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American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism

by Matthew Avery Sutton

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1071196,718 (4.3)1
The first comprehensive history of modern American evangelicalism to appear in a generation, American Apocalypse shows how a group of radical Protestants, anticipating the end of the world, paradoxically transformed it. Matthew Avery Sutton draws on extensive archival research to document the ways an initially obscure network of charismatic preachers and their followers reshaped American religion, at home and abroad, for over a century. Perceiving the United States as besieged by Satanic forces -- communism and secularism, family breakdown and government encroachment -- Billy Sunday, Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, and others took to the pulpit and airwaves to explain how Biblical end-times prophecy made sense of a world ravaged by global wars, genocide, and the threat of nuclear extinction. Believing Armageddon was nigh, these preachers used what little time was left to warn of the coming Antichrist, save souls, and prepare the nation for God's final judgment. By the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and conservative Republicans appropriated evangelical ideas to create a morally infused political agenda that challenged the pragmatic tradition of governance through compromise and consensus. Following 9/11, the politics of apocalypse continued to resonate with an anxious populace seeking a roadmap through a world spinning out of control. Premillennialist evangelicals have erected mega-churches, shaped the culture wars, made and destroyed presidential hopefuls, and brought meaning to millions of believers. Narrating the story of modern evangelicalism from the perspective of the faithful, Sutton demonstrates how apocalyptic thinking continues to exert enormous influence over the American mainstream today.… (more)
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B&C 3-4/15 contemporary evangelicalism--its direction and influence vis a vis historical classical Christianity

The following article is located at: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2015/marapr/jekyll-or-hyde.html

Jekyll or Hyde?
Two stories about American evangelicals.
Mark Noll | posted 3/19/2015

HIGHLIGHTS

The transcendently important dimension of that question is religious: how do evangelicals measure up to the standards of historical, classical Christianity?

Closer to the present, the same pattern of biblical interpretation gave Hal Lindsey his plot for The Late, Great Planet Earth, probably the best-selling American book of any kind during the 1970s, and also the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that from the mid-1990s racked up more sales than any fiction series until surpassed by Harry Potter.

Since the late 19th century, most premillennialists have also followed the lead of John Nelson Darby, an Irish-born teacher of the English Bible who in several visits to America propounded the view that God worked through discernibly different phases or "dispensations" in relating to humankind—from creation, then through the ancient Hebrews, then Christ and the Apostles, then a separate "church age," and finally to the End of All Things predicted by biblical prophecy. Sutton's radicals embraced this "dispensational premillennialism."

Rather than promoting passivity, a lively sense of the apocalyptic future has inspired believers to "occupy until I come," as Jesus instructed in Luke 19:13. That occupation at first involved personal moral reform; most evangelicals enthusiastically supported Prohibition and joined in the great national worry of the 1920s and 1930s about slipping standards for marriage and family.

Evangelicals had no particular love for Harry Truman as a Big Government Democrat, but they applauded heartily when he pushed the U.S. to speedy recognition of the new state of Israel ("I will bless them that bless thee," Gen. 12:3).

Shaping of a Nation

His beautifully written America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation is now not only the best general study of the Billy Graham Phenomenon, but also the most charitable possible reading of Graham's career.

The evangelical segment of the American citizenry began to interest the nation's political savants in 1976. Although no one—then or now—has ever precisely defined what makes someone an "evangelical," the fact that Jimmy Carter taught a weekly Bible class at his Southern Baptist church in Americus, Georgia, and that he sometimes used the word for himself was enough to kick-start an engine of media scrutiny that has never stopped. The much-publicized rise of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, the contribution by evangelicals (however defined) to the nation's never-ending culture wars, and the alliance between many self-identified evangelicals and the Republican Party have kept the Evangelical Question alive as a matter of urgent public analysis—as well as a steady source of revenue for the nation's leading secular and academic publishers.

The transcendently important dimension of that question is religious: how do evangelicals measure up to the standards of historical, classical Christianity? But for immediate interest to the broader public, political queries have predominated: how and why has this variety of Christian faith affected American public life, as it so obviously has from the late 1960s forward?

