Review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

Worthen, Molly. 2014. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press.

Worthen, Molly. 2014. Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. Oxford University Press.

The role of ideas for collective action has long been regarded as central to the study of social movements. However, the focus fluctuates between implicit and explicit discussions. This vacillation is complicated by the fact that, at times, ideology has been perceived as a derogatory component only advanced by religious, social, or political extremists (Oliver and Johnston 2000; Kniss and Burns 2004). Too often, when scholars attempt to distinguish the role ideology plays in movement mobilization and potentially factionalism, it gets reduced to artificially simple and coherent sets of ideas that necessarily unite members. Yet, ideologies center on cognitive, emotional, and morally charged experiences for individuals and groups as they are localized and constructed in response to varied knowledge and conditions; it’s the very stuff that we have stakes in for understanding any social movement (Williams and Platt 2002). In light of this, then, ideological production and negotiation are vital to examine, as they point to how movements choose among alternative courses of action.

Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism by Molly Worthen takes up a history of ideas and institutions that undergird the twentieth century evangelical movement in the United States. Tracing the core act of ideas and thinking—judgment, reasoning, making connections—Worthen elaborates upon the evangelical “imagination” challenging readers to not just view it as a singular mindset. This imagination rests upon internal struggles over the “crisis of authority” which is bound up in three questions that have long united but complicated the movement: “how to reconcile faith and reason; how to know Jesus; and how to act publicly on faith after the rupture of Christendom” (p. 6). With the Puritan task of closely reading the Bible and movement elites captivation with the Enlightenment, evangelicals have a long history of wrestling with these questions. But, what’s most interesting to us as movement scholars is how ideas shape involvement in the public state of affairs.

In this tour-de-force, Worthen shatters common misconceptions of when the movement began to influence mainstream institutions, political and otherwise, which took place well before the 1970s rise of the Moral Majority. Instead, Worthen hones in on the role of elites battling it out over beliefs, ideas, and strategies for how to approach the broader public. A notoriously difficult movement to define, given the conceptually slippery and historically diverse community of believers, Worthen situates the term “evangelical” in a historical grounding rather than one defined solely by theology or political orientation. In doing so, she is positioned to better assess the core puzzle of the book: how does a group that has long questioned the secular imperative of mainstream institutions simultaneously, and indefatigably for that matter, demand a seat at the table in these very institutions? Worthen argues the answer to this paradox can be found in studying elites of the movement:

The evolution of the evangelical community—and whether, and why, it might be called anti-intellectual—is best traced through the lives of elites: the preachers, teachers, writers, and institution-builders in the business of creating and disseminating ideas. When critics describe evangelicalism as anti-intellectual, usually they are not blaming ordinary laypeople…When critics condemn the ‘evangelical mind,’ they are talking about the people who ought to know better, who bear some responsibility for the Darwin-bashing and history bashing that pollsters hear when they survey evangelical America. They are comparing evangelical elites with the nonevangelical intelligentsia. They are asking how it can be that college professors believe in creationism, or that educated activists deny evidence of global warming. They are wondering how evangelicals define the purpose of higher education (for which they have long shown great zeal) when they so regularly demean the fruits of critical inquiry, and how they can reconcile their fervor for evangelicalism with American pluralism (9-10).

Here, Worthen pins down the answer to the paradox. Wrestling with the crisis of authority, nonetheless, the movement steadily continued to build colleges, publishing houses, and other sites for like-minded individuals. In turn, gradually but efficaciously, they moved their central sociocultural concerns and political aspirations to a more prominent position within the broader public discourse. As she notes, “Conservative evangelicals are not holed away in a cloistered subculture. They are embedded in and shaping the policies of mainstream institutions ranging from local school boards to Walmart. The sheer number of Americans who identity as evangelical Protestant—some 80 million, or 26.3 percent of the population, according to a recent Pew survey—makes it difficult to dismiss their cultural clout” (p. 260). In the end, Worthen’s analysis is as much about elites of the movement and their ideas as it is about a social movement’s institution-building. Divided into three chronological sections, she relies on a breathtaking number of archival resources including church records, university collections, and Protestant media sources to capture the dizzying nuances of the movement throughout the twentieth century.

In the end, one can approach the book in two ways: First, given its accessible prose and Worthen’s deft skill in constructing a narrative structure that engrosses even the most distracted reader, it’s plainly a good read. Second, Worthen proves to be a historian for sociologists. Her careful attention to detail is not at the expense of an interesting puzzle, compelling use of empirical data, and navigable book structure such that one could easily read the introduction and the conclusion and understand the central arguments of the book—but I suspect be enticed to read more. For those seeking to give their eyes a rest, an interview with the author on the book is available through the New Books in Intellectual History podcast. Highly recommended.


Kniss, Fred and Gene Burns. 2004. “Religious Movements.” Pp. 694-715 in The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements, edited by D. A. Snow, S, A. Soule, and H. Kriesi. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Oliver, Pamela E and Hank Johnston. 2000. “What a Good Idea! Ideologies and Frames in Social Movement Research.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 5:37-54.

Platt, Gerald M. and Rhys H. Williams. 2002. “Ideological Language and Social Movement Mobilization: A Sociolinguistic Analysis of Segregationists’ Ideologies.” Sociological Theory 20:328-359.


1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Great Books for Summer Reading

One response to “Review of Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism

  1. Pingback: Great Books for Summer Reading, 2014 | Mobilizing Ideas

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