Book Review: Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want by Christian Smith

Some have referred to Christian Smith as a “rock star” among sociologists of Religion due to his prolific and wide-ranging work. Currently serving as the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame, he has recently released titles exploring the nature of the human person (What is a Person?, 2010) and teen and emerging adult spirituality (Soul Searching, 2009 and Souls in Transition, 2010) and has on a forthcoming on evangelical readings of Scripture (The Bible Made Impossible, 2011).  Following up on the landmark American Evangelicalism released in 1998, Smith produced Christian America? drawing on the same body of research that intentionally accessed the thought of common self-identified evangelicals.  

Smith accurately describes the effect of Christian America? as “demythologization” (195).  He takes as his launching off point for the book, and for each successive chapter, the hype and stereotypes that abound regarding the views and intentions of American evangelicals.  Importantly, Smith captures the sense of fear that some feel toward Evangelicals as a result of the bold rhetoric of supposed spokespersons such as Rev. James Kennedy who called for the “reclaiming of America for Christ” (21). 

Before beginning in earnest, Smith identifies four analytical fallacies that have contributed to failures to understand evangelicals.  These include the beliefs that 1) “evangelical leaders speak as representatives of ordinary evangelicals”, 2) surveys adequately represent the views of ordinary people, 3) people’s beliefs, attitudes and desires get worked out with ideological consistency and coherence, and 4) conservative Protestants, of whom evangelicals are only a part, are a “monolithic social group” (7-13). 

Smith seeks answers to evangelical’s views on a range of telling questions including pluralism, politics and education.  Chapter one, the most important chapter aside from the introduction and conclusion, offers the paradigm used throughout, as Smith asks what the phrase “Christian America” means to evangelicals.  Importantly, Smith concludes, the phrase is not a single concept, but for varied evangelicals has meaning variously as religious freedom, governmental checks and balances, many faithful Christians in the population, deist founding fathers of the nation, and religious references in political documents (36).  While the last two of the list “lend themselves to a justification of Christian cultural hegemony” the other four have no such effect, two of which even implicitly reject it (36).   
Far from matching the ominous warnings of the media, evangelicals prefer to go about their mission of cultural engagement with “civility, tolerance, and voluntary persuasion” rather than organized efforts, political or otherwise (37).  In a list of commitments that is both authoritative and surprising, Smith highlights virtual evangelical unanimity around: focusing first on being faithful in their own lives, being loving not defensive, showing tolerance and respect, allowing adversaries their own opinions, not forcing Christian beliefs on others, avoiding hostile confrontation, relying on the power of individual good examples and influencing others through voluntary persuasion and positive dialog (37).  Critical to Smith’s portrait is the reiteration of his finding in American Evangelicalism that this group has an almost unanimous strategy for pursuing their desired changes in society that he calls alternately “strategic relationalism” and “personal influence strategy” (45).  This approach, which Smith sees as non-threatening, is characteristic of the way evangelicals seek change in each of the areas of inquiry.

One of Smith’s key contributions is the exposure of commonplace inconsistency between Evangelical rhetoric and practice.  This tension is most apparent in his treatment of the function of “male headship” in Evangelical households.  Though evangelicals do “feel the need to maintain a meaningful ideology of headship”, “male privilege is actually almost completely irrelevant in practice” (186).  Similar contradictions are seen in evangelical approaches to “Christian America,” politics, pluralism, other religions and education.  While this might sound like an accusation of hypocrisy, Smith intends no such charge.  Rather, he indicates that these incongruities and ambivalences are typical of most Americans (194).  In sum, evangelicals “negotiate their lives with cultural tool kits containing a mix of tools that do not necessarily all work neatly together” (189). 

Another critical contribution is found in Smith’s culling of insights from a range of surveys relevant to conservative Protestantism.  His introductory caution about the partial revelatory power of surveys notwithstanding, this expert-guided tour is a goldmine. Nuggets of revelation on conservative Protestants include: 90% believe moral decay is the primary cause of America’s problems (205), the majority “do not believe that liberals, feminists, and atheists have too much influence” (211), they’re not hostile or prejudiced against people of other faiths and races (219), they are slightly happier in life and marriage than others (224), and homosexuals are the most significant out-group (225).
In his conclusion, Smith crystallizes his argument, asserting that evangelicals are neither angels nor demons.  The grand effect of Christian America? is to counter the “ignorant and prejudiced” views of evangelicals that portray them as “out to Christianize America” and inherently intolerant, patriarchal, theocratically-minded and politically power-hungry (196).

Typical of Smith’s style, the text is replete with the views of evangelicals in their own words.  While this style provides a personal touch, and often highlights the complexity that can be buried in the response of a single evangelical, even at 227 pages, it suffers from boredom-inducing repetition.  While it should be required reading for any serious student of American Protestantism, little would be lost if study was limited to the Introduction, Chapter One, the conclusion of each remaining chapter, the final Conclusion and the Appendix. 

While Smith’s work is a great addition to understanding evangelicalism, it must be admitted that while he explicitly addresses the limitations of survey work, interviews, too, are necessarily incomplete, accessing only what evangelicals say they believe and do.  Thanks to Smith we know that Evangelicals profess commitment to tolerance and showing respect for others.  But the work of those such as the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman poses a troubling dissimilarity.  Kinnaman oversaw surveys of young outsiders to Evangelicalism (and the Christian church).  According to UnChristian, strong majorities consider Christianity to be a lot or somewhat judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), overly political (75%), insensitive (70%), and not accepting of other faiths (64%).  While Smith’s book might suggest that these views are ignorant or prejudiced (or perhaps overly influenced by media that is), Kinnaman notes that many of the outsiders appear to be speaking from their personal encounters, since 82% have attended a church (most of these for at least three months) and 65% have had a conversation about faith with a Christian in the last year (74).

This contrast highlights the real challenge of understanding a group whose incongruity of ideology and practice yields both welcome accommodation to societal norms such as gender equality and troubling failures to reflect their own ideals such as nonjudgment.  Interestingly, in a move that Smith’s work anticipates, Kinnaman, who is himself an evangelical, offers a concluding remedy for American Christianity’s disastrous image problem: “we must become Christlike again” (Kinnaman 224).

Smith tackles headlong one of the perennial challenges of sociology: how to propose theories that explain the behavior of groups, while resisting unrealistic constructions of group cohesion.  Smith skillfully navigates the horns of this dilemma though sophisticated parsing of the views of Evangelicals on a number of high-profile issues.  In so doing, he reveals diversity and incongruity on particular matters of ideology as well as widespread unanimity regarding the general posture that is appropriate toward the larger society.  As something of public rebuke, Christian America? is Smith’s plea for “a just and civil” treatment of evangelicals as a complex bunch that are just as likely to be the targets of prejudice and judgment as its perpetrators (196).

Read my review of Smith's American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving here.

Smith, Christian. Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000.
Smith, Christian.  American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons.  UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why it Matters.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1997.


  1. Chris, this is a really interesting review... sounds like a good read.
    Um, also, just wanted to let you know I had trouble reading it. the white on black is so stark that it started to hurt my eyes... Maybe it's just me, but I thought it might be useful to know

  2. Susie,
    Thanks for the comment. You'd probably enjoy reading my review of Smith's other book on American Evangelicalism (by that title)...especially since I changed the bright white to a gray...let me know if it helps.