Will Evangelicals Rediscover Religion?

Our ongoing public arguments about religion suffer badly from the fact that few of the arguers have a clue what religion actually is. This is true of the crusading atheists, who define “religion” as “knee-jerk obedience to literal interpretations of scripture while believing in imaginary sky fairies.” Yes, some religious people are like that, but that doesn’t define “religion” per se any more than the platypus defines “animals.”

A big part of the problem with our definitions of religion stems from the fact that most of us have had a very narrow exposure to religion. This is doubly true in the U.S., in spite of the fact that we may be living in the most religiously diverse nation in human history. Somehow, in mass media and in the public hive mind, the default definition of “religion” is “conservative evangelical Christianity.”

Emma Green writes in The Atlantic,

Evangelical Christianity has long had a stranglehold on how Americans imagine public faith. Vague invocations of “religion”—whether it’s “religion vs. science” or “religious freedom”—usually really mean “conservative, Protestant, evangelical Christianity,” and this assumption inevitably frames debates about American belief. For the other three-quarters of the population—Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, secular Americans, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.—this can be infuriating. For some evangelicals, it’s a sign of success, a linguistic triumph of the culture wars.

Author Green will probably catch some flack for leaving out atheists. But atheists often are part of the problem, since so many of them have bought into evangelical hegemony.

For example, consider the alleged conflict between “religion” and evolution. Once on a web forum I mentioned that a large majority of mainline Protestants accept evolution theory, which according to Pew they do, and was promptly slammed by a chorus of atheists, who coughed up data relating to evangelicals. When I explained that the “mainline” Protestants were the older denominations that are not considered evangelical, they didn’t believe me.

A meme about Pope Francis accepting evolution, and how this is going to signal the end of religion as we know it, pops up about once a week in my Facebook feed. But the fact is the Catholic Church never denounced evolution, and back in 1950 Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical saying there is no direct conflict between evolution science and Christianity.

The rabbinic tradition of Judaism also accepts evolution, and there’s no conflict I can see between evolution and Asian religious tradition. Islamic views vary widely. Some Muslims are on the same page with most mainline Protestants and Catholics, which is that they accept the science but believe God is still the ultimate cause. Others are more like conservative evangelicals and believe in creationism.

So, to be accurate, the conflict is not between “religion” and evolution. It’s between Christian conservative evangelicalism and conservative Islam, on one side, and evolution on the other. And leave the rest of religion out of it. But try to explain that to an atheist in self-righteous “I worship at the altar of open-mindedness and reason” mode. Just try.

Emma Green’s article is a profile of Russell Moore, who is the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And apparently Moore has had it with evangelical hegemony, too. Green quotes Moore:

“Most Americans agreed on certain traditional values: monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, the right to life, the good of prayer and church attendance, free enterprise, a strong military, and the basic goodness of the American way of life. The argument was that this consensus represented the real America.” Presumably, everyone else—gays, divorcees, pacifists, socialists—lived outside the “real America.”

If such a “real America” ever existed in more than Leave It to Beaver re-runs, it certainly doesn’t exist now. Gay marriage is legal. Church attendance is down. Most TV shows are less about happy homes than the hectic, diverse tumble of American family life; the cultural preoccupation with perfectionist conservatism has largely come to an end.

Some see this as a loosely defined form of “secularization.” These are the people, Moore said, who approach him after church and ask, fearfully, whether Christianity is dying. “Behind that question is an assumption that Christianity is a sub-culture of American life,” he told me. “I think what is dying is cultural, nominal Christianity, and I don’t think we should panic about that. I think we should see that as an act of God’s grace.”

The assumption that evangelicals own American culture and politics has ended. This is good for minority groups, for other Christians, and for those who are still searching. But the radicalness of Moore, who by right of inheritance should be America’s Culture Warrior in Chief, is that he thinks it’s good for evangelicals, too.

This fascinates me, because a big problem with American evangelicalism is that it forgot about religion some time back. At some point, conservative evangelicalism became not just a subculture of American life; it came to be so wired into political conservatism as to be indistinguishable. As a result, “culture warriors” like Ann Coulter could write a book about how liberals hate God (Godless: The Church of Liberalism, 2006), claiming that liberals reject God and revile all religious people.  And she could do the usual television talk-show circuit to promote this book without ever being challenged how often she goes to church, or even if she belongs to one. Political conservatives in America are assumed to be members in good standing of the conservative evangelical tribe, by default, unless they are Catholic or Jewish. No further effort is required. Likewise, liberals can never be members, no matter how pious they may be. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Green continues,

Like any good Southern Baptist preacher, Moore knows how to unleash some spiritual whoop-ass, though that probably wouldn’t be his preferred choice of words. The straitlaced, suit-wearing preacher from Biloxi, Mississippi, included a whole passage in his book about how much he hates tattoos; he is studiously polite and clean-cut. Yet he rails against people who merely perform their Christianity, who assume that following Jesus is the same as being a “shiny, happy Republican.”

