The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History

The Evangelical Question in the History of American Religion

The disturbing conclusion might just be that evangelicalism does not exist.

Kirsten Sanders

THR illustration (left: Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey, Amoret Tanner/Alamy Stock Photo; center: the Jesus Movement, 1970s; Jerry Falwell, Keystone Press/Alamy Stock Photo; Rick Warren, Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo; right: Jen Hatmaker,; background: Emanuel Tanjala/Alamy Stock Photo).

Ask a crowded room of evangelicals, “What is an evangelical?” and you will likely get a crowded set of answers. It is one of the questions—perhaps the main question—evangelicals argue about most strenuously. It was British historian David Bebbington who, in his classic 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, offered a definition that remains the most authoritative and influential in these discussions. Evangelicals, he argued, were Christians who possessed four interlocking qualities: biblicism (an emphasis on the priority of Scripture), activism (a personal commitment to live out the faith), crucicentrism (a focus on the centrality of the Cross for human salvation and meaning), and evangelism (a need to share the Christian faith with others).11xD.W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (New York, NY: Routledge, 1989), 2.

This “quadrilateral of priorities,” as Bebbington’s called it, has its merits.22xIbid., 3. For one, it is undeniable that many evangelicals share these four traits. It is also true that evangelicals have long favored this approach to defining their movement—perhaps because it reflects eighteenth-century Methodist founder John Wesley’s own theological quadrilateral of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Perhaps it’s because they like the version of themselves this definition suggests. But even if evangelicals do fancy themselves as serious, pious, intelligent, and devoted, that’s rather beside the point. If we want to think historically about this religious movement, we have to set aside the question of whether evangelicals are individually any of these things. Instead, we must investigate what evangelicalism is—if anything—and how the movement has been deeply shaped by American culture.33xThis account is in no way sui generis; American religious historians such as Kathryn Lofton, Timothy Gloege, and Darren Dochuk have composed similar narratives.

Consider how Peter Berger, the late American sociologist of religion, writes about the way human “culture-making” often takes on a life of its own. Using the well-known tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice, Berger illustrates how culture is manmade yet not entirely controlled by man:

The mighty buckets, magically called out of nothingness by human fiat, are set in motion [by man’s culture making]. From that point on they go about drawing water in accordance with an inherent logic of their own being that, at the very least, is less than completely controlled by their creator. It is possible, as happens in that story, that man may find an additional magic that will bring back under his control the vast forces he has unleashed upon reality. This power, though, is not identical with the one that first set these forces in motion. And, of course, it can happen that man drowns in the floods that he himself has produced.44xPeter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, NY: Open Road Integrated Media, 1990), 28. First published 1967.

Evangelicalism is one example of such a flood. And the conditions that caused this deluge are the distinct set of products that make up “American culture,” including especially secularization, consumerism, and economic trends that have driven religion into the sphere of the marketplace—and into a condition wherein religious beliefs are valued for their cultural relevance. The phenomenon we call evangelicalism, in short, cannot be extricated from American religiosity.

Put another way, evangelicalism is the form the Christian religion tends to take within modern American culture. It is impossible to be an American Christian without being heavily influenced by evangelicalism—I would even say that it is nearly impossible to be a white, American Christian without being an evangelical. This is why even many who strenuously protest again the shape of contemporary evangelicalism—criticizing, for example, its penchant for toxic masculinity or white Christian nationalism—still often benefit from and unwittingly perpetuate its existence. As the proliferation of the so-called “ex-evangelical” online community shows, leaving evangelicalism isn’t always as easy it looks—even when you are keenly engaged in the process of religious deconstruction.

That’s not to say that evangelical is a static identity. Because it is so easily influenced by popular culture, evangelicalism readily adapts to the wider scene, but we can identify shifts in it that each remain identifiably and largely the same even as they take shape in opposition to a previous iteration of the identity. This, again, is because evangelicalism is not a form of voluntary association—like a political party, a social organization, or even another sort of religious institution like the Roman Catholic Church. As historian Molly Worthen argued in her 2013 book Apostles of Reason, evangelicalism has always suffered from a “crisis of authority”—and abortive attempts on the part of pastors, intellectuals, and denominational institutions to insulate the movement from the winds of change. Freed from institutional trappings and guardrails, evangelicalism is free to change and adapt but remains always a deeply cultural phenomenon.

