Are Evangelicals the New Liberals?

Samuel Loncar on David Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason

It’s an old story. As the world becomes modern, the forces of modernization destroy the intellectual, institutional, and social bases of religion, which cannot sustain the encounter with modernity because of its pre-scientific worldview. Pews empty. Churches fall into disrepair, are converted into museums (in Nietzsche’s darker vision, mausoleums), or become fancy restaurants or nightclubs. A new world emerges, free of religion and superstition. Welcome to a secular age.

This theme and its variations are what social scientists call the secularization thesis. Emerging in nascent form in the Enlightenment, receiving heft by Auguste Comte, and becoming scientific fact in the great founders of sociology — Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, above all — the secularization thesis found its American formulation in Peter Berger’s 1967 classic, The Sacred Canopy. Jump a generation, and the secularization thesis is one of the most hotly contested and attacked ideas in the academy. Berger, one of the most creative and productive sociologists of his generation, himself repented of his original view that modernization made secularization inevitable: the only thing that is inevitable, he now claims, is pluralization. Secularization theory has its dogged defenders, like Steve Bruce and his book God is Dead (2002), but its imperiled condition is symbolized by the mighty confutation that the brilliant philosopher Charles Taylor has uttered against it in A Secular Age. Large enough to wield as a physical weapon if its ideas are not daunting enough, A Secular Age’s sheer historical scope and conceptual power have seemed to spell a lasting victory for the critics of traditional secularization theory. Secularization theory was too simple; the decline of religion isn’t inevitable; many religious people are thoroughly modern and deeply devout, etc. In short, pace Bruce, God lives after all.

And yet…

David A. Hollinger, After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History, Princeton University Press, 2013, 248pp., $29.95

There are worrying signs. Evangelicalism, the bastion of conservative Protestantism, is in crisis. Protestant Liberalism is about as vibrant as a corpse, with mainline denominations in a seeming death race to lose people and money as quickly as possible. The fastest growth category in religious surveys is the “noughts,” those who indicate no religious affiliation. In Europe, God is dead and remains dead; in fact, secularization theory has been so durable partly because the European context has always been taken as the norm.

The debate about secularization, despite how faddish it has become, remains one of the most consequential debates in the academy. It has implications for the fate of Islam — for example, the prospects of its modernization — for what we should expect Europe to look like in fifty years, and for whether a vibrantly religious America or a godless Europe is the true exception in the modern world.

Two recent books in American religious history, one by a senior intellectual historian — David Hollinger’s After Cloven Tongues of Fire: Protestant Liberalism in Modern American History — and the other by a new scholar — Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism — demonstrate that, if religious people have been consoled by Taylor and company (and many have been), they may need to start worrying again. Read together, in a transatlantic and interdisciplinary context, these books support a broader argument about the fate of religion in modernity that suggests the orthodox version of the secularization thesis may have more going for it than many want to acknowledge.

Hollinger’s book is a collection of essays that together comprise a set of complicating and revisionary arguments about Protestant Liberalism in America. His framing essay is crucial, and its title tells the story: “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment: An Old Drama Still Being Enacted.” Here, and throughout the book, Hollinger reminds us that the United States “has been a major site for the engagement of Protestant Christianity with the Enlightenment” and that this “engagement was — and continues to be — a world-historical event, or at least one of the defining experiences of the North Atlantic West.” When a scholar of Hollinger’s stature uses “world-historical” without irony, it is time to sit up straight and pay attention. Part of Hollinger’s revisionism here, and elsewhere, arises from his taking up older narratives and accepting the way they have been duly complicated, but then showing that they often are truer still than their opponents acknowledge. He does this with the conflict of science and religion, with William James and W. K. Clifford, and above all with Liberalism itself.

To oversimplify a complex affair, two warring perspectives on the story of Protestant Liberalism reflect its embattled position vis-à-vis more orthodox forms of Christianity. On the one hand, conservatives have long argued that Liberalism is simply a bad compromise with the modern world, and that attempts to accommodate modernity result in abandoning the essence of Christianity. Liberals, starting in Germany, redefined the essence of Christianity in order to argue that, though its doctrinal content was being substantially modified in their hands, it remained the same religion. Moreover, these modifications were necessary if Christianity was to remain true. One could not simply ignore modern scholarship and science. The redefinition that became normal was to replace doctrine and history with feeling; whether Schleiermacher’s Gefühl or Emerson’s sentiment of virtue, the essence of religion for liberal Christianity was cordoned off from history. Revise all the doctrine you need to, in light of historical scholarship, Christianity remains the same. A nice idea, although not very plausible historically, something critics like the Unitarian Harvard Professor Andrews Norton was eager to explain to Emerson, even enlisting stalwart Calvinist theologians from Princeton Seminary as allies in the process.

Nevertheless, Emerson won that war in the end, and liberals have consistently maintained that their religion is still Christianity. At the heart of liberal theology is a deep insight (or claim, to the conservatives): Christianity must change or die — or, using Newman’s language, it must change to stay the same. Modernity cannot be avoided, but neither does it spell the end of Christianity.