In the Bible Belt in particular, “Christianity became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children–all that, and eternal life, too,” he writes. “Such a Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent, but rather the studied clip of a telemarketer.”

I assume Moore is still a cultural conservative, and someone with whom I would disagree about many things; the difference is that he appreciates religion as religion. And what is that? It has been many things through the ages, but to think of it merely as a supernatural belief system, or a calcified relic of Iron Age metaphysics, is to miss it. Until modern times, anyway, religion was not a system of propositions about the physical world one was required to accept. Through most of human history, religion was a commitment to a way of living, usually one that promised some sort of transcendence of the limited self. Karen Armstrong said,

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” [The Spiral Staircase]

In other words, religion is something you do, not something you are, or believe, or something to adopt as part of your tribal identity. And as something you do, it should not necessarily be easy, or be a socially enforced norm. And it’s that last part that’s hard for conservatives to accept. And for more on this, please see Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-Affirming World.

Back to the Atlantic article:

“There was a larger mentality that came along with the last generation of evangelical political activism that assumed that we represent the real America in ways that turned out not only not to be true, but turned out to be damaging to the larger mission of the church,” Moore told me.It may be more effective to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, rather than sin and Christ and blood, but in Moore’s eyes, it’s less authentic. As he wrote in his book, “We were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom.”

It’s a lot easier to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, but it never seems to occur to these religious people that the faithful in other countries also package Christianity in terms of their country and tradition.

The worst thing that can happen to religion, IMO, is to become entangled with ethnic and national identities, and thereby with politics. That’s where religious violence comes from; it’s the confluence of ethnic and racial bigotries and political power with conservative religion that drives the worst of what is called “religious” violence.

Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. “Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,” he writes. “Let’s embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.”

I interpret this to mean that Moore rejects the idea that Southern Baptists must fight to make sure the larger culture reflects Southern Baptist views, and instead learn to accept that they will be at odds with cultural and social norms in America. Granted, this might be seen as a self-pitying whine on Moore’s part, but by separating Christianity from social convention, it can become more authentically religious. It can become something that people make a personal commitment to doing, rather than something one attaches to because it’s conventional.

Skipping a bunch of stuff to the end:

This is not an assimilated, salable Christianity. If anything, it troubles the anodyne, dog-whistle-y “values” rhetoric that Moore rejects. It calls for politicians to be committed to living out Christianity beyond the breath it takes to utter “God bless America.” It goes against “a certain cultural moment in American life which sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth,” like the Willie Nelson concert where the singer seamlessly transitions from “Whiskey River” to “Amazing Grace.” And inevitably, it undermines Bible Belt identity, which has long depended on pairing God with guns and Republican politics. Not to worry, Moore says: “The Bible Belt was no Promised Land.”

Perhaps this moment of evangelical clarity could also be a moment of clarity for other kinds of American Christians. Conservative Protestants have longed crowed about the decline of mainline Christianity, citing shrinking attendance as a sign of tepid faith. Then again, “American Christianity” has so often been used as a shorthand for evangelical Protestantism; if the faith is delineated in terms of conservative “values,” it’s a little unclear what it means to be a progressive Christian. If evangelicals embrace their weirdness, perhaps progressive Christians will embrace a similar cultural moment.

The progressive Christians I know are clear about the difference between them and the conservative evangelicals, but it might make it easier for others to appreciate the difference.

At the other end of the scale, see Andy Schlafly, son of Phyllis. Andy — who is such a dweeb he appeared on the Colbert Report without realizing he was being mocked — is running a “conservative Bible project” to revise English translations of the Bible to make them more conservative. He’s finding too many translations with “liberal” words like “comrade.” He also doesn’t find enough anti-abortion language and wants the new translation to emphasize “free market” principles.

Schlafly is quite certain these changes reflect the “original intent” of the author, and the stuff he doesn’t like obviously are errors created by those nefarious liberals. Indeed, one of his reasons for revising the translations is that “the ensuing debate would flesh out — and stop — the infiltration of churches by liberals pretending to be Christian.” In other words, liberals can’t be Christians in Andy’s World.