Two recent books from Harvard University Press—Matthew Avery Sutton's deeply researched depiction of the evangelical forest and Grant Wacker's equally well researched focus on the tallest tree in that forest—are among the latest in a distinguished lineup to accept the challenge of explaining American evangelicals to Americans who are not part of that religious tribe. The parade began with George Marsden's Fundamentalism and American Culture from Oxford University Press in 1980; it continued in the early 1990s with the first well-rounded study of Billy Graham (by William Martin from Wm. Morrow) and Paul Boyer's Harvard Press book on "Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture." Significant studies followed steadily, including earlier Harvard books by Wacker on Pentecostalism (2001) and Sutton on the flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (2007). Since 2010 the steady stream has become a flood: from Alfred A. Knopf on the spirituality of the Vineyard Fellowship, from W. W. Norton on the migration of southern evangelicals to California, from Harvard on evangelical creation scientists and right-wing nationalists, from the University of Pennsylvania Press on evangelical ambiguity about public funding and on the small band of evangelical political liberals, from Basic Books on Jimmy Carter's religion, and from Oxford University Press on the Jesus People, evangelical anxieties over authority, evangelical cultural influence, preachers of the Prosperity Gospel, and the rise of the Christian Right.

The appearance of such books from major trade and university presses testifies to the salience of evangelical political activity in general public consciousness. Only the Civil Rights Movement has generated as much careful scholarship on religion in the public square. In both cases, however, attention to the political effect of actions propelled by religious motives has too easily ignored, trivialized, dismissed, or read through those motives. Thankfully, the floodtide of recent scholarship includes a number of studies predicated on the assumption that in order to understand the political impact of evangelical religion it is imperative to first understand evangelical religion. The new books by Sutton and Wacker belong among the very best of such efforts.

The conjunction of the two books is also fortuitous, since taken together they allow readers to assess both aspects of the Evangelical Question: concerning the character of the religion, and concerning the political effects of that religion. Although the books resemble each other in their bold claims about evangelical influence on "America," they move in very different directions. Sutton seems convinced that evangelical religion is a Mr. Edward Hyde who, though often restrained by his alter ego, nonetheless acts for destructive, sinister ends. By contrast, Wacker's account of the Billy Graham phenomenon convinces him that, although Mr. Hyde lurks constantly in the background, the evangelical Christianity that Graham represents should be regarded as a benevolent, altruistic Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Matthew Sutton is a younger historian of already considerable renown who teaches at Washington State University. His American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism rests on unprecedently thorough research into an ad hoc but cohesive tradition of influential authors, preachers, and widely read interdenominational periodicals that he describes as "radical evangelical." The chief early proponent of this radicalism was William Blackstone, an Illinois layman who in 1878 published Jesus Is Coming, a book that has sold into the tens of millions, been translated into scores of languages, and remains in print. Blackstone's study drew on widely scattered passages of Scripture to chart the entirety of world history, from the creation to what he saw as the rapidly approaching Second Coming of Christ. Because Blackstone stressed biblical prophecies that he believed predicted the return of Jews to ancestral lands in the Middle East—and because he campaigned hard for that eventuality—he has been recognized as the most influential Zionist who was not a Jew.

Later proponents of Blackstone's understanding of Scripture included the most popular leaders of the fundamentalist movement early in the 20th century, and later the key figures of the "neo-evangelical" revival of the 1940s who shucked off fundamentalist excesses in an effort to re-enter the American mainstream. Closer to the present, the same pattern of biblical interpretation gave Hal Lindsey his plot for The Late, Great Planet Earth, probably the best-selling American book of any kind during the 1970s, and also the Left Behind novels of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that from the mid-1990s racked up more sales than any fiction series until surpassed by Harry Potter.

Even as Sutton explains why the radical evangelical stance poses a danger to public life, American Apocalypse patiently unfolds its inner workings. The key for a Bible-fixated American culture was a fresh interpretation of Scripture that has acted like a magnet drawing together an otherwise fissiparous collection of head-strong Protestants. This interpretation hinges on several verses from the 20th chapter of the Apocalypse of St. John, where "an angel come down from heaven … laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years" (i.e., a millennium). Sutton's subjects are "premillennialists": they believe that the Second Coming of Christ will take place before this thousand year-period.

