American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving by Christian Smith: Book Review

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, Christian Smith is a notable figure in contemporary Sociology of Religion.  His recent work has explored American Evangelicalism as well as the religious lives of teenagers and emerging adults.  According to his faculty page, his “larger theoretical agenda has been to move culture, morality, and identity to the center of sociological theorizing.”  Released in 1998, American Evangelicalism preceded the increased national and media attention on Evangelicals after they
were credited by some with effecting the presidential election and re-election of George W. Bush in 2001 and 2005 respectively.  This book was followed up in 2002 with Christian America?: What Evangelicals Really Want, which draws on the same research.  (Review to follow).

Smith’s overall argument is that American Evangelicalism is thriving due to its posture of “engaged orthodoxy”.   He sets the stage for this thesis with a brief history of American Evangelicalism’s birth as a critique of fundamentalism in its day.  According to Smith, three criticisms were primary: 1) fundamentalism had lost its evangelistic zeal due to preoccupation with doctrinal purity, 2) it had become anti-intellectual and 3) its separatism meant disengagement from the world’s social, economic and political problems for which Jesus Christ was the answer.  Thus, in contrast to fundamentalism and liberal Christianity, these Evangelicals “were fully committed to maintaining and promoting confidently traditional, orthodox Protestant theology and belief, while at the same time becoming confidently and proactively engaged in the intellectual, cultural, social, and political life of the nation” (10). This commitment has set the defining trajectory of American Evangelicalism to today.  This reform movement within fundamentalism eventually broke off and saw great success in the form of Billy Graham’s evangelistic crusades, the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today and Fuller Theological Seminary along with a host of evangelical Christian colleges and non-profits.

In chapter two, Smith makes a nearly incontrovertible case for the sociological assessment that Evangelicalism is thriving.  This strength is apparent in all measurable aspects including degree of adherence to orthodox Christian beliefs, the salience of faith to the lives of believers, robustness and confidence in faith, frequency of participation in religious activities and programs, commitment to mission and retention and recruitment of members.  In each of these separate factors of religious strength, Evangelicals come out ahead of all other groups including Fundamentalists, Mainliners, Liberals and Catholics. 

Smith’s third chapter reviews extant theories of religious vitality.  Sheltered enclave theory, which asserts religions thrive when they provide an enclosed plausibility structure and weaken through members exposure to modernity, is judged as “little help” in explaining this study’s indication of a thriving evangelicalism that is “quite engaged with the people, institutions, and concerns of the pluralistic, modern world,” even more so than nonreligious Americans (75-6).  Status discontent theory shows initial promise, since evangelicals do “voice grave concerns about what they view as America’s turning from the ways of God” but this does not include feelings that dominant culture was restraining their religious lifestyles (84).  Strictness theory’s assertion that higher-demand religions make strong religions seems to have some merit, although the relationship of Evangelicalism to its stricter progenitor fundamentalism necessitates qualification.  Competitive marketing theory provides the most helpful explanation, positing religious vitality as relative to freedom for religious entrepreneurs in search of expanding market-shares, given Evangelicalism’s fluidity and successful incorporation of a variety of Christian traditions.

The most sociologically significant chapter of the book, chapter four, elucidates Smith’s “subcultural identity” theory of religious vitality through eight propositions: 1) humans needs for meaning are socially met, 2) group identity is necessarily in distinction, 3) religious adaption is not necessarily accommodation, 4) individual choice can strengthen religious identity, 5) reference groups, not society en mass, establish group and individual meaning, 6) modern pluralism promotes formation of strong subcultures, 7) intergroup conflict typically strengthens group identity and 8) modernity can intensify the felt needs that make religion appealing.  Thus, it subsumes elements of status discontent and strictness theories.  In sum, religions that embed themselves in morally orienting subcultures of belonging will persist and those that both create clear “distinction from and significant engagement and tension with” outsiders thrive (118-9).

