Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

February 4, 2014

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism
Molly Worthen
Oxford University Press, 2013

In 1972, an assistant professor at Ohio University named John Lewis Gaddis published a book that caused a stir for Cold War historiography. In his Bancroft-prize winning book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War: 1941-1947, as well as in a subsequent 1983 article, Gaddis steered a middle path between the so-called orthodox and then-popular revisionist interpretative schools for explaining the Cold War’s origins. The orthodox school, throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, centered its attention first and foremost on Soviet geopolitical aggression in Eastern Europe, while the revisionists—taking their cue from diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams—began to suggest in the 1960s (particularly the late 60s) that the United States had been the more implacable of the two great powers, and that Washington had overplayed the Soviet threat in its quest to protect its position in the postwar capitalist system. While lambasting the economic determinism of the revisionists, Gaddis also wanted to shy away from the orthodox school’s strict blame-game. Offering what was later labeled a “post-revisionism,” Gaddis demonstrated how intentions, perceptions, ideology, and the activities and interests of domestic players pose difficult challenges for statecraft (and complicate the historian’s subsequent analysis and storytelling).

Begging the reader’s forgiveness, I’ve provided these lengthy prefatory remarks because I wonder—and I use that word intentionally as I’ve not fully decided yet—if, years hence, Molly Worthen’s newly-published Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism will be seen to have served a similar role for American evangelical historiography. In Apostles, Worthen, an assistant professor of history at UNC Chapel Hill (and, truth be told, a former student of Gaddis’ Grand Strategy program at Yale), provides a rich, largely archive-based analysis of, as she puts it, “American evangelical intellectual life,” focusing on the tensions between private and public reason, ecclesiastical and confessional traditions, and Biblical authority among the movement’s elites and dominant institutions from the late 1940s onward. (5-9)

Using the analogy of Gaddis’ work, if one went hunting for ways of explaining the character of late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century evangelical public participation, one might identify the “orthodox” interpretive school as the popular notion of an explosive and thoroughly unexpected debut of the Christian Right between 1976 and 1980. Exemplified in the eyes of many of both the right and the left by Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority and an assortment of televangelists, this “orthodox” interpretation is a purely politically focused one—that is, it is posited as a Jimmy Carter “malaise”-era, “we’re not gonna take it anymore” political reaction to fears over secularization and New Left-inspired cultural shifts. (200) Following this, one might also argue, again by analogy, that evangelical historical scholarship has experienced its own “revisionist” turn over the last decade. As Worthen herself suggests, it has been a fruitful period for “myth-busting” scholars who have mined the early-to-mid twentieth century for the “true” origins of the Christian Right’s rise in the late 1970s. (10) As a prominent example of this trend, Worthen cites Darren Dochuk’s 2011 From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Dochuk’s analysis locates the precipitants for the 1970s-1980s Christian Right in a Southern California conservatism (and conservative Protestantism) heavily influenced by the perceptions and interests of a pre-World War II influx of economic migrants from the South.

From the get-go, however, Worthen warns her own readers that they aren’t holding another history of the Christian Right. (3; also see her 3 December 2013 interview with Religion and Politics) As revisionist as the example of Dochuk’s thesis might be with respect to periodization and regional emphasis, his story is still, in the end, an explanation for how and why evangelical political participation evolved into the specific forms it took under Carter and Reagan. Instead, using the language of leftist political theory, Worthen’s desire in what I am calling her possibly post-revisionist Apostles is to reorient evangelical historiography’s over-emphasis on what Antonio Gramsci labels “political society” towards a deeper understanding of the construction and policing of (in this case, evangelical) “civil society.” Apostles therefore isn’t about the power-political activity of evangelicals per se, defined as lobbying and/or influence over the reins of state and national public policy, but is instead a concerted look at the “intellectual authority provid[ing] the framework, the rules and [the] logic” for the movement’s past, current and future activity. (10-11)

