Religion 804: Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

The subject of this week’s reading is twentieth century American Evangelicals. Matthew Sutton and Molly Worthen offer a new interpretation of evangelical history that examines the shift from fundamentalism to evangelicalism after World War II. As we saw in a previous week in Kruse’s work One Nation Under God, both Worthen and Sutton aim to disrupt traditional narratives regarding conservative expression in this period, seeking to root the origins of the rise of the Christian Right much earlier than previously described. While Kruse argued that the conservative response to New Deal policies resulted in a blending of Christianity and capitalism that played out in political and legislative realms from the 1950s onward, Sutton and Worthen focused their efforts on the intellectual and theological positioning of evangelicals more exhaustively.

Worthen’s work, Apostles of Reason, suggests that the fundamental question for twentieth century evangelicals was the continued tension between secular thought and fundamentalist faith. She addresses the “anti-intellectualist” quality frequently attributed to evangelicals and examines the “theological heritage” that linked “a wide spectrum of believers.” [Worthen 3-4] Instead of imagining this group as emerging politically in the 1970s, Worthen suggests their increasing prominence should be rooted in the postwar efforts of “New Evangelicals” [Worthen 25]. She argues that rather than antagonism toward intellectual inquiry, this group consistently struggled to reconcile certainty (biblical inerrancy) with social and cultural shifts. These debates, reflected a “crisis of authority” as fundamentalists, and later evangelicals, made sense of the tension between reason and revelation [Worthen 2]. She suggests leaders (including “a coterie of journalists, evangelists, and educators”) reimagined fundamentalism and envisioned a “Christian Weltanschauung” that would find expression in organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE); publications like Christianity Today; and institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary.

In American Apocalypse, Sutton undertakes a related project. In this work he sets himself apart from scholarship on Evangelicalism which suggests that fundamentalism emerged in the late 19th century, peaked in the 1920s and began a decline after the second world war. Instead he suggests that World War I was instrumental in shaping the thinking of radical evangelicals [Sutton xiii]. Though others point to the Scopes Trial as instrumental in diminishing the prominence of fundamentalism, he contends that a continuous thread connects late nineteenth century fundamentalists to postwar evangelicals. It was, he argues, a particular apocalyptic worldview engendered a particular expression of fundamentalist/evangelical to changing geopolitical contexts. Across this text Sutton is most interested in unpacking that worldview and examining how each of the momentous events of the twentieth century lent legitimacy to their radical vision [Sutton 5].

Sutton suggests twentieth century evangelicals (or as he also describes them, “pre-millennialists-turned-fundamentalists-turned-evangelicals”) saw themselves as uniquely positioned to read and understand the coming of Christ in the end times [Sutton 373]. These prophetic interpretations encouraged believers to “occupy” the world and to save souls [Sutton 5]. The role of government, the form of secular education, and the horrors of war- each of these were transformed through a lens of the coming apocalypse. Toward this, Sutton presents the “rebranding” that occurred in the post-war period as a “recasting of their positions” [Sutton 292]. He suggests that their support of the war effort (in the face of liberal criticism of American intervention abroad) reversed their position and social prominence [Sutton 266]. It is at this period, as well, that leadership worked to represent evangelicals as a cohesive group, even as charismatic leaders captured the attention of believers [Sutton 327].

Worthen, on the other hand, emphasizes the fundamental tension between inerrancy and rational thought. As evangelicals interacted with social shifts, they struggled to reconcile a belief in the authority of the bible with the power and authority of the state. The response, Worthen suggests, resulted in a debate between and amongst evangelicals as well as liberal protestants. American evangelicals did not “share one mind, [but they did] share an imagination” [Worthen 11]. Through organization, publication, and sermonization “preachers, teachers, writers, and institution-builders” created and disseminated ideas in a continued effort to convert and save [Worthen 9].

Both of these works are significant contributions to the historiography on conservative Christianity in the twentieth century. Sutton and Worthen both carefully contextualize the negotiated shift in representation of evangelical faith after World War II. Both also offer areas of productive overlap. Sutton, for instance, validates Kruse’s assertion about the importance of New Deal, but offers a richer interpretation of the factors that shaped evangelical opposition [Sutton 258]. Worthen and Sutton both identify and critique the anti-intellectual framing of evangelism, though this subject receives more comprehensive coverage in Worthen’s work [Sutton 150].

Sutton and Worthen make use of extensive archival source materials, relying on periodicals and newspapers as well as collections of the papers of key figures. Though both offer an insight into the intellectual basis for evangelism, a project which necessitates the examination of leadership and prominent figures, Sutton is a bit more successful in the incorporation of multiple views and dissenting voices. While neither text is able to adequately address race and gender, Sutton is more effective in addressing these gaps. Any examination of the modern American evangelical movement would likely struggle to incorporate a nuanced reading of the different faiths.

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