One of the more complicated questions that many were asking during Donald Trump’s unlikely charge to the White House is why so many evangelicals seemed to line up behind him. To be sure, there are some important caveats that need to be offered whenever we talk about evangelical support for Trump. The 81% number gets cited a lot, but this leaves out a few key points:
- Evangelical support for Trump during the primaries was not nearly as strong as it would become during the general.
- That 81% number itself needs closer inspection: It’s highly unlikely that, as the reporting often claims, “81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.”
- Finally, there is a significant difference between someone supporting Trump as a genuinely good candidate and someone supporting Trump as a lesser evil than Hillary Clinton.
Those caveats aside, however, the facts remain that evangelicals in the pews were frequently far more enthusiastic about Trump than many evangelical leaders would have liked. What drove that? Well, one increasingly plausible answer is that Trump the businessman appealed to evangelicals because American evangelicalism is deeply shaped by American business. Jerry Falwell Jr. specifically cited Trump’s business experience as a major factor in his decision to support Trump. Timethey considered the made a similar point as kind of evangelical leaders Trump attracted. The Daily Beastalso raised the issue , though in an increasingly uncharitable, rude style that quickly becomes tiresome.
Into this conversation steps Timothy Gloege (pronounced “gleg”), an independent scholar living in Grand Rapids MI and a former student of George Marsden’s at Notre Dame. His new book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism goes some way toward explaining how the grammar and patterns of American business became so enmeshed and formative for American evangelicalism.
DL Moody and the Emergence of Business Thinking in Evangelicalism
Gloege’s story begins with a successful shoe salesman from the northeast who has recently moved to Chicago in the mid 19th century and, following conversion, wishes to become involved in the work of the local church in the rapidly growing American city.
Unfortunately, the churches of Chicago were not ready to work with that young man—who was, of course, DL Moody. These churches were made up of what Gloege calls “churchly conservatives.” The key to understanding this point is that for Gloege there is a second key divide in this era besides what would one day become the fundamentalist and modernist split between “conservatives” and “liberals.” There is also a divide between “churchly” Christians and what would become evangelical Christians. Churchly Christians of the day “assumed that an authentic faith required sincere and active membership in a particular church, and that religious authority, through rooted in the Bible, was exercised by that institution.” (I couldn’t help wondering what Dr. Leeman would make of Gloege as I read this book.)
From that assumption, a few key ideas followed:
- Biblical interpretation “should be governed from the past through theological tradition and in the present by ordained clergy.”
- “The vitality of religious faith was judged primarily in reference to the condition of the institutional church and the community it fostered.
Opposite the churchly Christians, Gloege sets the evangelicals. Quoting Gloege,
“Evangelical Protestants challenged three important aspects of a churchly orientation:
- First, they shifted the primary locus of authentic faith from the communal context of church membership to an individual’s personal relationship with God.
- Second, they rejected the authority of church and tradition. Instead, evangelicals asserted that God’s will was revealed to believers directly. God spoke primarily through a believer’s personal reading of the Bible, but communication might also come through thoughts impressed on the mind, unusual coincidences, and other nonverbal cues. These divine messages might be misinterpreted, they acknowledged. But this potential problem was addressed by a third conviction:
- Authentic faith always produced empirically measurable outcomes. These ‘godly fruits’ were essential to confirming the validity of their faith and the accuracy of their interpretation of God’s revelation. Outcomes could include new converts to the faith, social reform, spiritual renewal, and, for some, even miracles.”
I trust you do not need me to explain why Moody, a successful salesman who was constantly imagining new ways of gaining competitive advantages in the emerging American economy, proved a poor fit within churchly circles but enjoyed almost instant popularity amongst the evangelicals.
The first half of Gloege’s book is largely the story of what happened after Moody became a leader amongst Chicago evangelicals. In the second half, he turns to life after Moody, looking at how the Chicago Bible Institute would become the Moody Bible Institute and go on to inspire the founding of other similar programs, most notably the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, which is more commonly known as Biola. Alongside Moody, Gloege also briefly discusses fundamentalist leader Reuben Torrey, for whom Biola’s Torrey Honors Institute is named.
