Steven Miller teaches history at Webster University and Washington University. This interview is based on his new book, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years (Oxford University Press, May 2014).
JF: What led you to write The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years?
SM: Initially, I saw the need to tie together the dichotomies that tend to segment accounts of recent American evangelical history (right vs. left, politics vs. culture, theology and doctrine vs. everything else). We should not reduce any one of those to the other, of course, but I believe that being sensitive does not mean also having to be self-limiting. This ambition then led me to my ultimate goal: to tell the story of how evangelicalism mattered in recent American history. Doing so required that I write a history of evangelicalism that was not only about evangelicals.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years?
SM: From the “evangelical chic” of the 1970s to the evangelical scare of the 2000s, born-again Christianity was a marker of the times. Sometimes a standard, sometimes a foil—at times, a contributor to the culture wars, at times an antidote to it—evangelicalism held a diffuse but definitive amount of sway in American culture and politics.
JF: Why do we need to read The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years?
SM: The story of evangelical influence is also the story of how Americans chose presidents, praised religion, satirized religion, wielded the labels liberal and conservative, understood the words secular and fundamentalist, and on and on. We cannot grapple with the recent past without coming to terms with the broad nature of this influence. We need to see the connecting threads among the anecdotes. A lot happened between the Jesus Movement and Jimmy Carter, on the one hand, and the emerging church and George W. Bush, on the other. The same goes for The Late Great Planet Earth and Left Behind, not to mention People for the American Way and Barack Obama.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SM: I think back to a high school teacher, Gerald Stump, who introduced me to the idea that to study history is to interpret it. (When sorting through some old files recently, I let out a quick shiver upon seeing that I wrote an essay for Mr. Stump with a title ready-made for a Mel Brooks skit: “The Terror: Advantages and Disadvantages.”) My turn toward American history probably began with a summer course on the Civil Rights Movement that I took at UVA. This got me hooked on the American South, which took me to Billy Graham (my first book), which led me to the broader history of evangelicalism.
JF: What is your next project?
SM: This is quite a moving target, but I will own up to two projects. My most recent idea, which I have just started conceptualizing, is a book tentatively titled A Mennonite History of America. It is a narrative of American myths refracted through a Mennonite lens. What did American history look like from the perspective of a people whose inclination was to be apart from that history, but who so clearly were a part of it? What happened when the Upside-down Kingdom met God’s New Israel? Far afield from religious history, I am also interested in writing about the recent urban renaissance in supposedly declining industrial cities, such as St. Louis (where I live) and Pittsburgh (where I briefly resided). This is another story of myths transformed—from the crabgrass frontier to the urban village.
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