Darryl Hart asks a version of this question at his Patheos blog “Putting the PROTEST in Protestant.” (How many blogs does this guy have? Is this the same D.G. Hart who once told me in a hand-written letter that he refused to use e-mail?).
What if we only knew more about evangelicalism, however, thanks to editors and publishers willing to produce books on evangelicalism thanks precisely to a desire to figure out the Religious Right? At the risk of self-promotion, almost fifteen years ago I noticed the coincidence of an outpouring of scholarship on evangelicalism precisely at the same time that born-again Protestants were making headlines and magazine covers thanks to their association with the Republican Party:
“A funny thing happened to the study of evangelical Protestantism in the decades after Newsweek declared 1976 “the year of the evangelical.” A religious movement largely in obscurity since the Scopes Trial emerged as a source of inspiration for millions of Americans and a formidable lobby in electoral politics. Even so, the early scholarly returns on evangelicalism were not encouraging. Martin E. Marty declared that, by 1980, “there was a paucity of good research” on evangelicalism or its related subjects, fundamentalism and pentecostalism1—one indication that the so-called recovery of American religious history, lauded by Henry May in 1965, had yet to pay dividends for Protestants outside the mainline denominations.
In 1992, within a decade of Marty’s assessment, Jon Butler of Yale University claimed in a provocative paper delivered to the American Society of Church History that the tide had turned into a tsunami of historical writing on evangelicalism and its influence on American society, drowning other perspectives and interests. In response to Garry Wills’ Under God: Religion and American Politics, which faulted academics and journalists for ignoring faith’s importance, Butler asked, “Are we looking at the same subject?” He claimed that historians, especially Americanists, could scarcely pay more attention to religion: meetings of the Organization of American Historians and the American Studies Association offered countless sessions on religion, and books on American religion were published in record numbers despite the decline in publishers’ interest in New England Community studies. The publishing boom in particular drew Butler’s interest. The books described the importance of American religion, especially evangelical Christianity: “They often describe religion as a cause—sometimes the cause—of what is distinctive and important in America, American culture, politics, even identity…. They are, in the main, books about evangelical Christianity’s dominant position in American religion and its shaping of American identity from the Puritans to the Reagans.”
This is not to suggest that evangelicalism equals a certain kind of political activism, though the notion that personal faith must inform all of life makes it hard to separate religion from politics. But it does mean that the study of evangelicalism would be substantially less prominent if most Americans assumed that born-again Protestants were simply a curious group of Christians who somehow clung to the experiences that Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield first cultivated. After all, if evangelicals were not political would they generate any more attention than the Amish?