Fault lines in modern evangelicalism

Obama and Rick WarrenIf you needed more evidence that not all cultural conservatives are true political conservatives, all you need to do is read the tea leaves on page one in today’s Washington Times. If you needed more evidence that many of the populist Christians from the old Democratic Bible Belt have not been fully integrated into the country clubs of the old Republican guard, you can click on that same link. Because here is the news from reporter Ralph Z. Hallow:

A bitter fight is taking place behind the scenes over Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

Influential conservatives are clashing over whether Mr. Huckabee is capable of keeping evangelicals from fleeing the GOP to form a third party or if he’s too liberal fiscally for the Republican electorate. The battle is bubbling into the public arena, fueled by fears that a three-way race could hand the presidency to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or another Democrat, and by murmurs of Mr. Huckabee as a vice-presidential candidate on the party’s ticket.

“We called him a pro-life, pro-gun liberal, when I was in the state legislature and he was governor,” said Randy Minton, chairman of the Arkansas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s national Eagle Forum.

Mr. Minton voices the concerns of many conservatives that while Mr. Huckabee governed as a social conservative in opposing abortion and same-sex “marriage,” he was a treacherous liberal on taxes, social welfare spending and illegal immigration.

See how that combination of populist economics and cultural conservatism threatens the more Libertarian side of things? Notice that some religious conservatives have bought the full “conservative” package and some have not? No one is worried that Huckabee is going to pull a third-party revolt. This is all about forcing religious conservatives onto the GOP ranch, no matter what. Meanwhile, the Democrats are trying to sound faith-friendly, while retaining their fundraising links to the Planned Parenthood/Hollywood bank.

The in-depth story that everyone is talking about, however, is in the other TimesThe New York Times Magazine, that is. That is where conservative-beat veteran David D. Kirkpatrick is writing about the story — “The Great Evangelical Crackup” — that your GetReligionistas have been talking about for three or four years now. That would be the splintering of the uneasy evangelical (whatever that word means) coalition that backed President George W. Bush. Kirkpatrick has the usual sad details about the lives of some religious conservatives who totally baptized the GOP. Yet the heart of his story can be found in this simple, but sweeping, passage:

The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines that go much deeper. … The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

There are parts of this story that I would challenge and, to be honest, I should state right up front that I discussed them with Kirkpatrick as he approached the finish line on this massive, must-read project. It’s crucial to know that many evangelicals (not to mention Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and traditional mainliners) never bought Bush — period. He was yet another compromise in the real world, a man who seemed to have a born-again Bible study cover over his Texas oil-culture soul.

jan07 cvstI also think Kirkpatrick comes very close — but just misses — a key element of this story in this summary passage that follows up on his statement about the passing of the all-powerful era of the evangelical alpha males:

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors — including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels — are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus’ teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty — problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

So close. So close. For example, who is Kirkpatrick describing when he writes that some believers are focusing on a “push to better this world as well as save eternal souls”? Is that the religious right or the new evanglical left? In the 1990s, who acted as if defeating Bill Clinton could bring in the New Jerusalem and make the world a better place? Who has been tempted to think that they could produce a culture of life at the ballot box, while often overlooking its role in their own homes, schools, pews and shopping malls? Meanwhile, traditional Christian faith has always been a both-and equation, both body and soul, both social justice and salvation. Name the political party in which that kind of believer can find comfort, today.

But Kirkpatrick is close to the mark when he starts talking about the essential divisions between, let’s say, Warren and Hybels, between old evangelicalism and the “emerging church.” Talk about two different cultures! Want to find the fault line today? Dig deeper right there. And it is crucial to pursue this as a matter of doctrine, rather than politics. That’s where you will find the deep cracks in the foundations, the differences that affect politics, but ultimately are much more important than politics.

So how would you find these cracks? You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Ask the evangelicals, from Warren to Hybels, from Richard Cizik to Jim Wallis, the following three questions:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

I promise that the answers will be interesting, much more interesting than the political questions that change from decade to decade.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • tanegeel

    That is where conservative-beat veteran David D. Kirkpatrick is writing about the story — “The Great Evangelical Crackup” — that your GetReligionistas have been talking about for three or four years now.

    I devoted the required time to reading this story Sunday and thought it was an excellent roundup of the issues. But like you said, thoughtful believers who vote have been talking about these things for years. Most of the topics — a sense of disillusionment among evangelical voters, a return of populist sentiment to the pew, an emerging leadership that shuns political rhetoric — seem like old news to me. But I’m glad the NYT is taking notice. Just wish they’d done it sooner.

  • http://webspeak.bravenet.com WebSpeak

    Well a third party might not be a bad idea. We have other parties but none are strong enough to give the Democrats and the Republicans any challenge.

    Just call our present two party system a two party system the one of them. It seems that they just trade off time now and actually have very similar agendas. With other strong parties the USA would stand a better chance of remaining a republic rather than a dictatorship.

  • Jim Davis

    I’m surprised that fiscal conservatism is a dividing point over opinions of Mike Huckabee. Our current “conservative” chief exec is presiding over a national debt of some $9 trillion.

  • Jerry

    I agree with Jim Davis. Our current President’s economic policies of borrow and spend is much, much worse than tax and spend. And, it should be noted that the Democratic Congress immediately put back the idea of “pay as you go” (PAYGO) when they took office. Proponents of small government won’t like PAYGO, but they should like it much better than “borrow and spend”.

