The Evangelical Crackup

Great article in the Sunday New York Times on the swing of the political pendulum in Christianity, The Evangelical Crackup.

…So when Fox [Terry Fox of “Operation Rescue” fame] announced to his flock one Sunday in August last year that it was his final appearance in the pulpit, the news startled evangelical activists from Atlanta to Grand Rapids. Fox told the congregation that he was quitting so he could work full time on “cultural issues.” Within days, The Wichita Eagle reported that Fox left under pressure. The board of deacons had told him that his activism was getting in the way of the Gospel. “It just wasn’t pertinent,” Associate Pastor Gayle Tenbrook later told me.

Fox, who is 47, said he saw some impatient shuffling in the pews, but he was stunned that the church’s lay leaders had turned on him. “They said they were tired of hearing about abortion 52 weeks a year, hearing about all this political stuff!” he told me on a recent Sunday afternoon. “And these were deacons of the church!”

These days, Fox has taken his fire and brimstone in search of a new pulpit. He rented space at the Johnny Western Theater at the Wild West World amusement park until it folded. Now he preaches at a Best Western hotel. “I don’t mind telling you that I paid a price for the political stands I took,” Fox said. “The pendulum in the Christian world has swung back to the moderate point of view. The real battle now is among evangelicals.”

The older leadership is dying off. Jerry Falwell died last spring, and James Dobson, 71, is planning his succession.

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated [mega-church] preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

The backlash on the right against Bush and the war has emboldened some previously circumspect evangelical leaders to criticize the leadership of the Christian conservative political movement. “The quickness to arms, the quickness to invade, I think that caused a kind of desertion of what has been known as the Christian right,” Hybels, whose Willow Creek Association now includes 12,000 churches, told me over the summer. “People who might be called progressive evangelicals or centrist evangelicals are one stirring away from a real awakening.”

“There was a time when evangelical churches were becoming largely and almost exclusively the Republican Party at prayer,” said Marvin Olasky, the editor of the evangelical magazine World and an informal adviser to George W. Bush when he was governor. “To some extent — we have to see how much — the Republicans have blown it. That opportunity to lock up that constituency has vanished. The ball now really is in the Democrats’ court.”

See also Sara Robinson, in Roosting Chickens, Part II:

I’ve been saying for a while now that the religious right in America finally and firmly jumped the shark over the past few years. But now that that big ol’ shark’s behind them, there’s another bunch of critters looming ahead that may prove to be even more damning. It’s that whole big flock of chickens that are finally coming home to roost.

I don’t know how long they thought they were going to go on that way, all self-righteous and judgmental, blaming homosexuals and feminists for everything from 9/11 to the price of gas, ignoring the interests of the poor in favor of those of big business, and dismissing any kind of environmental stewardship as nothing more than a way to waste time until the Rapture comes. Clearly, they didn’t see anything at all wrong with elevating the most spiteful and amoral among them as their national spokespeople, and rewarding them in direct proportion to the heat of their rhetoric. No, these folks were on fire (we’re still not sure if it was Jesus or heartburn), and they weren’t afraid to let their bilious light shine on the TV, in the streets, all the way to the White House. They did their best to set it high above the rest of the culture, where none of the rest of us could miss it if we wanted to.

And now, a new study reveals that young Americans, both inside and outside Christianity, have indeed taken note of this righteous spectacle– and a large and growing majority of them are absolutely revolted by what they’ve seen.

A study released last week by the Barna Group, a reputable Evangelical research and polling firm, found that under-30s — both Christian and non-Christian — are strikingly more critical of Christianity than their peers were just a decade ago…

One of the things that’s always annoyed me is the tendency of liberal politicians to play the right’s game. Nowhere is this more evident than in professings of faith. Even if the politician is something other than Christian (let’s be hypothetical now), there is plenty of support for leftish positions in the gospels. And yet I have yet to hear a full throated defense of liberalism based solidly, and easily on the words of Christ. Do that, and we snatch and run away with the ball that Olasky and Barna say is now rolling into the Democrats’ court.

Update: Tristero isn’t buying it:

Seems like everyone’s predicting the imminent implosion of modern christianism. And yes, it does look that way, doesn’t it? Despite the wide variety of clinical-level personality disorders on display amongst the current Republican candidates, the so-called “religious” right can’t find the particular flavor of lunacy that makes them get all hard. Call it electile dysfunction. As it happens Rich’s point is underlined by a simultaneous article in the Sunday Times on the same subject.

I truly wish this were so, that we didn’t have to worry about the theocrats amongst us. But I don’t believe it for a second…

16 thoughts on “The Evangelical Crackup

  1. Precisely. The Democratic Party’s agenda of social and economic justice is far closer to what Jesus actually preached than the raging fury against homosexuality and abortion (and darker-skinned people) that has been the staple of the Republican party. Democratic candidates who let this go unmentioned are leaving money on the table.

  2. there is plenty of support for leftish positions in the gospels.

    I don’t believe I am overstating the case to say that U.S.-style progressivism itself was born of the Christian Social Gospel movement of the late 19th century. Certainly the Social Gospel and the progressive movement of a century ago were very closely linked.

