Such is any attempt to talk about the whole of American history without talking about Jonathan Edwards, according to historian George Marsden, author of a one of The Revealer‘s favorite books of 2003, a biography on the 18th-century theologian most famous for his “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon.

Marsden is quoted in a U.S. News and World Report cover story on “The New Evangelicals” by Jay Tolson. Tolson takes a smart approach to his subject — instead of the usual breathless reports of megachurch banality, he turns to the past to explain the present. Whether he wanted to or not, Jonathan Edwards launched the distinctive breed of American evangelicalism, and if it’s growing today — and it is — it’s useful to look back to his ideas to understand why.

The Revealer had the good fortune to be present yesterday at a panel in Key West, sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, featuring Tolson and historian Mark Noll. Noll, who teaches at Wheaton College in Illinois, has probably spent more time reading the documents of American faith than anyone. As Noll told it, evangelicalism has been distinguished from other traditions by a “breathtaking entrepeneurial spirit” ever since itinerant preacher George Whitefield — said to be able to shout so loud he could be heard for a mile — “awoke” the masses during Jonathan Edward’s day. It was this entrepeneurship that led evangelicals to buy radio time where other religious groups settled for freebies, and to launch slick glossy mags where others made due with mimeographed church bulletins.

It may also explain what Tolson, in U.S. News, describes as the misleading impression of a monolothic evangelical movement. Billy Graham, said Noll, was so adept at working the media that he was able to create a “mirage” of a unified army of born again Christians.

In fact, evangelicals may be even more sectarian than other believers. “It’s a common mistake,” writes Tolson, “to reduce evangelicals to their stands on political or social issues” — a point overlooked by the audience of media makhers who asked Noll, an evangelical himself, to say whether the mythical beast “Evangelical” is actually for or against the death penalty, gay marriage, etc.

Noll played along, but a more telling perspective for religion writers, he proposed, was to look at the world (if only for a moment!) through evangelical eyes. This history of evangelical America, he argued, can be seen as that of the tension between the propietary instinct and the sectarian instinct. The former leads evangelicals into attempts to set policy; the latter leads them away from worldly concerns.

Guess which instinct is in the ascendency today?

Tune in tomorrow to find out. More from The Revealer‘s Key West junket — on religion and foreign policy and the culture wars, revisited beachside with a round table (square, actually) of the media elite.