Surviving Secularization

That evangelicals may not be aware of the cultural habits that drive their religious practices is not their fault; this is exactly how culture works. In his 1967 classic The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger wrote that society is a product of human beings and that they cannot exist apart from it. All humans are social humans, as he put it, so “it is within society, and as a result of social processes, that the individual becomes a person, that he attains and holds onto an identity, and that he carries out the various projects that constitute his life.”55xIbid., 17. There is thus no personhood apart from society and no individual apart from culture. At some point in human development, culture and its assumptions about the world become “second nature.”

For Berger, religion is one kind of “world-building” that human beings naturally undertake. The sacred real exists to reinforce the culture that people have constructed, serving to found it and vest it with meaning. For this reason, religion is a historical product, “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant.”66xIbid., 28. See also chap. 1 generally. This view is not unique to Berger; Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber make similar observations about what kind of reality religion is, though their projects are admittedly less impartial than Berger’s attempts to be. Berger does not intend to suggest, nor would I, that religion is only this. His claims are much more modest: He seeks to track how human beings build culture and to identify how that culture and its features are historically contingent.

One important feature of this contingency is secularization, which Berger defines as “the process by which sectors of society and culture are removed from the domination of religious institutions and symbols.”77xBerger, The Sacred Canopy, 201. For Berger, not only does the modern Western tradition carry within itself the seeds of secularization, but religion itself also participates in and even energizes this process.88xThis observation is not original to Berger; as he notes, its roots are evident at least as early as Hegel. Protestantism is an important case for many sociologists who study how sacred reality “shrank” in the early modern world: Over time Reformers reduced the number of sacraments, shunned prayers for the dead, and made prayers for the intercession of the saints less central. This process of erosion left Protestantism bereft of what Berger calls the three most powerful and ancient “concomitants” of the sacred: mystery, miracle, and magic.99xBerger, The Sacred Canopy, 209. Nevertheless, Protestants retained one solitary, though powerful, channel for encountering God—the Bible, whose access and meaning could be privately interpreted.

In these terms, the disenchantment of the world is a distinctly Protestant phenomenon. So says Berger: “The Protestant believer no longer lives in a world ongoingly penetrated by sacred beings and forces” but in a world “bereft of numinosity.”1010xIbid., 209, 211. By relegating religion from the public sphere of transcendental truths to the private one of voluntary associations, this process of disenchantment transformed religion into a private choice. What this meant practically speaking was that religion was no longer “second nature” and part of man’s assumed culture. Rather, it became just another option: something to choose, or not. The necessity of religious choice, then, meant that the “the pluralistic situation is, above all, a market situation.”1111xIbid., 138.

Berger’s is a stunning claim, and it’s worth pausing to consider its implications. The process of secularization transforms religious institutions into what he calls “marketing agencies” and religious traditions into “consumer commodities.” If what Berger argues is true, it’s impossible to study American evangelicalism without interpreting it through the logic of market economics. Evacuated of a central teaching office or a shared liturgy, with a phenomenology void of the supernatural, evangelicalism is a religious consciousness that needed to market itself to private individuals who were no longer constrained to participate in religious activities.

Evangelicalism, therefore, has adopted private values that would appeal to the widest possible audience. These values, however, have shifted historically—from middle-class respectability and gender roles and the virtues associated with middle management, to the values of patriotism and political power that appealed to a culture preoccupied with American strength. The values that are often associated with evangelicalism were not produced by evangelicals out of whole cloth; rather, they presented the best way to market a religion with any hope of surviving.

