Is Evangelicalism Populist? Should it Be?

Noll Scandal

After I wrote my recent post on Chris Gehrz’s treatment of evangelical populism, I pulled Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind off the shelf.  Some critics of Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editoral have suggested that evangelicalism has always been a populist movement.  Matthew Schmitz, for example, claims that evangelicals cease being evangelical when they break from its populist, anti-intellectual base.

Noll has some things to say about this premise.

For example, evangelicalism has a rich intellectual heritage:

p.4: Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor.  Closer to the American situation, the Puritans, the leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and a worthy line of North American stalwarts in the nineteenth century–like the Methodist Francis Asbury, the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, the Congregationalist Moses Stuart, and the Canadian Presbyterian George Monro Grant, to mention only a few–all held that diligent, rigorous mental activity was way to glorify God.  None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelical Christians.

But the populism of the 19th and 20th-century have led to the “scandal of the evangelical mind”:

p.12: To put it simply, the evangelical ethos [at the time Noll wrote in 1994] is activist, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian.  It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”

p.23: For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts–all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory–may be, in fact, sinful.

p.24: Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement, and Pentecostalism were all evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century.  In different ways each preserved something essential for Christian faith.  But together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.’

It is telling how many court evangelicals come from these traditions.

More from Noll on the scandal:

p.52: …Manicheans divided the world into two radically disjointed sections–the children of light and the children of darkness.  Evangelicals have often promoted a Manichen attitude by assuming that we, and only we, have the truth, while nonbelievers, or Christian believers who are not evangelicals, practice only error.

p.71: The long-term effects of evangelical republicanism in America was to short-circuit political analysis.  So deeply entwined were republican and Christian themes that there seemed to be no need for reexamining the nature of politics itself.  It could simply be assumed that the American way was the Christian way.

p,124: One of the additional consequences from the dogmatic kind of biblical literalism that gained increasing strength among evangelicals toward the end of the nineteenth century was reduced space for academic debate, intellectual experimentation, and nuanced discrimination between shades of opinion. 

p. 125: …the fundamentalist movement reinforced the dogmatic power of populist teachers.  With the universities and their formal learning suspect, the spokesperson who could step forth confidently on the basis of the Scriptures was welcomed as a convincing authority.

This quote sums up much of what we see today–25 years later–in American evangelicalism’s embrace of Donald Trump.

p.141: In general responses to crises, evangelicals in the late twentieth century still follow a pathway defined at the start of the twentieth century.  When faced with a crisis situation, we evangelicals usually do one of two things.  We either mount a public crusade, or we retreat into an inner pious sanctum.  That is, we are filled with righteous anger and attempt to recoup our public losses through political confrontation, or we eschew the world of mere material appearances and seek the timeless consolations of the Spirit.

And this:

p.173: Whatever happens in the practicalities of American political development, however, evangelicals will almost certainly continue to exhibit in one form or the other, the activism, biblicism, intuition, and populism that had defined evangelicals for more than two centuries.  If they repeat the imbalances of their history, evangelical political action may be destructive and other political reflection nonexistent.

I think Mark Galli is a champion of the evangelical mind who knows what happens when Christians stop thinking deeply about politics.  He is concerned about what happens to the church when anti-intellectual populism gets out of control.