In Worthen’s telling, the Enlightenment’s crowning of secular reason over religious belief and the religious-philosophical shocks of the late nineteenth century (e.g., rise of German higher criticism, the impact of earth science discoveries and Darwinist thought) resulted in an ongoing, twentieth- and twenty-first-century theological-philosophical crisis among evangelical Protestants in the United States. In the absence of a formal religious magisterium, Worthen’s primary argument is that evangelical Protestants—particularly the elites of the 1940s-1950s neo-evangelical movement and their intellectual progeny—wielded inerrancy and Kuyperian-derived, presuppositionalist “Christian worldview thinking” as means or tools for attracting co-belligerents and constructing (and fencing) alliances and coalitions, ultimately for the purpose of navigating modernism, secularism and, later, postmodernism. Used as navigational tools, inerrancy and worldview are meant to help evangelical Protestants steer successfully around the array of authorities vying for their attention and loyalty—or what Worthen reckons a “crisis of authority.” Consequently, Worthen’s secondary argument is that the movement’s decision to use these particular navigational tools—and the ways in which the movement has employed them—had (and continues to have) significant consequences for how evangelicals cultivate the life of the mind.

In many ways, Worthen’s primary thesis deftly captures—if I may for a moment turn to language familiar to political scientists and international relations theorists—the difficulties associated with the formation and maintenance of alliances in the face of a perceived threat but in the absence of any formally-recognized, overarching authority (i.e., what political scientists typically refer to as anarchy). When faced with a looming threat (more concretely, the belief in a such a threat based on the opponent’s perceived relative power and intent), the fact that there is no ultimate arbiter in the international system pressures states into forming alliances, either to balance against threats or bandwagon with them. One of the premier scholars of alliances, Stephen Walt, talks about how state alliances are often an admixture of interests held together with some type of ideological “glue,” but when being a member of such an alliance means accepting a centrally-held belief system with top-down leadership, the propensity for internal strife and defections increases. As Walt puts it, “The more centralized and hierarchical the movement prescribed by the ideology, the more conflictive and fragile any resulting alliance will be.” (The Origins of Alliances, 35-36; 40)

Throughout Apostles, Worthen outlines the perceived threat—growing secularization, erosion of general Biblical literacy, scientism, theological liberalism, Barthian thought—and, indeed, one might say (analogously) that the lion’s share of her narrative is about neo-evangelical-led alliance construction and questions surrounding the relative stickiness, over time, of the alliance’s ideological “glue”: inerrancy and worldview. Over the course of a number of chapters, Worthen documents how, through the establishment of parachurch institutions like the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), Christianity Today, Fuller Theological Seminary, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS)—not to mention assorted accreditation bodies for Christian institutions of higher learning—the neo-evangelicals tried their hardest to forge what might be deemed a balancing alliance. She covers well-trod ground with respect to inerrancy’s origins—Old Princeton, the modernist-fundamentalist debate in the early twentieth century, Machen and the creation of Westminster East—but asserts that, by the 1940s, inerrancy as a concept had become more of a tribal marker or a “shibboleth” (24) than anything else. Her discussion of worldview, intriguingly, ties that idea to a post-World War II “presuppositionalist vogue on the rise in the West,” (260) connecting it to a slew of mid-century, dominantly conservative Weltanschauung critiques of totalitarian thought and practice.

