Deconstructing Evangelicalism

By D. G. Hart
Grand Rapids : Baker (2004). 224 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Larry Pettegrew
16.2 (Fall 2005) : 344-346

This is an interesting book. The author is director of academic projects and faculty development at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Delaware. His previous ministries include director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College and academic dean and professor of church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. His basic thesis as he develops it in his introduction is that Billy Graham and his friends, including the founders of the National Association of Evangelicals, co-opted the term “evangelicalism” in the 1940s from its historic usage. Consequently, “evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist” (16). Forty percent of Americans consider themselves evangelical, according to some pollsters. But what this translates into is a shallow, theologically minimalist religious identity that “is at best vague and at worst hollow.”

So how was the term used before the 1940s? Hart’s answer is that the term goes back to the Reformation and basically meant Protestant. “For Protestants at the turn of the twentieth century, to be part of mainline Protestantism was to be evangelical” (21). Hart shows that the delegates who formed the liberal Federal Council of Churches in 1908 considered themselves “evangelical.” When Shailer Mathews, the dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School wrote his The Faith of Modernism in 1924, he asserted that Modernists “as a class are evangelical Christians. That is, they accept Jesus Christ as the revelation of a Savior God” (23). But in the 1940s, “the word began to be used exclusively by Protestants on the non-liberal side of the 1920s debates” (23). These new evangelicals were a part of the fundamentalist movement, says Hart, but they did not want to “carry the baggage of fundamentalism” (23). “Almost by sheer tenacity neo-evangelicals had created a new religious identity, and evangelical was its designation” (24).

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: first, it shows the “scholarly construction of evangelicalism during the last twenty-five years,” and second, it “explores the way evangelicalism as a post-World War II religious movement has fragmented” (29). In Hart’s analysis, the reason that the new evangelicalism has fragmented is because it replaced the church with the parachurch that “lacked the discipline and rigor of the church” (30). Theologically, the mid-twentieth century evangelicals narrowing down their theological position to a few core beliefs “was similar to (if not the same as) the liberal attempt to separate the kernel from the husk of the bible” (30). Hart also quotes Carl Henry’s analysis that Billy Graham had the chance “‘to rally and garner an umbrella alliance’ but chose instead to seek as broad a coalition for his crusades as possible, one that extended beyond evangelicalism’s real boundaries”(190).

Some of the individual chapters are helpful. Chapter one is an interesting historiography of how twentieth-century historians have understood the term, “evangelical.” Hart believes that unfortunately, “the history of evangelicalism has thrived while denominational history has atrophied” (60). Other chapters in the first part of the book examine the sociology of evangelicalism.

In the second part of the book, chapter four describes the impact of parachurch organizations on evangelicalism. Consequently, “historically, the evangelical creed has been minimalist, the liturgy has tended toward Top 40 musical forms, and requirements for ministry have been so broad that every believer can have some kind of ministry” (125). In Hart’s analysis, the parachurch “has been evangelicalism’s genius as well as its Achilles’ heel. It has spread the evangelical label, leaving born-again Protestants with a sense of belonging to something big. But that feeling comes with an anonymity resembling that faced by frustrated shoppers at Home Depot: “The wealth of goods is truly remarkable, but it is so hard to find assistance” (126).

Hart also examines the role of contemporary music in the recent evangelical movement, especially noting its inroads into the Billy Graham crusades. But in Hart’s understanding, “the chief figure in the application of musical pop to evangelical worship was Chuck Smith” (163). In fact, “one of the primary engines driving the charismatic movement of the second half of the twentieth century was music” (163). So, “access to the ‘Holy of Holies’” for many evangelical Protestants now depends on the praise band, overhead projectors (or their high-tech equivalent), and worship modelers stationed behind microphones at the front of the church” (164). For another example, Hart says that “once Saddleback turned down the contemporary music lane, people followed by the SUV-loads. Warren admits that the church has lost ‘hundreds’ because of this decision. ‘On the other hand, we have attracted thousands more because of our music’” (169).

Hart’s solution to the shallowness and minimalistic theology that he finds in contemporary evangelicalism is to reassert the role of the churches. “[W]ould it be so bad to refer to Protestants in the United States by their church membership, from Baptists and Methodist to Lutheran and even the Willow Creek Association?” (188).

In some ways, this book is not in the same class as Hart’s previous studies on Machen or That Old-time Religion in Modern America. He also defines “evangelical” in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries too broadly. “Evangelical” was narrower than “Protestant” with at least moderate to conservative theology, personal salvation, and revivalism to some degree. Clearly there was also a disdain for Unitarian/universalism and a respect for the Bible. Nevertheless, interspersed throughout Hart’s daring analysis of contemporary evangelicalism are some excellent historical and theological insights, worthy of serious consideration.