John Fea, professor of history at Mesiah College, is one of the more thoughtful commentators around combining a historical perspective and evangelical faith as he brings his expertise to bear in the public sphere. He’s the guy who coined the phrase court evangelicals and he’s got a book (see above) coming out later this year that’s sure to be insightful.
Here’s some of what Fea has had to say so far about Michael Gerson’s article in the Atlantic. Like me, Fea noticed that Gerson’s 19th century golden era of evangelicalism was seen with rose-colored glasses:
In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery. We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools. All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.
But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past. They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation. The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.
Fea also shared some more personal reflections the piece inspired:
Like Gerson, I have come to the conclusion, after much soul searching in the wake of November 8, 2016, that the word “evangelical” is worth defending. I still believe in all the things that the word stands for–the “good news” of the Gospel, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need to engage with the world from the perspective of these beliefs.
I appreciate Gerson’s autobiographical reflections about his evangelical upbringing. I also spent some of the most formative years of my life within evangelicalism. But unlike Gerson, I was not a cradle evangelical. I converted as a teenager. While I am fully on board with Mark Noll’s assessment of evangelical thinking in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I can fully say that my conversion is what actually led me to pursue an intellectual life and instilled me with a sense of vocation that continues to animate my work. My Catholic upbringing played an important role in my moral formation, and I will always be a fellow traveler with my Catholic brothers and sisters, but it was evangelicalism that brought meaning and purpose to my life. It still does–at least on the good days.
I know that many former evangelicals read this blog. I understand that they are angry and bitter and critical. I see it in their posts and comments and published pieces. I saw it in the way they responded to the death of Billy Graham. I get it. I don’t know how folks can live with such anger and bitterness, but I get it. Don’t get me wrong, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a lot of issues with evangelicalism. I have had my own moments of anger and bitterness. But I see those disagreements, to borrow from Noll, as “lovers quarrels.”
I wouldn’t say this on every day, but it’s a lovers quarrel for me as well. Disavowing evangelicalism is a little bit like disavowing my personhood.