Since the late 19th century, most premillennialists have also followed the lead of John Nelson Darby, an Irish-born teacher of the English Bible who in several visits to America propounded the view that God worked through discernibly different phases or "dispensations" in relating to humankind—from creation, then through the ancient Hebrews, then Christ and the Apostles, then a separate "church age," and finally to the End of All Things predicted by biblical prophecy. Sutton's radicals embraced this "dispensational premillennialism."

They filled out their program by contending for the strategic importance of biblical passages that others find simply obscure. These passages include the prophet Ezekiel's reference to the nations Gog and Magog, who threaten God's people; the prophet Jeremiah's prediction, chapter one, verse 14, that "Out of the north an evil shall break forth upon all the inhabitants of the land"; the prophet Daniel's description of a future period of "seventy weeks" into which all history falls; the Olivet Discourse of Jesus from the synoptic gospels (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) with its fearsome account that "after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened … and the stars fall from heaven"; and the visions of the Book of Revelation understood as a detailed prediction of world events at the End of Time. Great energy and more ingenuity wove these verses together into a vision of the present and the future that has exerted a compelling attraction for great numbers of American Protestants.

Sutton's chief concern is to demonstrate that this interpretation of Scripture has strongly influenced the way these Bible believers live in the world. Several earlier scholars had charted the rise and dissemination of dispensational theology, but no one has argued so forcefully for its deep and wide influence. In Sutton's view, prophetic apocalypticism has provided an epistemological key for evangelicals to decipher the real meaning of great world events as "Signs of the Times" anticipating the Return of Christ. Thus, the devastation of World War I combined with the British liberation of Palestine gave instant credibility to predictions that had earlier been embraced by only a few. Had not their interpretation of Scripture recognized that the Time was at hand when, as Jesus said in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:7) "nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes in divers places"?

The same prophetic scheme encouraged many evangelicals to view Mussolini as the Antichrist. Not only did il Duce hammer out a concordat with the Pope (Protestants' traditional candidate as Antichrist); he also rejuvenated a great world power situated on the seven hills of Rome (see Rev. 17:9). The cataclysms of World War II enhanced the credibility of the prophetic scenario, especially the explosion of atomic bombs over Japan (see 2 Peter 3:10: "the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up"). An even greater confirmation came in May 1948 with the creation of a modern Jewish state. Now for all to see, "the outcasts of Israel" (Isaiah 11:12) were being regathered into "the land of Israel" (Ezek. 37:12). Ever since—Soviet explosion of an A-bomb, the Oil Embargo of 1973, the first and second Iraq wars, the terrorist attacks of 9/11—event after event seemed to reconfirm the accuracy of biblical prophecies recorded in Scripture centuries ago.

Of course there have also been embarrassments. Mussolini turned out not to be the Antichrist. Probable dates for the "rapture," when believers will be taken to "meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17) before the seven-year "tribulation" preceding the Millennium, have been predicted, re-predicted, and predicted again. But such miscalculations amount to quibbles for those who believe that world events are manifestly hastening to the climactic Battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:16) that will bring human history to a close.

Most important for Sutton are the marching orders that these repeated confirmations of end-times prophecy have supplied for an ever-growing cohort of the nation's Protestants. Rather than promoting passivity, a lively sense of the apocalyptic future has inspired believers to "occupy until I come," as Jesus instructed in Luke 19:13. That occupation at first involved personal moral reform; most evangelicals enthusiastically supported Prohibition and joined in the great national worry of the 1920s and 1930s about slipping standards for marriage and family. But then with the coming of the Cold War—and the Soviet Union identified as Ezekiel's Magog as well as Jeremiah's great power from the North—evangelicals added to their apocalyptic vision a re-kindled sense of America as a chosen nation. Evangelicals had no particular love for Harry Truman as a Big Government Democrat, but they applauded heartily when he pushed the U.S. to speedy recognition of the new state of Israel ("I will bless them that bless thee," Gen. 12:3).

The activism that Sutton documents has never extended to race relations or gender inequities, since in his view the evangelicals' conformity to white middle-class values has been almost as strong as their biblical interpretations were exceptional. But as he construes the recent past, this apocalyptic vision energized evangelicals as a significant political force, beginning with World War I and expanding ever since. Sutton concludes that other students of evangelicalism have missed "how thoroughly evangelical premillennialism has saturated American culture over the last 150 years."

