American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity Hardcover – 1 Sep 1986
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About the Author
James Davison Hunter is professor of sociology and religious studies at the University of Virginia and is the author of "American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity. Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation" received the 1988 Distinguished Book Award of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
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Theologically, he finds young Evangelicals far less certain than were their elders of such things as an inerrant Scripture, a literal hell, of salvation solely through faith in Christ. They frequently value the "social gospel" as much as, if not more than, the traditional evangelical concern for "saving the lost."
(Though he labels these issues "theological," he does not in fact treat truly theological themes such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc.; here his sociological orientation may blind him to those "theological" concerns young Evangelicals still espouse.) Hunter finds the efforts of Evangelicals to attain scholarly respectability, to escape the ghetto-style mentality of earlier Fundamentalism, subtly eroding the earlier certainties of Evangelicalism's theology.
Likewise, he finds data showing the decline of the traditional evangelical work ethic--and especially its "moral asceticism." In earlier times, evangelicals sought to be non-worldly, but today's representatives often seek to identify and conform to the world. Formerly "worldly" activities such as playing cards, social dancing, attending movies, drinking alcohol, are now widely indulged. "In a word," Hunter says, "the Protestant legacy of austerity and ascetic self-denial is virtually obsolete in the larger Evangelical culture and is nearly extinct for a large percentage of the coming generation of Evangelicals" (p. 73).
Even the traditional family, once a bedrock certainty for Evangelicals, has lost its moorings. The broader culture's drift toward androgyny (the blurring of sexual roles), has swept along great numbers of Evangelicals. Though far lest feminist-oriented, though far more supportive of the nuclear family, than the "secular" society, Hunter's data indicate "Evangelical family specialists (including many ministers) advocate and defend a model of the family that is said to be traditional but in fact has no real historical precedent (in Christendom or anywhere else) in the name of a constituency that has largely abandoned it in favor of an androgynous/quasi-androgynous model" (p. 114)
As Hunter evaluates the evangelical scene, he believes the old certainties have largely dissipated. "Orthodox" belief systems have lost their molding power. Things once judged "sinful" no longer seem so, and "there are not new prohibitions replacing the older ones" (p. 162). Evangelicalism, in many ways, seems in the process of eroding away.
The liberal arts colleges, initially instituted to preserve orthodoxy and communicate behavioral standards, have instead accelerated the erosion of one-time certainties. Inexorably, it seems, "exposure to the realm of higher education weakened the grip of religious conviction over a person's life" (p. 171). Evidence, Hunter insists, shows that amidst a weakening evangelicalism, "the educational process is a contributing factor." Instead of buttressing church traditions in the lives of their adherents, higher education undermines them. Significantly, college faculty, especially in the humanities and social sciences, "are even less committed to the theological and cultural traditions of the Evangelical heritage" than their students. Obviously, this has "a profound effect on the world view of students" (p. 175).
Amazingly, he finds that the schools most committed to blending faith and learning fail most miserably! Ironically, "the more intent Evangelical higher education is on preserving the integrity of its traditions, the less successful it is" (pp. 178-79). In fact, "Among Protestant colleges, the more serious a commitment to the task of higher education, the more prevalent the liberalization and secularization tendencies" (p. 177).
Much of the problem, Hunter thinks, stems from the lost "cultural hegemony" Evangelical Protestants earlier enjoyed in this country. This century has vastly re-cast the face of America. Modernity, with its moral pluralism, its imposed world-wide horizons, has set the agenda for us all: and it demands responses Evangelical have not been equipped to make. How they will cope with the world which has opened, like a chasm around them, Hunter cannot predict.
Nor, I suspect, can we! But we can certainly learn from the data Hunter gives us. We can begin to honestly address the realities of our young people's world and respond to it, and to them as they are, rather than what we wish it were!
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