Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Molly Worthen
Published by Oxford University Press in 2013

Reviewed by Barry Hankins, History, Baylor University

Molly Worthen has given us the first intellectual history of twentieth-century American evangelicalism. Apostles of Reason should be a standard for the foreseeable future and take its place alongside other fine books such as Joel Carpenter’s Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism and Darren Dochuk’s From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism.1 This is a well written, exhaustively researched, and accessible book that will be a valuable text for graduate seminars and upper-level undergraduate courses on religion in America. I intend to use it in my Religion and American Culture seminar.

Even without a thesis, this would be an excellent survey of evangelical intellectual life from World War II to the present. But the book has a thesis, which makes it better and more provocative even if occasionally jarring. Worthen argues that anti-intellectualism within evangelical life stems not from authoritarianism, as some suppose, but from its opposite—no recognized authority for adjudicating disagreements. She takes up, in her own words, “the riddle of anti-intellectualism in a community that believes ardently in the power of ideas” (2). Evangelical intellectual life, she argues, presents a dizzying array of authorities with no way to negotiate competing claims let alone arbitrate among them. This is a compelling argument, but is the book really about anti-intellectualism?

Since first reading Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life while in graduate school in the early 1980s, I have been wary of the term “anti-intellectual.” Too often, it serves merely as epithet for anyone who thinks differently from oneself, or from Hofstadter—that is, different from those of us who reside quite happily in the academy. Worthen spends several pages discussing, delimiting, and defining how she intends to use the term “anti-intellectualism” with regard to evangelicals. But in the end, anti-intellectualism is thinking that takes place outside the Enlightenment-formed rules of the academy. Thinkers in the West accept rules of the Enlightenment in order to function, Worthen claims. “Evangelicals, by contrast,” she writes, “are torn between sovereign powers that each claim supremacy” (2). She comes back to this in her conclusion where she again contrasts the fractured and chaotic life of her subjects to the more rule-bound intellectual life of the secular academy. “Modern intellectual inquiry is not a free-for-all. It is a rule-bound endeavor that falls to pieces unless all parties accept—without reservation—the authority of secular reason” (257).

In navigating this contrast between academic thinking and evangelical life, Worthen gives us ten main chapters and a conclusion. She discusses nearly all the competing forms of evangelical thought—Reformed neo-evangelicals and their non-Reformed competitors, inerrantists and non-inerrantists, the evangelical right and the evangelical left, highbrow evangelicalism and low, Mennonite evangelicals, holiness evangelicals, intellectual life in the service of missions and church growth strategies, Pentecostals, Jesus people, suburbanites, high church, low church, evangelicals who really like Catholics, evangelical feminists, and evangelical anti-feminists. Postwar neo-evangelicals got the ball rolling with a grand dream to create a unified evangelical intellectual life that could hold its own against neo-orthodoxy, liberal Protestantism, and the secular academy. Briefly, they seemed to have succeeded, until others realized that neo-evangelicals were a Reformed minority that did not represent most evangelicals. Even while influenced by the neo-evangelical moment, non-Reformed evangelicals began their resistance, and the fun was on.

In the midst of all the diversity, evangelicals in the 1970s fell into the inerrancy debate, their “Great Matter,” as Worthen calls it. The fight over the Bible created “a riptide” in evangelical culture that eventually “surged into politics” (200) in the form of the culture wars of the 1980s. In other words, the debate over the Bible mobilized evangelicals against each other theologically, especially as the battle for the Bible came to include a debate over the role of women in society and church. After a decade fighting against moderate and liberal evangelicals, conservatives in the 1980s viewed their culture wars against the secular left as a mere extension of the battle for the Bible.

Francis Schaeffer served as the lynchpin between intramural intellectual battles and culture war. He inspired in equal doses those who became scholars and those who took their fight to the streets. In tracking his transition from pop intellectual to culture warrior, Worthen concludes that “Schaeffer’s ministry was a grand and clever exercise in anti-intellectualism. He deployed the trappings of academic investigation … to quash inquiry rather than encourage it” (219). This is the jarring part of her analysis, one of several actually. Evangelicals who lived at L’Abri, heard Schaeffer lecture, or read his books before 1974 find the claim that Schaeffer quashed inquiry to be ludicrous. He actually inspired nearly an entire generation of evangelicals to become scholars and join the academy. Many of these were first introduced to the life of the mind by Schaeffer. Nearly all evangelical scholars now see the weaknesses of his approach, and many of them were disappointed to see his turn toward political culture war in the final decade of his life. But I have never heard anyone call him anti-intellectual. And he was not very clever either—that was his son, Franky. This points up the problem with Worthen’s use of the term “anti-intellectualism” as the baseline for her argument. Most of her subjects may not have been committed to the life of the mind in any professional academic sense. But nearly all of them, as she acknowledges, “believed ardently in the power of ideas” (2).

If it was difficult to identify fairly who qualified as an anti-intellectual in Hofstadter’s day, it is nearly impossible now. In light of postmodernism’s demolition of the Enlightenment consensus in the academy, it seems a bit late in the day for Worthen to claim Enlightenment rules as the baseline for proper intellectual life, unless she is also ready to claim as anti-intellectual much of what has gone on in the academy in the past generation. It seems more likely that the rules of the Enlightenment are there for the taking—or leaving. Worthen’s view of the academy is Lockean. Like Locke’s political world, the academy is governed by the rule of reason. I think the academy is Hobbesean without a Leviathan—a near anarchy of intellectual powers pushing against each other. Since the postmodern turn, scholars in various parts of this highly fractured academy merely assume for the sake of conversation certain ways of adjudicating claims that we all know cannot be proven superior to any others. We do this to keep the whole enterprise from blowing up and making our intellectual lives “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Worthen demonstrates quite well that evangelicals have never agreed on rules needed to reason with each other. And that is a real achievement of this book. But, if anything, the evangelical cacophony of post-war America merely anticipated what happened in the academy beginning in the 1980s. So it seems a bit of a contradiction to label as anti-intellectual a group with too many ideas flying around, especially in a book titled Apostles of Reason.

Perhaps the term “popular,” “fractured,” or even “chaotic-intellectualism” would have served Worthen better than “anti-intellectual.” In the end her definition is akin to Hofstadter’s—an anti-intellectual is anyone who ignores the rules of the secular academy circa 1964. Still, Worthen resolves all this pretty well in her conclusion where she settles on the term “evangelical imagination” rather than “evangelical mind.” Evangelical mind, she suggests, conjures up one brain shared by many, while imagination “is the faculty of mind that absorbs ideas and sensations as fuel to conjure something new. It is a tool for stepping outside oneself or plunging into egocentric delusion” (264). This statement gets at the problem nicely for anyone who has studied evangelicals. Evangelicalism is a phenomenon that produces the sublime and the ridiculous in nearly equal proportions. Worthen has wrought a synthesis of this twentieth-century evangelical pop-intellectualism that makes a real contribution to our understanding.

Cite this article
Barry Hankins, “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 44:3 , 307-309

Footnotes

  1. Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Darren Dochuk, From Bible Belt to Sun Belt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of Evangelical Conservatism (New York: W.W. Norton, 2011).

Barry Hankins

Baylor University
Barry Hankins is Professor of History at Baylor University.