In this learned, impassioned jeremiad, Pulitzer Prize–winning Wills (What Jesus Meant, 2006, etc.) traces two styles of Protestantism throughout American history and sounds the alarm about evangelicalism.
During the Revolutionary era, the Enlightenment religious culture, which made possible the disestablishment of churches and gave birth to Transcendentalism, valued reason and tolerance. Evangelical emotionalism, on the other hand, which came to prominence in the religious revivals of the early 19th century, emphasizes feeling and teaches people to know God with their hearts rather than to scrutinize religion with their brains. The history of American Christianity, suggests Wills, can be viewed as a tug of war between those two impulses. Some of the freshest material here is the author’s discussion of the mid-20th-century “great truce between the religious communities,” in which different religious groups adopted an ecumenical friendliness and the nation seemed to settle into a comfortable state of being politely “Judeo-Christian.” By contrast, Wills’ treatment of post-1960s evangelicalism is thin, and ignores the political diversity within theologically conservative churches. The great truce was short-lived, however, and the present moment illustrates the dangers of unchecked evangelicalism. President Bush has allowed religion to shape his administration’s approach to social services, health, science and, of course, war—he has, says Wills, betrayed and endangered Enlightenment Christianity. Despite his pessimism about the current administration, the author concludes on a hopeful note. Evangelical passion and Enlightenment intellectual rigor are not mutually exclusive, he says. Indeed, they are often present in the same church. Although it is “hard to strike the right balance between the two religious tendencies,” that “precarious but persisting balance” of piety and reason is precisely what Americans ought to cultivate.
Vintage Wills—a strong interpretive framework, vigorous prose and big, provocative arguments.