And be clear, this is not a re-translation. He’s not calling on scholars to review the source material. He’s calling for conservative volunteers to rewrite the Bible to make it more perfectly reflect their ideology.

Any of the great Abrahamic theologians or rabbis of history would have called Schlafly out as a heretic for doing this. The very idea of any mortal man assuming to know “original intent” was unthinkable once upon a time, and would have been recognized as the sin of Pride, on steroids. But the inversion of Christianity from religion to political/cultural ideology is pretty much complete with Schlafly.

25 thoughts on “Will Evangelicals Rediscover Religion?

  1. I think the scriptural reference Mr. Moore is angling for is “whited sepulcher” with respect to his nominal coreligionists.

  2. I am a proud Agnostic.
    Which means I don’t believe, and I don’t disbelieve.
    I just don’t know.
    But, I’ll let you believe whatever you want to believe.
    This – imo – is the way it should be….

    What bothers me, is that conservative “Christians” use “moral authority” to further their bigoted, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynistic goals.

  3. It’s a lot easier to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, but it never seems to occur to these religious people that the faithful in other countries also package Christianity in terms of their country and tradition.

    Part and parcel of American evangelical culture is a jingocentric willful ignorance of the rest of the world except as a playground for US military action.

  4. I hope I might be forgiven if this goes on like a treatise. I am from the “mainline Protestant” tradition—baptized, raised, and confirmed Episcopalian, married into the liberal synod of the Lutheran Church. I am heartily sick and bleeping tired of being lumped in with the fundies by some people, or being told I am virtually a heretic by others. (It’s really funny when the last comment comes from a Mormon, because Mormonism is, indeed, heretical). I love Pope Francis—as a Protestant I do not recognize his doctrinal authority, but I certainly understand his moral authority, and I love the way he is willing to speak out. I love how liberal Christians like myself are finally beginning to speak out in terms of how our faith informs our politics. I simply adore the nun who speaks out about the distinction between being “pro-birth” and “pro-life.” Christ’s message was all about love and redemption—I don’t say that to try to convert any non-believers here—and it offends me mightily to see it twisted in to a gospel (deliberate lower-case) of hate by the likes of Santorum and Bush and Cruz.

    OK, that’s enough. My apologies for the rant.

  5. My conflict with the Bible and Christianity is, just as Andy is attempting to “tweak” the holy book to fit his world view, how many other “tweakers” had their shot at it over the past 2000 plus years ?
    I fully agree that the danger is when religion is fused with politics and ethnic identities.
    I’m an atheist, but I’m not an angry, hateful one. I simply find the idea of an interactive supreme being “highly unlikely”. That said, I love the messages of Jesus, the Buddha, the Dali Lama, and the new Pope. I’m not very impressed by many followers of Jesus that I am required to associate with, and I’m disgusted with the lock ‘n load Christians in general.

  6. All the evangelicals I know never left religion. For all of them, it animates their entire lives. Most of them aren’t that interested in politics. In fact, many of them have looked at me with disgust at the way I’ve tried to fuse conservative politics and issues of the day, with their religion.

    I realize this sample isn’t universal, but I’ve found it to be very common. Politics is just an overlay, something that washed over religion which is much more to the core of what these people are about.

  7. Great article and great comments.

    The Christians that I admire fit into the model that James describes above. I share his admiration for Pope Francis because he seems to be reintroducing some very important parts of the Christian faith, which had been eclipsed and forgotten.

    My experience of evangelicals, from my small sampling here in rural NC, is that politics and “belief” have been fused. Biblical references have exclusively been Old Testament verses that explain why we should adhere to the Republican Party’s line. As I have mentioned before, Jesus never enters the conversation, except with people from African-American churches. For most of the Christians that I speak to, the Sermon on the Mount, never happened at all.

    There may be some remnants of actual religion left, but, I don’t have the patience or the desire to search for them. The main effect that comes across to me is that of a social control mechanism. But, that’s probably due to my limitations.

    I really will have to get around to reading your book, if this post is any indication, it will be very enlightening.

  8. Great article. The key word is at the end…heretic. This version of Politically Conservative, Activist, Dogmatic Evangelicals started with the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell. The Evangelical Church prior to the fusing of politics and religion was not something my folks would have recognized.

  9. Tonight, is the first GOP debate!

    A bunch of barnacles on the bottom of a boat, has a much higher total IQ.