But what soon becomes clear in Worthen’s story is that the “glue” of inerrancy and worldview couldn’t bond as effectively as neo-evangelicals had hoped or expected. As she introduces other players into the mix—Wesleyans, Baptists, Mennonites, Pentecostals, Restorationists, and later, the Evangelical Left, returned missionaries radicalized by liberation theology, the Church Growth movement, the Jesus People movement and charismatics—Stephen Walt’s dictum regarding the fragility of ideologically centered balancing alliances comes quickly to the forefront. Many of these other players hesitated, balked or fled as neo-evangelicals used inerrancy and worldview to rally, organize and police the troops. The neo-evangelicals, says Worthen, “presumed an evangelical solidarity that did not exist,” (35) and, over time, ignored the “conflicting powers camouflaged in that thorny phrase, sola scriptura.” (259) Hence, by the time Harold Lindsell published Battle for the Bible in 1976, Worthen argues that four elements—the subjectivity and emotionalism of the charismatic movement, the Church Growth movement’s penchant for a lower-common denominator “mere Christianity”, egalitarianism, and the widespread acceptance of Bible paraphrases and the NIV—had ensured the complete erosion of the ideological “glue” and had, as she put it in her recent interview with Religion and Politics, launched an “intellectual civil war within evangelicalism.” (203-207; interview with Religion and Politics) The turn to power politics in the late 1970s was therefore, in Worthen’s telling, just one particular consequence of this internal, “multidimensional panic over the Bible’s authority.” (200; 202)

Worthen’s critique of inerrancy and “Christian worldview thinking” is intimately connected to her secondary argument on anti-intellectualism. She is careful to caveat in Apostles that evangelicals have never been anti-ideas or anti-education, but instead have had a “fraught relationship with secular reason and imagination,” not to mention what she sees as a “hostility and ambivalence towards the standards of tolerance, logic and evidence by which most secular thinkers in the West have agreed to abide.” (2; 8-9) The neo-evangelical’s ideological “glue” has, over time, had a “warping” effect on the life of the mind, and in addition to highlighting the ever-present tension between academic freedom and theological authority, Worthen claims—a bit heavy-handedly I might say—that inerrancy has made it difficult for evangelicals to do “sensitive” historical scholarship and has corralled them into fields in which “no one [will] corner them too aggressively [on subjects like the historicity of the Genesis account.]” (71; 83) More than that, the “soft presuppositionalism” of the “cult of the Christian worldview” has also allegedly done a number on evangelical intellectual life —“crippling,” as she puts it, evangelicals’ ability to “[discover] new knowledge, create original and provocative art, and [puzzle] out the path toward a more humane civilization.” (261).

Worthen is particularly skeptical of the intellectual legitimacy of “Christian worldview thinking,” which she calls more of an anti-moderate “rhetorical strategy” aimed at shutting down dissent, preventing compromise, and “fold[ing] competing sources of authority [Worthen’s “crisis of authority”] into one.” (261) Albert Mohler took Worthen to task for this very thing in his Gospel Coalition review of Apostles—asserting that she doesn’t understand the concept if she’s claiming that it’s purely “an instrument of intellectual control.” I wonder, however, if the two aren’t talking a bit past one another. Worthen is insistent from the beginning of Apostles that evangelicalism’s problem isn’t an essential authoritarianism (2), so perhaps her point is more akin to the late philosopher W.W. Bartley III’s concerns about the “retreat to commitment”—the situation in which a thought system perceived to be under siege is shifted into the realm of ideology (in this case, “Christian worldview”) so as to protect it from public reason, critique and falsification—or, as Bartley himself puts it, the “use [of] ideas to protect ideas from competition.” If Worthen is indeed channeling Bartley, she may be pleasantly surprised to find allies among conservatives and progressives in the evangelical camp. To take just one example, if Worthen turns to David Fitch’s recently-published End of Evangelicalism, she’ll hear a very familiar tune as Fitch decries the ways inerrancy, “decisions for Christ,” and the idea of a “Christian nation”—what he calls key evangelical tenets—devolved by the end of the twentieth century into little more than a “form of religious ideology.” And if Fitch is a tad too far left along the evangelical continuum for one’s tastes, one also hears echoes of Worthen’s doubts about worldview’s intellectual integrity among a less-decidedly Anabaptist, Bartley-influenced, Reformed coterie at the Calvinist International.

