If you listen much to Christian radio (though I can’t say I recommend it), born-again Protestants apparently believe that change is a big part of being Christian. The Bible and the Holy Spirit will change the lives of believers, sometimes in radical proportions. In their public presentation, evangelicals are not shy about being “change-agents.” Change is even an important feature, at least on paper, of evangelical worship since one of the chief reasons for substituting praise songs for hymns is that the older music was repetitiously boring. Supposedly, contemporary Christian music provides congregations with songs that permit variety but also change worshipers from staid and cold believers into those filled by the ultimate change agent, the Holy Spirit.
In Randall Balmer’s brief narrative of evangelicalism in the United States, change is a prevalent feature. The Barnard College professor does not identify change as the topic that orders his material. Instead, in a helpful and readable introduction to born-again Protestantism in the United States, Balmer specifies four pivotal turning points. Since these episodes introduced significant changes among evangelicals, change could plausibly be the thematic glue that holds together these dangling threads. A certain irony, by the way, follows from this interpretation since change is not exactly the first thing we associate with conservatism, the sort of Christianity that evangelicalism purports to be. Unlike the wayward mainline denominations, evangelicalism is supposed to stand for the faith once delivered to the saints, in addition to standards of decency and morality in public life. But if evangelicals are constantly changing, their conservative reputation looks less plausible.
The tension between change and conservation may be the consequence of the narrative that Balmer tells. Four transformations have been decisive for American evangelicalism. The first occurred in teaching on salvation. During the First Great Awakening (1740s)Â?when preachers and theologians such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards dominated the sceneÂ?born-again Protestants held generally to the five points of Calvinism, especially the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in conversion and the sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross for those regenerated by the Spirit. But this Calvinistic teaching ran aground in the next and Second Great Awakening, the one led by Charles Finney (1820s and 1830s). Instead of encouraging would-be Christians with the news that they could depend not on themselves but on God for salvation, evangelists exhorted converts to take control of their own spiritual destiny through obedience to God’s law. To be sure, Finney did not deny divine sovereignty or the graciousness of salvation. Neither did he care for a scheme that turned believers into passive bystanders.
The second change of direction in American evangelicalism came later in the nineteenth century when born-again Protestants altered their expectations about the kingdom of God and its relationship to the return of Christ. Prior to the late nineteenth century, evangelicals were postmillennial in their understanding of salvation history. For Finney and his cohorts, evangelism was not only a way to convert sinners but also a means for establishing a righteous society. As standards of holiness became more pervasive in the United States and around the world, Christ would return after a thousand-year period of righteousness. But evangelicals after the Civil War rejected postmillennialism and adopted premillennial dispensationalism as both a better interpretation of the Bible and social developments. For these Protestants, human history was not progressing but deteriorating, as was the church. As dispensationalists saw it, this pattern was typical of biblical history where God’s people over and over broke faith with God only to receive his just punishment. Evangelicals between 1870 and 1950 came to believe that history was regressing, that the church was apostatizing, and that when God had seen enough he would send his Son to establish righteousness, thereby establishing his kingdom.
Premillennialism in turn ushered in the third transformation of evangelicalism, one where born-again Protestants rejected as worldly those efforts to transform society, withdrawing to a spiritual ghetto. This was the period when Bible colleges, foreign missions agencies, Christian radio, fundamentalist magazines, and independent congregations dominated evangelical Protestantism, when informal networks established by radio preachers, Bible conferences, or Christian publishersÂ?instead of Protestant denominationsÂ?gave coherence to born-again believers.
The last transformation, the one in which born-again Protestants left behind their subculture to join the ranks of the Religious Right, is the one that Balmer struggles most to explain. He is clearly correct that leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson adopted a significantly different posture to the world and their responsibility for it from fundamentalists. Balmer is also right, though he may show too much glee in mocking the claims of the Religious Right, that the interest in national politics had less to do with Roe v. Wade than many suppose. (Balmer’s favorite explanation is policy revisions that removed tax exempt status for religious institutions, such as Bob Jones University, that practiced segregation.) As useful as these points may be, the emergence of evangelicals as an electoral bloc was almost entirely unexpected both by insiders and outsiders. The one possible explanation is that the Arminian and postmillennial activism of the Finney era never left the evangelical soul, and that dispensationalism and cultural withdrawal were simply the best ways to persist for a time. But once changes in American society threatened the ability of parents and churches to pass on the faith to the next generation, evangelicals left the ghetto for the public square.
Although Balmer’s narrative is familiar and his organization is handy, the book suffers from an affliction that characterizes the study of evangelicalism. What is evangelicalism if it has no church or institution that defines membership? For close to fifty years, historians and theologians have debated the matter, and Balmer’s simple definition is no better or worse than most: the necessity of conversion, the reverence for Scripture, and the zeal for evangelism. Since these attributes would apply to most Christians (including the Jesuits for much of their history), this definition is porous. But it does explain why Balmer can group together the Congregationalist Edwards with the Anglican Whitefield with the Presbyterian-turned-Congregationalist Finney with the Baptist Falwell. What may be unique about evangelicals is that they stress conversion, the Bible, and evangelism to the exclusion of church polity, worship, and creeds. But few evangelicals would put it that way and instead would claim to be in continuity with the early church, the Reformation, and modern-day revivalism. The question remains, then: What is evangelicalism and is it anything more than a Platonic form in the eye of the beholding scholar?
This is not an esoteric question, because the changes that Balmer plausibly charts only make sense as pivotal if evangelicalism is indeed so vague. Granted, many groups of Christians, which we commonly link by noting their communion or church membership, have experienced important changes to their traditions. Presbyterians in the twenty-first century are not what they were when they came to North America or when the English Parliament called the Westminster Assembly. Some have become liberal, while others have simply followed contemporary fads and lost most ties to the past. But underneath the vicissitudes of denominational life lies a core of teachings and practices that give even liberal and conservative Presbyterians a remote resemblance, sort of like distant cousins who both display the jowls or hair texture of a great grandfather. But evangelicalism has no such core; whatever coherence it has comes more from scholars than from church officers, because the professors write dictionary articles while life on the ground in evangelical circles is in constant flux. In which case, Balmer can map major changes among evangelicals and assume somehow that evangelicals deep down are still the same. This is a remarkably useful perspective for preserving the idea that evangelicals are conservative, because it means that changes that would have constituted liberalism for other Protestants are just more of the same for evangelicals. But such murkiness is not very helpful for those evangelicals who might need to hear warnings about inconsistencies rather than praise for relevance.
This is not to say that Balmer is without criticisms of evangelicalism. In the section on the Religious Right, he repeats arguments regarding right-wing faith-based politics that he made in Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical’s Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America (Basic Books, 2006). But readers come away from this book with the sense that Balmer is a wounded lover of evangelicalism and would prefer a return to the faith-based politics of Finney and the postmillennialists who ironically wanted a Christian America as much as Jerry Falwell. How Balmer reconciles good evangelical politics with the bad is one more instance of the conceptual problem that haunts this book.