Crucially, he argues, by missing that significant reality, scholars have also failed to understand the link between the enduring apocalyptic tradition and the recent flourishing of American political conservatism. According to Sutton, without the former, the latter is unimaginable: "The urgency, the absolute morals, the passion to right the world's wrongs, and the refusal to compromise, negotiate, or mediate, now defines much of American evangelicalism and a significant part of right-wing politics. We now live in a world shaped by evangelicals' apocalyptic hopes, dreams, and nightmares."

Sutton's last full chapter, entitled "Apocalypse Now," features the public ministry of Billy Graham, who burst on to the national scene in 1949 with a much-publicized revival meeting in Los Angeles. To Sutton, Graham exemplifies the way that American evangelicals have charged their understanding of Christianity with cold-war apocalypticism. Sutton documents carefully the continued presence of such themes for Graham, including his widely read books World Aflame (1965) and Approaching Hoofbeats: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1983). He concedes that Graham mellowed over the years. Yet he also insists that Graham's view of a cataclysmic End—along with its political concomitants—have keyed his entire public career, and therefore resonated with millions of American evangelicals.

Grant Wacker begs to differ. Wacker, who is wrapping up a distinguished career as scholar and mentor of young historians at the Divinity School of Duke University, sees Graham's evangelical convictions in a more favorable light, and hence also American evangelicals as a whole. His beautifully written America's Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation is now not only the best general study of the Billy Graham Phenomenon, but also the most charitable possible reading of Graham's career.

Although the book is not a biography, a 25-page introduction succinctly sketches Graham's career: born into a conservative Presbyterian family of dairy farmers in North Carolina, publicly committing himself to Christ as a teenager at a tent-revival meeting, educated at fundamentalist and neo-evangelical institutions, traveling widely as the first full-time preacher for the nascent Youth For Christ movement after World War II, and for over the next fifty years—from his Los Angeles crusade in 1949 (eight weeks, 350,000 in attendance, 3,000 "decisions for Christ") to a three-day preaching campaign in 2005 at Flushing Meadows (200,000 total attendance)—a dominant presence in American public life.

Wacker's capsule biography rehearses Graham's very public association with the nation's presidents, the savvy exploitation by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association of modern media, Graham's crucial role in founding Christianity Today magazine while actively promoting other evangelical institutions, and the prodigious numbers attending his rallies at home and abroad. These last deserve special mention, since Graham may have spoken in public meetings to more people than anyone ever in history.

Wacker takes special care here to record the major flash-points of criticism: Graham's naïve faith in Richard Nixon, a theology that some critics called dangerously simplistic, Graham's contention after returning from the Soviet Union in 1982 that its citizens enjoyed religious freedom, and the revelation in 2002 of a 1972 conversation with Nixon that contained Graham's graphically disparaging comments about Jews and their perverse influence in America.

By also recording the many encomia and almost as many disparagements that Graham has received, Wacker sets up the argument of his book. He will, in the end, interpret Graham's public career positively, but only after a full account of evidence pointing in the other direction. Thus, we read of Graham's repeated position at the top of the nation's "most admired" rankings, his place as one of Time's "100 Heroes and Icons of the Twentieth Century," his countless awards (the U.S. Congress, B'nai Brith, Tournament of Roses, etc.), and the accolades from many admirers, including George H. W. Bush, who in 2007 hailed him as "America's Pastor." Readers, however, also hear from Murray Kempton, who derided Graham as "the Pope of lower Protestants"; I. F. Stone, who called him Richard Nixon's "smoother Rasputin"; Reinhold Niebuhr, who pooh-poohed his theology as so much homespun; and quite a few others whom Graham did not impress.

