Resurgent Evangelicalism in the United States: Mapping Cultural Change since 1970

Article excerpt

Resurgent Evangelicalism in the United States: Mapping Cultural Change Since 1970. Mark Shibley. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1996. 156 pp. $24.95.

Recent massings of Promise Keepers have rekindled discussions of evangelical Christianity. In the popular mind, evangelicalism evokes the likes of Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Jerry Falwell, men who massage the media while mixing God and right-wing politics. Toss in Biblical inerrancy, family values rhetoric, patriarchy, veiled racism, and a location south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and the picture is complete. Loyola University Chicago sociologist Mark Shibley finds a lot wrong with this picture. He deftly separates fact from fiction, and rhetoric from practice and concludes that the evangelical world is far more diverse than is usually appreciated. Forget the South, he argues, and think California. Far from being a bastion of big-haired Stepford Wives and pompodored male Bible Belters, a typical evangelical service more resembles a carefully orchestrated Promise Keepers rally.

Shibley concedes that Southern-style evangelicalism often conforms to popular stereotype. He traces this to the Second Great Awakening's challenge to constituted authority. Although Shibley could have developed more fully the ways in which white and black religious expressions cross fertilized, he ably describes the decoupling of Caucasian and African American agendas. The Civil War made evangelicalism the religion of the "Lost Cause" (14) and the solace of a defeated Confederacy. As modernist forces gathered in the early 20th century, evangelicalism proved useful to opponents of ascendant secularism.

The Dust Bowl and war industry opportunities fueled a Southern exodus, but not necessarily a repudiation of long-held values. In essence, Southerners transported Southern culture and Southern religion to new homes. For Shibley, this raises the first of many red flags. Working from a thorough statistical base, he demonstrates that Southern out-migration was greater than the growth of evangelicalism, suggesting that not all Southerners retained their culture.

Then why do evangelical churches now outnumber mainline Protestant congregations? Shibley turns to participant observation sociology to paint a different portrait of evangelicalism. Baptist and Pentecostal churches in California that preserve a Southern preaching style and its aggressive assault on popular culture are ill-adapted to the pluralist population of the Golden State. Several churches visited by Shibley have suffered a 93% decline in membership between 1975-1990, leaving them with graying Southern-born congregations and shrinking treasuries.

They stand in marked contrast to evangelical churches who filter conservative theology through popular culture media. Such churches are growing rapidly, the pews filled with new converts who were weaned on television, rock music, and the language the street. Moreover, these evangelicals tend to be morally conservative, but socially liberal.

In 1976, Ernst Troelstch argued that churches that adapted to pluralism; those that resisted would decline. California-style evangelicalism validates his claim. In an incisive chapter entitled "Jesus Rocks," Shibley notes that modern evangelical services often look "more like a rock concert than a religious gathering" (94). He also challenges the adherents are poorly educated, economically marginalized Baby Boomers. The congregations he observed were well-heeled: 22% held college degrees, and 83% were under 40. …