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Book Review: American Apocalypse

By (December 26, 2014) No Comment

American Apocalypse:amer apoc cover

A History of Modern Evangelism

by Matthew Avery Sutton

The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 2014

When opening American Apocalypse, his prolonged and richly detailed history of American radical evangelism, Washington State University history professor Matthew Avery Sutton puts the apocalypticism of the movement front and center: “Fundamentalists believed that the world was going to end,” he writes. ” Imminently. Violently. Tragically.”

It’s troubling that such an ambitious study should begin with such a willful-looking stumble. The American fundamentalist movement did indeed believe that the world was going to end imminently and violently – but they saw no element of tragedy in the event. Indeed, they eagerly anticipated it and never tired of predicting its advent down to the quarter-hour. On this level, American fundamentalism has the dubious distinction of being the American movement that’s been the most wrong for the longest amount of time.

The movement has many other dubious distinctions, and it doesn’t take long in reading Sutton’s book to realize he has no interest in discussing – or even mentioning – most of them. In part, Sutton wants to re-write the typical narrative of fundamentalism in the 20th Century, in which the movement flourished in the first decade of the century and then stumbled in the aftermath of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” and didn’t revive in the popular imagination until the 1950s. And in this Sutton’s book succeeds (especially it’s densely-researched chapters “American Education on Trial” and “Seeking Salvation with the GOP”); on many aspects of its subject, this book will neatly supplant all the scholarly accounts that have preceded it.

But the precedence comes at a very high price: the author’s account is animated by a credulity that’s either naive or ominously complicit.

About the leaders of the fundamentalist movement, he writes, “They came from every part of the country, north, south, east, and west, and represented all economic classes and levels of education,” but this is promotional material, not sound history: the prominent men he writes about came almost exclusively from the ranks of poor and poorly-educated white Southerners. And he goes on even more fantastically: ” While proponents often identified fundamentalism as the ‘old-time religion’ or as the ‘conservative’ faith, there was very little traditional or conservative about it,” he writes. “That is, fundamentalists were not trying to conserve something from the past but were instead savvy religious innovators.” This is wildly untrue: as Sutton himself tells us, the fundamentalist evangelicals were all premillennarians (they cling to “Victorian thought and language,” William Ward Ayer commented jovially, “God’s people are in the main backward”); they believed in the literal inerrancy of the Bible, which is about as traditional as it’s possible to get. Virtually to a man, they dreamt of a pre-modern world in which women were silent in church, black people were hewers of wood and drawers of water, and all genuine innovators were promptly stoned to death.

Sutton’s book takes readers through an almost complete roster of the most prominent fundamentalist figures of the 20th Century (scandalous figures like Marjoe Gortner or Billie James Hargis or Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard are simply omitted), but it’s not just the roster that’s almost complete, it’s their individual stories. The brief biographies of figures like William Blackstone or Billy Sunday or Mark Matthews reliably drop any mention of racism, sexism, or graft, and worse, the rhetoric of the narrative is consistently weighted in favor of these reptilian frauds, especially against the sensible, liberal Protestants they instinctively saw as their natural enemies. One such, the comparatively enlightened Harry Emerson Fosdick (of Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights), achieved a measure of fame in 1922 with his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” – but Sutton’s shadings nudge the reader to the opposite side of the aisle:

While the liberal-leaning Protestants who called themselves modernists tried to paint fundamentalists as a short-term, wartime aberration, they also knew that it was growing by leaps and bounds. Fundamentalists did not fit the stereotype of disinterested stargazers but represented an active and engaged army of militant believers who threatened progressives’ power and influence. Radical evangelicals aggressively combated liberal trends in Protestant theology that denied the scriptures’ historicity and miracles and that turned the Bible into a book of social ethics rather than a divine, sacred text.

The characterization of men like Fosdick as “disinterested stargazers” is only a bit less scandalous than the contention that such men didn’t consider the Bible a sacred text. In his specific example, Fosdick and his brothers did more work for the poor and disenfranchised of New York than any ten money-bagging fundamentalist tent-revivalists, and in any case, what is such implicit propaganda doing here anyway?

