We’re All Evangelicals Now

15 October 2007

Jeff SharletBeliefnet‘s “Blogalogue” on “Evangelicals in Power” begins today. Revealercontributor Patton Dodd, now an editor at Beliefnet, opens it up with a premise and a question. The premise: Evangelicals have indisputably joined America’s power elite. The question: “Are powerful evangelicals good news or bad news for America?” The first response comes from Hanna Rosin, According to Hanna, evangelicals are now part of the establishment. As far as she’s concerned, that in itself is neither here nor there. “Political disagreements are great,” she writes. “Healthy for a democracy, fun for a journalist. But not when those disagreements are loaded with the weight of sin and evil.”

Depends on which sins, doesn’t it?

Read the rest of Hanna’s response here. My response, cross-posted from Beliefnet, follows:

Since I’m going to disagree with Hanna, I’ll start with some good feelings about her new book,God’s Harvard, the first real work of narrative nonfiction about Christian fundamentalism and political power. Hanna has gone further than any other writer in exploring this story using the tools of fiction — character, scene, metaphor — combined with the rigors of great reporting. And, of course, the insights of a longtime observer of Christian conservative politics.

Writing about the conservative former home schoolers of Patrick Henry College, Hanna notes that “when they were younger they had the impression that the culture was not worth saving or knowing. Their kitchen, with their mom and their siblings and worship music playing, was like Augustine’s City of God, with the fallen men living out there, somewhere far away.” Like all kids, these fundamentalists learn that “the world” is not so far away, after all, and so they “train up” for culture war. In doing so, they find themselves taking on some of the coloring of the very culture they oppose: “Was all this music really immoral?” they ask. “Was Nietzsche really beneath contempt?” Ah, Nietzsche — second only to Dostoyevsky, I suspect, in his power to disorient young fundamentalist minds.

But would-be evangelical culture warriors almost always recover their balance. And they’re the stronger for the experience — they’re culturally bi-lingual in ways that most non-evangelicals aren’t. That flexibility — that ability to speak secular –- is perhaps what leads Hanna to assert that “It’s pretty clear that evangelicals have become just another part of the Washington establishment.”

The idea there, I think, is that evangelicals have learned to play the game and thus are no longer the right-wing, undemocratic force they were when Jerry Falwell strode the earth. That argument seems implicit, too, in D. Michael Lindsay’s new book, Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite. It’s a variation on the old melting pot notion.

But who’s assimilating who? My research over the last several years has taken me deep into the archives of evangelical political activity dating back seventy years, to the upper class evangelical pushback against the New Deal, considered by many to be an affront to God’s sovereignty. As early as 1942, evangelical activists pursued their ends as insiders.The elite of this elite looked not just to scripture for guidance, but also to more worldly sources: Communism. Fervently anti-communist, many elite evangelical activists of the 40s, 50s, and 60s nonetheless admired what they perceived as red discipline and stealthiness. Words such as “infiltration” and “avant-garde” became elite evangelical terms for the long, slow work of turning American power away from liberalism.

They succeeded. So well, in fact, that when a new generation of working and lower-middle class evangelicals grew politically restive in the late 1970s, the two branches of evangelical conservatism — its elite and its popular front — barely recognized one another. The press saw only the latter, the sweaty Southern men in too-tight suits. And so the presence of “powerful evangelicals” within the establishment, concerned not so much with abortion and homosexuality as with foreign policy and free markets, went overlooked.

But now the elite and populist branches of evangelical conservatism have merged. We see the students of the populists in elite positions, and notice, for the first time, the elites who’ve been there all along. For some secularists, this is deeply alarming: it seems as if evangelical political power went from 0 to 60. To others, it’s reassuring –- anyone this embedded in the establishment, goes the thinking, won’t rock the boat.

Are these powerful evangelicals “good or bad for America” — or are they “just” another part of the Washington establishment?

They’re not “just” anything — they’re the mutant strand of DNA that makes American politics so different from those of other developed nations, the genes that tilt American democracy toward messianic empire. And yet to say that they’re “bad” for America is to suggest that there’s an America to be neatly distinguished from evangelicalism. I don’t think so, and neither do the conservative evangelical leaders — elite and populist — I’ve spoken with over the years. The smartest among them recognize that it’s not evangelicals who are becoming more like secular America, but secular America that’s becoming more like evangelicals. The example with which Hanna closes -– Hillary’s penchant for theological talk -– goes right to the heart of elite evangelicalism’s success. Not in the trenches of culture war, but behind the lines.

Good or bad? Good: unlike Hanna, I welcome a public discourse of sin and evil, stark language that may cut through some of the haze of cold war consensus culture that still dims American politics nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Bad: like Hanna, I fear a generation for whom such morally blunt language is not a weapon with which to smash complacency – as it was for evangelical abolitionists in the 19th century and countercultural radicals in the 20th – but simply the mother tongue. The new evangelical elite is indeed bi-lingual, but not out of a love for language. Rather, only as a means to an end. And that end is not to win a place at the table, but to run it, just as it’s always been run. That’s not theocracy. It’s even more depressing: a new establishment, a new “democratic unfreedom,” same as the old.

Next up in the roundtable: Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind rapture fiction series that’s moved 65 million books. From all accounts, Jenkins is a nice guy, and his response is nice: “When my son and I started our film company in Los Angeles several years ago, we deliberately chose not to curse Hollywood. Yes, we might disagree with many of the messages emitted by the most powerful media tool ever invented, but we didn’t go there to change the culture. Our goal is to light a candle in the darkness.” That’s sweet. And that little flame may be of use to Jesus when he returns, as prophecied in one of Jenkins’ books: “It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated [non-Christian] blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin…. Even as they struggled, their own flesh dissolved, their eyes melted and their tongues disintegrated.” Keep that in mind when you read Jenkins’ declaration that true evangelical leaders are “humble servants.”