With the death of Sydney Ahlstrom and the retirements of Robert Handy and Martin Marty from the classroom, Mark Noll has surely become our leading teacher-historian of American Christianity. George Marsden may be his superior in charting the history of American fundamentalism and the Christian involvement in education, but Noll’s work is more encyclopedic, as is evidenced by his authoritative work of 1992, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada. This latest book, American Evangelical Christianity, a collection of previously published essays reshaped into a sustained argument, demonstrates yet again the impeccability of Noll’s scholarship. His careful mastery of the historian’s craft, his massive bibliographical knowledge, his clarity of style and civility of approach—all these serve to answer his own complaints about the “scandal of the evangelical mind.” Noll has an evangelical mind that, far from being small and closed, is both capacious and generous. Hence his rightly honored place at the international table of scholarship in religious history.
Noll concedes that it is notoriously difficult to define his subject. What Wittgenstein said about the aroma of coffee can also be said of evangelicalism: everyone knows it exists, but no one can precisely describe it. Wags have declared that an evangelical is anyone who likes Billy Graham. Noll, more helpfully, pares the leading evangelical characteristics down to three: a radically life-reorienting experience before God; an un abashed priority given to the Bible—especially its cross-centered gospel—as the one authoritative rule for faith and practice; and an adaptive engagement with the surrounding culture. It is this last item, of course, that issues in things both good and evil. On the one hand, it gives evangelicalism—especially in its pentecostal expression—a vitality that makes it the most rapidly expanding form of Christianity today. Yet, on the other, these very same cultural adaptations also bring compromises and corruptions that threaten the very integrity of the faith for which evangelicals are such ardent exponents.
Together with Nathan Hatch and many other historians, secular and Christian alike, Noll has been insisting for many years that there has never been any such thing as a Christian America. Here again he reiterates the point that the American founding was a notably secular event. It was accomplished—for the most part, and contrary to conservative myth—by deistic Episcopalians who believed neither in original sin nor in Israel and Christ as God’s unique provisions for the world’s salvation. Benjamin Franklin’s celebrated motion for prayer at the climax of the Constitutional Convention was in fact not passed, and the orison itself was not prayed, at least not in public. Nor did the cultural hegemony of evangelicals begin with the Great Awakening of the 1740s. As Noll crisply notes, this infusion of religious fervor into American life “was more successful at ending Puritanism than inaugurating evangelicalism.”
It was the frontier revivals of the 1770s and 1780s, Noll demonstrates, that marked the real emergence of the voluntarist, individualist, and sectarian kind of Protestantism that we know as evangelicalism. These new and distinctively American Christians did indeed embrace and adopt—though they did not inaugurate and inspire—the essential qualities of the founding: “the democratic, republican, commonsensical, liberal, and providential conceptions by which the founders had defined America.” The result, for the first six decades of the nineteenth century, was a thoroughgoing alignment of American Protestantism with the American political project. A country once ruled by Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians was now dominated, at least religiously, by Methodists and Baptists.
The moralistic zeal of their revivalism seemed to find its perfect echo in the ethical seriousness required by democratic principles. Non-Christian politicians such as Thomas Jefferson saw, in turn, that republican government could not flourish without citizens of sterling character. Church-state separation in politics thus made for church-state symbiosis in religion. Government provided the liberty and space for evangelical Christians to express what Noll calls their “strong communal sense . . . through voluntary organization of churches and parachurch special-purpose agencies,” i.e., Sunday schools, aid endeavors for the poor, missionary enterprises, publishing houses, etc. Noll cites the massive involvement of evangelicals in the sectional antagonisms prior to the Civil War as proof that they had learned to make public use of their state-granted freedom of religion. Yet such engagement with American culture proved, all too predictably, to have sectional as well as religious motivations. Evangelical loyalties to region shaped evangelical responses to slavery, as adaptability yet again revealed its double character.
The result of this unhappy division, as Noll reports, is that black Protestants have remained mainly on the margins of evangelical existence. This fact is both ironic and sad. Noll’s statistics reveal that most black Protestants are imbued with the same warmhearted, Bible-centered, culturally adaptive faith that characterizes other evangelicals. Fifty-two percent of them give at least a tithe to their churches, 86 percent believe that miracles still occur, and 83 percent pray at least once daily. Though these figures are higher than those registered among white Christians of all kinds, black evangelicals have remained segregated by social attitudes and religious customs, unable to teach their white counterparts the most salutary of lessons. Noll states the matter simply and clearly: “Black Christians are the ones who have experienced the cross most dramatically in American history.” This experience of radical suffering also informs Negro spirituals, making them a permanent and powerful legacy to American Christianity. As Noll points out in his fine chapter on evangelical hymns, there is no color or class or gender line running through a gospel song such as Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Precious Lord.”
After the failure of William Jennings Bryan to garner a national political majority, and especially with the public ignominy he won for his cause at the Scopes trial of 1925, white evangelicals became politically quiescent until the 1970s. Their influence in American public life was largely muted by the fundamentalist controversy in theology and the anti-evolutionist animus in education. Noll is at considerable pains to show that evangelicals have not been simpletons, at least until recently, about either science or theology. From Cotton Mather in the seventeenth century to Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield in the nineteenth, most evangelical theologians were enthusiasts for science. They understood it largely as “a methodological commitment to observation, induction, rigorous principles of falsification, and a scorn for speculative hypotheses.” These theologians sought to use science in order to defend the veracity of the Bible and to establish a Christian worldview. Thus did they regard both nature and Scripture as great storehouses of unvarnished empirical facts. Any fair-minded observer, employing the disinterested powers of reason, could ascertain these facts, and then assemble them into a coherent order that proved the truth of the Christian religion.
