Crisis of Authority Explains 'Intellectual Civil War Within Evangelicalism,' Historian Says

Evangelicalism is a product of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and because of this, evangelicals struggle with reconciling the authority of scripture with reason, historian Molly Worthen writes in her new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.

In an interview with The Christian Post, Worthen, assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explains that this "head versus heart" struggle helps to explain the rise of the Christian Right and efforts by younger evangelicals to rethink the meaning of their faith in the modern world.

The following is an edited transcript of that interview.

CP: Where did the inspiration for this book come from?

Worthen: I have spent some time as a journalist covering American religion. I was noticing certain patterns in the contemporary evangelical landscape, particularly among young evangelicals. I was curious about where these trends came from.

I went to graduate school mainly just to become a better religion writer, someone better equipped to have something interesting to say about what's going on in American religious life today. I began trying to unwind what I call the intellectual genealogy of some of the trends among younger evangelicals, such as the Emergent Church, these millennials and Gen-X evangelicals who were disillusioned with their suburban megachurches in many ways, disillusioned with the politics and approach to theology they associate with the Christian Right.

I started poking around in their writings and trying to trace the origins of those ideas. Simultaneously, I was interested in trends in private Christian education, classical Christian education. For example, these evangelical churches and homeschoolers and leaders of private Christian academies who were resurrecting the medieval trivium and the importance of Latin and Greek in their approach to evangelical education.

In doing that, I backed my way into a story about what I now see as the intellectual civil war within evangelicalism. Which is also, I think, the back story to the rise of the Christian Right. It's sort of the behind the scenes tale of why one particular expression of evangelical theology and political orientation has come, at least in the public mind, to represent such a diverse community and to really dominate the public presence of evangelicalism when, in reality, of course it's an incredibly diverse community.

CP: Your thesis, if I understand it correctly, is that the anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism derives from their struggles with authority. Is that right?

Worthen: Yes. This gets to something people commonly misunderstand, I think, about evangelicalism. Outsiders detect this friction between some evangelicals and the secular intelligentsia, mainstream secular academic life, and they label the evangelical response to that "anti-intellectualism." And often when they diagnose it, they describe evangelicalism as this very authoritarian culture in which evangelicals are essentially zombies who don't think for themselves, who just follow whatever their pastor says, who are completely hostile to science and reject the authority of science and enlightenment reason in any case.

I think that's entirely backward. The reality is that evangelicals sincerely desire to adhere to the standards of multiple sources of intellectual authority at the same time. Yes, they take scripture, the authority of faith very seriously, but they also take the authority of science and reason very seriously. It is in the effort to reconcile what are often irreconcilable sources of authority that they end up in this very ambivalent, tense relationship with mainstream academic life.

CP: You write that evangelicalism was birthed out of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and those influences contribute to both tension and vitality. Are you saying that the vitality derives from the tension and they reinforce each other?

Worthen: I think so, yes. I think that there are certainly costs in the evangelical balancing act – the effort to really obey the authority of their interpretation of scripture, this notion of sola scriptura (which, of course, is much more complicated than it seems) as well as adhering to the rules of human reason and applying their reason as God intended and trying to, sort of, navigate the realities of the secular, Western, public sphere, which has gradually developed in tandem with evangelicalism itself – that has costs in evangelicalism's ability, as a community, to nurture the life of the mind, certainly by the standards of outsiders.

However, I do think that this sort of restlessness, this deep discomfort with the course of affairs in mainstream Western society has accounted for some of evangelicals' energy in missions abroad and their zeal for turning to the global South and engaging the nonwestern world to a degree that is simply not present in other streams of Protestantism. Especially in the past generation or so, we've seen a recovery of theological traditions within evangelicalism of their own history, their own ancestors' ways of interpreting the Bible that are, perhaps, at odds with what has become the more dominant faith of evangelicalism.