The subtle warpings  of that kind of propaganda are never long absent from this history. It’s Sutton, not any of his subjects, who uses terms like “creeping liberalism,” and it’s Sutton who can be relied upon to soften and cozen when he should be scolding. “Hoping to discredit the power of Protestant liberalism,” he writes, “premillennialists strategically downplayed some of the more controversial aspects of their faith in order to find common ground with other white evangelicals and conservative Protestants.” The more you think about that kind of wording, the more astonishing it gets; there was “lying,” not “downplaying,” and the “more controversial aspects” were things like racism and misogyny. These “controversial aspects” – and the movement’s doggedly backward views on the entire spectrum of rational thought (secular music was hated; novels and dancing and poetry were condemned; any science beyond the axle and yoke was scorned – except, of course, for modern heart surgery and the wide array of modern aphrodisiacs) – eventually drove radical fundamentalists out of the mainstream of American intellectual life, but you’d never see if that way if you read only Sutton’s summary:

Bible study was no longer just the domain of ministers; a new generation of scholars, working in universities, seminaries, and divinity schools, brought new approaches to the classic text. For the most part, the men and women who took an academic approach to the Bible rejected the methodologies and interpretations embraced by the premillennialists. As a result radical evangelicals had to develop their apocalyptic theology outside the traditional bastions of religious and intellectual power.

To clarify: the premillennialists had no “methodology” – for them, the Bible was literally true; they anathematized methodologies in favor of doxologies. The radical evangelicals had to rant their apocalyptic theology (always updated, always wrong) on tree stumps and in the specifically-sculpted madrassas they built with the money they raked in from the credulous. You’re clearly supposed to snicker a bit at the implied elitism of “traditional bastions,” but those “traditional bastions” are otherwise known as “accredited colleges and universities.” This protracted exodus of the radical faithful from the realm of education sometimes elicits refreshingly snappy prose from Sutton:

Many fundamentalists abandoned established universities, seminaries, and divinity schools in in exchange for independent Bible institutes, practically guaranteeing that the faithful would become intellectually isolated. The generation of believers who came of age between the world wars, indoctrinated by monolithic faculties and freed from having to engage with those who disagreed with them, had a difficult time making an intellectually persuasive case to outsiders for the radical evangelical faith. Had Jesus returned as they expected, this would not have been a problem. But he didn’t.

But it doesn’t happen often enough or strongly enough, considering the enormous dark power of his subject. “Fundamentalists’ decision to downplay the importance of education in the context of last-days priorities,” he writes, “left them susceptible to charges of anti-intellectualism, sometimes valid, sometimes not, that dog their descendants to this day.”

This is so permissively mushy as to be actively deceptive: fundamentalists don’t “downplay” the importance of modern education, they actively oppose it, and accusations of this are never invalid. In any town in the American South or West, if there’s a motion put before the school board or city council that strikes against education – a proposal to abolish the teaching of foreign languages, say, or to mandate a daily Christian prayer, or, most likely, to legislate the teaching of Biblical Creationism in science classes – that proposal will always be put forward by evangelical fundamentalists. There will never be an exception. In any election in the South or West, if you find a politician advocating dehumanizing measures – gutting relief to the poor, racially profiling passersby, effectively prohibiting minorities from voting, systematically attacking the rights of women or homosexuals – that politician will always either be an evangelical fundamentalist or else be heavily financed by them. There will never be an exception. If there’s a point to muffling these realities beyond the hope of increasing book-sales in the South and West, I can’t see it.

That suspicion darkens considerably when Sutton actually abandons his duties as a historian and just spouts a party line. The worst incident is, given the American setting of his story, the most fundamental:

[The fundamentalists] believed that at its origins, the United States had been governed by biblical principles and that their mission was to lead it back to its righteous foundations. Billy Graham, who shared their aspirations, masterfully invoked this imagined past. “Our country,” he insisted, “was founded upon a supernaturalistitc concept – a belief in God and a belief in the book we call the Bible … Our forefathers meant that this country was to be established as a Christian nation.” As such, only godly men in tune with God’s plan for the ages should rule it.

This fair and well-put, and any historian is duty-bound to follow it immediately with an assertion of its factual falsehood. It’s perfectly even-handed to describe the lunatic evangelical belief that the United States was “established to be a Christian nation” – but any such even-handed description must then be followed by an explicit clarification of the error of such a belief, a reminder to readers (even evangelical readers) that the Founding Fathers of the United States specifically insisted that it wasn’t a Christian nation, that it wasn’t founded on the supernatural, that the safeguard against such thinking is very clearly written in the First Amendment.

Sutton never says it. Instead, he writes, “Evangelists’ vision of the nation’s history and future resonated with millions of Americans.”

American Apocalypse is smart enough and well-researched enough (and delightfully-illustrated enough) to warrant reading. But to the extent that it’s a protracted brief in favor of the very worst elements of the American emotional makeup, it should be very, very wary reading.