Gaddis’ post-revisionist Origins of the Cold War prodded Cold War scholars over subsequent decades to engage much more deeply with archival materials, declassified documents, oral histories, and—shockingly for historians—theoretical insights from political science and international relations. Over time, it also launched a much broader interest in the Cold War’s international context, drawing attention to how superpower conflict and regional or local affairs were mutually influencing. My fervent hope is that Apostles pushes evangelical historiography in similar ways, especially among scholars who are themselves evangelicals. Worthen does a stellar job modeling precisely how historical spade-work should be done. There is a need for more archive-based histories of mid-to-late twentieth-century evangelicalism—particularly for the later period—and I was enthused to see her use of two recent archive-rich analyses of late-twentieth-century American evangelicalism: David Swartz’s acclaimed Moral Minority, and Michael McVicar’s soon-to-be-published study of R.J. Rushdoony and the origins of Christian Reconstructionism. In the near future, I anticipate some engaging back-and-forth (read “fireworks”) between Worthen and Owen Strachan when he publishes his dissertation on Harold Ockenga and the “re-enchantment of the evangelical mind.” And on a side note, I’m also very curious as to how Worthen’s later chapters might measure up to what I expect will be an edgy history of Christian Reconstructionism by Julie Ingersoll, soon to be published by Oxford University Press.

I also think Apostles could kick-start scholars into considering how one might integrate other disciplines into historical work. How, for example, might Worthen’s concept of the “evangelical imagination” as an engine for political and social action tie together with, say, the observations and conclusions of anthropologists of American and British evangelicalism like Matthew Engelke, Susan Harding, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, and James Bielo? Or, for that matter, how might her findings comport with the work of political scientists like Allen Hertzke, who has for years explored the interests and activities of religious advocacy and lobbying organizations, largely through the lens of sociology? And though Worthen might well take me to task for this statement, I had the thought while reading Apostles that it could make for an interesting case study of what international relations theorists call constructivism; that is, the theory of how shared ideas, concepts, or memes—in Apostles, for instance, inerrancy and worldview—constitute and shape the political interests of non-state (and state) actors, the structure within which they work, as well as their comprehension of that structure.

Finally, I hope Apostles accelerates a burgeoning interest in the international context of mid-to-late twentieth- and twenty-first-century evangelicalism. Worthen comments on evangelicalism’s unquestioned global influence near the conclusion of Apostles; but here, as well as earlier in her narrative, she also spotlights the myriad ways in which North American evangelicals (and the movement as a whole) have been affected through interactions and experiences with the developing world. She doesn’t cite his recent Ph.D. thesis at American University, but her section about the impact liberation theology had on evangelicalism through returning missionaries fits hand-in-glove with Rodney Coeller’s take on the radicalization of North American missionaries in Latin America between the 1950s and 1980s. Worthen gives an occasional nod to the importance of World Vision, but comparing the story in Apostles with Gary Vanderpol and David P. King’s recent Ph.D. theses (and, in King’s situation, his upcoming book) on that organization’s history could lead into some intriguing insights into what might be called the “globalization of the ‘evangelical imagination.’” And then finally, there’s Africa, and Worthen’s analysis of the evangelical “intellectual civil war” has to be taken into account when evaluating the likes of Melani McAlister’s current research project on the role of Christian non-governmental organizations during the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War, Matthews Ojo’s and Richard Burgess’s histories of charismatic movements in Nigeria and Ghana, or Amos Yong’s recently-published book on Pentecostal political theology.

To be sure, Worthen’s descriptions of evangelicals’ “crippled” intellectual life in the mid-to-late twentieth century could use some tempering, and her concluding distinctions between the “evangelical mind” and “evangelical imagination” are analytically fuzzy (which is why, I would argue, Mohler registered skepticism as to whether her use of the term “genius” to describe the “evangelical imagination” was actually genuine). At the same time, I still believe Apostles will be a key, reorienting text on the history of evangelicalism—formidably researched, occasionally overstated, and yet, still a bit winsome to boot.

Brian Auten

Dr. Auten teaches Counterterrorism in PHC's Strategic Intelligence program. Dr. Auten is currently an intelligence analyst with the US government, and has taught courses at California State University at San Bernardino, University of Reading (UK) and University of Hull (UK).  Dr. Auten’s course offerings have included US National Security Policy, … Read More