Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham.By D. G. Hart. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004. 224 pp. Paper, $24.99.
Hart has captured in this book the essence of evangelicalism from around 1942 to date. His assessment is powerful and, in this reviewer’s opinion, right on the mark.
Hart shows how the term evangelicalism developed and what it means. He demonstrates that to be an evangelical means almost nothing in terms of what one believes (e.g., p. 125). For a time it meant that you believed in inerrancy, and the trinity. However, today, even those doctrinal distinctives no longer apply. Many who call themselves evangelicals do not believe in either inerrancy or the trinity. And many evangelicals would be horrified if you suggested excluding someone from the fold simply because they believed in limited inerrancy, or modalism (which denies the trinity).
According to Hart, “[Evangelicalism’s] design was to affirm a lowest common denominator set of convictions and practices” (p. 183). “Tolerance and civility” are valued much more in contemporary evangelicalism than zeal for sound doctrine (p. 71). Have you ever noticed that everyone from Roman Catholics to Mormons to Church of Christ to Oneness Pentecostals all claim to be evangelicals? “Scholars were not the only ones to ask whether evangelicalism had any substance beyond vague and warm affirmations about a personal relationship with Jesus” (p. 15).
Seemingly anyone who says he has a personal relationship with Jesus is an evangelical, regardless of what he believes or does not believe. And that is the way many evangelicals evangelize as well. They tell people that if they believe in Jesus then they will gain a personal relationship with Him. Of course, they don’t say that this is an eternally-secure relationship, for most people don’t believe that and hence will not respond well to that message. That isn’t lowest common denominator evangelism.
“If being an evangelical means liking Billy Graham, with a spot in one’s heart reserved for James Dobson and Tim LaHaye, then evangelicalism requires very little from its adherents” (p. 124).
Hart spends a fair amount of time dealing with the influence of Billy Graham on evangelicalism. He writes, “So attractive has Graham been that George M. Marsden has offered a jargon-free definition of evangelicalism: ‘anyone who likes Billy Graham’” (p. 111).
Hart’s critique gets even stronger as he charges, “Like creation after Genesis 1:1, [evangelicalism] was formless and void” (p. 183).
The great number of people in America who call themselves evangelicals is in itself a problem rather than a blessing. Hart notes, “Its breadth has come with the price of shallowness, while its mass appeal has generated slogans more than careful reflection…Religious traditions [doctrinal formulations] are too narrow for evangelical purposes; they are too dogmatic and therefore too confining” (p. 187).
Hart’s solution is simple: let’s drop the name evangelical entirely. He urges a move back to local churches. Many evangelicals today have their primary affiliation not with a local church, but with a major parachurch ministry like those of Graham, Dobson, and LaHaye. “Before evangelicalism, Christians had churches to hear the Word preached, to receive the sacraments, and to hear sound counsel and correction. Without evangelicalism, Protestant Christianity may not be as unified (when has it ever been?), but it will go on. And without the burden of forming a nationally influential coalition, American Protestants in all their Heinz 57 varieties, from Presbyterian to Calvary Chapel, may be even healthier” (p. 191).
I highly recommend this book. It is a warning to JOTGES readers that we not become so enamored by numbers that we seek the lowest common denominator as to what Free Grace means. If we are not careful, doctrinal beliefs will not be important in the Grace movement. Unity will be the thing. But as Hart shows, if movements are not built on sound doctrine, they are formless and void.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society