American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving by sociologist Christian Smith tells a very different story about evangelicals from the one most people believe. Most of us know that evangelical churches are growing fast. Many pundits have suggested that evangelicalism is thriving because it's an easy way out of dealing with the complexities of the modern world--it's a place where everyone is pretty much the same: not too well educated, not too upwardly mobile, and more or less frightened of the amorality that's supposedly flourishing in contemporary America. Yet Christian Smith's study, based on thousands of interviews and extensive polling, argues that evangelicalism is growing "very much because of and not in spite of its confrontation with modern pluralism." He disproves the demographic caricature of evangelicals that's been drawn by conventional wisdom, showing evangelicals to be better educated than most of those calling themselves religious liberals, and establishing that their moral concerns are mostly exercised on behalf of others--most evangelicals don't believe they or their families are really threatened by modern life. Therefore, Smith's study proposes that American evangelicals have created a subculture characterized by "both high tension and high integration into mainstream society simultaneously." And as a result, "Contemporary pluralism creates a situation in which evangelicals can perpetually maintain but never resolve their struggle with the non-evangelical world." It's a fascinating idea, and one that should prompt readers to wonder whether evangelicals actually enjoy playing a divinized version of devil's advocate in contemporary American life. --Michael Joseph Gross
From Publishers Weekly
Based on a three-year study of American evangelicals, Smith takes the pulse of contemporary evangelicalism and offers substantial evidence of a strong heartbeat. Detailed descriptions of methodology and sources are included as appendices, but the body of the book is a story woven from interviews. Smith contends that evangelicalism is a resurrection of the "engaged orthodoxy" associated with Protestant theologian and pastor Harold Ockenga in the 1940s. Smith argues that the present strength of evangelicalism can be explained by its adherence to beliefs, the salience and robustness of faith, group participation, commitment to mission and its retention and recruitment of members. Religious communities are strong, he suggests, when they avoid disappearing into the secular mainstream, as Smith believes liberal Protestantism has, or isolating themselves into sheltered communities, as he argues like Protestant fundamentalism has. Evangelicalism is thriving, says Smith, not by being countercultural or by retreating into isolation but by engaging culture at the same time that it constructs, maintains and markets its subcultural identity. Although Smith depends heavily on sociological theory, he makes his case in an accessible and persuasive style that will appeal to a broad audience.
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