The Three Stages of Evangelicalism

Dating the origins of evangelicalism is a tricky proposition, in part because there are a staggering number of origin stories to choose from—some more flattering than others. After all, Martin Luther himself used the term evangelishe Kirche (“evangelical church”). But most scholars look to a more modern data point to locate the phenomenon we know as evangelicalism, generally focusing on the revivals of the Great Awakening that broke out in the North Atlantic world in the early eighteenth century. For an even more recent (and more fundamentalist) starting point, some also point to Billy Sunday, the showboating traveling preacher of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose charisma and clear, minimalist gospel message certainly presaged the techniques of modern television preachers.

Evangelicalism can be partially distinguished by its acceptance of a “basic” Christian identity, as opposed to a particular denominational one.1212xKathryn Lofton makes this observation in her book Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011), 60. It is with this preference for an attenuated Christian identity that we can begin to see the origins of a three-part history of the movement. What I would like to call “Evangelicalism A” can be dated roughly from 1904, with the development of the Chicago-based Moody Bible Institute, an organization that historian Timothy Gloege argues offered a version of a “corporate” evangelical identity that reshaped and condensed American religious identity. The values of personal industriousness and company loyalty transferred well from the workplace to the church during the early years of what John Dewey called the “corporate age.”

This condensing of American religious identity is one part of the story historian Daniel Vaca tells of the development of the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in his 2019 book Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America. Eerdmans was formed in 1911 to publish Dutch literature for a Dutch Reformed audience. Dutch Reformed Christians had begun immigrating to America in large numbers in the nineteenth century, and the press sought to equip them to resist the forces of secularization that threatened their Christian identity.1313xVaca writes that Dutch Christians first arrived in western Michigan, the future home of Eerdmans Publishing, in 1847. See Daniel Vaca, Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019). The materials Eerdmans produced were highly sophisticated and focused on sustaining a distinctively Reformed identity among their readership.

But by the 1930s, as the market for Dutch literature declined, Eerdmans sought to broaden its audience by publishing literature that shared basic theological commitments without getting too deep into the doctrinal weeds. This mass appeal necessarily entailed not just fewer books in Dutch but fewer with narrowly focused Dutch Reformed theological interests. It also meant that more books addressed topics of general interest, specifically of domestic interest. Vaca shows how not just Eerdmans but many other Christian publishers, saw the “born again” religious identity as a marketing opportunity. Although religious audiences were known to read more than other consumer groups, they strongly preferred middle-of the road, generic religious literature.1414xTimothy Gloege makes the compelling, complementary point that aiming for “middle class respectability” was primarily a marketplace decision. See Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2015). What was initially an economic decision, then, functioned to create a new identity for readers of religious books who shared this common-denominator identity, a process Vaca deftly calls “mass-market ecumenism.”1515xVaca, Evangelicals Incorporated, 104.

Where once there were differentiated markets for religious products—one for Presbyterians and others for Methodists, Baptists, members of the Church of Christ, and so on—evangelicalism presented a larger yet more homogenous market just for “Christians.” Individual companies and organizations that produced Christian resources, such as Eerdmans, now could more easily appeal to all of those who shared this larger, orienting identity.

Evangelicalism A also found energy in the figure of Billy Graham, the revivalist and preacher whom none other than Bob Dylan described as “rock ’n’ roll personified—volatile, explosive.”1616xBob Dylan, “Bob Dylan: The Uncut Interview,” with Robert Love, AARP: The Magazine, February/March 2015, Graham presented the “basics” of Christian identity to a mass audience by way of television, a new mode of communication that fit well with private devotional habits and home-centered Bible reading. It was this combination of creedal minimalism and technological capacity that so successfully situated evangelicalism as a prominent religious identity in midcentury America.

But by the 1970s, Evangelicalism A’s grip on American culture had begun to loosen. Middle-class notions of personal responsibility, upward mobility, and company loyalty stood on shaky ground as new countercultural norms took root and as the political crises of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement unfolded. But it was the “Jesus Movement” (its adherents sometimes derisively labeled “Jesus People”) that metabolized the era’s rapid cultural change and helped to develop a new, more culturally attractive version of evangelicalism. Eventually, what Billy Graham called a “spiritual awakening” was felt in even the more standard ecclesial structures.

