Randall Balmer

Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites

Ah, those mysterious Protestant Evangelicals, as pondered by our cultural elites

Just when you thought you’d seen enough analysis of those U.S. Protestant Evangelicals to last a lifetime or two, a major April release is commanding yet more ink: “The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America” by Frances FitzGerald (Simon & Schuster).

Any book from FitzGerald, a boldface author who won the Pulitzer Prize for her Vietnam lament “Fire in the Lake” (1972), gets guaranteed media attention. Her latest, hailed as “masterful” by Time magazine, will surely be mandatory reading for religion writers. This blockbuster has already gained major reviews from highbrow analysts Randall Balmer, Alan Wolfe and Garry Wills (also a Pulitzer medalist).

The Religion Guy has yet to read this 740-pager but is wary after learning that FitzGerald pays so much attention to figures like Rousas Rushdoony. His idiosyncratic theocracy scheme frightens the journalism natives, but is hardly representative of mainstream evangelicalism, or even of its most politicized segments.

Otherwise, the reviews provide  significant cultural indicators of how elitists view a movement that’s somehow so mystifying and unnerving to outsiders, and the way adherents are ogled with condescension, particularly after so many voted for Donald J. Trump. Irredeemable deplorables, anyone?    

Balmer, Dartmouth’s religion chair and the author of a somewhat competing 2016 title, “Evangelicalism in America” (Baylor University Press), says having such a “distinguished author” undertake this topic should be “cause for celebration.” But he finds the result “curiously pinched and narrow.”

One of his criticisms, echoed by others, is that FitzGerald’s narrative omits African-American Protestants. That’s an important choice that the Religion Guy finds justifiable because these believers, as well as Latino Protestants, have such  distinct subcultures. Explaining the larger population of “white” evangelicals is more than enough for one book.

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Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

JOSH’S QUERY:

[Referring to Time magazine's 1971 cover story on the youthful "Jesus Revolution"]  A lot has happened since then -- culturally, religiously, movement-wise -- and I’d be fascinated to see you revisit your journalistic and theological mind.

THE RELIGION GUY’S RESPONSE:

This interests Josh because his parents were members of Love Inn, which typified the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” of those days. It was a combination church, commune, Christian rock venue and traveling troupe, based in a barn near the aptly named Freeville, New York (population 500).

As a “Time” correspondent, the Religion Guy figured this revival, which was hiding in plain sight, was well worth a cover story, managed to convince reluctant editors to proceed, and did much of the field reporting including a visit to Love Inn. Arguably, that article -- by the Guy’s talented predecessor as “Time” religion writer, lay Catholic Mayo Mohs -- put the “Jesus freaks” permanently on the cultural map.

The following can only sketch mere strands of a complex phenomenon and offers as much theorizing as hard fact. For some of the history, the Guy is indebted to the valuable “Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism” by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Quick summary: The Jesus Movement developed pre-existing phenomena into a youth wing that energized and reshaped U.S. evangelical Protestantism as a whole. This occurred just as evangelicalism was clearly emerging as the largest segment of American religion while beginning in the mid-1960s moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups began inexorable decline.

The Jesus Movement was related to and influenced by the “Charismatic Movement,” which first reached public notice around 1960. This wave took a loosened version of Pentecostal spirituality into “mainline” Protestant and Catholic settings and, especially, newer and wholly independent congregations, along with free-floating gatherings akin to the secular Woodstock (August, 1969).

Early “street Christians” clustered around hot spots such as the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Christian World Liberation Front adjacent to the University of California at Berkeley, Seattle’s Jesus People Army, and His Place on the Sunset Strip (led by Arthur Blessitt who later evangelized his way across the nation pulling an outsize wheeled cross).

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