    I won’t be watching.
    I’m finishing up a novel about a serial killer, who, I assume would place in the top 5 in tonight’s debate.
    You folks gonna watch?
    Or, do you have lives?

  10. I need to read this post again and more carefully. It raises so many thoughts in my head. But to answer Gulag’s question. I feel like my life is in limbo right now coz I’m in the final stages of selling my house, packing, finding another place to live. Just gonna rent, no more home owning for me. Lately, I’ve been finding everything very funny, almost hilarious so I’m laughing at everything. Must be a coping mechanism. For that reason, I would love to watch the debates but alas I have no TV service and my son-in-law canceled his service too so I’m out of luck. Besides, this is the evening of my unitive self meeting and it’s probably the higher decision to attend that. I’m sure I can catch the highlights of the debate on my computer tomorrow.
    Today I am being entertained by watching machines tear up my yard and the street as I have to have my sewer line replaced to a tune of $14,000. Cuts into my equity but I don’t care anymore. Money is becoming less and less important to me. One thing that amuses me is that one of the workers reminds me of the character Brad Pitt played in the movie “Thelma and Louise”. He has the same body build, is cute, wears sunglasses all the time, has a walk that is nonchalant and cool. Yet he knows how to work the machine, the one that does all the digging. Don’t know what you call it. And he does work hard.
    So that is “my life” for the moment. And I am enjoying it even though it is very chaotic.

  11. “Schlafly is quite certain these changes reflect the “original intent” of the author”

    Who better to interpret what he believes is the word of God than the son of Phyllis Schlafly? I’m with Gulag, believe what you want just don’t impose it on others by force or by law! What do you say Maha, as long as it don’t break my leg or pick my pocket?

  12. You have such wonderful insight into this subject of religion…I, grew up in the Non-Mormon church of Jesus Christ…My Granddaddy was the Pastor and Fire and Brimstone preacher…Nary a nap was taken when Granddaddy preached…but for all of his Fire, and all of his passion for God, he only preached LOVE…He believed that that was Christ’s message to ALL…GOD IS LOVE…oh there were times when Lakes of Fire was mentioned, and the End Times were upon us…but he also preached to us that there is HOPE and that the LOVE of God and the LOVE of our fellow human beings, is our redemption…this is what the evangelicals and all the others are missing…

  13. Robert: Me and Mr. Spock (my dog) wholeheartedly agree. Love is all that matters!!

  14. This is going to be long-winded I know, but:

    For over ten years I went through a very thorough exploration of Christianity, beginning on one extreme end (the Church of Christ! — I was young and foolish at the time) to Greek Orthodox tradition, the Episcopal church, Quakers, and finally the Unitarian Universalist church (which technically speaking isn’t specifically ‘Christian’) — and a few non-Christian religions to boot after all that (namely Judaism, Daoism, and Buddhism), more sporadically, over another ten years (and I was raised Catholic). I broadly call myself a non-theist now, but with lots of footnotes to qualify what I mean by that term (details which aren’t relevant here).

    After escaping fundamentalism, the appeal to Christianity was via Orthodox theology, the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart, John of the Cross, as well as Tillich, Bultmann, and more contemporary liberal theologians, et al — which is to say, an awareness of the intellectual depth of Christian tradition. In my exploration of Christianity, however, the problem I discovered (for myself at any rate) was, even among liberal Christians, I was surprised at how much Christian faith was still framed in a way that was a far cry from Christian theology. It was good to belong to a church community which had a more liberal stance on many social issues, and yet theologically there was little difference. It wasn’t that I expected a pastor or any of the congregation to use theological jargon, but it was still just the same old watered down wishy-washy fairy tale talk: God was still an old dude on a throne in heaven. There was something intellectually dishonest about it to me. There seemed a great chasm between what went on in churches and what went on in a seminary. This joke sums up the disparity:

    Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.’ And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And they replied, ‘Lord, you are the incarnate Logos, the earthly manifestation of the divine Sophia, our ground of being and the kerygmatic expression of the Prime Mover and the teleological foundation of our very ontology.’ And Jesus replied to them, ‘What?’

    I have no liking at all for atheists like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et al for their narrow, positivist worldview which excludes the possibility of metaphysics (which is, itself based on a certain metaphysica view ironically!), however, I think the percentage of wishy-washy thinking far outweighs liberal Christians (i.e. intellectuals) who aren’t like that. Its good that not all Christians are the hellfire and brimstone variety, and I’m sure they mean well, but Christianity as a whole is certainly worthy of criticism. Sadly, we are stuck with Dawkins, et al who don’t hold a candle to a true critic like Walter Kaufmann back in his day, who had the guts to tackle liberal Christianity.