The history of Protestantism since the 1970s has been hard on Liberalism. As Evangelicals increased, Liberals decreased. It has become difficult to write about American Liberalism without becoming either a critic or an apologist. Hollinger is neither.

He succeeds in transcending the internecine character of the debate by assessing Liberal Protestantism by its success in realizing its values in the broader culture, rather than by its demography or institutional strength. By this measure, he persuasively argues, Liberal Protestantism has been a success story. “The United States today, even with the prominence of politically conservative evangelical Protestants, looks much more like the country ecumenical leaders of the 1960s hoped it would become than the one their evangelical rivals sought to create.” A compelling truth, one that changes subtly but powerfully how we construe the “secularity” of contemporary America; in many ways, it is the fruit of one vision of Christianity.

Hollinger is critical of what he calls the “survivalist” perspective of those who assess Liberal Protestantism by its institutional and demographic durability and bemoan its evident signs of senescence — that is, Liberal Protestants themselves and those invested in the continued existence of what Liberal Christianity stands for. Hollinger’s broader perspective is enlightening and his point well-taken. Yet the survivalist perspective is a rather sensible one, given that, if you affirm a reality, you desire that it exist. In transcending the survivalist perspective, Hollinger concedes the fact that liberal Protestantism has been a halfway house to secularity for many, and a home for ever fewer. Liberals and conservatives may differ in their evaluation of this fact, but the truth is it vindicates at least one part of conservatives’ story: that, from a perspective in which Christianity’s existence is important, Liberalism is a dangerous road, one which has not gone well for Liberals.

The very shift away from this gnawing debate to the more general effect of American Liberalism is a welcome one, yet it may signal a truth deeply troubling to the remaining survivalists: when do you normally assess a person, institution, or movement irrespective of whether it is still alive and solely in terms of its influence? That sounds like a funeral eulogy.

Hollinger nowhere declares the death of liberal Protestantism, at least not in so many words. But as someone who, if not exactly a survivalist, has a professional and personal stake in the viability of modernizing Christianity, I found After Cloven Tongues of Fire to be a delightful and instructive book which left me with a sense that something great is passing, that its very distance from the living world lends Hollinger the power of taking the measure of its life.

If the Christianity of America’s elite classes, its most educated citizens and prestigious divinity schools, cannot survive, perhaps the secularization thesis is true after all.

And yet…

Cover for 

Apostles of Reason
Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, Oxford University Press, 2013, 376pp., $27.95
Enter Worthen’s superbly written Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. An extraordinary book, already much feted, its significance lies partly in the fact that, even as scholars praise it, its story is so compelling that many evangelicals find themselves in its pages.

Like Hollinger’s work, Worthen’s is an intellectual history that focuses on elites, and she more than justifies this choice by the insight her book offers into contemporary Evangelicalism. Her subject is what is sometimes called “neo-evangelicalism,” the movement of conservative Protestantism that began, after World War II, to distance itself from the intellectual and social insularity of fundamentalism and forge a new, modern, and engaged conservative Protestantism. At least that was the idea.

The central obstacle and impetus to Evangelicalism (so understood) is its “crisis of authority,” for Evangelicals “are the children of estranged parents — Pietism and Enlightenment — but behave like orphans. This confusion over authority is both their greatest affliction and their most potent source of vitality.” Their anti-intellectualism comes from this struggle with authority, with being children of the modern world whose final authority is a pre-modern Bible. Far from being the bumpkins critics have often portrayed, the leaders of Evangelicalism are often intellectuals who take reason seriously, but also adhere to a traditionally high view of the authority of Scripture. It is precisely their shared concerns with the relation of the spiritual and rational, of a personal relationship with God, and of living faithfully in a secular world that unite Evangelicals on Worthen’s analysis.

At the heart of Evangelicals’ struggle with authority is the problem of history. Like many Protestants, Evangelicals are prone to imagine that they are the direct heirs of the Apostles, “and scoff at history’s claims on them. But they are creatures of history like everyone else, whether they like it or not.” And they do not. Here Worthen captures the core intellectual problem of conservative Protestantism: its incapacity to acknowledge its own historicity. This problem is not merely intellectual but becomes existential when one understands, as Worthen does, the role of inerrancy in Evangelicalism.

Inerrancy is a doctrine and social idea. As a doctrine it is very traditional, asserting in its simplest form that what the Bible says is true is always and everywhere true, for God himself speaks in its pages, and He neither lies nor errs. As a social idea, inerrancy became the intellectual foundation of a movement, Evangelicalism, and has functioned as a theoretical center of endless debate and negotiation. Though the doctrine is not new, contrary to the historically implausible claims of those who see it as an invention of modernity, it became uniquely important in the battles against liberal theology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Because “scientific history,” that is, the application of modern textual study to the Bible, drew attention to problems with the text that called its inerrancy into question; when read like any other book, the Bible looks no more inerrant than the Iliad or Enuma Elish. In the hands of the German scholars who stand at the foundation of the research university, biblical criticism — history with all the authority of science — became the single greatest threat to Christianity’s claims to truthfulness. Inerrancy is where the cutting edge of the Enlightenment meets the central vein of Protestant Christianity. It is a mortal issue. While not all conservatives have always agreed on the definition or the centrality of inerrancy, its apologists are historically accurate in seeing any departure from it as a significant alteration of Christianity (a truth borne out by the subsequent history of all movements which deny it). That abandoning the complete truthfulness of the Bible constitutes a significant alteration of Christianity is a historical fact and part of the momentous nature of Liberal Christianity; the idea that you could adhere to Christianity without its traditional source of authority has been hope to some and heresy to others, but it is a departure from all orthodox forms of Christianity.