Not unlike those Silicon Valley devotees of the Whole Earth Catalog, Evangelicalism B confected a new religious identity out of the emerging counterculture, new technologies, and corporate branding. From the 1960s to the 2000s, it was the megachurch that more than any other institution helped to incubate this new convergence. Unsurprisingly, Southern California was ground zero for this movement. Calvary Church, begun in 1965 by Jesus Movement leader Pastor Chuck Smith, soon became a multisite ministry. The Saddleback Church, founded in 1980 by Pastor Rick Warren, not only adopted a corporate structure that cast the pastor in the role of entrepreneurial CEO, but also developed a “seeker sensitive” model whose explicit objective was to apply marketing techniques to get people in the church door.

Where Evangelicalism A borrowed a cultural interest in modest, personal commitment and wed it to a bare-bones set of Protestant beliefs, Evangelicalism B borrowed new business tactics and wed them to the new generation’s earnest desire for an authentic spiritual life. These values of Evangelicalism B were so well positioned for the historical moment that evangelicalism found significant traction in the sphere of politics, as well. By 1979, the activist organization Moral Majority for America was seeking political power for evangelicals as a voting bloc—and soon became one of the most influential political groups in the country. The rise of the religious right therefore added a political dimension to evangelicalism’s more minimalist set of theological criteria.

In her remarkably popular book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (2020), Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez offers a history of Evangelicalism B. She argues that American evangelicalism has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with other American identities, namely masculinity, militarism, and xenophobia. By her reading, these cultural motifs were so well suited to the fertile soil of the movement that evangelicalism became little more than this, a “faith, football, family” culture on which companies such as the frankly religious craft empire Hobby Lobby capitalize. Du Mez deftly describes many of the factors that resulted from Evangelicalism B’s cozy cooperation with political power and the way this minimized religious commitments even as it maximized political ones.

Although Du Mez’s account reads as an apt description and indictment of the movement’s twists and turns, the private values and cultural norms that were easily marketed in 1990s America are no longer the ones being marketed today. A shortcoming of Du Mez’s book is that she does not reflect on whether she, too, has taken part in a process of secularization whereby one’s religious beliefs must square with the concerns of the marketplace and, perhaps unintentionally, has become just another participant in the process of secularization Peter Berger describes. Seen from this perspective, Jesus and John Wayne is an example of how quickly values change, and the alacrity with which purveyors of evangelical religion rush to market themselves accordingly. They did not find the “God, faith, and family” values problematic in the days of Evangelicalism B because such values weren’t problematic during that cultural period. Du Mez identifies those religious artifacts marketed most avidly to evangelicals during Evangelicalism B, when religious identity reached the apogee of its mass-market appeal. But she analyzes them through the lens of what I am calling Evangelicalism C, the landscape we currently inhabit.1717xKristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York, NY: Norton Liveright, 2020).

There are several possible moments from which to date the origin of Evangelicalism C. One might be September 11, 2001, when American national identity was solidified after foreign, non-Christian actors attacked and brought down the World Trade Center. My chosen date, however, is 2007, when the Apple iPhone introduced a new technology that would alter religious identity permanently. With the iPhone, what had long been a move toward private religious practice now took a hyperindividualized form. The rise of social media allowed users to identify themselves as religious or nonreligious with ease, just as they identified their other consumer preferences.

Although Evangelicalism C also depends on dynamic personalities and public figures, it operates largely outside organized churches or institutions. Its religious marketplace is increasingly virtual, raising the prospect that the megachurches have put their heyday behind them. Today, individuals who want to “be Christian” are more and more likely to follow influencers who promote their version of Christianity through Instagram stories, books and book tours, and the conference circuit. It is increasingly common for these influencers to have no church affiliation. The spiritual guides of Evangelicalism C, according to Sarah Bessey, the cofounder of a popular podcasting and event organization called Evolving Faith, are “the question askers, the wilderness wanderers, the status quo upenders.”1818xSarah Bessey, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 1. Spiritual questioning has always been part of the Christian faith, to be sure, but only with Evangelicalism C has it become a brand.