There are also brief discussions of other notable leaders of the era, including CI Scofield whose reference Bible would go some way toward explaining the plague of dispensationalism that visited the American church for nearly a century. (Gloege also notes that Scofield married a Catholic woman and fathered two children with her prior to his conversion, at which point he abandoned the wife and child, married an evangelical woman, and assumed the pastorate at a major Chicago church.)
Additionally, there is an intriguing discussion of evangelicals and branding as Gloege considers how Henry Crowell, the founder and owner of Quaker Oats, applied the lessons he learned in business to his new job as the leader of the Moody Bible Institute.
The most important point, however, in the second half, is Gloege’s general discussion of how the foundations that Moody helped to pour begin to set with the publication of The Fundamentals. The entire discussion of how The Fundamentals came to exist is fantastic and worth the price of the book alone. Significantly, however, this “setting” is not necessarily along theological lines, but is more about orientation, as Gloege notes throughout the book.
Lessons from “Guaranteed Pure”
For now, I’m going to limit myself to three observations.
Rejecting Churchly Conservatism Led to a Radical Transformation in Theological Method
The rejection of “churchly” conservatism seems to inevitably entail the rejection of creeds and confessions for several different reasons. Since those confessions are endorsed by the mostly unnecessary church institutions, those confessions are, at best, also unnecessary. Further, if the biblical support of those confessions is not apparent to the average lay person, those confessions may even be suspected of teaching some sort of modernism or similarly impure theology.
As a result of this, a great deal of core dogmatic work basically had to be re-done from scratch along the lines of the ethos favored by Gloege’s evangelicals. If this causes your mind to turn back toward the trinitarian debates of last summer, then we’re on the same page. The evangelical turn away from churchly conservatism basically requires a kind of solo (rather than sola) scriptura, which goes some way toward explaining the noticeable gap in methodology between Drs. Ware and Grudem on the revisionist side and folks like Drs. Jones, Trueman, and Goligher on the traditional side. It also, I suspect, explains why Ware, based on comments I heard him make at ETS, seems to genuinely not understand how classical Protestants understand creedal documents, which is rather startling when one considers Ware’s stature within evangelical theology.
Second, the rejection of churchly conservatism leads to major transformations in how Christian community works.
The problem described above has other ramifications as well. It is not simply that the dogmatic work had to be re-done, but that the cultural benefits the creeds give you also had to be gained through some other means. When functioning rightly, the creeds provide a kind of short-hand for establishing group membership via shared belonging in a recognized institution that is defined by the creed. When you lose the creed, you also lose the shorthand and the membership that shorthand helps to create.
This is where the marketing genius of Crowell came into play. When Crowell entered the oatmeal business, oatmeal was sold in bulk out of a barrel in the store. The consumer had no idea where the oatmeal came from so this naturally created significant anxiety for them. How did they know they were getting a good product?
The early answer was something like this: Though they did not know the producer of the product, they knew the store owner they were buying the product from. So if they trusted him, they, by extension, trusted the product.
The store owner, meanwhile, knew the wholesaler who sold them the oatmeal and, presumably, trusted him enough to carry his product. So as the economy grew and the distance between production and consumption grew, Americans essentially filled in the trust gap that this distance created by inventing middlemen called wholesalers to, where have you heard this one before? “stand in the gap.” These wholesalers sold to general store owners who sold to consumers who trusted the store owner not to sell them a bad product.
What Crowell realized is that by pre-packaging his oatmeal, developing a strong brand associated around the iconic quaker and the word “pure,” and promoting that brand wherever possible, he could cut out the middleman. The brand, packaging, and promotion came together to fill the trust gap that had been created by the growing distance between producer and consumer.
Under Crowell’s guidance, Moody basically pursued the same strategy in building trust with their network of donors, students, alumni, and other supporters. By emphasizing the purity of the school’s theology, which meant basically that the theology was “biblical” Crowell and other similarly minded folks could establish trust and camaraderie across a large movement of people who were all Christian but did not have any shared local church membership or commitments.
