This has been sitting in my drafts folder for some time now, but thought I should finally get to publishing it. Looking at what has shaped the American evangelical mind, Dr. Mark A. Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, first looked at the influence of revivalism in the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as, the impact of the First Amendment on evangelicalism. The Christian-cultural synthesis that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries made a big impact as well. Noll writes:
Evangelicals were successful in the early United States because they successfully adapted their Christian convictions to American ideals. This adaptation did involve savvy, remarkable displays of what might be called practical intelligence. But at the same time, the formal thought of evangelicals – that is, the consideration of nature, society, history, and the arts – weakened throughout the early history of the United States because evangelicals adapted their Christian convictions uncritically to American ideals, (pg. 67)
Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his book Democracy in America the difference between the Church in his native France and the one he found touring the United States, “In France, I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country.”
Noll notes four dimensions by which evangelicals identified with American ideals:
- They adopted republican theories of politics
- Took as their own democratic theories of society
- Embraced classical liberal views of the economy.
- Domesticated the Enlightenment
All for Christian purposes.
Evangelicals adopted concepts from American culture at large in order to evangelize or reform their culture more effectively. In each case that process of adoption was successful insofar as Christians, speaking the language of their culture were able to present the gospel in such a way as to see individuals converted and to see changes in society. But in each case there was also a cost. Christian thinking, adapted so thoroughly to the norms of antebellum America, was neither sound nor as durable as it appeared to be in the heyday of American evangelical culture, (pg. 68).
Republican theories of politics
Noll notes that Christianity has played a substantial, but ambiguous role in the shaping of republicanism, which was, “the concept of a commonwealth emphasizing the well-being of its people… (it) embraced the conviction that power defined the political process and that unchecked power led to corruption, even as corruption fostered unchecked power… the arbitrary exercise of unchecked power must by its very nature result in the demise of liberty, law, and natural rights,” (pg. 69).
There were similarities between Puritanism and republicanism, (pg. 70-71):
- View of human nature that recognized human capacity for evil and good.
- Defined virtue, freedom and social well-being in similar terms.
- Shared a common view of history.
- Both longed for a new age in which righteousness and freedom would flourish.
The long-term effect 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…. the overwhelming evangelical commitment to this assumption created difficulties for missionary efforts in other political cultures, it made for problems in understanding the role of the United States in the world, and it led to confusion in the treatment of non-Protestants in the United States… If the Christian truth about politics was so clear, there was no need to think about politics at all, (pg. 71-72).
A Democratic Understanding of Society
Noll notes that social changes that took place during the Revolutionary period had much to do with a passion for liberty that was universal in this new country, (pg. 72). It had an effect on Bible reading. America saw many new denominations sprout up. Much of that had to do “in large part because there were so many unfettered interpretations of Scripture,” (pg. 73). The Reformation doctrine of “sola scriptura” was reemphasized. The result, Noll notes, “was a blend of Christian fervor and democratic fragmentation,” (pg.73). As with all of these factors they come with positives and negatives:
This democratic approach to society was in many respects a good thing. But again, the assumption that Christian faith can be expressed fully and properly only in a democratic setting was not conducive to shaping a Christian mind. Because evangelicals so thoroughly assumed the harmony of Christian faith and democratic thoroughly assumed the harmony of Christian faith and democratic America, they did not think comprehensively and foundationally about very real problems, (pg. 74).
Noll notes problems that required fresh thinking like the conflict between the north and south, the growing number of immigrants, and slavery were not really addressed, by and large (there were exceptions), by evangelicals.
A Liberal View of the Economy
Evangelicals, Noll notes, began to assume “the God-given character of liberal political economy,” (pg. 75). In the 19th century context, means thought about our economy associated with John Locke and Adam Smith who promoted individualism and free markets (what conservatives promote today).
The problem wasn’t that evangelicals adopted this economic practice, but that they did so with very little thought:
The most important economic questions of the day dealt with the early growth of industrialization. What kinds of obligations did capital and labor owe each other? How would the growth of large industries… affect community life or provisions for the disabled, aged and infirm? Each of these questions, and many more like them, posed a potential threat to Christian witness and to public morality. Each of them was also the sort that could be answered only by those who had thought through principles of Scriptures, who had struggled to see how the truths of creation, fall, and redemption applied to groups as well as to individuals. Unfortunately, there was very little of such thinking, (pg. 76).
The Evangelical Enlightenment
Noll notes that the principles of the didactic Enlightenment helped provide an apologetic that was necessary during Revolutionary America. American evangelicals were able to align faith in reason with faith in God. They did what French Protestants and Catholics seemed unable to do during the French Revolution.
Evangelicals were resting the edifice of orthodox Christian faith on the principles of the Scottish Enlightenment. Noll sums it up by saying, “In a word, the basic principle of the Scottish philosophy – that people could reason naturally from the evidence of their own consciousness to the existence of God and the validity of traditional morality,” (pg. 93). This belief became widespread in the early 19th century.
This also effected theology see in New England in particular. Calvinism which was prominent in earlier colonial life began to decline. New England Congregationalists had adjusted Jonathan Edwards’ convictions concerning free will, the imputation of Adam’s guilt, and the nature of human sinfulness, (pg.95). Congregational theology continued to grow humanistic. It also affected how the Bible was read as some would approach the Bible as though no one had ever read it before, (pg. 98).
The main problem was that so much of the Christianized version of the Enlightenment depended on assumptions, and thus so little actual thought went into developing the philosophical, psychological and ethical implications of all of these views. All was well as long as Christian energies guided the nation. But once those energies guided the nation. But once those energies were frustrated by the new social conditions after the Civil War, once they were challenged by new ideas from Europe that also penetrated American life increasingly after that same conflict, there was very little intellectual strength to meet the new challenges… Evangelicals mostly just took for granted a fit between their faith and these ideals of the American situation. Little need was felt to exercise the mind for Christ, since evangelism and fervent moral activism seemed so successful at meeting the church’s immediate needs, (pg. 105-106).
As a result we saw a secular spirit that spread rapidly in culture. Theological liberalism emerged, and the descendents of orthodox evangelicalism held onto basic Christian truths, but many did so isolation from the world and became fascinated with “inward spirituality or the details of the end-times prophecy,” (pg. 107).
And the Church took a backward step in engaging culture.