Christianity’s American Fate?

I have to confess the publisher’s description of a new book from Princeton on American Christianity lost me at the get-go. “How did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism,” the blurb for Christianity’s American Fate by Berkeley historian David Hollinger earnestly asks? I guess such a framing attracts an academic audience, always on the lookout for reassurance about its priors. But it’s misleading. First, of course, American Christianity comprises a lot more than Evangelicals. Second, although the majority of American Evangelicals are white, the most interesting fact about them is that they are becoming much less so over time. A PRRI study a few years ago revealed that one third of Evangelicals are members of racial and ethnic minorities. Among younger Evangelicals, the transformation is even more pronounced. About half of Evangelicals below the age of 30 are minorities. “PRRI found that ’22 percent of young evangelical Protestants are Black, 18 percent are Hispanic, and 9 percent identify as some other race or mixed race.'” The short answer to the question, how did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism is, it’s not.

Readers of the book can judge for themselves. The publisher’s full description follows:

How did American Christianity become synonymous with conservative white evangelicalism? This sweeping work by a leading historian of modern America traces the rise of the evangelical movement and the decline of mainline Protestantism’s influence on American life. In Christianity’s American Fate, David Hollinger shows how the Protestant establishment, adopting progressive ideas about race, gender, sexuality, empire, and divinity, liberalized too quickly for some and not quickly enough for others. After 1960, mainline Protestantism lost members from both camps—conservatives to evangelicalism and progressives to secular activism. A Protestant evangelicalism that was comfortable with patriarchy and white supremacy soon became the country’s dominant Christian cultural force.

Hollinger explains the origins of what he calls Protestantism’s “two-party system” in the United States, finding its roots in America’s religious culture of dissent, as established by seventeenth-century colonists who broke away from Europe’s religious traditions; the constitutional separation of church and state, which enabled religious diversity; and the constant influx of immigrants, who found solidarity in churches. Hollinger argues that the United States became not only overwhelmingly Protestant but Protestant on steroids. By the 1960s, Jews and other non-Christians had diversified the nation ethnoreligiously, inspiring more inclusive notions of community. But by embracing a socially diverse and scientifically engaged modernity, Hollinger tells us, ecumenical Protestants also set the terms by which evangelicals became reactionary.