This is a well written, well-edited, marvelously clear book about the history of American evangelicals. Barry Hankins wants to “take a number of highly contested issues and show where evangelical views and positions on such issues started historically, how they developed over time, and what this means today” (p. ix). Not only does Hankins do this with great deftness, he plainly demonstrates throughout that all evangelicals are not of one mind. Yet, even in all their complexity and diversity, he cuts to the bone and, in short, cogently states that the “division among evangelicals comes down to how vigorously or actively they should oppose the culture” (p. 184).
What guides Hankin’s history and analysis is David Bebbington’s four essentials of evangelicalism: 1) Biblicism, 2) crucicentrism, 3) conversionism, and 4) activism. With this framework, he sorts out the variety of evangelicals according to how they interpret various cultural / religious issues in light of these four essentials. For example, chapter two deals with evangelicals struggle with modernism. Applying Bebbington’s four essentials to this issue, it quickly becomes apparent that all evangelicals do not agree on how they should understand or respond to the challenge of modernism. The same can be said of the chapters on science, millennialism, equality, politics, and the academy. Chapters two (modernism) and seven (Back to the Academy) I found particularly enlightening. Moreover, I got the feeling that no matter what classificatory scheme anyone used, they would come to the same conclusion as Hankins -- evangelicals are a complex bunch.
As complex as they are, evangelicals are nevertheless, according to Hankins, quite at home in America – even as they battle American culture on this or that issue. This is partly due to the fact that American culture was shaped, in large part, by evangelical Protestants – even though many of their “practices are but thinly veiled covers of secular phenomenon” (p. 186). For example, freedom of choice is a key similarity between evangelicals and Americans. Americans value freedom of choice in every aspect of their lives, and so do evangelicals, particularly and most importantly in their freedom to choose to be “born again.” Once again, in short, Hankins is point on when he writes, “They emphasize individual choice, even in matters as fundamental as salvation and biblical interpretation, and they affirm the freedom to be what one wants to be, or, to use evangelical vernacular, to be what God wants one to be. They are often fiercely independent. . . .” (p. 186). Put differently, “they are quintessentially American in their quest to shape their own destinies, religious or otherwise” (p. x). Indeed, Hankins agrees with Allan Wolfe when Wolfe wrote recently “We’re all evangelicals now” (in The Transformation of American Religion (2003, NY: The Free Press).
Given that Hankins did mention that Roman Catholics and evangelicals have much in common, I thought he could have rounded out his history by adding a short chapter on the Catholic church’s ministry of the New Evangelization that Pope John Paul II initiated in the mid 1990s. I have been studying the implementation of the New Evangelization in the Archdiocese of Detroit and have found two of Bebbington’s essentials of evangelicalism – crucicentrism and conversionism—most prominent within this intra-institutional ecclesial social movement. And it is broader than the Catholic charismatic movement, although there is certainly a relationship with that segment of the Catholic population, and more prominent as well in that it has been legitimized, nay instigated, by the highest of authorities – the pope. One cannot do everything however and not including a chapter on the New Evangelization does nothing to diminish this book. This was a great read, I enjoyed it completely.