Great question. As Darryl Hart know better than most, “evangelicalism” did not really become a big thing in post-war America until it graced the cover of Newsweek in 1976. Granted, evangelicalism had been around for a long time, but its re-emergence in the public mind was directly linked to politics. If conservative evangelicals did not emerge with force during this period I wonder what the state of evangelical historiography would look like today. Much of the best scholarly work on American evangelicalism was written with the rise of the Christian Right as a backdrop.
Here is Hart:
…the entire enterprise of evangelical studies grew up in the setting of born-again Protestant support for Ronald Reagan. In other words, scholars started trying to figure out what evangelicalism and fundamentalism were precisely when those Protestants started influencing electoral politics. Just go to the library and do a search for books on evangelicals and you will see a dramatic uptick in the 1980s.
This means that the universities that held conferences, the editors who read book proposals and offered contracts, the foundation officers who underwrote grants for the study of evangelicalism — none of these things would have happened if evangelicalism had not been primarily a topic that bore directly on national politics. See if you can persuade a professional academic society to devote several sessions of one of its annual meetings to the Amish or even to Lutherans, simply to understand these persons’ religious beliefs. But tie those believers to a political or social development of some national import, and you will likely make a better case.
The study of evangelicalism did follow David Bebbington and ignored the political circumstances that made the study of born-again Protestantism appealing. Historians generally tried to understand the religion. But the only reason why anyone who wasn’t an evangelical cared was because folks like Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and Pat Robertson were showing up on the radar of national politics.
Read the entire post at Hart’s blog “Putting the ‘Protest’ in Protestantism”