What does it mean to be an “evangelical” in America?
Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill discussed her latest book recently with Tiffany Stanley of Religion & Politics. The interview is sprinkled with gems that make me look forward to reading Worthen’s new book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism.
Of course, for those of us interested in the intersection of conservative politics and American education, the meanings of “evangelical” are always of intense interest. Controversies over sex education, prayer in schools, and creationism often feature conservative Protestant evangelicals as main players.
What does it mean to be “evangelical?” In this interview, Worthen suggests three central questions that define the boundaries of the evangelical experience. As she explains them,
First, how do you reconcile faith and reason? How do you maintain one coherent way of knowing? Second, how do you become sure of your salvation? How do you meet Jesus and develop a relationship with him, to use the language that some evangelicals prefer. And third, how do you reconcile your personal faith with an increasingly pluralistic, secular public sphere?
Worthen also suggests some useful insights into the complex interaction between evangelicalism and education. For example, how does the historically defined divide between white and black evangelicals play out in schools? As Worthen puts it,
If you really grilled black or Latino Protestants on this question [of creationism], many of them would say, “I prefer the Genesis narrative to Darwin’s account, but do I get worked up about it? No. I’m more concerned about educational opportunities for my kids and more concerned about structural injustice.”
And of creationists in general, Worthen hits on the deeper intellectual divide at the heart of the evolution/creation trenches. “I think it’s a mistake,” Worthen told Religion & Politics’ Stanley,
to understand creationists as “anti-science,” at least if we want to understand how they see themselves. The reality is that the creationist movement comes out of a tradition of Biblical interpretation that understands itself as deeply rationalist, deeply scientific, that rests on the premise that God’s revelation is all one, that God is perfect and unchanging, and therefore his revelation must be perfect and unchanging too. Our two modes of encountering his revelation, in scripture and in the created world, cannot contradict each other. . . . To understand reality accurately, they say, you must take as your founding assumption the truth of God’s revelation. I think that is crucial for understanding the frame of mind of creationists and how they view their project.
Of course, as Dr. Worthen knows, it meant very different things to assert this “creationist” way of knowing in 1877 than it did in 1977. As she points out, one of the main features of the American evangelical experience has been a profound and continuing tension between the claimed authority of religious leaders and that of the wider secularizing society.
In schools, this evangelical “crisis of authority” has often played out as a continuing tension between a lingering desire to assert Protestant authority over “our” schools and a lamentation that “God has been kicked out” of American education.
One of the continuing dilemmas of religious historians has been to reconcile the mixed bag of evangelical intellectual life. On one hand, American evangelicalism has included many of the great thinkers of the American tradition. On the other hand, it has included in its big revival tent some of America’s most fervently anti-intellectual personalities. I’ll look forward to reading in more detail about the ways Worthen wrestles with these perennial questions.