A nice short (115 text pages!) history of Evangelicalism in America, from the First Great Awakening to the present day. Barnard professor Balmer gives an historian's perspective on different aspects of the Evangelical movement in our national life without placing undue emphasis on the personalities behind the scenes. At the heart of his discussion is the exploration of several key ironies. First, he marvels at the fact that Americans take their religion so seriously (compared to people from other industrialized societies). It is ironic that it is in the United States, with its Constitutional imperative to keep church and state separate, that religious expression is so vibrant, various, and abiding. He attributes the freedom of religion (and the absence of direct governmental support though taxation) as being key to the ability of native-born religions to prosper and grow exponentially. He also finds it ironic that the Fundamentalists who decry scientific modernism in every form have so willingly embraced the new technologies: radio, technology, and the Internet. Another irony he looks at is the current-day Evangelical rejection of feminism. Women are sidelined within Evangelicalism and assigned the sentimentalized role of guardians of morality. This is ironic in light of the important leadership roles women held in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century church-based reform movements.
This book is more handy than it is comprehensive (the endnotes direct the reader to some promising articles and books, but Balmer does not provide even a short bibliography). This book probably won't be very satisfying to serious students of American religion looking for a good introduction to the subject; but the average reader who is curious about religion and public life will find it informative. Don't skip the last chapter, "Vocabulary of Evangelicalism", in which Balmer defines the Evangelical subcategories: Fundamentalism, the Holiness Movement, Pentecostalism, and the Charismatic Movement.
After reading this book in one sitting, I am still unclear about its purpose. Readers expecting an historical overview will quickly become mired in long discussions about colonial ethnic politics. Readers expecting more penetrating scholarship will be put off by such gloss-overs as when Balmer writes the socially complex Salem Witch Trials off with a single word: 'misogyny' or when he repeatedly asserts that contemporary hymns inherit significant sexual imagery from the pietistic tradition but never presents an argument to support this assertion. The final two chapters strike me as thinly veiled assaults on Promise Keepers and the Christian Coalition. Justified or not, these attacks take the book out of the realm of history and into the realm of socio-political commentary, thus adding to my confusion about its ultimate purpose.
Balmer does have some interesting things to say, particularly about how American individualism and anti-institutionalism affect American politics and religion. Despite its apparent lack of focus, I enjoyed reading the book and found some useful nuggets related to my current academic project. Students of history, sociology, or religion may find the end-notes a good starting point for more serious study. Those looking for an overview (as the sub-title suggests) should look elsewhere.