It 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.