The Myth of the Evangelical Crack-up

One of our Patrick Henry College students scored an internship at Slate, the big and influential online magazine. Recently, he actually wrote the lead, front-page story. I’ll link it to his byline: David Sessions.

First of all, how good does an openly conservative Christian have to be to get an internship with “Slate”? Second, how good of an intern does he have to be to write a lead story? Third, how good does the college have to be to prepare a young Christian to get that kind of internship and to be able to write that kind of story?

Anyway, David argues in his story that all of the mainstream media stories on how Christian conservatives have lost their political clout are wrong. David did a little research (which he learned at PHC) and found that the mainstream media has been saying this for EVERY election, and that it has ALWAYS taken Christian activists a while to get behind any particular candidate.

David also offers insights into the new generation of Christian political activists. They do NOT believe in establishing a theocracy (a notion that many “Slate” readers use to scare themselves at night). They are not even as conservative as many pundits assume (which is not necessarily a good thing).

David cites the influence of Reformed theology among many younger activists as something that minimizes the legalism and theocratic impulse, putting more emphasis on God’s grace rather than setting up a militant kingdom on earth. I would add, though, that the theocrats also grow out of a particular Reformed tradition. But there is indeed another strain of Calvinism that opposes that emphasis. (Some of its critics accuse his adherents of “crypto-Lutheranism”!)

I’m not sure I totally agree with David’s diagnosis that evangelicals are not cracking up. But what do you think?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • fwsonnek

    The press doesn´t know what to do with religious people.

    It tends therefore to treat them like some monolithic group.

    Interestingly, this is the same way evangelicals tend to view gays and also view liberals.

    This is clear from the use of the term “________ Agenda” . You can fill in the blank with gay, liberal, or conservative. This phrase only works if there is in fact a monolithic group.

    Labels are useful for people who don´t like to think.

    There are conservative and christian gays for example. MANY of them. I am one. I view abortion as murder. I like the idea of small republican (with a small “r”) government. I do not believe marriage and gay marriage are identical things. There are liberals who are against abortion. There are conservatives who think abortions should be legal. The press seems to only like ideas that can fit on a bumper sticker. Ditto vocal gays, conservatives, and liberals.

    We seem trained as americans to look with suspicion for points of disagreement rather than points of agreement. As GK Chesterton points out, Gentlemen who argue seriously, must first agree before they disagree. They must agree on what they agree on to pinpoint honestly what they disagree on.

    Americans, well trained by the press, rarely do the first part and those who do are looked upon as “softheaded” or “vascilating”

    Example: There is NO one who thinks abortions are a great idea, as in “every woman should experience an abortion!” So where is the agreement here? and where is the disagreement?

    Reasonable men and women could reshape this argument in a way that would not result in zero abortions, but could greatly reduce the number of them.

    Is there any set of laws that will ever bring this number down to zero? The nature of this form of murder is such that it can always be done outside of the view of law enforcement. Not so for murder of the born. Practical calculations do not war against moral and religious ideals but must be shaped by them.

    So laws alone will not achieve what we conservatives want here.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Robert Perry

    I’d tend to agree with both your student, and you, in certain ways, Dr. Veith. I agree with your (?) student in that the press has been trumpeting the “downfall of the religious right” for decades, it seems.

    On the other hand, the “Willow Creek” and “Emergent” phenomena do seem to indicate that historic theology is being attacked in too many evangelical churches.

    Does agreeing with both of you convict me of “triangulation”? :^)

  • organshoes

    A very interesting paragraph in National Review’s The Corner blog this morning, a response from a self-identified evangelical Christian, who sees the ‘Christian right’ fracturing from its own confused sense of itself.
    These aren’t exactly his words, but mine, in absorbing his meaning.
    Christian conservatives are, as Robert Perry so aptly noted, fractured among the TBN-types, and the Willow Creek/ Purpose-Driven-types. The latter are more progressive socially, and certainly are lavish theologically; more inclined towards following a social-gospel model.
    No brand of Evangelical Christians seems to be of the libertarian, live and let live stripe, but each sees a different way for government to address and answer current problems. For the TBN crowd, it’s prayer in schools, 10 Commandments in public squares, God’s name freely spoken and printed and used in public fora, an end to abortion-on-demand. For the Willow Creek-types, it’s environmentalism and social justice: underwrite the poor with tax dollars, green as government policy and by government fiat. Abortion probably doesn’t register to them as anywhere a #1 issue, just as environmentalism isn’t on the radar of the other side of this one coin.
    The War on Terror is also not an issue among these new evangelicals, but is an important Christian issue to the old-timers.
    Dr. Dobson is irrelevant to Willow Creek; but Joel Osteen and his ilk are not irrelevant to the old-timers, because he and Purpose-Driven Christianity seem so nice and helpful and all.
    In short, a lack of theology does strange things to Christians, turning erstwhile bedfellows into political opposites, all on religious (not theological) grounds.

