“The Evangelicals” and the Genealogy of Ideas

Francis Fitzgerald’s new book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America is explicitly an exhaustive history of the “evangelical” movement in the United States, from its earliest manifestations in the first Great Awakening of the 18th century to the present day. It is a story of rise and fall, ebb and flow, of charismatic leaders and thoughtful academics, of politics and class, materialism vs the spiritual life (however that may be defined).

More interesting to me, however, is the insight implied above by putting the term evangelical in quotation marks, for it indicates the shifting definitions of what it means to be evangelical and the way that movements, whether intellectual, religious, political or artistic, develop. I can use a metaphor to express this idea: “the genealogy of ideas.” Like an organism, a movement or ideology is the descendent of a multitude of ancestral ideas or sources, and just as the genetics of an organism are shaped by the epigenetics of its environment, ideologies are shaped by the circumstances of their times.

In the case of evangelicalism, as Fitzgerald’s chronicle demonstrates, the multitude of sources include Wesleyanism, Calvinism, pentacostalism (both lower case and upper case), German higher criticism (more in reaction than acceptance), capitalism, Protestantism in general (especially individual conscience and reading the Bible for oneself), subjectivism, and so forth, mixed together and quoted more or less as the individual leader or thinker is inclined. Not to forget inerrancy, premillennialism, postmillennialism, dispensationalism, etc. Added to the mix more lately are pop culture notions, exemplified by the trend to self-help books in both secular and religious literature, as well as those twins, the prosperity gospel and the law of attraction. Oftentimes, the thinkers themselves have no idea where their ideas originate, have in other words no awareness of the genealogy of those ideas. And when they do, they (like all of us) pick and choose those sources and quotations which are most compatible with their presuppositions. Or their personal frustrations. Or their ambitions. (I may be mostly of peasant heritage, but I would like to point out that one of my ancestors was the bastard son of a 14th century king of France—so the throne is mine!)

Perhaps you’ve seen those television commercials for genealogy services in which (supposed) customers begin by stating that they had always assumed they were German or Hispanic or whatever, only to discover, upon researching their family trees or sending in a DNA sample, that they were really Scottish or a mixture of virtually every race on the planet. Americans especially have mixed ancestries, but even in other countries there are relatively few whose populations are genetically homogenous. Europe, for example, has long been a landscape of migrations, displacements, and mixed heritages (think of the Moorish, Roman, and Germanic influences in Spain, or the Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman influences in Great Britain).

The point is that most of us don’t know whence our many ancestors hail, and likewise most of us don’t know the sources of our most cherished and taken-for-granted ideas and beliefs. Do your ideas about ethics derive from Kant, Nietzsche, Aquinas, Aristotle, Thoreau? Do your ideas of the Self (your Self) derive from Nietzsche, Emerson, Protestantism, St. Paul, capitalism, Freud, or Montaigne? Or all of the above, and more?

The fact is that despite our efforts to construct coherent and definitive “world views” or philosophies, we always end up with a set of ideas that are mongrels, a bit of everything we have read or been taught, 57 varieties and more, and we in our turn will pass on this mixed DNA to future generations. There are, of course, professionals (theologians, philosophers, political scientists) who spend their entire lives attempting to impose coherence on this mess, who attempt to create thoroughbreds out of the chaotic DNA of thought, but their efforts are doomed: some other professional will soon dissect his predecessors’ magna opera and reveal their inherent weaknesses and impurities in order to assure the ascendency of his own new, improved, and purified system. And so on.

But: “When it was announced that the library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy.” (Borges, “The Library of Babel”) But the people soon realized that this infinitude of books was not a blessing but a curse—there was no hope of reading everything, so they turned to rifling through the shelves to find the books that vindicated their presuppositions, though they were nowhere to be found. So the people turned against each other, quarreling, fighting, disputing, and eliminating, in the vain hope that their own answers to the mysteries of the universe would prevail, that their own books would be what everyone read. Hence, censorship, orthodoxy, systematizing, anathemas, excommunications, splinterings. But the infinity of books keeps multiplying.

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