    For every Karen Armstrong there are hundreds of thousands of Christians who simply don’t have that kind of intellectual understanding of Christianity. De facto, Christianity can’t be represented by someone like Armstrong, whose kind of faith is simply not shared or understood by most of the Christian world today, but rather by a narrow circle of intellectuals. I’m not saying this to diss intellectuals (absolutely not!!!!) but simply that their view is hardly the driving force of Christian faith. Once upon a time, centuries ago, this may have had some bearing on the formation of Christian tradition, but it has little relevance now.

    So I have mixed feeling about Christianity, neither really for nor against. I think after 2,000 years Christianity been slowly losing its cultural (and therefore spiritual) relevance– no religion lasts forever (there are more dead gods than there are ‘living’ ones today). I’m not saying it *should* lose its relevance, but this does appear to be the trend to me. The first sign of decline was arguably the Reformation, but certainly by the Enlightenment, Christianity was beginning to wane– both for good reasons (lessening political power) and bad reasons (the reduction of the worldview to positivism). Bonhoeffer tried to address this problem– he saw clearly the historical trajectory of Christianity. I’m not sure anyone ever really heeded his warnings. Christian fundamentalism is just a futile last ditch effort to try to make Christianity relevant (even if it means by political power, which is why they are so attracted to it). In that context, the Evangelical problem is a problem not only for Evangelicals but all of Christianity.

    Apologies for the long-winded ramble.

    • Lucilius — feel free to leave long-winded rambles any time. You make excellent points. One of the arguments in my book (it takes a whole chapter, even) is that to survive and remain meaningful in modern life, Christianity needs to re-discover mysticism. And I love your mention of Pseudo-Dionysius, Eckhart, John of the Cross, Tillich, etc. I’m particularly fond of Tillich. And the only people I know who actually study Pseudo-Dionysius are western Zen Buddhists, who appear to have adopted him as one of ‘our’n.

  15. “Christian fundamentalism is just a futile last ditch effort to try to make Christianity relevant ”

    I’d say its a futile last ditch effort to make fundamentalist Christians relevant?

  16. Maha, I’ve often felt there is a striking affinity between Pseudo-Dionysius’ brief treatise The Mystical Theology, and The Heart Sutra, which is also brief. They both engage in a similar kind of negation which is far more than a mere negation. I REALLY need to get your book (I’ve been meaning to, honest!).

    Uncledad, mainline Christianity is becoming more irrelevant too, but for other, more subtle reasons (hence the long ramble). There is depth to Christian theology which sustained it for centuries and has been ignored for too long (beginning especially with the rise of positivism in the Enlightenment period). This is a different problem from Christian fundamentalism’s issue — however, BOTH problems are rooted in the same implicit anti-metaphysical outlook. Religious sentiment and good intentions just isn’t enough to sustain Christianity overall (or any other religion for that matter).

  17. Lucilius: You said no religion lasts forever. So if that’s true, then what is the point of having a belief system? Especially if it is considered the absolute truth. I’m not trying to argue with you, just want to know what you think. I guess maybe I’m asking what good are religions? I haven’t read Maha’s book yet either. Maybe the answer is in it.

    • grannyeagle — no religious doctrine is absolute truth. Doctrines can point to absolute truth, but not contain it.

  18. Maha: “No religious doctrine is absolute truth”. That is my point exactly. Each religion believes it has the absolute truth. Because they all differ that leads to arguments, fights, even war. And eventually, over time, they change or another belief system comes along. How do we ever get enlightened like the Buddha? Except by meditation and experience.
    “God is greater than the religion in which God is manifested”. I accept that. It reminds me of the Taoist point of view. “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao”.
    So why have humans invented religions? Maybe I need to read your book.

    • grannyeagle — the problem is that in the modern West we have come to define “religion” as a belief system that must be accepted as literal and absolute truth by its followers, but not all religions have been like that, and not even Christianity was entirely like that throughout its history. The Medieval Christian mystics would certainly have disagreed that any written doctrine was “absolute truth,” for example.

  19. Maha: Thanx! It’s settled. I have to get your book. I will close on my house next Friday, then I will have some money and some time to read more which is what I love to do most (besides sleep, that is).

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