I was listening to the political news and learned that James Dobson and other
militant Evangelical Protestant leaders may sit out the election if Rudy Giuliani
wins the Republican nomination. He is not strictly pro-choice, so for them he
might as well be butchering the babies himself. The ironies were many. Tony
Perkins (no, not the real one, the guy from Psycho), a talking head from some
Family Values Council or other, was griping that he and his fellow pro-Lifers
have had to keep a close eye on George W. Bush because, even though he is the
most avidly pro-Life president in memory, he nearly contributed Harriett Meyers,
not a strong pro-Lifer, to the Supreme Court. This fact should have told Perkins,
Dobson, and the rest something significant. If even the most solid pro-Life
presidents will not lift a finger for the cause once they reach office, it scarcely
matters what pro-Life credentials Giuliani or Romney may have or lack. You might
as well vote on the basis of other issues on which you agree with a candidate.
larger irony is that the Evangelical Christian movement itself, for all its
mighty blustering, is doomed. Like all sectarian movements, isolated from aspects
of the social mainstream, Evangelicals have always managed to maintain sufficient
symbolic and behavioral distance between themselves and their neighbors (even
when not hostile to them) that they were able to feel distinct, elect, chosen
by God, over against all those “sinners,” mere mortals. Many of
those sub-cultural identity markers were so superficial as to invite ridicule
from outside (or even from inside). They used to dress more modestly than their
mainstream counterparts, though never going as far as kindred spirits within
the Amish, Mennonite, and Church of the Brethren sects. But now they have tried
to “dress for success,” hoping to make their religion seem less
dowdy to prospective members. That’s a good idea: all that implied was
removing one more “false stumbling block.”
to be the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists would never darken the door of movie
theatres, even if Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place was showing (I kid
you not!). Now that’s moot, especially in the wake of home theatre technology.
They wouldn’t dance, because it was supposedly arousing, essentially mating
behavior—which it obviously is! But now they’ve skipped the preliminaries
they were very much against divorce and had a low incidence of it. But that,
too, has changed. Evangelical churchmen and seminary professors found they just
could not thunder against divorce any more once their own grown children were
getting divorced. Same with women working outside the home. Economic realities
dictated theology just as sure as the Feds’ threats to the Mormon Church
miraculously prompted new LDS revelations to abandon, first, polygamy, then
racial discrimination in the Melchizedek Priesthood.
is next on the list. More and more educated Evangelicals seem to feel they must
find a compromise between the inherited party line and their liberal social
conscience. This is especially true with seminarians and young ministers. And
such theological accommodations are not hard to find. It doesn’t take
as much text-twisting as slave-abolition or feminism, that’s for sure.
And it was secular feminism challenging the church that led, more than anything
else, to the great inerrancy crisis among Evangelicals in the 1970s. Prayer
changes things? Things change prayer.
surveys indicate that more and more Evangelicals are questioning or rejecting
the doctrine of an eternal hell as well as the idea that non-Christians will
not be saved in the afterlife. You can see where this is headed: they are making
their way toward being one more tolerant, live-and-let-live mainstream denomination.
Nor am I complaining. I doubt many of us are really that vexed by the particular
beliefs any fundamentalist happens to hold. No, what we find obnoxious is the
pugnacious and obnoxious attitudes that so often accompany their beliefs. But
what if they drop that attitude? Why would they?
It was for
the sake of feeling uniquely indwelt and transformed by the Holy Ghost that
they have erected attitudinal walls against non-co-religionists. It was a mind
game to protect their cherished in-group and their firmly-cemented membership
in it. But the more you become like the mainstream, the less separates you from
everybody else, well, the more difficult it becomes to feel special, uniquely
connected to God and sanctified by Jesus. It’s not like they ever wanted
to relegate everybody else to the Lake of Fire. It just seemed necessary in
order for them to rejoice in not being relegated there themselves. And now feeling
so different is no longer the priority. Attitudes affect doctrines which affect
thing that will sooner or later bring the Evangelical Wailing Wall down is sex.
More and more, Middle School, High School, and College Evangelicals admit to
having sex in the same casual way as their “unsaved” contemporaries.
That is, pre-marital, recreational sex. Having been so long Apollonian, they
are itching to yield to Dionysus. But the gospel teaching of Jesus happens to
be far more Apollonian than Dionysian. (Give ‘em time, though, to discover
the Q Source Jesus of Leif Vaage, Jesus as a “first-century party animal,”
and they’ll be boasting of their biblical fidelity again.)
standpoint of sect-maintenance, this shift is fatal for two reasons. First,
and most obviously, if this fundamental plank of the Evangelical platform rots
and snaps, you can find little of similar magnitude to point to as the signal
difference between the saved and the unsaved. I admit, there are a few more
that would be similarly fatal, such as a casual permissiveness re drugs and
admit that there are matters of graver moral content. A Christian ought to be
able to say, e.g., “Jesus saved me from lying, from being insensitive,
from being self-centered, cowardly, evasive, materialistic,” etc., and
those things might be more important. I’d say they are. But you see, everybody
accepts and admires those values. They don’t give Evangelicals special
bragging rights like the sexual and other behavioral codes used to do.
relaxing the sexual code is symbolically significant. Any group’s mores
concerning food and sex are symbolic of their social boundaries and the shape
of their self-identity. A group does not necessarily have both indices. One
will do, though usually there are both. Old Testament Israelites were separated
from rival cults/cultures by upholding inflexible restrictions on permissible
food and on possible intermarriage partners. Sexual fidelity had a lot to do
with guaranteeing that one’s true heirs inherited one’s land and
name. Jewish Christians were alarmed at Paul being willing to abolish Jewish
dietary and other ceremonial scruples to make it easier for Gentiles to join
Christianity. They could see instantly that such a move would result in Jews
being squeezed to the margins of the new religion—and it did. Jewish identity
within Christianity was lost. Similarly, among American Jews today it is not
bigotry when Orthodox rabbis discourage mixed marriages with non-Jews. Allow
that, and you can say the big goodbye to Judaism in America. It will be only
a matter of time before intermarriage with well-meaning and good-hearted non-Jews
will completely erode American Judaism. The hybrid “Chrismika” is
only a stop along the one-way track. Maybe there will be an Orthodox farm next
to the Amish farm.
the sex barrier falls, the same fate is in store for Evangelical Christianity.
(There never was a consistent Evangelical food boundary; even the Reformed drank
alcohol.) And when the new generations are none too sure that non-believers
are headed for hell, it becomes inevitable that American Evangelicalism will
ease into the acid bath of American Pluralism. And it may happen sooner than
you think. And then all those mega-churches will be up for sale. Unless of course
they find a new product to sell. TV preacher Joel Osteen has done just that.
His Evangelical belief is merely vestigial; he has converted to New Thought.
It is no coincidence that he fills that stadium. Others may not be so lucky.