  • Don S

    That was a very impressive and well researched article, particularly for a liberal media outlet like Slate. Young Mr. Sessions is an early example of the impact that Patrick Henry College is going to have on this country and its discourse as time marches on. I thank God every day that my daughter attends PHC and is a part of this young conservative movement.

    I, in large part, agree with the premise of the article. Evangelicals have never been a monolithic group — many Christians didn’t vote in past years, and southern Christians were historically Democrats in the post-Civil War years and right up into the ’60′s and ’70′s. The “Moral Majority” was really the first attempt to organize evangelicals into a cohesive voting bloc, but its success, I believe, was largely due to the rise of Ronald Reagan, who gave us the kind of inspiring figure we conservatives could rally around (although even in 1980 there was a lot of talk about whether he was “electable).

    Political and theological liberalism has definitely crept in around the edges of the evangelical movement, with the emergent church and a few seeker oriented megachurches, but let’s not forget that the huge Southern Baptist Convention (14 million members) has swung sharply in the conservative direction in the past 25 years. We will coalesce around a single candidate when there is one worthy of coalescing around.

  • Joe

    I don’t believe for a second that their NO people who think abortions are a great idea. I know and work with some young women who view them as an act of liberation; a protest against a patriarchal society who seeks to force them into the kitchen. They are young (mid-twenties) and I hope they grow out of it. But as of today, and they can vote today, they see abortions as not some terrible choice that some women are forced to make, but as liberation.

    Also, while you cannot stop every abortion by passing a law, that is not a reason not to pass the law. Following this logic to its obvious conclusion we should either repeal all laws or enact an automatic death sentence without due process for anyone who violates any law. For those who want to argue that you can legislate morality, I say yes you can and this country has been doing so for about 200 years. It may not change hearts but that is the governments job; it’s the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • tim prussic

    ‘Theocracy’ is a difficult thing to avoid, no? After all, don’t God rule? Further, Christocracy is what the whole Bible is concerned with – the great Messianic rule. Christ is currently ruling at the right hand of his Father, dispensing gifts to his church to equip her to disciple all the nations, and waiting until all he enemies are put under his feet until he returns and puts that last one (death) under himself. So, a Christian’s main calling is to extend Christ’s dominion over every area of life – including politics.

    This notion (or notions resembling it in one way or another) has been applied in really dumb ways (prohibition, anyone?), but the truth of the notion stands. Our ‘theocratic’ principles ought to be our guiding light in politics, as in all things.

    The idol of politics requires us to sacrifice our principles, ethics, and children at the altar of electability. A Christian (read: theocrat) cannot make such a sacrifice.

  • organshoes

    Right on, Joe. Abortion is welcome to many for what it represents, though they certainly have to ignore just exactly what it is.
    And being against abortion is worse, to them, than any abortion itself, or anything abortion actually is, because, you see, to them at least, abortion is a gain. A win.
    Legal abortion represents the power of women, and particularly the power of women over not their own bodies as they claim, but over men.
    Infringing on the rights of women to abort is infringing on the essence of womanhood, i.e., caring, nurturing, protecting. Women have abortions, donchaknow, for the protection of those babies they abort, so they don’t suffer unwantedness, poverty, neglect, etc. And apparently such concerns are only in the femisphere; only women can truly care enough about babies to abort them. Men are incapable of such a level of caring as women intrinsically possess, that would render babies unborn for their own good.

  • fwsonnek

    Joe and Organshoes:

    I have talked to alot of women who are pretty militantly “pro-choice”. I have yet to encounter a case where they cannot be easily led to agree that abortions are the worst possible solution and that anything that would reduce the number of abortions would be a good thing.

    who have you actually TALKED to (as opposed to argued with)?

  • fwsonnek

    Joe:

    “I think abortions are a GREAT idea!!!” “sign me up to have as many as possible, because it makes me feel liberated as a woman!”

    I don´t hear anyone vocalizing things this way. C´mon Joe.

    It is always possible to talk to people in such a way as to push them into a rhetorical or logical corner. You are probably very logical and intelligent and so very good at this. Sometimes this is actually useful in a courtroom or other venues. So that was not a critical comment brother Joe, just an observation.

    I would rather persuade people and make them think outside of their box by first hearing them out and seeking points of agreement.

    True, I seldom get the self-satisfaction of confirming my own opinions and the self affirmation of winning arguments that way. But still…..

    I have helped at least a few women decide in favor of alternatives to abortion. Go figure. Here in Brasil, my home, where abortions are NOT legal, and abortion IS rampant, and botched abortions are quite common (mother and child both die), I hope to do my part to save many more lives. One at a time. Go figure some more.

    This scourge will not go away with criminalization or even REDUCE the number of lives lost. No study as ever indicated this as a likely outcome.

    I can´t argue with the honorable intentions who want laws to reflect what abortion is… murder. Especially when (unlike Bush, et al) :

    (1) there is no escape clause for cases of rapes or incest, and

    (2) women and their doctors face life in prison or the death sentence for abortions.

    This has the virtue of logical and moral consistency

    I know of NO candidate (congressional or presidential) who is pushing for either or both provisions…do you? I would consider voting for that candidate! Tell me who he is!

