Hyping the young evangelical cats

young lionsIt would be interesting to know if New York Times reporters Michael Luo and Laurie Goodstein started work on their above-the-fold A1 story on the “new breed of evangelicals” before Jerry Falwell died last week. The story has been much discussed in the blog world (it’s currently number 9 on the NYT‘s list of most blogged stories in the last three days), but there really isn’t much new in this report.

That evangelicals have mostly moved on from Falwell’s politics and style has been known for quite a while and was nicely highlighted in a next-day analysis by The Washington Post‘s Hanna Rosin. The Times does a good job summarizing a bunch of polls that basically tell us that evangelicals are still culture warriors and that Rick Warren still wears Hawaiian shirts, but this is all old news.

Here’s the lede:

The evangelical Christian movement, which has been pivotal in reshaping the country’s political landscape since the 1980s, has shifted in potentially momentous ways in recent years, broadening its agenda and exposing new fissures.

This talk of momentous changes, broadening agendas and new fissures should show that things are genuinely changing in the movement, but as The Revealer pointed out yesterday, it’s really just a change of style:

What the story misses is that so far, style, not substance, defines the emergence of new “issues” on the evangelical agenda, such as global warming and poverty. The NYT and Pew interpret this as evidence of “centrism,” without discussing the conservative energy the evangelical movement brings to these issues. Warren isn’t joining the liberal crusade, much less the leftist fight, against poverty — he’s reviving the good-natured, laissez-faire Ronald Reagan style. That style has roots in American evangelicalism, as it happens, going back to the conservative evangelical activists of the 1930s, who argued that economic malaise was a reflection of spiritual suffering, and ought to fought on the spiritual plane.

Not to disappoint Andrew Sullivan, but this story’s lede dramatically overplayed what’s actually happening inside this broad movement:

The evangelical movement, however, is clearly evolving. Members of the baby boomer generation are taking over the reins, said D.G. Hart, a historian of religion. The boomers, he said, are markedly different in style and temperament from their predecessors and much more animated by social justice and humanitarianism. Most of them are pastors, as opposed to the heads of advocacy groups, making them more reluctant to plunge into politics to avoid alienating diverse congregations.

“I just don’t see in the next generation of so-called evangelical leaders anyone as politically activist-minded” as Mr. Falwell, the Rev. Pat Robertson or James C. Dobson, he said.

Mr. Warren, 53, who wrote the spiritual best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” has dedicated much of the past few years to mobilizing evangelicals to eradicate AIDS in Africa. Even so, he remains theologically and socially quite conservative. He tempers the sharper edges of his beliefs with a laid-back style (his usual Sunday best is a Hawaiian shirt). Although he does not speak from the pulpit about politics, he sent a letter before the 2004 presidential election to pastors in a vast network who draw advice from him, urging them to weigh heavily “nonnegotiable” issues like abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage from a biblical perspective.

Well there you have it from the most famous of those young lions: abortion, stem cells, same-sex marriage are all still there as issues for evangelicals. If this change of style is a “potentially momentous” shift, I wonder what type of news play the NYT would give if one of these issues actually changed for evangelicals.

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  • Jerry

    The problem I have with that story is that it conflates being Bible-centered with being an economic,laissez-faire, capitalist. I don’t see any evidence in what Rick Warren has written that indicates that. Perhaps someone can provide a cite to prove that point. From what I can see, his approach is Bible-centered first and last. If some read the Bible as supporting laissez-faire capitalism, they’re reading a different Bible than I am.

    I guess my biggest objection is to state without proof that the “liberal crusade against poverty” is necessarily and obviously not Bible-centered.

    That could easily have been written as: Rick Warren follows a Bible-centered view of helping the poor, rejecting typical economic conservative positions of social darwinism, helping the rich get richer and “greed is good”.

  • Diane Fitzsimmons

    This story (and many others like it) seems to me to not “get” the nature of Christianity, and ironically most Christians don’t “get” it either. And that is, no matter how the media or some Christians paint Christians as “they’re folks just like us,” Christians by definition are not supposed to fit in. They are aliens in this kingdom, serving here while they wait for God’s kingdom. Bible-thumping, angry fundamentalists don’t represent the ideal of Christians, IMO; but neither do Christians who “fit” in better with the mainstream. Usually if I’m feeling comfortable with this kingdom, I’m straying from God’s kingdom.

  • Irenaeus

    I think the media is driving this more than it’s an actual phenomenon, but it *is* an actual phenomenon. With a few exceptions (like Tony Campolo and Jim Willis) most evangelicals will not surrender their fundamental positions on sexuality and life. The more interesting question is where and if evangelical and conservative Christians will exercise their political influence. I don’t think we are changing in any great measure; we may be divorcing the GOP.

