A sudden disintegration

The 1960s was a decade of momentous change in American history. John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, was elected and then assassinated; Bible-reading and prayer were banned in schools as a result of two important Supreme Court cases; full and legally protected citizenship was secured for African Americans by the civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965. What’s more, these events took place against a menacing backdrop: the Cold War. At times the threat of nuclear destruction was immanent. Less-noticeable changes undoubtedly contributed to the overall sense of upheaval. For a substantial number of Americans, as a result of sustained economic growth, the 1960s was a period of relatively high social mobility. Society became much younger, proportionally speaking, and those young people went on to get more advanced levels of education than their parents. With greater exposure to different ideas and diverse peoples, both as a result of education and increased urbanization, a significant portion of the younger generation rejected the middle-class norms of their parents. The symbols are well-known: men started growing their hair long, women began to wear pants, and new forms of popular music saturated the air—which sometimes expressed creative disdain for conventions depicted as staid and stifling. New social movements rose to increased prominence as well, including civil rights for African Americans as well as second-wave feminism and gay rights. No-fault divorce was legalized. These developments coincided with widespread attitudinal adjustments: polls show that by 1970 a majority of Americans were willing to elect a female president, less than half the population now saw premarital sex as morally wrong, and much greater levels of tolerance for cultural diversity were expressed.

In the context of a titanic struggle between global forces, change on such a scale is going to engender a wide range of reactions. If many Americans experienced the 1960s as a decade of liberation and the germination of newfound freedoms, others, including many in the subculture of evangelicalism, viewed it apocalyptically. Everything was changing and the chaos could only end in doom. This is probably the best light in which to cast the upsurge in the evangelical concern for “family values.” To a substantial degree, it was a reaction to the scale of social, cultural, and political change. If you attend to what evangelical leaders were saying at that time—and many of them have been saying similar things ever since—they will often identify the 1960s as the beginning of the slippery slope to Sodom. Just read one of the many sermons then given by Billy Graham. He quickly and deftly links new sexual practices and attitudes with the threat posed by godless Communism. To listen to him tell it, accepting Jesus into your heart not only addressed your eternal salvation, it simultaneously ensured that America would successfully rebuff the evil Soviets.

Now consider a more extreme case, in a highly representative quote from James Dobson:

Accompanying this social upheaval was a sudden disintegration of moral and ethical principles, such as has never occurred in the history of mankind. All at once, there were no definite values. There were no standards. No absolutes. No rules. No traditional beliefs on which to lean. Nor could anyone over thirty even be trusted. And as will be recalled, some bright-eyed theologians chose that moment of confusion to announce the death of God.1

This comes from a book about raising children. What is it doing there? Actually, this is par for the course for Dobson. Tucked into his conservative pedagogical advice is an exceedingly dubious statement about American culture and its history. Precisely because he speaks in a warm, soft tone, combining relatable anecdotes about family life with the veneer of scientific credibility as a psychologist, he can insert such “analysis” into his radio program, speaking directly to the anxieties of (largely white, middle-class) evangelicals. To many of them the collective changes of the 1960s threatened their parental authority, undermined the hierarchy of the home, and discarded the allegedly eternal principles of morality upon which their Christian beliefs rested. It’s fair to say that Dobson gave evangelical parents the confidence they needed, as well as the practical guidelines they sought, to steer their children away from the threatening, growing momentum posed by the big bad culture of secular liberalism.

I heard Dobson’s voice so much growing up that I can still identify it with ease more than 30 years later. “Focus on the Family,” his popular radio program, was often heard in our home and in our car. My parents likely read Dare to Discipline (1970; revised in 1992), one of his early and most popular books. During a recent conversation my mom told me that they wanted to model themselves after their evangelical friends—friends who pointed them in the direction of figures like Dobson. My dad went even further. He also read Francis Schaeffer’s How Then Shall We Live (1976), which gave a level of intellectual credibility to Dobson’s cultural criticism. Schaeffer’s immensely influential writing among conservative evangelicals entrenched the idea that the “Judeo-Christian values” to which America allegedly subscribed since its founding were under threat like never before. That Schaeffer’s survey of Western European history is rubbish, barely one level of sophistication higher than Dobson’s febrile screeds, was evidently lost on my dad. Nevertheless, Dobson and Schaeffer were adopted as guides in my home. Since they were closer to adolescents than I was when my parents converted, my two older sisters ended up facing the brunt of this. Mom and dad were determined to shelter their children from the threats of the secular world. In heeding the advice of Dobson and Schaeffer, they were encouraged to stick to their parental authority, severely limiting our access to secular music, secular movies, and secular activities like dancing. Such entertainments didn’t accord with Christian values. How could you let the light of Jesus shine if you hid it under the bushel of such worldliness?