  3. Just a little international tidbit: Tommy Douglas–the man who brought universal health care to Canada and who Canadians voted the greatest Canadian ever in a recent poll–was a Baptist minister before becoming a politician.

    I am not for mixing faith and politics. And it makes me sick to see Hilary, Obama and company falling over each other in professing their deep faith but it does seem to me that Jesus’s teachings were the polar opposite of what the American right professes. I don’t think Jesus would have checked anyone’s bank balance to make sure they were truly deserving of his help before healing or feeding them…

  4. My finest hour as a Wichitan, I think, was getting to call Terry Fox–to his fat, red face–a demagogue, during a public forum on the Kansas Marriage Amendment that was held at Wichita State.

  5. …David Kirkpatrick’s article was supurb (just read it on-line this morning) and actually informs the foundation of the Barna Group study findings. It isn’t the core tenets of Christianity that have been at issue, it is the obsession, hypocrisy, and power-hunger of the leaders of the religious right that have led to the critical view by younger people as well as the decline of demagogues such as Terry Fox, Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson…

    …they will always have their core supporters – because those folks have always been out there – but it is becoming increasingly understandable to ‘the Christian community’ (whatever that is) that their Gospel connection is more with the Pharisee’s than with any of Christ’s teachings…

  6. I had long arguments with a capable debater on another board who cited pew research polls (exit polls in which voters were asked whether values were important in their vote). I maintained that when the question was put to them in the way it was who would not say that values did not play a major role. I’d maintained that this was a transient phenomenon and that the underlying class struggles would long outlive the little fundamentalist blip in US history.

    Anyone missed the fissures in Christianity over the last several years has been…been…watching Fox. The Methodist church, of which Bush is a member, passed a series of resolutions including one that Souther Methodist University would not house Bush’s library. Media joined in and overlooked very important signs that the religious right did not exclusively represent, the religious.

    Now, I am hoping we can get back to our class struggle…things like healthcare and the like. It’s about time and we should not forget those in media who aided and abetted this distracting scam regarding religion.

  7. The Revealer critiques the Times articles (an interesting read), but to some extent they’re talking past one another. Times is more about the crackup of the evangelical political movement, and the Revealer about the continued strength (and conservatism) of the evangelical demographic.

  8. Just a little international tidbit: Tommy Douglas–the man who brought universal health care to Canada and who Canadians voted the greatest Canadian ever in a recent poll–was a Baptist minister before becoming a politician.

    Thanks for the tidbit on Tommy Douglas – I believe he was mentioned in “Sicko” but, unless I was distracted by my popcorn, Moore never explained who he was.

  9. A couple of years ago I picked up a paperback entitled something like, Protestant Religion in America. As I read the Evangelical and Fundamentalist sections I was amazed at how right-on it described the behaviors of the day from Falwell, et al. When I looked at the copyright date it was 1922.

    I am trained in a particular systems theory pertaining to group process and one of the theoretical organizing principles is that the more one increases the driving forces (take your right fist and push as hard as you can against your left fist pushing back as hard as it can right in front of your sternum–what happens?) the more the system reacts to maintain homeostasis and generates restraining forces of equal force whenever possible.

    System goals are more likely achieved when restraining forces are reduced not when driving forces are doubled or tripled. This is true in personal behavior, church groups, personnel management, national government functions, and especially in national religious and political movements.

    So now that the religious right has thoroughly activated the system components that are holding the diametrical differences to push back the religio-political system is moving back to balance. And the bulldozer types (with their great schemes of driving forces) will pull into their subsystems and make with the rancor and paranoia while the rest of us will try to do more to reduce restraining forces and achieve something functional.

    And so it will likely go until the system gets out of balance again and around and around we will go in a well worn groove.

  10. Went to the local evangelical Megachurch yesterday, they have their annual Missions Week. The theme was ‘Taking it to the Streets’. The speaker for the week, an AFrican American who lives in south-central LA and believes the church needs to work toward social justice. I sat slack-jawed most of the morning. The verse for the week, I’m gonna get this wrong I know but “embrace justice, love mercy and walk humbly before your God”. I told my wife on the way home that that was the exact opposite of what the Religion Right practiced. This from the church whose pastor sat on the dais for Inaugeration ’04. Shocked, I tell you, shocked.

  11. And by the way–don’t lose sight of the fact that any subgroup of the system-as-a-whole can go into its authority issue and get out of balance–right fist or left fist!

  12. Bucky Blue – You got it right. The verse is from Micah 10:6. It is the answer to the question “What does God want of us?” It’s one of my favorite texts from the ‘minor’ prophets..

  13. Pingback: The Mahablog » Shattered

  14. Tristero’s right, and I explained why a couple days back at Orcinus. There are two futures unfolding at once here. Kirkpatrick at the NYT captured one of them quite well. But the while the authoritarian hardcore may be shrinking, it’s not going away. In fact, being free of the more moderate Evangelicals only allows them to indulge their craziness more freely.

    We’re going to see more of both for a while, as both groups re-negotiate their place in society for the first time in 30 years.

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