J. Gresham Machen. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
J. Gresham Machen. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The questions of course remain: Is the product of such revision still Christianity? and Is the choice between Evangelical and Liberal, or is there a third way? Theological mediating movements are, as a rule, common and short-lived. Liberals see themselves as a third way between secularism and fundamentalism; stern conservatives see Liberals as no longer Christian. J. Gresham Machen, the intellectual leader of Fundamentalism in its battle with Modernism (i.e., Liberal Christianity) in the early twentieth century, famously claimed that Liberalism was a different religion. He was not the first to claim this. What many have failed to see is that Machen was echoing a refrain that had already been uttered by Andrews Norton, the Unitarian Harvard professor who so sharply criticized Emerson’s Divinity School Address in the 1830s. Norton saw transcendentalism as a new religion; whatever it was, he argued, it was not Christianity.

The two questions — Christianity or something else? and Is there a third way? — are thus inseparable, and they merge into a single-overarching question which threads its way through Worthen’s book, binding its dramatic force: Is an intellectually honest form of conservative Christianity possible? Certainly Evangelicalism has become a cultural power, but as Worthen charts the rise of Evangelicals in many areas, she notes that the turn of the century was “a moment of frustration for reflective evangelicals. They had failed, despite growing national prominence, to solve their oldest disagreements and achieve long-standing ambitions.”

Worthen’s analysis sees Evangelicals’ fraught engagement with authority as a source of its vitality, but vitality for what, in the long run, if they cannot resolve some of their tensions? As she says, evangelicals’ submission to authority is not the problem; submission to authority is a necessity of all rational thought. “The problem is that evangelicals attempt to obey multiple authorities at the same time.” And Jesus himself predicted the doom of those who serve two masters.

When one considers Worthen’s history alongside Hollinger’s and the broader history of liberal Christianity, it becomes clear that Evangelicalism is struggling to succeed where Liberalism failed: to remain Christian in the modern world. The real problem is that evangelicals do not realize or openly acknowledge what they are doing. Evangelicals are the new Liberals. They just don’t know it.

Evangelicals have largely failed to acknowledge their positive debts to Liberalism because of their lack of adequate historical consciousness and their firm conviction that Liberal Christianity is a negative force in religious life. Acknowledging that Liberal theology has value — and even wisdom — compromises the ideological purity of a movement constituted by its historical rejection of Liberalism.

While Liberal Christianity stands for the conscious reconciling of modernity and Christianity, evangelicals suffer from the fantasy that modernity is optional, that they are not already, in every relevant sense, modern, and that modernity’s assimilation is a choice that confronts them rather than a reality that defines them. Evangelicals on the whole have not yet recognized that the challenge is not whether to be modern but how. When that realization does materialize, it will lead to a long-overdue crisis and transformation of Evangelicals’ theological and historical self-understanding.

The crisis is overdue in the consciousness of the movement because it already exists in reality and is reenacted fruitlessly in every generation. Yet the failure to acknowledge its true nature and significance permits evangelical leaders to assure themselves that the endlessly iterated debate about inerrancy is merely the recurring error of a deviant minority of nascent liberals in each generation, rather than the return of a repressed structural deficiency built into the movement itself and the way it has handled the problem of history.

The recent change of tone by the Southern Baptist Convention on homosexuality is simply one instance of a pattern: the late, half-hearted, and often incoherent adoption among Evangelicals of ideas and sentiments first proposed or embodied by Liberal Christians. “The Accommodation of Protestant Christianity: And Old Drama Still being Enacted” thus stands not only as the leading title for Hollinger’s collection of essays, but as the background for Worthen’s story about Evangelicals.

The secularization thesis was always wrong in positing the inevitability of religious decline. But Hollinger and Worthen, read in the wider, transatlantic context of Liberalism as the story of Christianity’s reconciliation with (or destruction by) the modern world, reveal how taut are the wires that connect Christianity and modern life: tight enough for a delicate balancing act, yet ready to snap at any moment. They show not only that America has been a central site of the drama of Christianity accommodating the Enlightenment, but that Evangelicals are themselves the last great test of whether conservative Protestantism can retain its identity as it moves from the periphery of culture towards its center, or whether Nietzsche was right after all: God is dead, and Americans are simply the last to hear the news.

Samuel Loncar  is a philosopher and scholar of religion and editor of the Marginalia Review of Books, currently teaching at Yale Divinity. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. His speaking and workshop engagements include the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Trinity Wall Street’s retreat center.  His website is Tweets @SamuelLoncar.