D.G. Hart on the Anti-Ecclesial Character of Evangelicalism

D G HartWhilst a study of the development of British evangelical identity might look slightly different, I have found D.G. Hart’s (not to be confused with David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox theologian) account of the construction of American evangelical identity quite insightful. The following quote is taken from his book Deconstructing Evangelicalism. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read up on this subject. Evangelical identity has been the theme of a number of the articles, books and booklets that I have read recently in some form or other. Hart’s treatment of the subject is one of the best that I have encountered.

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On another level, the history of evangelicalism played precisely to the strength of the new model of religious history. Institutions, formality, official representatives—these phenomena were for many religious historians the antiquated subject matter of church historians. They did not embody America’s genuine religious vitality. So the profession moved from the pew, the pulpit, the church assembly, and the denominational periodical to signs of religious influence on culture, politics, economics—all walks of life where religion made a difference for the way ordinary people lived daily. It would be hard to imagine a recipe easier to follow by students of the new evangelical identity. After all, evangelicalism was a religion not confined to formal and bureaucratic denominational structures. Instead, it was a faith that gave ordinary believers the courage to get things done, whether on the farm, in the gym, in the public square, or on the mission field. In effect, born-again faith typified the mood of the new religious history; it was pluralistic, egalitarian, and utilitarian.

But it may not have been good for the understanding of either America religion or Christianity more generally. As much as Americans may participate in a variety of parachurch activities and support them with their hard-earned dollars, statisticians of United States religious life continue to make claims about American religiosity on the basis of church attendance. America is, according to pollsters, the most religious of Western democracies because roughly 40 percent of its citizens are in church every Sunday. If this is true, and if it is truly as significant as many interpreters suggest, then finding out what these Americans do every Sunday and what goes into that decision to attend or the consequences of such participation might be worthwhile pursuits for religious historians and other religious scholars. But the academic hostility to religious forms and institutions, a sort of scholarly pietism, has left the church out. In turn, the study of evangelicalism has profited from this rejection of denominational and congregational life. The history of evangelicalism has thrived while denominational history has atrophied. Yet if the Christian religion involves rites, offices, and creeds, then saying these things don’t matter does not make it so. Still, the construction of an evangelical identity has yielded the conviction that a faith freed from churchly affairs is the conservative expression of Christianity.

Either way, the expansion of interest in evangelicalism has been a mixed blessing. It has produced scholarship that obscures as much as it brings to light, and its assumptions about Christianity are as novel as the neo-evangelical project itself. Yet whatever one’s judgment about the born-again history of the last twenty-five years, it is reasonable to assert that the neo-evangelical effort to reduce Christianity to bite-size portions in the interest of creating a Protestant party to rival the mainstream looks remarkably similar to the way religious historians have defined evangelicalism and read it back into the American past in order to make larger claims about a bigger constituency than denominational or church history allows, ironically, by conceiving of the Christian religion as a short set of doctrinal truths and devout activities outside the church.

D.G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham, pp.59-61

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Quotations, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

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