Last month, Molly Worthen traveled to the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics to take part in a symposium for the inaugural Danforth Distinguished Lecture series at Washington University in St. Louis. During her stay, she sat down with Managing Editor Tiffany Stanley to discuss her latest book, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, published in November by Oxford University Press. The book charts the intellectual history of modern American evangelicalism, chronicling the movement’s paradoxes, diversity, and internal struggles over the reconciliation of faith and reason.
Worthen is also the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill. She has written for such publications as The New York Times, Slate, Christianity Today, and Religion & Politics. In 2012, she joined the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an assistant professor of history. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
R&P: How did you come to this project?
MW: I came to this project out of my background as a journalist. I had observed certain things going on among contemporary American evangelicals that I wanted to explain, particularly trends among young evangelicals. I got very interested in young evangelicals who were protesting what they perceived to be their parents’ Religious Right. These young folks called—or began to call themselves in the 1990s and early 2000s—the Emergent Church. These were Millennials or, in some cases, Gen-Xers, who had grown up in big, white, suburban, politically conservative megachurches and were challenging that heritage by appealing to other parts of the church tradition, acquainting themselves with theology that they had never been exposed to and even looking toward the Catholic tradition.
I just thought: What is the story here? What’s going on? And I tried to reverse-engineer their process and create a kind of genealogy of their ideas. As I did that, I ended up uncovering for myself this story of how one particular theological and political tradition within evangelicalism had come to be so dominant and come to be the public face of evangelicalism in America—despite the fact that evangelicalism is an incredibly diverse, sometimes self-contradictory world. My book tells the story of the intellectual civil war within evangelicalism, the backstory to the rise of the Christian Right. Scholars usually describe this in purely political terms, as a story of backlash against the liberation movements of the 60s and a continuation of the anti-Communist movement. But increasingly, I felt that to really understand what’s going on in this country, even just politically, you have to get into the ideas. You have to start looking at what’s happening in missions, spiritual revivals, the way worship is changing, how all these different communities within this huge subculture that we call evangelicalism are interacting. That’s the only way you can understand today’s landscape.
R&P: From the outset, in the introduction, you note that unlike a lot of these histories, this book is not “a chronicle of the Christian Right.” While that history figures into the book and your narrative has political implications, you write, “We cannot comprehend conservative Protestants, or their place in American culture, solely in terms of ‘values voting.’” By that did you mean that we have to look at the intellectual history and the theology and other factors as well?
MW: I think we have to treat evangelicals seriously as thinkers. That requires going fairly far back in history and tracing their intellectual genealogy back several centuries. Even though the book is focused really on the 1940s forward, I had to do some homework tracing the deep origins of this tradition that I’m calling evangelicalism to explain the more modern context. I ended up with a way of defining evangelicalism that is much broader than ways other scholars have approached it, certainly far broader than one particular political position, and broader than the standard list of doctrines that many scholars find useful. I think talking about a list of doctrines is important and helpful, but I came to think of evangelicals as Protestants who have, for centuries, circled around a shared set of questions rather than shared doctrines. And for any person with a religious worldview, politics is part of a coherent worldview. You can’t break it off and treat it in a vacuum. It is connected to what they are up to in church, the way in which their church is interacting with the world beyond America through missions, the way they’re thinking about their own tradition in liturgy and spiritual experience, and what counts as an authentic connection to the divine. All of this has ramifications for how they live out their faith in the world and at the ballot box. And so it seemed to me that an accurate intellectual and political history had to pay attention to those things.
R&P: Absolutely. And the term evangelical can be pretty unwieldy. You seem to define it in terms of the questions they’re asking. How would you define that term for a lay audience? How did you pinpoint, “These are my evangelicals”?
MW: I wanted a way of defining evangelicals that would allow me to corral people who seemed to be part of the same conversation, who seemed to care about what one another got up to, even if they disagreed radically on nearly every point of doctrine. I wanted a way to include Mennonites and Pentecostals and Southern Baptists, even if some of these folks would adamantly reject the label of evangelical if you applied it to them because it often implies a particular political position. As I looked at the long stretch of history, the definition that I found interesting and useful was this: evangelicals are Protestants who since aftermath of the Reformation have been circling around three questions. Those questions are: 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?
While these are, in some sense, universal human questions that all human beings who care about the supernatural wrestle with at some level, they have a unique power over evangelicals because evangelicals don’t have a magisterial, central authority to guide them. Now, I know that we should not exaggerate the power that the Vatican has over Catholics. But no matter how furiously many Catholics may quarrel with what the pope says, the pope is still an immensely powerful center of gravity. The magisterium is a structure that frames one shared conversation relating to a shared tradition. Likewise, I would say that liberal Protestants, in practice, treat human reason as their magisterium—either allowing reason to adjudicate their relationship with religious authority, or allowing reason to rule in its own separate sphere. They don’t get too angsty when faith suggests other things about reality than reason does.
In contrast, evangelicals sincerely try to please all the sources of authority in those three questions that I mentioned. They try to satisfy the standards of secular reason and spiritual experience and scripture and do right by the public square. Because they’re torn in these different directions—this is the “crisis of authority” in the book’s subtitle—they have a fraught relationship with the sphere of secular, intellectual life and also politics. I think this is a way in which observers have misunderstood evangelicals. They toss out this epithet “anti-intellectual” and they say, “Evangelicals are anti-intellectual because their community is totally authoritarian and they unthinkingly obey their pastor.” To me, that’s actually the opposite of what’s going on. The truth is that they’re torn by these conflicting authorities, and the resulting confusion and anxiety explains their relationship with secular, modern life.