Evangelicalism and Populism

Evangelicalism and populism share deep historical ties. Since its development in the mid-eighteenth century, evangelical Protestantism has maintained—in greater and lesser degrees—a populist mentality, most commonly expressed in the form of antiauthoritarianism, antielitism, egalitarianism, and personal sovereignty.

Evangelicalism persisted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the Second Great Awakening. While the First Great Awakening took place mainly in the confines of Puritan New England, this second wave of evangelical revivalism surfaced mainly along the western frontier and in other rural regions such as Upstate New York. Traveling evangelists—known as circuit riders—held protracted camp meetings where participants often responded to strong condemnatory sermons with equally strong emotional conviction. Similar to much of the scholarship on the First Great Awakening, historians often characterize this reemergence of evangelical fervor in populist terms, emphasizing the period's widespread antielitism and democratic ambiance. In his book The Democratization of American Christianity, Nathan Hatch famously argued that American Christianity transformed into what he terms a “mass enterprise” in the early part of the nineteenth century (1989). He suggested that the antiauthoritarianism of the Revolutionary War, coupled with the emotional revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, produced a new brand of American Christianity that subscribed to populist ideas of egalitarianism and democratic reform. While there are some noticeable shortcomings in his logic—namely that not all evangelicals were as egalitarian as he suggested, especially when it came to issues pertaining to gender and race—Hatch did demonstrate that evangelicalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had populist tendencies that were, in large part, responsible for its growing popularity and gradual formation as a religion that attracted many lower-class, rural Americans.

Evangelicalism emerged yet again in the latter half of the twentieth century as a populist force in American political discourse. Looking to shirk much of their fundamentalist past, many evangelicals during this time sought to recapture the egalitarian and antiauthoritarian sentiments that defined the movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Furthermore, many of these neo-evangelicals were not content with simply criticizing those in power from a distance, as were their fundamentalist predecessors, but desired to be intimately engaged in the political process as a voice for many—though not all—in the lower and middle classes. With the presidential inauguration of Jimmy Carter (1976), an evangelical from rural Georgia, followed by the mobilization of the Moral Majority (1979) by minister Jerry Falwell, evangelical leaders in the late twentieth century began to plant themselves firmly in the political arena as a lobby on behalf of the nonelites who comprised most of their constituency. Today, the “evangelical Right,” with its particular brand of conservative populism, remains a key player in the nation's political and cultural spheres. Yet at the same time, with the publication of recent works such as Michael Lindsay's Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite (2007) and Jeff Sharlet's highly publicized book entitled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (2008), many are beginning to suggest that evangelicalism is transitioning from being a populist to a politically elite religious community.

Jonathan W. Olson

See also: Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Carter, James Earl “Jimmy” (1924–) ; “The Elite” ; Moody, Dwight (1837–1899) ; Palin, Sarah (1964–) ; Socialism, Christian ; Sunday, Billy (1862–1935)


Anderson, Robert Mapes. Vision of the Disinherited: The Making of American Pentecostalism. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979.

Boles, John. The Great Revival: Beginnings of the Bible Belt. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1972.

Hart, D.G. That Old-Time Religion in Modern America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002.

Hatch, Nathan. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Lindsay, Michael. Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Marsden, George. Fundamentalism and American Culture. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Sharlet, Jeff. The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power. New York: Harper, 2008.