Thomas Kidd’s entry in the new understanding of evangelicalism was in many ways a response to that call. Another graduate of Notre Dame, Kidd wrote Who Is an Evangelical? (2019) precisely to offer a definition and history that avoided Trump, politics, the Republican Party, and even caucasians. Himself still an advocate for evangelicalism (and a frequent blogger at The Gospel Coalition) while teaching history at Baylor University, Kidd retained the importance of the born-again experience. This enabled him also to keep some of the earlier history. The revivals of Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley were still important for the development of evangelicalism. But Kidd used the rest of a slim book to show that “whites do not appear . . . implicitly or explicitly, as the ‘normal’ evangelicals.” Who is an Evangelical? unfolds as a kaleidoscope of black, Hispanic, and female presence within evangelicalism’s many moving parts. With the exception of a chapter on the fundamentalist controversy, Kidd uses very little of the literature on evangelicalism that had become a mainstay in the study of American religion since 1980.

For anyone who has monitored the history of American religion since Henry F. May’s seminal 1964 article, “The Recovery of American Religious History,” the re-telling of evangelical history is staggering. No one says it directly, perhaps because of the etiquette that informs advisor-advisee relationships, but the pressing question is: how could Marsden, Noll, Hatch, and others have been so wrong? What blinded them to these other features of evangelicalism that it turns out were not simply part of the human condition but the very substance of evangelicalism itself? Perhaps these awkward questions remained unstated among the younger historians because the task of understanding evangelical support for Trump is so much more urgent than examining what contributed to an older generation of historians’ failure.

One possible explanation for the shift in interpretations of evangelicalism is opportunism. The historians that featured Trump in their analysis took advantage of a market and set of gatekeepers (editors and journalists) eager for material that elaborated how bad support for the president was. A somewhat less cynical explanation, though equally conjectural, is that these mid-career evangelical historians felt compelled by the demands of their faith to tell the truth about their fellow religious adherents.

Either way, the study of evangelicalism is in a crisis as much as the religious movement itself. The dominant understanding that had prevailed during a period of remarkable success for individual scholars along with the larger enterprise of evangelical higher education has become as suspect as the believers, churches, and agencies of which evangelical scholars had tried to make sense. Sometime during that period from “The Year of the Evangelical” (1976) to the eve of the 2016 presidential contest, evangelical scholarship and institutions exhibited a measure of triumphalism that put off other scholars and Christians. But it was a part of religion in America that seemed to be coherent, energetic, and large (maybe twenty-five percent of the population). Evangelicalism, as understood by its adherents and interpreters, also appeared to have preserved and propagated the core convictions of Christianity. Have the last five years (or so) of new scholarship proved that that older understanding was wrong, even a falsehood? If so, then several of the younger scholars who studied with Marsden, Noll, Hatch, and others will need to be as critical of their academic mentors as they have been of those evangelicals who voted Republican in the last two presidential elections.

Editor’s Note: The London Lyceum publishes a range of original pieces and book reviews from various faith traditions and viewpoints. It is not the mission of the London Lyceum to always publish work that agrees with our confession of faith. Therefore, the thoughts within the articles and reviews may or may not reflect our confessional commitments and are the opinions of the author alone. Rather, we seek to generate thinking and foster an intellectual culture of charity, curiosity, critical thinking, and cheerful confessionalism.


  • D. G. Hart

    D.G. Hart (PhD, Johns Hopkins University) is Distinguished Associate Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, rooted for the Phillies in the era of Richie Allen, attended university in the city, and lived there off and on for the better part of 15 years. Ever since then, his training in history has zigged and zagged from 1920s Baltimore and eighteenth-century Philadelphia to sixteenth-century Geneva and twentieth-century Wheaton. He is the author of numerous works, including Ben Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford University Press, 2021) and American Catholic: Faith and Politics during the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2020).

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