Was 2016 a Turning Point in the History of Evangelicalism?

I’m eager to crack open Turning Points in the History of American Evangelicalism, edited by Heath Carter and Laura Rominger Porter and featuring a who’s who of American religious historians. Dedicated to Mark Noll, the book “seeks to both honor and build upon his contributions” via Noll’s own concept of “turning points.” I summarized it last year in a post reporting on my adult Sunday School class on the global history of Christianity in the 20th century:

Noll, Turning Points[Noll] suggests that “One of the most interesting ways to grasp a general sense of Christian history (though there are many others) is to examine critical turning points in that story.” While the selection is inevitably subjective (since it “depends upon what the observer considers to be most important”), it can “bring some order into a massively complicated subject” while still allowing us “to linger over specific moments so as to display the humanity, the complexity, and the uncertainties that constitute the actual history of the church….” (Noll, Turning Points, 2nd ed., p. 12).

Given that this book arrived in the aftermath of a presidential election that revived both external interest in evangelicalism and internal division within that movement (if it is a movement), I couldn’t help but wonder if these historians would view 2016 as a potential turning point. Apparently, Laura Porter was thinking along similar lines, as she concluded a post for their publisher’s blog:

No doubt some future historians, looking back on what came “after” the 2016 presidential election, will have ample reason to distinguish it as a key moment in American evangelical history. For the present, however, this book aims to provide readers with much of the “before”—and in so doing, to complicate ahistorical depictions of evangelicals propagated in contemporary culture, as well as introduce inquiring evangelicals to some of their own religious history.

Fair enough. But so that I don’t need to stifle my curiosity completely until the second edition… I’m glad that Laura and Heath also posed the question to some of their contributors, as shared by Justin Taylor at the Evangelical History blog.

Grant Wacker was most wary:

…historians should resist the temptation to predict the future, since they are no better at it than anyone else, and resist the urge to analyze the present, since their prejudices come into play as much as anyone else, and focus on doing what they are trained to do: analyze and interpret the past, a task at which they are becoming more competent and more astute with each new generation of (increasingly) amazing graduate students.

Carter & Porter (eds.), Turning Points in the History of American EvangelicalismBut then he had already stressed that “Historians like to debunk the notion of turning points, partly because history never feels like history when you are in the midst of it, and partly because every new dissertation requires it in order to have a new subject to work on.” (Unfortunately, there’s no reply from Wacker to the post’s titular question: “What would Jonathan Edwards have thought of Billy Graham’s revivals?” But read his chapter on the 1949 revival in Los Angeles — or his acclaimed biography of Graham.)

Martin Marty, author of the book’s afterword, was less cautious in his reply:

Yes, we could call this a turning point within a cultural schism. Mainstream evangelicals were embarrassed by Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and the other show-biz evangelical leaders, but across the board they were seen as strange excrescences, but still “some of us.” The total sell out by Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, and others to the man who shall not be named, was strictly a political move which ran counter to everything that historic or revised modern evangelicalism stood for theologically, and which ecclesiastically portends an enduring breach. The main critics of the sell-outs are responsible evangelicals who don’t need the Christian Left or secularists to point out the hypocrisy of evangelical support for Trump.

Likewise, Luke Harlow (author of a chapter on the Civil War) responded that the 2016 election “seems to suggest the pendulum has swung completely to cultural captivity, and white nationalism at that,” with progressive forces potentially “written out of evangelicalism.”

Read the full post here, and buy the book here.