    On the large issue, this whole question is part of the perennial question: What does it mean to live a righteous life? In the 60′s Joan Baez sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” because the social gospel was being preached. Later, that song was the property of the right. Now the pendulum appears to be swinging back. The swing between various answers to this question echoes strongly a button on my wall: “The chief cause of problems is solutions”. The swing between the economic right and left on the part of evangelicals is a part of that process.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    Meanwhile, the Democrats are trying to sound faith-friendly, while retaining their fundraising links to the Planned Parenthood/Hollywood bank.

    How is that automatically not faith-friendly? Many religious liberals aren’t going to have large problems with that connection.

    Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

    Again, I find this confusing. Do you mean to ask whether the author of the Gospel of John means for readers to take this “literally,” or what? Having been written sometime around 100 C.E., it would have difficult to have this information firsthand, barring some post-Pentecost mystical experience for the author of John.

  • Brian Walden

    Christopher,
    It’s not so much about what the “right” answer to the three questions are as it’s about how a person answers them. For example, the way you answered the question about John 14:6 reveals a lot about your beliefs.

  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    What’s most striking to me is the seeming assumption that evangelical/Baptist voters are so important to Bush/Republican support, when a little investigation would seem to belie this. If one looks at “red state-ness” on a county-by-basis, one can find it correlating very strongly with those mainline Methodists and not all that well with those “evangelical” Baptists. In that wise it’s ironic that they lead off with a Kansas Baptist preacher when one can see from the maps that he is atypical.

  • http://caveatbettor.blogspot.com caveat bettor

    I take a page out of Martin Luther’s playbook: I try to pull the levers for wise over the foolish, and will choose a Wise Turk over a Foolish Christian.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    What Brian said.

    Amen.

  • Dale

    I thought that, given its size, the Washington Post story did a poor job differentiating between political conservatism and religious doctrinal conservatism. It’s not that hard to distinguish between the two, and goes a long way in explaining the supposed rift in the evangelical community. American evangelicalism has always included Protestant denominations that were doctrinally conservative, but had pacifist or other social teachings that don’t fit within with the Republican party platform. The fact that this has dawned on the press now doesn’t mean it’s a new development.

    The “emergent” movement has some contingents that compromise Nicene orthodoxy, but in large part it remains orthodox, especially with regard to the historical accuracy of the resurrection narratives and the uniqueness of Christ. I think the tmatt trio won’t bring out the differences between many in the emergent movement and more traditional evangelicals, which, as far as I can see, has more to do with with emphasis than outright contradiction or disagreement.

    Hybels and Warren are more akin to traditional evangelicals than the emergent movement and certainly aren’t taking cues from Bultmann in “demythologizing” the resurrection. When David Wells criticizes them, it’s for deemphasis of doctrine, not heresy. It’s easy for Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council to blame their declining influence on the rise of unarticulated heresy. A reporter who knows something about theology needs to challenge that assertion by asking for specifics. I don’t think it holds up.

    For example, let’s look at a quote from one of the pastors whom the Washington Post cites as an example of the “newer” voices in evangelicalism:

    “From a theological standpoint, I am an evangelical,” Bergquist, who is 28, explained to me. “But I don’t mean that anyone who is gay is necessarily going to hell, or that anyone who has an abortion is going to hell.”

    That sounds pretty orthodox to me. No one goes to hell because they’re gay or because they’ve had an abortion; however, that doesn’t mean that those behaviors are permissible within the church. It’s also true that no one goes to heaven because they’re straight or they haven’t had an abortion. So how is this a change?

    Once again we have a reporter discovering that evangelicalism does not necessarily fit his expectations and reporting that as a “new” trend.

  • Eric

    I’m confused by this questions.

    In the 1980s, who acted as if defeating Bill Clinton could bring in the New Jerusalem and make the world a better place?

    Who was trying to defeat Clinton in the ’80s? Did you mean the ’90s or did you mean some other politician?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    ERIC:

    D’oh! It’s a typo. I will fix it.

  • Pingback: StephenBraunlich.com » Right evangelical collapse?

  • Pierre Begovia

    There should be no need to mince around issues in a quasi-private forum such as this blog.

    For example, Brian Walden, when you write in response to Christopher’s claim (and when tmatt dittoes it), to write in code is spineless.

    Simply come out and say “Based on your clear misreading of the text Christopher, I don’t believe that you believe that salvation comes through faith alone.”

    To daintily state that “the way you answered … reveals a lot about your beliefs” is tea-parlor talk.

    Be a man, for God’s sake. Are you seriously afraid of hurting someone’s feelings on a blog?!

  • Brian Walden

    There should be no need to mince around issues in a quasi-private forum such as this blog.

    For example, Brian Walden, when you write in response to Christopher’s claim (and when tmatt dittoes it), to write in code is spineless.

    Simply come out and say “Based on your clear misreading of the text Christopher, I don’t believe that you believe that salvation comes through faith alone.”

    To daintily state that “the way you answered . . . reveals a lot about your beliefs” is tea-parlor talk.

    Be a man, for God’s sake. Are you seriously afraid of hurting someone’s feelings on a blog?!

    Huh? The main goal of the three questions isn’t to debate the correct answer to those specific questions – it’s to learn about someone’s entire belief system very quickly. Christopher demonstrated that in his answer to just one of the questions. I personally don’t feel that arguing for my beliefs over Christopher’s is pertinent to the main discussion.

  • DALE HUGHES

    I pretty much endorse DALE’S Remarks, Thanks


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