The book proper proceeds thematically, with chapters on Graham as a southerner, the architect of a coordinated neo-evangelical movement, and a patriarch active into his very old age. Wacker's most creative research underlies a chapter on Graham as pastor: extensive reading of the evangelist's syndicated newspaper column, "My Answer," which appeared in daily papers for over 60 years, and then scores of letters addressed to Graham with requests for personal advice. The conclusion that Wacker draws in this chapter anticipates what he also writes about Graham as "Preacher" and as a "Pilgrim" who has undertaken a lifelong journey of social awareness. They showcase a Billy Graham who, apocalyptic warts and all, became an increasingly moderate, increasingly social-minded spokesman for a traditional but also open and inviting version of the Christian faith.

Wacker insists that any serious account of Graham's message must begin with its basic Christian content, "the inner scaffolding" that prevailed from first to last: "God, humans, sin, Christ, salvation, judgment, heaven, and hell." Yet, as if to counter Sutton's assertion about the central place of apocalypticism among American evangelicals, Wacker also documents a significant evolution in what the preacher stressed. At Los Angeles in 1949 and other early rallies, Graham's machine-gun delivery channeled a dispensational premillennial message into an emotional appeal for conversion. At the start he preached what he thought "the Bible says," but relied just as heavily on reading "The Signs of the Times." For the early Graham, it wasn't always clear whether he felt more strongly about the attraction of Christianity or the perils of the Soviet threat, nuclear warfare, and the moral degeneration of contemporary America.

Yet by 1957 and Graham's weeks-long crusade at New York's Madison Square Garden the tone had shifted. As many have noted, those meetings marked Graham's break with his fundamentalist past. Unlike the separatism that fundamentalists required from modernist churches and also demanded from conservative churches that did not separate from the liberals, Graham announced that he would work with anyone willing to work with him. Fundamentalists recoiled in alarm, while Graham's reach expanded exponentially. In New York City, his signature sermons now focused on biblical texts of divine mercy (like John 3:16, "For God so loved the world …"). Moreover, while not abandoning imperatives spurred by considering the End of Time, Graham stepped back a little; now he spoke more cautiously, as from Matthew 24:36: "But of that day and hour knoweth no man … but my Father only." From that point forward, Wacker portrays a preacher who balanced judgment and love: "For every dire statement about the certainty of apocalypse one finds many more about the certainty of redemption."

America's Pastor charts a parallel evolution in Graham's social and political career, and with a parallel ideological structure. Graham's approach to public life always rested on a belief that individual conversion delivered the only certain remedy for social dysfunction. Yet his social vision likewise evolved. Graham grew up as a conventional white evangelical much more worried about Big Government overreach than racial inequality, more eager to explore conspiracy theories than to strategize for social reform. Yet from these beginnings he moved a very long way in his very long career. While never out front in campaigns for minority rights, he did integrate seating at his southern preaching tours, and did so before Brown vs. Board of Education. From his early stance as a militant Cold Warrior, he eventually became a strong advocate for nuclear disarmament. In 1979, one year before the election of Ronald Reagan, he announced a judgment that soon became a mantra: the arms race was "insanity, madness."

Graham's propensity to shoot from the hip gave him many opportunities to apologize for misstatements. Wacker thinks it is significant that he made those apologies. So it was that after words possibly construed as calling aids a specific judgment of God, he offered an apology with an extended explanation. Even more profuse apologies came after the revelation of his 1972 comments about American Jews, apologies that many Jewish groups, though not all of the nation's political pundits, seemed to accept. If Graham also repeatedly sought to explain away his incautious comments from 1982 about religious freedom in the Soviet Union, thereafter he made several trips back to Russia, and then also to communist Eastern Europe, China, and North Korea, where his emphasis on universal human aspirations drew less press coverage than his earlier comments as Cold Warrior and bamboozled tourist.

Graham's political friendships were a consistent source of admiration for the constituency that Wacker calls "the Heartland"; it was as if the attention showered on one of their own extended vicariously to them. Others came up with words like toady and sycophant. The least persuasive of Wacker's efforts to adjudicate Graham's career is his conclusion that after the Nixon debacle, Graham permanently altered his approach to Washington. To be sure, Graham never endorsed Falwell's Moral Majority, yet his fascination with power, his naïveté about how presidents and candidates (not just Nixon) exploited photo ops, and the instances where political or diplomatic commentary showed him to be out of his depth—these persistent traits reveal not a prophet keen about speaking truth to power, but a priest simply hoping to join the conversation.