Historical critics of Scripture soon began to dispute the factuality of many biblical events, even as scientists began to make totalizing antireligious claims about the naturalist and materialist character of the universe. Noll laments the resulting “wars of science and religion,” especially as they have been fought by proof-texting creationists on the right and by arrogant naturalists on the left. He names Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould as the chief offenders among the latter sort. By contrast, Noll praises the historical efforts of Ronald Numbers and David Livingstone, as well as the scientific work of Michael Behe and William Dembski, for challenging the standard secular accounts of evolution. Noll hails postmodernist thinkers of whatever stripe who acknowledge the context-dependent character of both science and religion: “They have succeeded in showing as clearly as humanly possible that no capital-S science and no capital-R religion exist beyond the bounds of space and time or the boundaries of personal and communal existence.”
Noll strikes a similarly mediating stance in his assessment of Billy Graham. Until recently, Graham was the sole evangelical to gain large public attention. Noll lauds him for preaching nothing other than the central conversionist doctrine of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Christ alone. Not only has Graham avoided the sexual and monetary scandals that have often brought shame upon the evangelical cause; he also has shrewdly “traded angularity for access.” By condemning generic rather than specific sin, Graham has been able to address men and women of every kind and condition with the glad tidings of the gospel. Thus did Graham become, in Noll’s estimate, “one of the most powerful forces for Christian ecumenicity ever seen.”
It is not surprising that, in his constructive chapters, Noll urges evangelicals to adopt a mediating political theology that lapses into “neither a world-denying pessimism nor a redemption-denying immanentism.” Noll’s own theological “realism” has a decidedly Niebuhrian cast. Not within this world can “Christian ideals” ever be fully realized, so inveterately ingrained is the human bent toward sinfulness. It behooves evangelicals neither to demonize their political enemies nor to divinize their own political pronouncements. The deeply paradoxical double-sidedness of nearly every Christian doctrine indicates, for Noll, that all political judgments must be at once local and universal and unavoidably complex. He therefore praises the mediating spirit of Canadian evangelicals for leavening their culture with the yeast of Christianity: “Where in Canada evangelical connections with politics have often moderated extremes, in the United States they have more regularly exacerbated extremes.”
Though Mark Noll’s own moderation has won him an honored place in the pluralist public square, his inclusion there risks a scandal of its own—the scandal, namely, of muting the gospel’s offensiveness, its necessary disjunction with all cultures and nations. It is a fair question, I believe, to ask whether evangelicals have made a deadly error in adapting Christian faith to the basic American assumption that to be free is to be a sovereign individual unencumbered by any aims or attachments that we have not elected for ourselves, nor by obligations to any communities that we have not autonomously chosen to join.
These voluntarist notions often cause evangelicals to violate the radically obediential and communal character of Christian faith. Thus did Dietrich Bonhoeffer complain in the fateful year of 1939 that, despite their admirable “multiplicity of Christian insights and communities,” American Protestant churches suffered from a lack of Reformation in the upper case. He feared that the churches’ acceptance of the private sphere allotted to them by the state had robbed them of their power to give public embodiment to the often offensive truth of the gospel. Perhaps if Bonhoeffer were living today, he would add the adjective “evangelical” to his stark warning that “denominations are not Confessing Churches.”
To be a confessing church is to be drastically unadaptive about its allegiance to the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. As the Barmen Declaration makes clear, it is to reject all “other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.” Thus do we still need from Noll a sharp critique of such sub-Reformation adaptations as Billy Graham’s three baptisms, his virtual adulation of Ronald Reagan, his immunity to real religious doubt, and especially his decisionist and non-sacramental brand of revivalism. It would have also been good to hear that, even if the advocates of Design Theology eventually prove that nature operates not by an unsponsored and undirected evolutionary process but by an intelligent Shaper, their discovery would still constitute a far-off echo of the scandalously self-identifying and kingdom-creating God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ.
Noll praises evangelicals such as Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, and George Carey for seeking doctrinal solidarity with Roman Catholics. Yet there is much that evangelicals have also to learn from the patristic tradition. Here the recent books of evangelicals Robert Webber and Daniel Williams—on our need to recover the Church’s witness during the first five centuries—serve as important supplements to Noll’s work. I believe that evangelicals must also begin asking hard questions about authoritative ecclesial offices and social teachings. The present Pope’s encyclicals, for example, have served—like nothing possessing similar authority within the evangelical world—to help Catholics resist the demands of our consumerist culture of convenience as well as the omnicompetent nation-state that undergirds it.
Surely the paradox articulated many years ago by Rabbi Manfred Vogel applies equally well to evangelicals: “While America has been good for Jews,” said Vogel, “it has been bad for Judaism.” Liberal democracy has offered evangelical Christians, together with Jews and many others, an unprecedented economic, educational, and political freedom, and for this gift we bow in great gratitude. But we have also baptized its church-subverting vices, especially its individualist and voluntarist notions of Christian existence. Hence our clamant need to answer the scandalous and anti-adaptive call to upper-case Reformation. It remains God’s summons not to evangelical Protestants alone but, as Bonhoeffer said, to the entire Body of Christ.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.