Steven P. MILLER, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. 221. ISBN 978 0 19 077795-2 . Reviewed by Richard RYMARZ, St Joseph’s College, University of Alberta, Edmonton Alberta, T6G 2J5
This is a well-written and engaging account of the recent history of Evangelicalism in the United States. Miller’s central thesis is that this history is more nuanced and graduated that most people realized. Indeed the title of the introduction is illuminating : “an age, not a subculture.”
For Miller the 1970’s was a significant evangelical moment in America. Marked by civil strife such as the Watergate imbroglio and the unfulfilled aspirations of the social reformers of the previous decade American society yearned for a greater sense of certitude and predictability. Amongst religious communities there was a similar sentiment and this was especially true of Protestant churches, broadly defined. The seventies marked a time of decline for many religious communities. A range of commentators saw this decline as the relentless, unforgiving consequences of liberalization within the Churches. In response to this Evangelical communities seemed to offer a far more promising route for those wishing to express a strong Christian identity in turbulent and threatening times. This can be contrasted with the established communities which for centuries had provided leadership in a range of spheres but more particularly in terms of the scope of this book, political leadership. Contrast the old ascendency embodied by a figure such as Eisenhower with the “new Man” George W. Bush.
The culmination of the evangelical moment for many was the election of Ronald Reagan as president. Reagan had a long involvement in politics and over the years had honed his skills to a prodigious degree. His Evangelical faith, although never hidden, became a much more public aspect of his leadership both in his campaign to be elected and his subsequent eight year term as president. Miller elaborates his argument by pointing out that the Evangelical moment led to a range of diverse expressions of what he terms Evangelicalism. Part of the reason for this fracturing of the facade was what Miller calls the paradox of influence. Evangelicals found themselves very much at the centre of American life and politics. As a result of this they came under greater scrutiny and this led to the development of differing expressions of Evangelicalism. This self reflection is well captured by the editorial writers of Christianity Today who wrote in 2005, “Now that we’re prime-time, we don’t want to start acting like American idols.” (p.135).
So how then should Evangelicals act? Miler argues that as the Evangelical moment waned it was followed by a new diversity of expression, beliefs and practices. One important manifestation of this was the re-emergence of the Evangelical political left. This had many historical antecedents as exemplified by figures such as William Jennings Bryan who beginning at the turn of the last century fused biblical literalism with a range of socially progressive concerns. This flourishing and fracturing of Evangelicalism culminated in the ascent of Obama who could find himself a self described place in the Evangelical firmament, a notion unthinkable even a few decades ago.
In a thoughtful epilogue Miller considers the Evangelical future. A key concern here is to come to grips once again with what it means now to be evangelical in the United States. Can this renewal include a place for Rock Warren a marker of what Miler calls the new centre right as well as emerging more liberal and inclusive expressions? Indeed the author sees such a renewal as in the very nature of Evangelicalism – to be born again and again.