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Book Explains Conflicts in the American Evangelical Church

April 4, 2014

Molly Worthen (BA 2003, Ph.D. 2011, Religious Studies), assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recently published her second book,Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism (Oxford 2013).

Worthen explains in the book that evangelicalism is a diverse community ranging from pacifist Mennonites to tongues-speaking Pentecostals. They may share faith in Christ, but they have often disagreed about almost everything else, including the consequences of theology for politics.

Worthen traces the efforts of evangelical scholars and activists to rehabilitate the intellectual reputation of their faith and engage mainstream society by founding new schools and magazines, by transforming their approach to missions, and by selectively borrowing from secular liberal culture in order to win that culture for Christ. She argues that evangelicals have never had a single authority to guide them or settle the question of what the Bible means. In the years after World War II, a small group of theologians and evangelists popularized a “Christian worldview” based on the conviction that the Bible is wholly inerrant, as trustworthy as a science textbook.

But not all evangelical activists believed that a Christian worldview required conservative politics. The culture wars of the late 20th century emerged not only from the struggle between religious conservatives and secular liberals, but also from the civil war within evangelicalism itself – a battle over how to uphold the conflicting commands of both faith and reason in order to lead the nation back onto the path of righteousness.

Mark Noll, author of America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln and professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, says “Apostles of Reason brings a new level of sophistication, as well as sparkling prose, to the study of modern American evangelicals. A combination of empathetic understanding and critical acumen makes this an unusually humane, as well as unusually insightful, book.”

Daniel Walker Howe, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848, writes that “Molly Worthen’s account of the evangelical imagination across the past 70 years is both sympathetic and critical. She captures the diversity of American evangelicals, their hopes and anxieties, and the nuances of their strategies for cultural influence.”

Ambitious in its analytical breadth, at once incisive and playful in presentation, and utterly convincing, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason is first-rate in every sense. This is a path-breaking book about a quintessentially modern movement,” says Washington University Professor Darren Dochuk, author of From Bible Belt to Sunbelt.

Worthen is also the author of The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost: The Grand Strategy of Charles Hill (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). As a freshman, she found herself fascinated by Hill, who is the Brady-Johnson Distinguished Fellow in Grand Strategy at Yale and a former diplomat who shaped American foreign policy inhis 40-year career as an adviser to Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and others. The book is both the biography of a political insider and the story of how its author evolved as she wrote it. Worthen is a regular contributor to The New York Times, Slate,Christianity Today, and other publications.

Her dissertation, titled “Unlike a Mighty Army: Anxiety and Authority in American Evangelicalism,” advised by Jon Butler, Beverly Gage, and Harry Stout, won the Theron Rockwell Field Prize at the May 2011 Commencement. After a year teaching at the University of Toronto, she and her husband Michael Morgan (Ph.D. 2010, History) came to Chapel Hill in 2012, where Worthen teaches classes on global Christianity and North American politics and culture, and Morgan teaches the history of international relations and human rights. “We miss the friends, colleagues, and pizza in New Haven, but we don’t miss the snow!” Worthen said.