  • Dale

    I concur with Jerry. The fact that Warren and other evangelical leaders don’t adhere to Marxist/materialist explanations of poverty doesn’t mean they’re laissez faire capitalists. Christians, unsurprisingly, tend to think of economics in theological terms, whether it’s the sin of greed and indifference among the rich, the “moral malaise” of the poor, or the “powers and principalities” of the free market economic system. How the Revealer can equate that with Reaganesque supply-side economics (which is actually about as Adam-Smith-liberal as you can get), is anybody’s guess.

    I guess my biggest objection is to state without proof that the “liberal crusade against poverty” is necessarily and obviously not Bible-centered.

    Clearly aiding the poor is mandated by the Bible. How we accomplish that is not always as clear. I don’t see any clear biblical endorsement of capitalism; neither do I see an endorsement of a coercive redistribution of property by the state. Depending on the context, either may be a valid solution for poverty, or an unjust institution.

  • Stephen A.

    CNN’s Mr. Anderson, reporting on the “controversial” life and “comments” of Rev. Falwell, played up a story tonight about the emerging “moderate, less political” wing of the Evangelicals, that take a more nuanced view of “abortion rights” (their keyword) and other formerly “hot button issues for the Right.”

    Heck, said the woman reporter on his show, even one of these “newbies” (who looked to be about 55 himself) was promoting “global warming” in his TV ads.

    Gee, maybe even evangelicals will gravitate towards the Democratic party in the future, she said, with a smirk that barely concealed her glee that Falwell’s solid GOP voting bloc may break up.

    We can do far better than this kind of myopic advocacy journalism when it comes to reporting.

  • Harris

    There appears to also be a confusion between Evangelicals as political actors, and the voting/issue behavior of Evangelicals. Warren and others are backing away from the cultural role as political actors, sensing rightly that this does little except compromise their mission. Some of this may b because of changing attitudes about some issues, and so warrant some D-glee. But the broader sense may be that of a move to apolitical stance, a refusal to be political foot soldiers.

    In that sense, we might conclude Movement Evangelicaldom is dying.

    But it is unclear that voting behavior will change. The earlier NYT report seemed to capture this the best, capturing some of the “softening” but noting that the commitments to life and against abortion remained, even amongst these ‘New Evangelicals.’

    What perhaps has changed in the last generation has been the continuing expansion of the “decay” that Evangelicals have decried. In part, this seems to arise as a reaction to the very polarization that an earlier generation brought to the table (our cultural wars). Where once Evangelicals thought of themselves as a majority, they now conceive themselves as a minority, oppressed, put-upon.

    In that light, who can blame some for thinking that the path of polarization, or explicit political fealty may not be the best path? For them the change is not one of tactics, of switching sides, but of strategy and a new approach.

  • Scott Allen

    Jerry and Dale, you both assert that the Bible isn’t “laissez-faire capitalist.” It is at least capitalist, isn’t it? Otherwise you can get rid of “thou shalt not steal” since no one owns anything…and the notion (explained by Peter in Acts) that Ananias and Saphira had every right to do what they wished with their property, and dropped dead not because of holding back but lying about giving all proceeds (from a certain sale) to the church.
    The NT does not describe a national economic model, but if you look to the OT you will see a clear pattern of private ownership and the responsibility of judges/kings to uphold it. It is difficult to argue whether it was “laissez-faire” since some of the tools to manage a modern economy — for example interest rate manipulation controls and currency control — did not exist. Others, such as taxation and building projects, did.

    Overall, I believe that the only blanket statement one can make is that Marxist/Leninist “liberation theology” is not Biblical.

  • Dale

    Jerry and Dale, you both assert that the Bible isn’t “laissez-faire capitalist.” It is at least capitalist, isn’t it?

    Not by any definition of capitalism I know.

    Otherwise you can get rid of “thou shalt not steal” since no one owns anything.

    Personal property is not unique to capitalism, and the idea of personal property predates capitalism. Corporations and banks, the foundational institutions of capitalism, didn’t appear until late medieval to early Renaissance Italy–a thousand years after Jesus. Capital markets, or stock exchanges, first developed in early modern England and the Netherlands. Without corporations, banks and capital markets, there is no capitalism. None of those things existed at the time that Moses brought the tablets down from Mt. Sinai, or, for that matter, when John wrote Revelation. The Bible says nothing about capitalism, good or bad; on the other hand, it has a lot to say about our obligation to care for the poor.

    I believe that the only blanket statement one can make is that Marxist/Leninist “liberation theology” is not Biblical.

    Not all socialists are Marxists. There are some orthodox Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians who are socialists, because they believe that is the best way to carry out Jesus’ teachings about caring for the poor.