Axel R. Schäfer (ed): American Evangelicals and the 1960s

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  • BOOK REVIEW

    Axel R. Schafer (ed): American Evangelicalsand the 1960s

    University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2013, 292 pp

    Paul Matzko

    Received: 27 February 2014 / Accepted: 7 March 2014

    Religious Research Association, Inc. 2014

    Axel Schafer has assembled the essays in American Evangelicals in the 1960s in

    order to put the last nail in the coffin of the backlash thesis. Until the last decade,

    scholars studying modern evangelicalism argued that the New Christian Right rose

    in reaction against the cultural tumult of the 1960s. As society liberalized and

    secularized, their reasoning went, conservative evangelicals responded with a

    countermovement to return America to its founding, Christian principles. Scholars

    rooted about in the 1960s for evidence that the New Christian Right began as a

    backlash against the sexual revolution, desegregation, and the counter-culture.

    Recently, historians like Mark Noll and Grant Wacker have criticized the

    backlash thesis by showing how evangelicals appropriated the rhetoric, symbols,

    and attitudes of the 60 s counter-culture for their own ends. Schafer acknowledges

    the contribution of this literature, calling it adaptationist. Schafer, however,

    believes that the adaptationist approach falls short of the true nuance of how

    evangelicals interacted with the developments of the 1960s. He wants to

    transcend the adaptationist view of a movement whose content is defined by

    its efforts to wrap itself in a modernist cloak (p. 7). To use older language, the New

    Christian Right was both in the 1960s and of the 1960s.

    Space does not permit a detailed summary of each of the twelve essays that

    Schafer marshals in support of his thesis. It begins with an entry from respected

    religious historian Paul S. Boyerperhaps his last work before his death in 2012

    that briefly outlines and critiques the backlash view of the New Christian Right. The

    essays in Part I then focus on how evangelicals interacted with 60 s culture,

    showing the many ways in which they, in the words of Eileen Luhr, sought to

    P. Matzko (&)Department of History, Pennsylvania State University, 108 Weaver Building, University Park,

    PA 16802, USA

    e-mail: paulmatzko@gmail.com

    123

    Rev Relig Res

    DOI 10.1007/s13644-014-0166-1

  • engage withbut also strictly limitthe social, political, and cultural transforma-

    tions of the era (p. 63). Luhrs essay discusses the use of revolutionary rhetoric by

    Christian youth-oriented newspapers and their gradual turn against the Vietnam

    War. Steven Miller explores the complicated reaction of evangelical leaders like

    Billy Graham and Carl Henry to the civil rights movement, favoring racial equality

    while expressing skepticism of the movements call for government action. Daniel

    K. Williams looks at the sexual revolution and how evangelicals responded to it

    with marital sex manuals, an endorsement of birth control, a new emphasis on

    wifely submission, and stronger opposition to abortion. Darren Dochuks essay is

    the odd-ball of the section, but no less interesting for it. He examines the surprising

    ties between evangelical American businessmen, the Canadian oil sands, and the

    evangelical premier of Alberta.

    A notable feature of this collection is its inclusion of essays by five European

    scholars of American evangelicalism. Four of their essays comprise Part II, which is

    dedicated to the relationship between evangelicals and the State. Often, the State

    looms in the background of the American literature on the New Christian Right as

    an ill-defined, somewhat ominous presence; meanwhile evangelical leaders scurry

    about in the foreground trying to dismantle the government. These four essays show

    the nuance in evangelicals relationship to the State, typically welcoming certain

    government programs while simultaneously remaining rhetorically standoffish.

    Axel Schafer details evangelicals growing willingness to take subsidies from the

    government. Emma Long highlights the fact that evangelicals reaction against the

    secularization of the public school system was neither as universal nor as trenchant

    as previously supposed. Similarly, Andrew Preston shows that although a majority

    of evangelicals supported the Vietnam War in its early years, that support waned as

    the war dragged on. Finally, Kendrick Oliver explores how Chuck Colsons

    imprisonment for his role in the Watergate scandal and his subsequent conversion

    convinced him to support liberal reforms for the prison system, not the law-and-

    order policies associated with later conservatives.

    Part III is a hodge-podge in which David Swartz reminds us not to forget about

    the evangelical Left, Hans Krabbendam discusses the boom in evangelical missions

    to Europe following World War II, and Neil Young complicates the relationship

    between evangelicals and Catholics during the 1960s. Youngs essay deserves

    particular praise for teasing out the way in which evangelicals coupled detente

    toward individual Catholics with a continuing distrust of the institutional Catholic

    Church following Vatican II.

    Unfortunately, the whole of the book is not greater than the sum of its parts. Each

    individual essay, including Schafers, bludgeons the backlash thesis, showing that

    evangelicals did not simply react against the cultural and political developments of

    the 1960s. Yet I am not sure that Schafer has gone beyond the adaptationist

    interpretation that he criticized at the outset. For example, we learn that evangelicals

    adapted revolutionary rhetoric to their own ends, began to accept federal largesse,

    and selectively embraced the sexual revolution. These are just a few of the ways that

    evangelicals adapted their behavior and beliefs to better reflect the mood of the

    1960s. As Schafer acknowledges in his introduction, killing off the backlash thesis

    leaves an analytical vacuum that these essays cannot fill, so the book defaults to the

    Rev Relig Res

    123

  • adaptationist perspective. Nevertheless, those with an interest in American religious

    history, the New Christian Right, or modern evangelicalism will learn a great deal

    from this diverse collection of essays.

    Rev Relig Res

    123

    Axel R. Schfer (ed): American Evangelicals and the 1960sUniversity of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2013, 292 pp

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