Journalists who covered the 2014 "origins" debate between creationist Ken Ham and evolutionist Bill Nye were able to avail themselves of two ready-made narratives about American evangelicals. One underscored the tensions between traditional evangelical beliefs and those of a modern secular society. The other highlighted evangelicals' presence and participation in American public life. Of course, the Ham–Nye debate offered fuel for both storylines at once.
Among journalists and scholars, the keys to understanding and interpreting evangelicals have long been their distinct theological beliefs and their values-based activism. Even many self-proclaimed evangelicals use these benchmarks to explain ourselves to ourselves. This is why we elevate figures like Billy Graham, a paragon of evangelical belief, and (take your pick) James Dobson or Jim Wallis, who together represent the spectrum of evangelical social action, to typify our movement.
But historian Todd M. Brenneman wonders if the beating heart of evangelical identity lies elsewhere, perhaps most centrally along the aisles of the local LifeWay Christian Store. In Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press), Brenneman shifts the conversation away from beliefs and actions toward feelings. He shows how popular forms of evangelical expression traffic in familial and tender imagery: God as father, people as "little children," and nostalgic longings for home and the traditional middle-class nuclear family.
Brenneman draws compelling links between the worlds of religious consumer goods—from Christian CDs, DVDs, and books to toys, home decor, and devotional art—and ...