From Where I Stand…

October 3rd, 2009

Scholarly observers of American religion are very aware that Christianity is becoming increasingly polarized. Both the Religious Right and the Religious Left are becoming more and more doctrinaire and rigid. Neither seems willing to do any compromising, and anything less than a knee-jerk reaction to their respective ideologies can leave preachers or youth workers ostracized. Moderates are a dying breed, and the cry of both the left and the right is: If you are not with us, you are against us!

As the left and right fight it out, there’s little doubt as to which side is losing. The left seems to have lost its vitality:

  • The race issue has been co-oped by evangelicals (e.g., Promise Keepers has made it a primary concern).
  • The left’s antiwar sentiments no longer get young people’s juices flowing as they did during the Vietnam War.
  • To its critics, feminism is elitist, and—to the vast majority of Christians not existentially involved in the suffering of gays and lesbians—the struggle for homosexual rights seems to be something that troublemakers on the left have drummed up because they have nothing better to do.
  • Not knowing how to do evangelism, most liberal churches seem to be dying. The Mainline denominations to which they belong annually show dramatic declines in membership.

On the other hand, the Religious Right has never had it so good.

Evangelicalism, which once was an alternative to rigid fundamentalism, now is simply another word for fundamentalism. Evangelicals with conservative politics are flexing their muscles everywhere:

  • They control the sale of religious books. Publishers know that unless authors are acceptable to the highly conservative bookstore owners who make up the Christian Booksellers Association, their books aren’t likely to see the light of day.
  • The control of religious radio stations and religious television programming is overwhelmingly in the hands of the Religious Right.
  • The National Association of Evangelicals has displaced the National Council of Churches as the primary organization that presidential candidates court, and the Christian Coalition has become a dominant political special-interest group.
  • Megachurches—which seem to be growing in number at the expense of moderate sized churches—are, for the most part, bastions of conservatism.
  • The secular media pays almost exclusive attention to the spokespersons of the Religious Right, giving very little notice to what’s being said by more moderate voices.
  • The takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists is only the start of such movements within American denominations, as attempts are made to “rescue” Christianity from liberalism.

I think I have seen the future and it belongs to the Religious Right. Its zeal, commitment, and entrepreneurial skills guarantee it a longstanding domination of the American religious scene.

I’m Deeply Troubled
Being an Evangelical myself (though there are those who question this claim), I should be pleased with these developments. But I’m deeply troubled. I’m concerned that evangelicalism is becoming more and more rigidly defined in ways that will stifle creative thinking and leave little room for those who don’t adhere to the “party line.” In response to complaints by many fundamentalists that the term evangelical has become too ambiguous, there have been efforts to tighten the definition. RecentlyChristianity Today drew up what many are calling the definitive declaration of what constitutes being evangelical. It was signed by 200 of America’s leading evangelicals, and others are scrambling to get their names added to the list.

The stakes are high! Not to be properly defined as evangelical means that one doesn’t get invited to speak at those mass meetings that have become more and more part of the American scene. Whether it be for Promise Keepers or for one of the many summer Christian music festivals, being defined as an unquestionably bona fide evangelical is a prerequisite for any would-be speaker. This being the case, the same messages are heard at any and all of them, with only illustrative material and theatrics providing differences. New ideas that don’t fit the traditional mold are out of bounds.

Chuck Colson has, of late, been decrying the absence of first-rate intellectuals in the evangelical community. He asks why this generation is not producing its own C.S. Lewises and J.R.R. Tolkiens. The answer to that should be obvious. Intellectuals cannot breathe in an atmosphere where all ideas must conform to an a priori requirement. It’s hard for original thinkers to be a part of a religion in which any new vocabulary is forbidden. We have to face up to the reality that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien wouldn’t have had an easy time with American Christianity in the 1990s.

Watch Your Step!
Youth workers are the ones most likely to be affected by all of this. The big churches with big youth groups usually expect conformity—and ensure it by using traditional definitions of what it means to be evangelical. In other words, if you want to make it in this profession, you’d better understandthat right away—as most of your colleagues already have. In order to get on the speaking circuit, you’d better learn to be apologists for the established evangelistic theology and political ideology. Getting your books published requires that you stick to writing on the methods of propagating the approved, “official” ways of believing. Be sure to keep away from any new belief systems and avoid any different ways of thinking or of conceptualizing truth. And if you are dealing with social issues, you’d better be certain that you’re dealing with the safe ones.

For instance, environmentalism is dangerous: To many of the custodians of evangelicalism, environmentalism has had too much to do with the New Age Movement. It may be one of the most pressing issues of our time, but it runs counter to the conservative politics that usually mark evangelical ideology.

Should you be looking for a safe social issue, try poverty. Concern for the poor is more than okay right now. But be sure to focus on the needs of thecasualties of unjust socioeconomic systems rather than critiquing the systems themselves. Any talk about challenging the ways in which big government and corporate America work to foster injustice and poverty is very much off-limits.

Too many evangelical critics will insist that America is a “Christian” nation—and they’ll view any attempt to call it oppressive as un-Christian.

And above all, stay away from the homosexual issue. God forbid that you should show sympathy for gays and lesbians. It’s hard to find Christian radio shows that don’t lambaste homosexuals as major threats to family life or constantly claim they’re dangers to children. Converting these so-called “perverts” into heterosexuals is all you’re allowed to do. Giving any credence to the calls for justice for gays and lesbians will get you labeled as a gay activist and probably end your career.

What the Future Holds
For years the liberal community demanded a lockstep walk with its doctrinaire, rigid, politically correct thinking and language. But its day is over. The coming early years of America’s 21st-century Christianity will belong to evangelicals and their generally conservative politics. Unfortunately evangelicals are prone to making the same kinds of rigid demands on those who would live in their camp.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s a deliberate meanness in all of this. It’s happening because evangelicalism has become powerful. That handful of leaders who control the microphone cannot be expected to pick up the bill for speakers who march to the beat of a different drummer. They say, “Our meetings and programs are designed to propagate the truth as we believe it. Divergent opinions should be discussed in university classrooms and not from our pulpits!” They are right about that, but it still bothers me to see a powerful monolithic evangelicalism emerging across America, leaving dissidents as voices crying in the wilderness.

Maybe I’m getting old (going on 65) or maybe it’s sour grapes—or maybe there’s something dangerous going on here. We’ll see…


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