Evangelicalism: An Americanized Christianity
Richard Kyle. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2006. 337 pages.
The subtitle of Richard Kyle’s book signals the author’s conclusion that popular American evangelicalism is shaped by cultural forces. His perspective reverses jeremiads issued from many an evangelical pulpit—that Christian America has lost its way. Through judicious review of the historical evidence he qualifies the notion that the United States has ever been authentically Christian by evangelicals’ own definitions. Furthermore, Kyle documents evangelicalism’s own cultural accommodation to an extent that it is conservative Protestants who, given their close identification with American culture, risk forfeiting their birthright.
Professor of History and Religious Studies at Tabor College, Kyle brings thirty-five years of teaching to his writing of his seventh book. His research relies heavily upon secondary sources, drawing upon a host of top-rate scholars whose own careers evidence the late-twentieth-century flowering of evangelical scholarship. The result is a masterful synthesis through events as recent as the 2004 reelection of President Bush.
After elaborating in the first chapter upon paradox as a device for explaining both dynamics internal to evangelicalism and the movement’s relationship to the host culture, Kyle devotes the remaining seven to chronological developments. His treatment makes clear the need for an historical perspective when one attempts to define this evolving movement. Well into the nineteenth century, evangelical Protestants drew upon their Puritan and revivalist heritage and enjoyed influence which put them “in the driver’s seat” (chapter 2). During the decades following the Civil War, conservative Protestants shifted from shaping American culture to becoming thoroughly Americanized. Turn-of-the-century fissures in Protestant hegemony (chapter 3), yielded to rupture during the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, and conservatives generally withdrew from public view for the next several decades (chapter 4).
The final four chapters trace the ongoing resurgence of evangelical influence since World War II. During the decades of the forties and fifties, neoevangelical heirs of fundamentalism sharply critiqued the anti-intellectual and separatist emphases of their forebears (chapter 5). Evangelicals then extended their resurgence to politics by supporting born-again Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election and then redirected their loyalties to Ronald Reagan and the GOP in 1980 (chapter 6). Shaped by the culture of consumerism, they tuned their methods and message to the marketplace through both megachurches and televangelism as seeker-friendly means of delivery (chapter 7). Chapter 8’s treatment of evangelicalism’s accommodation with American pop culture concludes Kyle’s narrative. He writes, “By the late twentieth century, there existed little appreciable difference between the evangelical subculture and mainstream American culture” (269).
As already noted, the author traces paradoxes throughout. At the core of the book’s argument lie both an acknowledgement of evangelicalism’s dynamic qualities even as its buying into American culture is troubling. Evangelicals have
a hate-love relationship with American culture. While many view America’s political and economic systems as divinely inspired, they have hated what they regard as the nation’s departure from these perceived biblical principles. (ix)
Other examples of paradox include evangelicals’ extensive influence despite their minority status among the cognitive elites, their knack for adapting progressive methods in propagating an old-time message, and their idealization of women being at home while relying upon those same women both as activists in the movement’s causes and as wage earners in families aspiring to the good life. Even more telling is the paradox that rather than creating a Christian America, evangelicals “have developed an Americanized Christianity and they cannot tell the difference between the two” (1). Although Kyle generally balances sympathetic and critical tones, his prophetic edge strikes incisively in pronouncing evangelicalism to have baptized secular culture, thereby creating a counterfeit.
In reviewing this book for a Mennonite journal, I am left wondering what role it will play in bridging the divide between elites and populists which the author so aptly describes. Evangelicals thrive on populist styles of leadership and communication, and their frequently intentional and explicit opposition to intellectual elites. This book, written by a college professor and published by a press affiliated with a major university, falls on the elite side of this dialectic. Furthermore Kyle’s annoyance with more populist styles of preaching and worship underscores the challenge we academics face in communicating across these divides. This book has the potential of illuminating the perspectives of those enamored with any number of strategies which are part of evangelicalism’s counterfeit culture. Yet the likelihood of those inclined in the populist direction actually turning this book’s pages is discouragingly low. My appreciation for the book’s contents calls me to renew my commitment to communication and discernment.
Kyle receives a glowing commendation from Mark Noll, recent president of the American Society of Church History, on the book’s dust jacket. Noll, himself a prolific writer on historical topics including evangelicalism, declares this book “now the best general account of the history as well as the contemporary cultural and political manifestations of the United States’ most numerous, yet also most complicated religious movement.”