Finally, the center of this brand of evangelicalism is not theology per se but a certain kind of ethos that is highly responsive to consumer demand, marketplace norms, and other empirical factors.
This is the point that Gloege drives home in his discussion of The Fundamentals. The project, which was developed by a team of businessmen with ties to various Bible institutes, had different goals depending on which member of the team you spoke to.
For the Chicago constituency who valued respectability, The Fundamentals was going to be how early 20th century evangelicals regained respectability in the eyes of their peers, the few remaining churchly conservatives most notably. Thus it was necessary to recruit scholars like B.B. Warfield and H.C.G. Moule to write for them, as they did for the first volume.
For the Los Angeles constituency, on the other hand, the goal was to expose the many dangerous brands of false teaching on parade throughout the United States. Led by an oilman who had made his fortune in a more volatile, high-risk industry than MBI’s Crowell, the Los Angeles members of the project routinely pushed it into more crankish directions, wanting to insist more vehemently on pre-millennialism or to publish an expose on secret societies.
For both groups, however, the questions were not the same as those that traditionally govern the writing of creedal documents. The Chicago school was deeply concerned about classical marketing questions, such as branding and respectability. The Los Angeles school was concerned with a more political sort of approach, highlighting dangerous groups within the American church. In both cases, the work is being shaped on a fundamental level by what are basically marketplace factors.
What this suggests, and I think the years of evangelical history between The Fundamentals and today bear this out, is that this kind of evangelicalism, much like the liberal democratic order that helps to create it, is defined more by a gathering up and releasing of energy outward than it is by any kind of singular core set of beliefs that are permanent and unyielding. Shaped as it is by business, evangelicalism is very good at accumulating wealth and energy and far less adept at stewarding that wealth and energy toward sustainable goals that promote Christian society.
This is why the blowups that evangelicalism has over theological matters are often not small blowups: This summer’s trinitarian fight is obviously a perfect example of this problem, but I think the controversy surrounding open theism back in the early 2000s would also fit here. The truth is American evangelicalism as a movement does not have the means to define boundaries because it was never meant to be that kind of movement. Thus we inevitably fall into these fiercely fought battles over major theological topics because we lack the means to adjudicate those debates in any kind of agreed upon way.
To draw this back to the question of evangelicalism and Trump, it seems quite clear to me now, having read Gloege, that a certain, higher-than-expected level of evangelical support for Trump is actually not that surprising. Trump’s candidacy was to the political establishment what the late 19th- and early 20th-century evangelicals were to the religious establishment. The suspicion of received norms and the breakdown of traditional forms of social membership are assumed by both Trump’s candidacy and the emergence of the evangelicals of Moody and Crowell’s era. So, given that, it really is not that surprising that many evangelicals would support Trump.
What do we do about all this? Well, it seems clear to me at least that the late 19th century crisis with modernity was not confined only to the mainline denominations. A different kind of modernity crisis also affected evangelicalism as the evangelicals of that era embraced a form of faith that was excessively confident in the ability of individuals to understand all of Scripture rightly, even with minimal training. A second concern is that this sort of evangelicalism seems to inevitably lead to an anti-intellectualism that tends to run alongside a deep aversion to historical study.
The answer, however, cannot be to simply return to churchly conservatism. In the first place, I’m not sure such a thing exists. In the second place, I still worry that those who do argue for such a return (which I think Dr. Leeman seems to be doing) are a bit naive about the potential for serious abuse by church institutions. Finally, whether we like it or not, the institutions that explain and ground churchly conservatism as an ethos are all dead—that’s what the mainline denominations used to be. And by its very nature, the sort of institutions necessary to sustain churchly conservatism cannot be made over night. Rather, they must be developed slowly by people who recognize the goods to be gained from a churchly orientation but who also possess the resources and wisdom needed to do without it while the institutions necessary for such an orientation are rebuilt and, hopefully, built in such a way that avoids some of the obvious pits that helped to lead people away from churchly Christianity in the first place.