Magazine article The Christian Century

The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years

Article excerpt

The Age of Evangelicalism: America's Born-Again Years

By Steven P. Miller

Oxford University Press, 240 pp., $24.95

The musical Hair may have been great comedy when it was released in 1967, but it was poor prophecy. The spirit of the 1960s had audiences singing that it was the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius." Nine years later, Time magazine declared that 1976 was the "year of the evangelical." Seven years after that, President Reagan was calling for 1983 to be the "year of the Bible."

Then in the new millennium, pundits began discussing a God gap between the political parties. How did the era of the new left and the hippie harems give way to the age of the new right and evangelical empires? In this short and brisk book, historian Steven P. Miller maintains that evangelicalism marked an era because it was enmeshed in how Americans conceived of the links between religion, politics, and the public.

The watershed moment was Watergate. It left a vacuum of moral leadership and propelled the search for something new. Almost like magic, a new type of identity emerged--the born-again person. Unlike the biblical Nicodemus, many Americans of the 1970s were anything but perplexed when they learned that they must be, as Jesus explained, born again. These individuals could be found all over the American map. The most obvious was Jimmy Carter, whose born-again label helped launch him toward the White House. There were also singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, misogynist essayist Eldridge Cleaver, and Nixon tough guy Chuck Colson.

In the 1970s, evangelicalism had not yet become tethered to conservative politics. Carter, a Democrat, received almost 50 percent of the evangelical vote (Nixon had received 84 percent in 1972). The evangelical left of Ron Sider and Jim Wallis took shape in the 1970s too. In that decade evangelicalism seemed noteworthy less for being conservative than for being cool.

Then came Ronald Reagan. If 1976 was the year of the evangelical, then 1980 was the year of the evangelical right. Televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson puffed Reagan. They were thrilled when Reagan declared 1983 the year of the Bible, and they reveled in his 1984 book In God I Trust. Evangelicals rallied to the work of Francis Schaeffer and his attacks on secular humanism. The 1990s, though, were a tough time for conservative evangelicals. They lost the presidency to Bill Clinton and then failed to defeat him even after yet another sex scandal. If Reagan was the "Teflon president" on whom nothing could stick, Clinton was the comeback kid.

Then came George W. Bush. As Miller points out, Reagan was the evangelicals' president, but Bush was the evangelical president. He became the "de facto head of evangelicalism," and "faith-based initiatives" became popular. Bible study was not mandatory in the White House, but it was not exactly optional either. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, international relations were discussed in terms of good and evil. Americans flooded movie theaters to watch The Passion of the Christ, in which Jesus was whipped so many times they were reduced to tears. "What would Jesus do?" became a fashion statement, and Christian musicians made big bucks. All of this left Democrats scrambling to bridge the God gap. Then Barack Obama strode in, a young politician who seemed to be able to address both secularists and evangelicals (or at least the evangelical left).

Most of the above is common knowledge for those who pay attention. What is novel about Miller's book is the way he positions evangelicalism as the foil for other thinkers, movers, and shakers: evangelicalism seemed so powerful and ubiquitous that those outside the tent felt compelled to address it. …

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