Wacker's generally positive assessment is in fact more convincing for the pains he takes to present criticisms from others along with several sharp sallies of his own. If readers follow his examination of an extraordinary range of evidence pro and con, most should agree that over time Graham matured in his understanding of the Christian faith and the uses to which he put that faith. In Wacker's judgment, "If the fiery young Graham had worried about lawlessness at home and communism abroad, the reflective older Graham worried more about loneliness at home and AIDS abroad."

Coverage in both books of Graham's activities in January 1991 and during the political season of 2102 focuses the question whether evangelical Christianity exists as a malevolent Mr. Hyde or a benevolent Dr. Jekyll. For those who have no use for supernatural religion, the choice is simple: in whatever form it appears, its delusions can mean only confused minds and poisoned behavior. But others who are not so disposed should find these incidents an interpretive challenge.

The first concerns Graham's relationship with George H. W. Bush and the First Iraq War. In his account, Sutton relays a report that Graham told the president that Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist—though Sutton also concedes that "Graham probably did not make such a claim, since Saddam was not the right fit for the evangelist's premillennial theology." Details aside, Sutton finds the evangelist's continued recourse to prophecy the key to his long career. Thus, "Graham's work illustrates how premillennialists-turned-fundamentalists-turned-evangelicals since William Blackstone's Jesus Is Coming have masterfully linked the major issues of every generation to their reading of the coming apocalypse with the goal of transforming their culture." Alongside his fellow evangelicals, Graham always based his preaching on prophetic interpretation with a goal of accumulating authority. His grasp of the prophetic word has given Graham and "the faithful a powerful sense of urgency, a confidence that they alone understand the world in which they are living, and a hope for a future in which they will reign supreme."

Wacker treats the same incidents, but with a very different conclusion. He also describes the well-publicized prayers that Graham shared with Bush on January 16, 1991, the day the president ordered the bombing of Baghdad to begin. But then Wacker records Graham's little-noticed comments on January 17 when he spoke to military personnel at Fort Meyers. On that occasion, Graham's prayer for a short war and an enduring peace used words taken from Abraham Lincoln's hope that the United States would find itself on God's side, rather than worrying about the reverse. The picture here is not so much of an activist inspired by premillennial fervor as of a public figure trying hard to function constructively as "America's pastor."

Then in 2012 Graham's name appeared in a series of newspaper ads promoting right-wing causes and candidates in the Carolinas and nationwide. To Sutton, the ads represented the natural culmination, not just for a single life, but for American evangeli-calism as a whole. To Wacker, by contrast, the ads reflected the influence of Graham's son Franklin, an eager culture warrior who exploited his father's name as "a departure from the position Graham had maintained since the mid-1970s that high-profile preachers in general, and he in particular, should stay out of partisan politics."

The contrasting portraits of Graham that emerge from these two well-researched books point to sharply contrasting conclusions about American evangelical Christianity—as both a religion and a political force. For religion, if Sutton is correct that premillennial dispensationalism is the driving ideology, it is hard to see how American evangelicals could ever offer what the Christian tradition at its best has provided to its adherents and the societies where they are found. But if, as Wacker sees it, that particular theology is less central—in one place he calls it "boilerplate" trotted out as merely in-house, conventional rhetoric—then American evangelicals might be closer to classical Christian norms and also capable of a more accommodating public presence.

Observers in general, and not only Christian believers, should realize that dispensational premillennialism represents a peculiarly American version of classical Christian faith. Classical Christianity too depends comprehensively on Scripture, but the biblical literalism of dispensational premillennialism arises from a strongly populist and militantly anti-academic understanding of the Bible. A prophetic scheme worked up by individuals with little sense for ancient Near Eastern history and often scant training in biblical Hebrew and Greek took shape when popular preachers and writers snatched individual Bible verses out of their original settings to assemble doctrine as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. Premillennial Christians do affirm the classical belief in a transcendent deity who creates, sustains, and guides human history. But they regularly express that belief with a Manichaean understanding of good and evil and a gnostic reliance on in-group scriptural interpretations to explain how God directs human history.