What I mean by that is, that the short hand that many people assume represents all evangelicals' views of the Bible – this notion of biblical inerrancy, this assumption that scripture is, in some ways, irreconcilable with certain conclusions of modern science or developments in western culture's mainstream views of gender roles – is not truly representative of evangelical's views of how to reconcile the Bible with modern life. It comes out of a particular place in the evangelical spectrum associated most closely with the Reformed tradition, a substream of Fundamentalist Reformed theology that really flourished and came to its maturity in the late 19th century at Princeton Theological Seminary.

But there have always been competing streams. The Wesleyan Holiness tradition within evangelicalism has historically understood revelation very differently, has understood the incarnation of Christ as bringing into the human story a process of sanctification that allows Wesleyan Holiness traditions to think differently about how gender roles might change over time, how the rules appropriate for Paul's time in the first century may no longer apply to women today. They historically have emphasized Christ himself has God's revelation, rather than scripture. This posture has given them more potential to accommodate the fruits of modern living without feeling like they've given away the store, so to speak.

Because evangelicals remain so committed to reconciling these sources of authority, what I find in my research is that these other traditions that lost that intellectual civil war of the 20th century, have begun to retrench a bit. I think, especially, young evangelicals are rediscovering their own theological resources and perhaps formulating new approaches to modern politics and modern culture.

CP: You have a chapter on the Christian Right. That movement appears to be undergoing some changes as the founding leaders are being replaced by new leaders, and, rhetorically, the movement sometimes appears to present itself more as an embattled minority than a moral majority. What do you think is going on with the Christian Right today and where do you think it's headed?

Worthen: In the past we (outside commentators) have exaggerated the degree of consensus or unity among the big faces of the Christian Right – people like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, that generation that has died or retired. The unity was more apparent than real.

But that said, there certainly was a momentum. And when you look at the rhetoric, there was in those early years in the 1980s and '90s, there was a confidence, a sense that this was the resurgent voice of mainstream America, and you hear something different now.

Historians are always reluctant to try to predict the future, but, in some ways, I think we are just more aware of the fractures that were always present. Every few years a major newspaper or magazine runs some article about the fracturing of the Christian Right. Those of us (I know you've studied the history of this movement too), who know the history, know that, to some degree, that's an exaggeration.

I do think that changes happening among evangelicals who are college age and in their 30s today that may result in a very different approach to politics when these young people come to maturity. I talk to college administrators at evangelical colleges and young people and what I hear is a different attitude toward social justice and toward how you solve social problems.

I think it's important not to exaggerate the degree of their rebellion from their parents' generation. I don't see them all turning into a bunch of little "Walter Rauschenbuschs" who are calling for Christian socialism. I think that their deep commitment to solving problems of this world and their sensitivity to economic inequality, for example, or racism goes hand-in-hand with a significant level of cynicism toward government. Because of that, I don't know that I predict a massive shift of these young evangelicals into the Democratic column.

I also think that they're becoming more internationally minded. Part of this is because of their schools. Many of these evangelical institutions are recruiting significantly abroad and bringing to their campuses undergraduates who grew up in the global South and who have, therefore, very different frames of reference, very different ideas about the institutional sources of sin.

This is why I do think that younger evangelicals are becoming more sensitive to the fact that, to really address problems of social injustice, you can't just change one heart and mind at a time, you can't simply hope that by converting enough sinners to Christ you change things. You have to also go after the ways in which sin is enculturated in the structures of our society. And so I hear a divergence in the ways these younger evangelicals talk about the role of a Christian in the world from how someone like James Dobson or Jerry Falwell once spoke about it.

That said, it's so difficult to get beyond anecdotal evidence. I have also had conversations with younger evangelicals who I would say, by and large, echo that traditional critique of culture offered by the Christian Right of the 1980s and 1990s.

I fear that I'm dodging your question a bit. I don't have a good answer. I certainly think that the Christian Right will be with us for a long time. I think that those people who forecast its complete deterioration are exaggerating or misreading what little evidence we do have one way or another. But certainly, the tone of the rhetoric and the way in which evangelicals think about social problems, those seem to be changing and breaking out of the categories that so define the traditional Christian Right.

