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Sunday, October 28, 2007

'When you mix religion and politics, you get politics.'

David D. Kirkpatrick's long article in today's New York Times Magazine about the political fragmentation of white American Evangelicalism — the core of the "religious right" — is simply excellent. He offers political, sociological, theological, and generational explanations for the fact that Evangelicals in the pews aren't lining up anymore with the old-line leaders of the Republican-Evangelical alliance. Read it. Quotes and commentary below.

Here's Kirkpatrick's summary of his basic thesis:

Just three years ago, the leaders of the conservative Christian political movement could almost see the Promised Land. White evangelical Protestants looked like perhaps the most potent voting bloc in America. They turned out for President George W. Bush in record numbers, supporting him for re-election by a ratio of four to one. Republican strategists predicted that religious traditionalists would help bring about an era of dominance for their party. Spokesmen for the Christian conservative movement warned of the wrath of "values voters." James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was poised to play kingmaker in 2008, at least in the Republican primary. And thanks to President Bush, the Supreme Court appeared just one vote away from answering the prayers of evangelical activists by overturning Roe v. Wade.

Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Nor is the problem simply that the Democratic presidential front-runners — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — sound like a bunch of tent-revival Bible thumpers compared with the Republicans.

The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines that go much deeper. The phenomenon of theologically conservative Christians plunging into political activism on the right is, historically speaking, something of an anomaly. Most evangelicals shrugged off abortion as a Catholic issue until after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. But in the wake of the ban on public-school prayer, the sexual revolution and the exodus to the suburbs that filled the new megachurches, protecting the unborn became the rallying cry of a new movement to uphold the traditional family. Now another confluence of factors is threatening to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

The founding generation of leaders like Falwell and Dobson, who first guided evangelicals into Republican politics 30 years ago, is passing from the scene. Falwell died in the spring. Paul Weyrich, 65, the indefatigable organizer who helped build Falwell's Moral Majority and much of the rest of the movement, is confined to a wheelchair after losing his legs because of complications from a fall. Dobson, who is 71 and still vigorous, is already planning for a succession at Focus on the Family; it is expected to tack toward the less political family advice that is its bread and butter.

The engineers of the momentous 1980s takeover that expunged political and theological moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention are retiring or dying off, too. . . .

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated 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 article offers a string of intriguing quotes and observations. Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels — whose megachurch movement includes 12,000 congregations, and who has nice things to say about Jim Wallis of Sojourners — says, "People who might be called progressive evangelicals or centrist evangelicals are one stirring away from a real awakening." Other conservatives have simply grown despondent about their efforts to politicize of the church, like anti-abortion Wichita preacher Gene Carlson, now retired:

"I thought in my enthusiasm," he told me with a smile, "that somehow we could band together and change things politically and everything will be fine." But the closing of Dr. Tiller's [abortion] clinic was fleeting. Electing Christian politicians never seemed to change much. "When you mix politics and religion," Carlson said, "you get politics." . . .

"There is this sense that the personal Gospel is what evangelicals believe and the social Gospel is what liberal Christians believe," Carlson said, "and, you know, there is only one Gospel that has both social and personal dimensions to it." He once felt lonely among evangelicals for taking that approach, he told me. "Now it is a growing phenomenon," he said.

"The religious right peaked a long time ago," he added. "As a historical, sociological phenomenon, it has seen its heyday. Something new is coming."

For those who insist on seeing religion largely in partisan terms — will these changes help the Democrats, or will the Republicans keep white Evangelicals in their camp? — the story offers lots of food for thought. But I think the more interesting part of Kirkpatrick's story has to do with the Evangelical discovery of cross-partisan social action (on the environment, health, and local initiatives) and with the emergence of new Evangelical theological and ecclesiastical ideas.

("The Evangelical crackup," David D. Kirkpatrick, New York Times Magazine 10.28.07)

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 28 October 2007 at 6:08 AM

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October 29, 2007 08:03 AM | Permalink for this comment

Chutney highlights his favorite parts of the article.

Bill Baar:

October 29, 2007 02:58 PM | Permalink for this comment

Crack up is not what I'd call it.

Read Brink Lindsey's Age of Abundance. Lindsey describes the past 40 years as a fight between Aquarians and Evangelicals. The resolution has been what Lindsey calls the Libertarian Consensus.

Having seen Hybel's church up close (we send our YUUs on field trips there) I'd agure Hybel's a guy firmly in that Libertarian consensus.

Most UU's still old Aquarians and while the some Evangelicals have embraced the consensus and all seriously working on the future (why they can support Giuliani because it's dawned on them positions on judges more important than abortion), I don't think anyone's looking towards the Aquarians for a model.

Living in one of the Blueist of Blue States with a long tradition of direct evangelical involment in politics (Hybel's friend and ally Rev James Meeks an Illinos State Senator) I can promise you these kinds of evangelicals aren't going to evolve into anything friendly to where most UUs are at.


November 2, 2007 01:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

David Sessions (a Patrick Henry alum) quarrels with Kirkpatrick's emphasis on the political consequences of the Evangelical "crack-up" in a piece for Slate. He writes:

The evangelical conversation about 2008 actually is producing some interesting debates, but, unfortunately, the truly interesting stuff has yet to be fully addressed. Kirkpatrick senses a "philosophical rift" in the younger generation of evangelicals, and he's got that much right. Young Christians indeed have a more redemptive view of society, rejecting the notion that America is slouching toward Gomorrah and must be warned regularly and loudly. They are interested in making society a better place in the here and now, as opposed to simply converting the lost. . . .

A 2006 Pew survey shows that college-educated conservatives are more likely to be less conservative on issues like gay marriage, stem-cell research, and contraception than those who've completed only some college or high school. And according to a study by Barna group, a Christian research organization, young born-again Christians are 15 percent more likely than their elders to find homosexual behavior morally acceptable. Even many of my college-age evangelical friends at the conservative Christian school Patrick Henry College see popular films, attend rock concerts, and have no objection to drinking or dancing.

This is a highly significant trend within evangelicalism — arguably the evangelical story of the moment. But it doesn't quite have the political implications that the media suggest, namely new stirrings of affection for the Democratic Party. Young Christians are interested in more than "two or three issues," as left-leaning pastor Bill Hybels contends in the Times piece, but they are smart, educated, and usually swing conservative for reasons much deeper than the Big Two (abortion and gay rights). In my time as a student at Patrick Henry College, I have witnessed countless students moderate from "Republican politics is next to godliness" to "we shouldn't be blindly following a specific party or leader." Despite that transformation, not one of them has ever campaigned or voted for a Democrat. They are disenchanted with the GOP for its abandonment of fiscal conservatism and limited government, but they'd consider voting for Democrats an even bigger step back. If there is a political trend to be reported here, it's the fact that increasingly progressive young Christians will almost certainly balance the Republican Party, insisting on a broader focus than clichéd morality battles.

("The evangelical crack-up is a myth," David Sessions, Slate 11.2.07)


November 6, 2007 03:26 PM | Permalink for this comment

Jeff Sharlet thinks Kirkpatrick draws profoundly misguided conclusions: "That there's a crack-up in political evangelicalism's old guard is indisputable, but the movement, the evangelical idea of what America is and should be, is stronger and more widespread now than it ever was in the 20th century. The very evidence Kirkpatrick and Goodstein cite to the contrary is proof of the movement's real cultural power." (The Revealer, 10.28.07)

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