As Smith demonstrates, Evangelicals have these tools in their “zealous burden to convert and transform the world” (121) expressive of a “sense of possessing the ultimate truth” and“sense of practical moral superiority”. They do this from a distinct subcultural identity with distinct values and lifestyle (131) that include a feeling of second-class citizenship.  Fundamentalism shares Evangelicalism’s distinctive identity, but not its “sustained, active presence in and engagement with the surrounding culture” and is the weaker for it.  Mainline and liberal Protestants are engaged with society, but not meaningfully distinct from it and this combination is even more debilitating.

            After a slightly out of place excursus in chapter six debunking the modern-secularization paradigm’s claims to the deterioration of belief plausibility in the modern world, Smith takes the final chapter to explore the ironic flipside to Evangelical’s source of strength.  While it thrives on a sense of distinction and mission, Evangelicalism is ineffective in actually effecting social change.  This is due largely to the limitations of “personal influence strategy” whereby social change is seen as simply the aggregate of individual change.   Thus change is sought through one-on-one relationships rather than systematic and structural initiatives.  This challenge is compounded by the self-contradiction of “volunturistic absolutism” which calls for both individual freedom and national application of Christian morality.   With the ironic vitality and impotence of Evangelicalism in view, Smith concludes: “Subcultural distinction can be a mixed blessing” because “the social forces that can unite people into a movement can also paradoxically undermine their attempts at effective social influence (217).

Smith’s writing is utterly riddled with comments from interviews, which serve to make the reading experience not only informative but nearly interpersonal. Smith introduces the reader to dozens of evangelicals in their own words and thus achieves his aspiration to “promote a better understanding of evangelical Christians” (2).  Even I, as one nurtured and educated within Evangelical institutions, gained a highly beneficial critical distance through the analysis, and came away with the feelings of familiarity, sympathy and respect that attend deeper understanding—my homegrown critiques notwithstanding.  

            American Evangelicalism makes three key contributions.  The first, and most important, is the subcultural identity theories of religious persistence and vitality.  These theories, as Smith ably demonstrates, not only make sense of the persistence and growth of Evangelicalism, but offers compelling descriptions of the plight of Fundamentalism and Mainline liberal Protestantism, earning it the right to be weighed by all who seek to understand the sociology of American religion.

            Second, Smith’s penultimate chapter opens the discussion about the sensationalized influence of Evangelicals on society, a theme which drives Christian America?  Unfortunately, his critique of  “the strategically deficient evangelical tradition” shows a lack of appreciation for the theological and ethical import of means of cultural engagement and not merely ends.  Nonetheless, both those concerned about Evangelical ambitions and ambitious Evangelicals themselves have something to learn from Smith’s penetrating analysis of the “personal influence theory” and “volunturistic absolutism” which texture their efforts.

            Finally, American Evangelicalism offers its data-rich voice to the continuing discussion and critique of secularization theory.  While chapter six is indeed an excursus from the core purpose of this book, it successfully undermines the oft assumed conclusion that modern pluralistic society is a doubt-machine running rampant, uncovering that most doubts are driven by “suffering, tragedies, moral hypocrisy, ordinary life struggles, offensive church actions, and relational network disruptions…not realities peculiar to modern life” (172).   

            American Evangelicalism is a major contribution toward an understanding of American religion as a whole.  The compelling nature of subcultural identity is matched with plentiful self-expressions from Evangelicals that provide the reader with not only a theory to explain Evangelical strength but a sense of personal acquaintance.  Here Smith models for his colleagues a sociological brand of “engaged orthodoxy”—remaining committed to an orthodox sociological method of rigorous and value-free analysis while resisting the fundamentalist draw to detached separatism by boldly engaging interpersonally with the subjects and their culture.

Smith, Christian.  American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Smith's SOUL SEARCHING (2005); thanks for this great summary of an earlier book.

    Regarding group identification, you might enjoy Judy Harris's THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION, which convincingly outlines some limits to parental influence. She describes what she calls "group socialization theory" -- differences being a key factor in said groups. More in my blog.