CP: You talk about Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which is very well known within certain evangelical circles. I couldn't help but think of that book often as I read your book. How much influence did that book have on your thinking.

Worthen: Absolutely. Very much, my project originated in part as kind of a response to Mark Noll's book.

When I began, I didn't exactly know how I wanted to respond to that book. I had a couple of things in mind. One was that, Mark Noll is a wonderful historian, I admire him greatly, but he definitely represents one particular strand of the diverse evangelical tradition. In his other works of history, he very much prioritizes representatives of the Reformed tradition.

So, part of me wanted to see what would happen if I made a point of investigating the histories of evangelicals representing other streams of the evangelical community – Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Nazarenes, Mennonites.

And secondly, he intended it as a short, powerful diagnosis and call to action. He didn't intend that book as a deep sustained examination of archival evidence. It's a serious book. I think it's correct in all of its claims. I don't mean to suggest otherwise. But I wanted to approach some of the same questions in a different way, by really digging into the archives of some of the ecclesiastical and educational hubs of authority in these different traditions. I wanted to take core samples along a broad spectrum of the evangelical world to, in some ways, test the narrative that he offers, to see if that narrative fairly represents all these different traditions, and to explain why this one particular tradition seemed to have a much louder voice than the others.

CP: What's your religious background?

Worthen: My religious background is, I suppose, secular/curious. I grew up in a totally secular home. Neither of my parents are religious. Over the years I've found myself in and out of church, but I don't affiliate with any religious community right now.

I'm a little unusual in that the vast majority of historians who focus on evangelical Christianity are themselves evangelicals, or they have some kind of personal connection to the evangelical community – they grew up in it and are no longer affiliated with it.

So, I'm unusual. I think that comes with advantages and disadvantages. I suppose it means I don't have a dog in the fight, so to speak. I'm really just interested in getting the story right and being fair to all parties.

But, of course, it means that evangelical Christianity is not my native language. Because of this, I've found it important to keep the two halves of my work – the history and the journalism – linked. I'll spend some time in the archives and develop some ideas about what I think the documents I'm reading mean. And then I often like to have the opportunity to talk to people who are living in these communities now and sometimes test my conclusions a little bit as a check, because I am not part of that world.

CP: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Worthen: I hope that the book stands out because it takes evangelicals very seriously as thinkers. I think far too few books do treat evangelicals seriously as people with a rich intellectual tradition.

So often the ideas of conservative Christians are dismissed as "irritable mental gestures," as Lionel Trilling puts it, not serious parts of the Western intellectual tradition. I hope that it challenges common misperceptions – the rise of the Christian Right and the Culture Wars as a purely political story, that it's all about knee-jerk reactions to the 1960s. I think that to really understand what's happened politically in our country over the last couple of decades, you have to get into the story of changes in liturgy and worship, you have to look at missions, you have to pay attention to the charismatic renewal movement.

I also hope it offers a new definition of evangelicalism that is a bit broader and more flexible and provocative, and has the effect of both including a much broader swath of conservative Protestants while also bringing those people into conversation with other parts of western civilization. This is why I, in the course of my research, found myself abandoning the traditional doctrinal definition of evangelicalism – the claim that all evangelicals share a set of beliefs – a belief in a born again experience or high biblical authority, the importance of missions, a certain view of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

I, instead, found myself defining evangelicals as this community with its origins in the aftermath of the Reformation that has, in the centuries since then, circled around a set of shared questions. Those questions being: How do you reconcile faith and reason? How do you know Jesus, how do you cultivate an authentic relationship with God and some assurance of your salvation? And, how do you act out your Christian faith in an increasingly public sphere?

These, to me, are questions (which are really all about intellectual authority in some way) that help us understand why Mennonites and Pentecostals and Southern Baptists are all part of the same conversation, even if they don't have much in common in terms of theology. For me, that resulted in a much richer, more exciting lens through which to understand what has happened over the past 70 years.

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