I have often wondered why my parents and the evangelical world they joined resonated so strongly with the perspective promoted by the likes of Dobson and Schaeffer. How should one explain what these two evangelical leaders said and did? How should one understand the influence they exerted as historical phenomena? Why were evangelicals like my parents willing to adopt Dobson’s advice and Schaeffer’s diagnosis?

Frances Fitzgerald’s The Evangelicals is one of several recent works providing an overarching account of evangelical history. While offering an accessible narrative, filled with lots of interesting and important detail, many astute connections and observations, occasionally but insufficiently illuminated by argumentative analysis, hers is best seen as a descriptive rather than an explanatory history. It tells a story that foregrounds what evangelicals said and did and tried to achieve; it does not really provide a broad contextual assessment of why evangelical leaders did what they did. Nor does it seem to have much by way of a guiding thesis, except to suggest that Americans should see that they owe much of their present-day identity to evangelicals of the past.

The Evangelicals focuses on American evangelicals and American evangelicals alone. No space is given to sustained comparative study despite the fact that it frequently draws upon the work of scholars who take a comparative approach to the historical understanding of religion. Why would comparison improve historical explanation in this case? Well, for one, it might help distinguish the aspects of evangelicalism which are tied to its cultural context. Evangelicalism does not have exactly the same history in Britain as it does in Canada or America. In Britain evangelicalism was and is a movement that straddles several denominations, including the established Church of England. On the historian David Bebbington’s telling, evangelicals in Britain have almost always found a way to accommodate themselves to the church establishment.2 By contrast, there is no established church in America. Indeed, one of the cultural traits most closely associated with American political culture is the “separation” between church and state. Yet, as Fitzgerald’s book makes plain, evangelicals in the US have very often tried to exert their influence by integrating themselves at the highest levels of political power (especially after the second Word War). By comparing the history of evangelicalism in the UK to that of the US we can see that the institutional form religion takes should play a role in the attempt to adequately understand it. A parallel example would be secularism.3 Why is there a difference between the form secularism takes in English-speaking versus French-speaking Canada? Unquestionably one major aspect of that difference is due to the relationship between Quebec society and the Catholic Church on an institutional level. This type of comparative historical thinking is largely absent in Fitzgerald’s book.

There are historical trends, connections, processes, and so on, that can be viewed much more clearly through comparison and contrast between societies rather than solely within them. Consider a different example, one mentioned in Fitzgerald’s book: Christian nationalism. Why has Christian nationalism been far more important in American than in Canadian history? Reading The Evangelicals won’t really help you answer this question.4 My parents resonated with Dobson’s conservative advice, including his cultural pessimism, but Christian nationalism of the American type is not part of mainstream evangelicalism in Canada nor has it been as potent a political force. Why is that? Without this kind of wider comparative scope, the ebb and flow of Christian nationalism may not even appear to demand explanation. Yet surely the why question is an essential part of robust historical understanding. So, Fitzgerald offers a helpful and clear summary of what R. J. Rushdoony argued, of what is now often called Christian dominionism, and she traces the influence his thought had on other evangelicals. But she does not reflect critically on why he said what he did or why it proved so useful. The fact that she doesn’t seem interested in assessing its overall coherence also seems to cut short any possibility of exploring other motivational sources for his work.

I would say that this point holds true for most of the powerful white men surveyed in The Evangelicals. We get a fairly interesting, well-written report of their views, but not much reflection on their provenance, be that in social, cultural, or intellectual terms. Noting the bizarre conspiracy theories to which Pat Robertson subscribed, to mention another example, Fitzgerald doesn’t try to say why so many of the conservative hardliners were prone to such nonsense. But stop and reflect on this for a moment. Are you going to understand the history of conspiracy theories simply by reading a report of the views of their adherents or digesting a descriptive story about their political activities? If you want to understand QAnon you are certainly going to have to learn about its origin, its content, and the activities of its members. However, this will not necessary explain why this particular conspiracy theory appeared when it did, why it takes the form it does, nor why so many people in America have found it compelling to varying degrees. Without a provisional answer to the why question historical understanding will only be so deep.

