I recently reviewed Timothy Gloege's very fine book Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism for Christianity Today. (You can find that review here.) I'm still thinking, though, about a framing move Gloege makes in his introduction that could be useful for scholars writing on a variety of topics. Gloege writes on p. 13,
There are several things I really like about this reframing and a few I'm not so sure about.
First, I completely agree that individualism is central to evangelicalism, while a specifically churchly communalism is central to liberal, mainline, or whatever label you want to use to describe non-evangelical and non-Pentecostal white Protestantism. As Randall Stephens pointed out earlier this week, for evangelicals, sin is a personal problem to be addressed one heart at a time. In Gloege's book, this individualism relates to consumer behavior, the sovereign shopper's ability to choose the religion (or, for reasons that will become clear if you read the book, the oatmeal) she deems most suitable for her needs. Evangelical ecclesiology tends to the atomized, "wherever two or three are gathered" approach. Individualism of the Sheilaism sort aligns with liberal religion, but not with liberal Protestantism, which attends fastidiously to church polity. All of this explains why headlines are apt to feature evangelical personalities but liberal/mainline institutions.
I'm also totally on board with Gloege's assertion that a subset of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants claiming the "conservative" mantle constituted a rhetorical coup. There were, and are, lots of conservatives in the churchly world, but they disappear in the common evangelical/liberal dichotomy. Additionally, the "conservative" label obscured the remarkable inventiveness of fundamentalists and their neo-evangelical heirs. These Protestants eagerly grasped technology and principles of business organization. They swooned over modern quantification. (For more on this topic, see B.M. Pietsch's hot-off-the-press Dispensational Modernism.) And they developed a knack for advancing new theological interpretations that they billed as timeless truths.
Take biblical creation as an example. I was shocked to learn, in a graduate seminar, that the textual notes in the 1917 Scofield Reference Bible were pretty vague on the timing of God's creation. Each "day" of Genesis 1-2 might have been a solar day, the notes claimed, or it might have been a longer period of time. Yet during my freshman year at Wheaton College, the entire faculty was told by the president to affirm the "biblical" teaching of seven-day creation or seek employment elsewhere. (The faculty successfully fought this injunction, and I got a crash course in the politics of both evangelicalism and higher ed.) The novelty of seven-day creation was likely raised by faculty members, but I remained unaware of it until that grad seminar.
Despite my own experience, I'm not sure I buy Gloege's dismissal of the attitude toward tradition as a sorting mechanism for Protestants. I think I see this matter differently because he and I studied different early twentieth-century Protestants. His guys claimed to be old-fashioned while they were actually being quite innovative. My guys at the Christian Century claimed to be progressive, historically conscious, and open to new revelations, and they generally were, though the churchliness of their milieu slowed them down considerably. Perhaps, in terms of openness to change over time, "conservative" Protestants weren't genuinely conservative, but "liberal" Protestants were genuinely liberal.
Or perhaps it depends on what change, specifically, you're talking about. Some components of conservative evangelicals' old-time religion were new (notably, dispensationalism), some had a long pedigree as at least a minority view within Christianity (for example, penal substitution as the theology of atonement), and some were verifiably ancient (for example, belief in miracles). Self-styled liberal Protestants rejected dispensationalism, substitutionary atonement, miracles, and much else that mattered not just to twentieth-century conservative evangelicals but to eighteenth-century evangelicals and sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers and plenty of Christians before them. Attitude toward tradition might have been, as Gloege argues, logically and practically independent from individual vs. communal orientation, but it was an important disagreement among early twentieth-century Protestants, and it did in many ways separate those commonly called conservatives from those commonly called liberals.
Even though I'm not 100% convinced by it, I think Gloege's unbundling of often-fused concepts could be useful in areas other than early twentieth-century Protestantism. Goodness knows that "liberal" and "conservative" camps pop up all over, and it would be helpful to ask in these instances, Is it really attitude toward tradition that divides these folks? Which traditions? Might something else describe their differences better? What novelties lurk beneath the "conservative" label, and what continuities provide ballast for the "liberals"? I'm generally not a fan of ditching familiar terms and categories, especially when those terms and categories appear in the relevant primary sources, but we all do well not to take them at face value--particularly, as in Gloege's study, when the terms are wielded by astonishingly successful marketers.