September 4, 2005


Evangelical History: a review of David Hempton’s Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (Jennifer Snead, n + 1)

The turn of the millennium may not have brought on the Apocalypse, or a Y2K global computer crash. But the first five years of the 21st century have witnessed what, to many of us, seems equivalent: an apparently sudden preponderance of evangelical Christianity in startling places. Evangelicals are everywhere: on the fifteenth floor of the Empire State Building (as the New Yorker reported just a few weeks ago of the evangelical King’s College); joining forces with the likes of Rabbi Eckstein (according to the New York Times Magazine); trying to run ads for a controversial new Bible translation in venues like Rolling Stone (which refused) and the Onion (which did not); meriting the cover shot and an entire photo essay in a February issue of Time. And so many of them seem to be in influential positions: the Time essay, titled “The 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America,” features glossy shots of a host of believers whose footsteps echo through the halls of Capitol Hill and the White House: the Grahams, father and son; the LaHayes; Michael Gerson; Rick Warren; Rick Santorum.

Stories of Democrats courting allies like Jim Wallis (founder and editor of the Christian magazine Sojourners) circulated widely in the months leading up to the second inauguration of George W. Bush; the aforementioned Time also ran a picture of Hillary Clinton gazing skyward like a raptured Saint Catherine alongside a story about the Democratic party’s quest for a more soulful identity. Evangelical ideology appears to be making its influence known in areas as diverse as environmental policy (as Bill Moyers wrote in the New York Review of Books recently), American approaches toward combating HIV/AIDS in Africa, the current administration’s self-described “crusade” against Islamic extremists, and, most visibly, in the halls of the White House, where our President is an avowed born-again Methodist, saved from his earlier godless tendencies, who surrounds himself with religious advisors who support his conviction of his own rectitude.

Poor Thomas Jefferson. It hasn’t been the best decade for his spotless liberal sainthood in terms of slavery, or presidential conduct, or behavior toward his political opponents. He was also, or so the recent political climate seems to prove, wrong about Americans and religion. A supporter of Unitarianism as the purest, simplest guarantor of religious freedom and protection against religious partisanship, he wrote in a letter in the 1820s, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither Kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” As David Hempton’s new book, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit, demonstrates, that trust was misplaced even back in 1822, when the fastest-growing religious sects in the young United States were not the reasonable Unitarians so beloved by Jefferson and other members of the new Republic’s intellectual elite, but rather evangelical Methodists and Baptists. According to the 1850 US census, more than three-fifths of the American churchgoing population attended services associated with some form of popular evangelical enthusiasm.

As Jefferson's own quote demonstrates, he'd hardly be surprised at the health of evangelism in America. Indeed, as often as the Left cites him for the proposition that Church and State should be separate you'd think they might learn something by referring to how he propsed to deal with the matter at the state school he founded:
In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing, with the jealousies of the different sects in guarding that equality from encroachment and surprise, and with the sentiments of the Legislature in favor of freedom of religion, manifested on former occasions, we have proposed no professor of divinity; and the rather as the proofs of the being of a God, the creator, preserver, and supreme ruler of the universe, the author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer, will be within the province of the professor of ethics; to which adding the developments of these moral obligations, of those in which all sects agree, with a knowledge of the languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, a basis will be formed common to all sects. Proceeding thus far without offense to the Constitution, we have thought it proper at this point to leave every sect to provide, as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets.
-Thomas Jefferson, href=>Report
of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 4, 2005 9:12 AM
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