If The Evangelicals focuses on America alone, it also focuses on white male evangelical leaders alone. By and large, African Americans are not part of the story, women are not part of the story, evangelicals-in-the-pews are not part of the story. Not only does this limit the sense in which this is a comprehensive account, but, as with the nationalist framing, it omits the crucial insights that might be gained by putting evangelicals leaders in a wider social and cultural context. Do evangelicals-in-the-pews consistently line up with the views and practices of their leaders? No, not necessarily. Is the way in which evangelicalism shaped America really reducible to the power-moves of its leaders? No, not necessarily. Couldn’t one reasonably claim that the regular evangelicals who voted George W. Bush in to office shaped America as much as its leaders did? Yes, though obviously more would need to be said. If The Evangelicals makes mention of race and class, it does not use these categories to explore the why question. Such an approach might have offered a better explanation for why those evangelical leaders who ran for office, including Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee, were not always successful among evangelical voters. Similarly, no extended examination is given to the relationship between businessmen and conservative evangelical causes: Lyman Steward of Union Oil funded the publication of The Fundamentals (from which the word fundamentalism derives), and J. Howard Pew of Sun Oil funded the publication of the magazine Billy Graham founded, Christianity Today. Isn’t there something here that calls out for critical study, something that might help us understand evangelical leaders, evangelicals-in-the-pews, and American culture more generally?5 Instead we get a book that, in the latter half especially, resembles a prosopography, complete with a portrait photo-gallery.

It is not hard to imagine the reason The Evangelicals takes the form that it does. Fitzgerald is a journalist writing for as wide an audience as possible and not an academic historian, even if it’s evident that she’s read widely in the relevant scholarly literature. Using the words and deeds of evangelical leaders as stand-ins for the wider movement isn’t a completely unreasonable shortcut. But such a practice has built-in assumptions. For starters, it takes for granted that the words and deeds of leaders adequately represent the wider movement of which they are a part. It also takes for granted that they are indeed the forces which have exerted the most influence on the shape of American history. Yes, evangelical leaders tend to say and write things that are more accessible; they act in public ways, they form institutions, and they mobilize people. I am not saying that Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority are not an important part of the story of evangelicalism in America. But telling Falwell’s story only gets you so far in terms of historical understanding, as does taking his words and deeds more or less at face value. Reading-reception history has amply demonstrated that you cannot assume a direct, straightforward connection between what someone wrote and what another person took from reading it. Thus, the relationship between evangelical leaders and the people congregating in megachurches is not necessarily a simple one.

If you were to scan the syllabus for an introductory course on historical methods from the past thirty years or so, you could probably surmise that the narrative-descriptive way of doing history is no longer the dominant mode practised by most scholars. Nor are scholars interested in representing the past in terms of a story about the words and deeds of great white men. Instead, historians have examined almost every other conceivable subject, from the history of friendship and female alliances to the history of fashion, they have varied the scale of historical representation in just as many ways, looking through both the telescope (macrohistory) and the microscope (microhistory), and they have told their stories in widely different literary formats. For decades now historians have also borrowed their tools from neighbouring disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, economics, and psychology, all in an effort to address what I have been calling the why question. If you read Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas, as I did as an undergraduate, you will be presented with a rich array of anthropological-historical evidence from all manner of sources (i.e. not just the elite), a narrative of change over time, and a carefully calibrated explanation of the forces at play in the decline of magic in England between 1500 and 1700.

Ultimately, The Evangelicals doesn’t provide a deep enough historical understanding of figures such as Dobson and Schaeffer as we currently need. But I do not mean to suggest that there is no historical analysis whatsoever in this informative book. Several connections are accurately and thoughtfully drawn. Causeways of causality are sketched for the different twists and turns evangelicalism has taken in American history. Take Fitzgerald’s summary of the revivalists of the First and Second Great Awakenings:

In offering individuals the possibility of a direct relationship with God they helped adjust the society to its new circumstances and to transform the hierarchical colonial order into the more egalitarian society of the nineteenth century. After the Revolution many of them explicitly preached individual freedom, the separation of church and state, voluntary association as a primary means of social organization, and republicanism as the best form of government.6

Drawing on the work of others, this is nevertheless a perceptive observation. Yet precisely this type of analysis becomes increasingly infrequent as her story approaches the present.