    Ok Joe and Organshoes: I can find irrational people who confirm my worst suspicions of conservatives, liberals, gays, catholics, mormons, muslims and EVANGELICALS…. cool.

    Ahem….

    My post keyed into this thread by pointing out that there are no monolithic groups that can be “cracked up” and liberals and conservatives hold the same erronious preconceptions that each side is monolithic. David, in the article referred to, sort of makes the same point, but I think he misses the point by too narrowly focussing on evangelicals.

    It seems to me that alot of differences would look different and less stark if we avoided categorizing people and labeling them and listened with more care. But then we would have to think in shades of grey (which need not equate to moral relativism) .

    How do YOUR posts tie back to what Vieth posted pray tell??

  • organshoes

    I doubt the regular liberal-on-the-street understands how strident he or she is about protecting abortion, not as an action, but as a right. I don’t think most of its supporters realize how vigorously they feel about it, because it’s not what abortion is, but what it represents.
    They think they are defending freedom, feminism, and women in general, defending human rights, opposing tyranny of a sort.
    That’s one reason its advocates go so ballistic when pro-lifers attempt to use photos of fetuses, aborted and in the womb, because it makes them have to face what the thing is, beyond all the language they use to defend it. They never describe it, do they? Indeed, they run away from descriptions of abortion-the-action, while they cling to notions of abortion-the-choice, abortion-the-freedom.
    That’s what Joe is saying. Maybe they don’t stand on street corners yelling that abortions are great ideas, but they certainly aren’t lining up to denounce abortion or to advocate adoption or motherhood. Their aim is to protect abortion-on-demand as a right, and they do so by disregarding and even denouncing alternatives to it.
    That’s why hearts and minds are the only useful solutions to abortion. Anyone who thinks re-criminalizing the practice will eliminate it or even change people’s minds about it is as deluded as the advocate who believes abortion has a humane side.

  • Joe

    My post does not tie back to Dr. Veith’s and it was not intended to. You made a statement that in my experience is demonstrably false so I responded to it. The two women I work with are not the only ones I could cite to. I also knew very well several women who ran the Women’s Center at the school where I got my undergraduate degree. They expressed move than several times that abortion was not some horrible last resort but that it was a good, positive thing. You see they don’t think it is a child so why would it carry a negative moral connotation for them. There is nothing irrational about their position. They don’t believe it is a human thus there is no moral problem. It is simply something they can do if they chose.

    Lets also not forget that Ms. Magazine was able to compile a list of over 5,000 women who were willing to sign their name to a statement that they did not regret having an abortion. Some of the women said it was a hard decision but others said stuff like this:

    “I wanted to do something bigger with myself — I didn’t want to be stopped by anything,” she said in a telephone interview.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15119353/wid/11915773?GT1=8618

    That does not say I was really distraught, I had no options; its says, this kid was messing up my plans and thank the devil I could just kill it and move on.

    Sadly, I think you are giving the pro-abortion side of the debate too much credit as a whole. I do not dispute that there are many women who truly felt they had no other option and who have life long emotional angst over the choice they made. But likewise you should recognize that their others who had abortion and think it was a positive life changing moment for them. They exist.

    You should also refrain from deciding how I do and do not discuss abortion with people. Your assumption that I am fighting with or badgering the women I mentioned is absurd. These are my co-workers not my enemies. We don’t line up on opposite sides of the office and yell at each other or argue. We talk, rationally and calmly. These are their views without trickery or logical traps. It is just how they think. I am not actually surprised; one of them was a women’s studies major in college.

  • Greg

    It is not just the Evangelical Right that is cracking up but the whole American Right. The Right is an incredibly diverse movement that was cobbled togeather out of the common ground of anti-communism. The collapse of the communist threat made the disolution of the right inevitable. It is only a wonder that it took so long. Attempts to substitute anti-jihadism for anti-communism have only been marginally successful.

  • fwsonnek

    JOE:

    “You should also refrain from deciding how I do and do not discuss abortion with people. Your assumption that I am fighting with or badgering the women I mentioned is absurd.”

    I did not make that assumption.

    I dont think any of the women you talked to would say they would like to experience more abortions or have them on regular basis, or that they would like to see more women get pregnant with the goal of experiencing the “positive parts” of having an abortion.

    Just because they dont TELL you they feel angst or remorse or even that it was the right or positive decision for them does not mean you can or should infer from that, that they think abortions are a great idea and every woman should experience it at least once.

    I am still not hearing this even in what you are quoting Joe. Am I missing something?

    I am still waiting for someone to point me to a TRUE antiabortion candidate who makes no exceptions for rape or incest and would move for it to be prosecuted as premeditated murder. I DO ASSUME you are with me on the definition of a true antiabortion candidate?

  • Joe

    I agree it is premeditated murder and the doctors and the mother should go to jail. I really do believe that.

    I guess I can never satisfy you as I have not yet developed the ability to read peoples minds – so all I can do is take them at their word when they tell me they think abortion is the greatest thing since sliced bread.


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