Traditionally, and with fresh initiatives in recent decades, leading Christian thinkers have insisted that their faith rests on a Jewish foundation and that Jews today retain some kind of mysterious relationship to their ancient status as God's elect people. With great determination dispensationalists also hold to a particular version of this belief, but they act upon it with mechanical biblical interpretation and formulaic insistence on all-or-nothing support for the state of Israel.

Classical Christianity, finally, holds that God will indeed drew human history to a close as decisively as divine creation brought the world into existence and as a divine plan of salvation ordained the saving work of Christ. Yet premillennialists go further by affirming not only an apocalyptic end of time, but with fervent self -confidence that their scheme of prophetic interpretation has figured out when, where and how it will unfold.

From one angle, therefore, dispensational premillennialism may be viewed as simply an extension of classical Christianity. From another angle it looks like a perversion. According to Wacker, Billy Graham's lifelong maturation has moved him ever farther away from the procrustean grip of the millennialism he inherited and ever closer to the classical Christian practices of longsuffering, grace, and empathy. Harder versions of dispensational premillennialism certainly do push evangelicals away from conceptual engagement with the world while fueling a sometimes frantic mobilization for authority. It remains an open question, however, whether this theology prevails as pervasively among evangelicals as Sutton asserts, or—stated more precisely—whether its widespread presence among evangelicals always leads so inevitably to apocalyptic fever.

For politics, the interpretive question is simpler. On the one hand, if Sutton is right about American evangelicals, including Graham, then political involvement by this large segment of the American populace will only firm up right-wing self-righteousness and strengthen the Tea Party for the near and long term.

On the other hand, if Wacker is correct about Graham and, by extension, American evangelicals, then the prospect exists for a different sort of evangelical political presence. Evangelicals will doubtless remain conservative in debates over moral questions and individualistic in their approach to social reconstruction. But it is also conceivable that they might reprise some of the genius for compromise that propelled William Wilberforce's parliamentary attack on slavery, some of the concern for the marginalized that inspired the early labors of William Jennings Bryan, and some of the commitment to world peace that factored so large in the activities of Oregon's Senator Mark Hatfield. For future political considerations it is important to remember that Wilberforce, Bryan, and Hatfield were every bit as evangelical as their fellow-religionists who now join in vociferous campaigns against Big Government and enlist so eagerly in the NRA.

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella about the predatory Mr. Hyde and the tormented Dr. Jekyll has remained compelling because of its insights into the contending forces that can rage within a single human being. Transposed to a consideration of religious movements, his story seems to have been written with contemporary American evangelicals in mind. To read America's Pastor and American Apocalypse together revives the poignancy of Stevenson's tale. For those who reject the possibility of anything like the Christian religion, it doesn't make much difference if Sutton or Wacker has come closer to the truth. Those with any interest in any sort in Christianity—not to speak of any concern for the health of American public life—should hope that Wacker is right.

Mark Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (forthcoming).

Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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The first comprehensive history of modern American evangelicalism to appear in a generation, American Apocalypse shows how a group of radical Protestants, anticipating the end of the world, paradoxically transformed it. Matthew Avery Sutton draws on extensive archival research to document the ways an initially obscure network of charismatic preachers and their followers reshaped American religion, at home and abroad, for over a century. Perceiving the United States as besieged by Satanic forces -- communism and secularism, family breakdown and government encroachment -- Billy Sunday, Charles Fuller, Billy Graham, and others took to the pulpit and airwaves to explain how Biblical end-times prophecy made sense of a world ravaged by global wars, genocide, and the threat of nuclear extinction. Believing Armageddon was nigh, these preachers used what little time was left to warn of the coming Antichrist, save souls, and prepare the nation for God's final judgment. By the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and conservative Republicans appropriated evangelical ideas to create a morally infused political agenda that challenged the pragmatic tradition of governance through compromise and consensus. Following 9/11, the politics of apocalypse continued to resonate with an anxious populace seeking a roadmap through a world spinning out of control. Premillennialist evangelicals have erected mega-churches, shaped the culture wars, made and destroyed presidential hopefuls, and brought meaning to millions of believers. Narrating the story of modern evangelicalism from the perspective of the faithful, Sutton demonstrates how apocalyptic thinking continues to exert enormous influence over the American mainstream today.

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