Let’s return to James Dobson. Fitzgerald notes the millions of listeners he had over the decades, attributing his rise to evangelical-stardom mostly to his own initiative. But when it comes to explaining why Focus on the Family saw its listeners plateau and its revenues diminish in the 2000s, she appeals not only to Dobson’s tactical political mistakes (such as his heavy promotion for federal political intervention in the Terri Schiavo affair), but to social and cultural changes in America at large—younger evangelicals were less likely to agree with Dobson’s perspective on same-sex marriage, for example. Fitzgerald is certainly aware that his success would not have been possible without a large swathe of evangelicals who were receptive to his message. And she correctly observes that he was basically a loudspeaker for their anxieties about social and cultural change, most notably everything associated with the 1960s. But anxieties about change are a staple of social life. After all, the genre of jeremiad is nearly coterminous with written history. What’s interesting and calls for explanation is not just that someone like Dobson emerged, by why he expressed himself in the way that he did. Fitzgerald knows that he was reacting to the 1960s—as Dobson himself tells us repeatedly—and that evangelicals followed his lead by drawing upon a longstanding tradition of moral attitudes towards secular leisure entertainments. But she doesn’t attempt to connect the dots between such a tradition and the specific ways it manifests over time. Sarah Moslener’s Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence, by contrast, attempts to do just that.

Evangelical leaders like Dobson frequently draw upon the longstanding religious tradition of purity talk, connecting any deviation from evangelical norms to America’s decline as a global power.7 Moslener shows how evangelical leaders appropriated the work of a select number of scholars—Arnold Toynbee, J. D. Unwin, Pitrim Sorokin—that “proved” there was a link between civilizational rise and fall and the observance of monogamous heterosexual relationships. Both Billy Graham and Carl F. Henry drew upon this work in order to argue that their sexual values were eternally rooted and thus an essential ingredient in the bedrock of American stability in its struggle with Cold War Communism.

Dobson didn’t dedicate as much time to international affairs because the domestic changes wrought by the 60s were concerning enough. By the 1970s and 80s these changes were woven into his deep concern with the American economy. How was this linked to his specialty, the family? Well, Dobson’s teaching characterizes the family as a total unit, providing for all the cares of its members and making it the motor-force of wider social prosperity. Predictably, he is therefore a strong champion of free market capitalism—he supported Reagan firmly—and prone to making rather asinine statements about socialism. He isn’t shy about claiming that capitalism is best in general and best for families in particular. And he ties this to his version of the civilizational argument, which runs something like this: the husband-wife relationship is the core of the family, understood in gender-complementary terms; if this relationship is not in conformity with the wider cosmic order instituted by God (“clearly” shown in the Bible), then this inevitably leads to trouble in the home and problems for society. Dobson’s parenting advice is an extension of this picture: if children do not respect the hierarchy and instruction provided by their parents, guidance which itself needs to flow from obedience to the divine order (i.e. “Judeo-Christian values”), then this necessarily invites instability in the home and social chaos. In short, Dobson hankers after a different America, one that looks back to the ideals of the Victorian era (Dobson’s nostalgia for yesteryear’s greatness must have played a role in his eventual support for Donald Trump). If he differs from Victorians in recommending sex education and speaking freely about the positive pleasures of sex, this is of course constrained by the limits of his conservative framework (i.e. no deviations from sex within marriage between a man and a woman). Moslener accounts for Dobson’s success among evangelicals by pointing out that his use of psychological ideas and therapeutic practices reinforced evangelical moral concerns, fitting snugly into his apocalyptic warnings of American decline. So Dobson’s success was partly due to the very movement he descried: the counterculture of the 1960s, which tended to emphasize psychological health and personal fulfillment. By speaking directly to worries about a relatively new life-phase, adolescence, and couching his advice in culturally resonant ways, Dobson infused his parenting pedagogy with the evangelical variant of the American culture war. That is precisely the type of argument that can help us understand Dobson historically.