Today branding is a form of leadership, and few evangelicals have been more successful at it than Jen Hatmaker, a one-time Christian mommy blogger who made a name for herself writing about international adoption and juggling busy ministry schedules with raising young children. Her early books, Tune In: Hearing God’s Voice through the Static (2006) and Out of the Spin Cycle: Devotions to Lighten Your Mother Load (2010), cemented her reputation as a lively Bible teacher encouraging moms to follow Jesus amid the mess. In 2013, she wrote a blog post about the difficulty of managing the details of the end of the school year that went viral, even attracting notice in the Washington Post.1919xMari-Jane Williams, “‘Worst End of School Year Mom Ever’: Jen Hatmaker’s Blog Post is a Reminder That the End of the School Year Chaos Is Universal,” Washington Post, May 31, 2013, By 2014, in one of her books she was recounting the time God asked her, “What is really the point of My church?”2020xJen Hatmaker, Interrupted: When Jesus Wrecks Your Comfortable Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: Navigators, 2014). This was the same year HGTV featured the Hatmakers on My Big Family Renovation.

Hatmaker’s pattern of thinking theologically through her family life continued when in 2016 she wrote about how she’d changed her mind about traditional marriage after her daughter came out as gay. She became an increasingly outspoken advocate for LGBT causes and continued to develop her brand away from the world of Christian bookselling—for which the market was diminishing—to “household influencer” at a time when that market was booming. In 2017, she started a podcast, For the Love, whose recent segments have included “Who Says God Is a White Man?” and “Facing the Reality of Power and White Privilege.” In October, she will launch a cookbook to her more than half a million followers on Instagram.

Evangelicalism C cannot be understood without giving attention to how brands are marketed as value systems. Just as marketing trends were often put to religious use in earlier forms of evangelicalism, the way companies market products directly to consumers through social media and use “influencers” as advertisers has found another religious use—and it has transformed our contemporary religious sensibility. Where once the expert class (i.e., pastors, priests, and theologians) was sought out for religious knowledge, or authors were recruited to write on a specific topic solely on the basis of their relevant knowledge, what matters now is one’s platform and followers. Evangelicalism C, accordingly, values the influencer over the expert, personal narrative more than impersonal claims, and testimony over centralized authority.

When it comes to matters of gender, sexuality, and race, then, Evangelicalism C stands apart from Evangelicalisms A and B. Its emerging class of influencers is more affirming of sexual expression, more sensitive to matters of social justice, and at times acutely critical of the stands aging generations of evangelicals have taken on both. Still, there remains a striking continuity that can be traced across the decades, a parade of salesmanship built on a view of the religious life, conceived through the lens of the home and consumer identities. As Peter Berger writes, “A sky empty of angels becomes open to the intervention of the astronomer and, eventually, of the astronaut.”2121xBerger, The Sacred Canopy, 211. We are in a moment when sexuality, gender, and race have become the astronauts of the modern religious sphere. They are the medium we have created whereby we might encounter the divine, but they are far removed indeed from the angels of the past.

Many influencers and leaders prominent in the world of Evangelicalism C tend to reject the “evangelical” label. But in seeking to distance themselves from a previous movement and casting around for a new religious identity that better squares with their social concerns—one that correlates broadly with the culture of the day—such religious figures bear an uncanny, if unintended, resemblance to their evangelical predecessors. As inheritors of an increasingly secular religious landscape, they have been left with little choice than to market their religious beliefs and values to whoever will buy them. The best way to do this is to adopt the preferences, values, and strategies of the surrounding culture.

If this is a true story of American religion, perhaps it is a disappointingly prosaic one. Surely, there is more to the religious experience than a conflation of culture and market forces. Indeed, I would say there is. But when it comes to evangelicalism, perhaps we should learn something from the seemingly interminable debates of journalists, scholars, and religious leaders over just what exactly this religious movement is—and what collection of pious practices, political identities, and theological convictions constitute it. It is not simply that the movement resists easy definition. It is, rather, that evangelicalism has been so buffeted by the waves of consumer trends, been so malleable and revisable for every cultural moment, that the movement cannot be meaningfully distinguished from a broader American religiosity. The disturbing conclusion might just be that evangelicalism does not exist.