Somewhat surprisingly, neither Fitzgerald nor Moslener attempt to say what is distinctive about evangelicalism.8 Nor do they feel the need to reflect on the nature of religion or religious life. Perhaps they were wary of the endless debates about the defining of terms. For all the inherent limitations, defining your terms at least helps clarify what you mean when you describe James Dobson as an evangelical or a fundamentalist. Ready definitions for evangelicalism are not hard to come by, and there is no doubt that both authors have read the relevant works by George Marsden, Mark Noll, or David Bebbington. Matthew Avery Sutton’s recent survey, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (2014), starts by quickly outlining the standard quadrilateral: the uniquely divine authority evangelicals give to the Bible (biblicism), the soteriological importance they grant to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (crucicentrism), the centrality with which they regard the experience of personal salvation (conversionism), and the energy with which they seek to shape the world in light of this (activism). Fitzgerald’s portrait of evangelicalism tends to focus on the activism trait more than the others, though she often navigates thorny theological issues with aplomb. Having noted some of the limitations of her work, it is still worth reading for those interested in a broad introduction to the topic.

Moslener, on the other hand, rightly addresses the why question. But then her book is much more narrow in scope. There are times when it doesn’t quite focus on its object of study as sharply as it could. A brief example: Moslener analyzes the Silver Ring Thing (SRT), an abstinence campaign in operation since the 1990s, by employing E. P. Thompson’s notion of a “moral economy.” Elsewhere she observes the interconnections between the high evangelical regard for holy writ and the new marketing techniques of the 90s which sold evangelicals niche products, such as the “Abstinence Study Bible.” Not unreasonably, she therefore describes the SRT pledge, taken publicly by adolescents at a major event where they promise to maintain their virginity, as a kind of transactional “exchange.”9 That the pledge is a type of exchange is certainly true. That much in evangelicalism should be scrutinized in the light of free market ideology is also true. But the use of Thompson’s concept in this case is imprecise. After all, what exchange doesn’t take place in a moral economy of some kind? With the notion of a moral economy Thompson is not merely concerned to point out that exchanges occur, or that moral economies are different from one another, which wouldn’t be terribly instructive, but that one type of logic was replaced by another in the transition from agrarianism and mercantilism to capitalism.This is an important distinction to keep in mind. Similar forms of inexactness mar Moslener’s book in other ways. On a few occasions she seems content to observe that evangelicals cast their practical moral norms—such as sexual abstinence—in the light of ultimate good and evil. This hardly makes them unique. Such a construal has been common to most forms of Christianity for much of its history.

Drawing on what is a little too disparate in her work, in the sense that she doesn’t explicitly link evangelical identity to the trends within evangelical attitudes towards adolescent sexuality, greater clarity may have been achieved if the SRT abstinence pledge was set firmly within the evangelical quadrilateral. That is not to suggest that this should be done at the expense of other approaches, such as moral genealogy. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the pledge is not only reminiscent of the basic evangelical conversion experience in which one internalizes salvation and vows to become a disciple of Jesus, but, just as importantly, that it draws from the biblical notion Protestants have frequently highlighted of a covenant between God and his people. Attending to these types of paradigmatic connections more consistently would have led to a better sense of what it is like to inhabit the world of evangelicalism, vivifying historical understanding in such a way as to help explain, in sympathetic, holistic, but nonetheless critical terms, why anyone would want an edition of the Bible dedicated to the subject of sexual abstinence.

  1. James Dobson, The Strong-Willed Child: Birth through Adolescence, Tyndale, 1987, p. 213. ↩︎
  2. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: From the 1730s to the 1980s, Routledge, 2005 [1989]. ↩︎
  3. See, for instance, the work of David Martin: A General Theory of Secularization, Harper & Row, 1978; On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory, Ashgate, 2005. ↩︎
  4. Even though his is a better book in historical-analytical terms, and one I would certainly recommend reading, neither does John Fea in Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?, Westminster John Knox, 2011. For a better treatment of this specific issue see Kevin Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Basic Books, 2015, p. xiii and passim. ↩︎
  5. John G. Stackhouse Jr. has argued that the lack of rich backers helps explain the much more moderate, mainstream nature of Canadian evangelicalism compared with its American cousin. See the concluding chapter of his Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century, University of Toronto Press, 1993. ↩︎
  6. Frances Fitzgerald, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Simon & Schuster, 2017, p. 17. ↩︎
  7. Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 4-5 especially, and passim. Moslener goes back to the nineteenth-century to situate her story of sexual purity, but I would argue that she could have gone all the way back to Wesley and even beyond that, to Puritanism. ↩︎
  8. An excellent example of clearly stating one’s aims, defining one’s terms, and outlining the scope of one’s study on the topic of evangelical history, is Stackhouse in Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century. See his Introduction. ↩︎
  9. Moslener, Virgin Nation, p. 132. ↩︎
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