I can’t help but admire David’s determination to make “evangelical” something other than a political term. David wants to be part of a real movement, one for which politics is no more than one front among many. The good news for David is that he is — contemporary American evangelicalism is probably changing more lives at very intimate levels than it is through public policy. But then, politics, in the broad sense, is about more than policy, more than Washington — more, even, than elections. Modern evangelicalism is a cultural politics.
There’s no better illustration of that than Jerry’s novels. This is literature, of course, but it’s also very political. It shapes the way readers think about what society is and what their role in it is, and ought to be. Sometimes in unexpected ways — I don’t imagine that Jerry or his co-author thought that when they wrote about the tongues of unbelievers exploding in “Glorious Awakening” that that passage would end up serving as a sort of reverse rallying call for leftists who’d perceive it as, um, violent and hateful. (Sorry, Jerry, but I think they have a point.)
But, with respect to both David and Jerry, that kind of thing isn’t any closer to what David wants evangelicalism to be (I write this based on his book, “Tempting Faith,” and a long conversation with him a little while ago) than are the bullies at the Family Research Council. Jerry and David both speak of servanthood, but I have to draw a distinction between their definitions of that term, as understood out here by one of the poor unbelievers presumably in need of service. Jerry’s fiction presents “service” as a my-way-or-the-highway (to Hell) kinda deal. In his personal life, I gather, he’s more interested in simple helping, soup kitchens and the like. Great. But that only goes so far. David, meanwhile, thinks of service systemically — which puts him at odds not only with most American evangelicals, but with the history of American evangelicalism, which has long defined itself as an alternative to systemic critiques.
Or, at least, since 1942, when the National Association of Evangelicals formed with three big goals: to replace the term “fundamentalist” with “evangelical”; to present a spiritual/social alternative to the big left/right systems of that day (not just socialism and fascism, bu what the NAE called the “real dangers” represented by F.D.R.); and to unite believers of many varieties so that together they’d have a stronger voice in Washington.
Of course, “evangelical” was a political term before that. It was certainly political when applied to Charles Finney, the key figure of America’s Second Great Awakening. And it was political when applied to abolitionists, among whose ranks we must count John Brown, the most God-led social reformer in American history, God bless him. No one called MLK an evangelical (not then, anyway; today, far right evangelicals try to claim him as an ancestor), but they could have. I happen to like these guys, even Finney, despite the way he shilled for big business.
Which brings me to my answer to David’s question: “Jeff – What would it take for you to be less forlorn about evangelical attempts to form/shape/manipulate/dominate the political/cultural scene? And/or, what sort of engagement could you welcome?” It would take evangelicals like those. Not at the leadership level — I’m with Ella Baker, who famously declared that “Strong people don’t need strong leaders” — but in everyday life. Not everyone can be an MLK, but everyone can aspire to that clarity of vision combined with his understanding of the endless complexity of morality. Evangelicals are strong on what they think of as clarity, not so good on complexity.
I’d be a lot less forlorn if evangelicals joined the rest of us in the world (they can still say they’re not of it) and acknowledge that they have political ambitions, and that that’s ok. Power, in itself, is not a sin, it’s a fact. But power that claims to be humble is usually sinful, and it’s always a lie. Senator John Thune is a “servant-leader”? That’s like the foreman of the factory insisting that he’s just like a worker. He’s not; he shouldn’t pretend to be.
So, step one: Evangelicals, when gathered as a movement, should be open with themselves and the rest of us about what they want. And — this is key — what they already have. The most sickening aspect of evangelical political discourse is the cry of victimization. Not here, not in this country, not compared to the lot of any number of other groups of people. Evangelicals need to be open about the fact that they want power, and the fact that they already have it.
Then what? What sort of engagement might people like me welcome? Well, we’re already seeing that, aren’t we? I’m thinking of global warming. But here, again, I think we need to recognize the real differences between us — the ways in which evangelicalism is inherently political. I’m glad evangelicals are out front on getting the public to really face the problem of global warming. But I foresee a split down the road, since evangelicalism — unless it’s going to undertake a huge theological shift — is in no position to embrace the kind of deliberately systemic response a problem as big as global warming demands. Personal relationships aren’t going to do it; and “free market” economics sure as hell are going to help. So far, that’s mainly what we’ve heard.
But, as I write above, there are these odd ducks like David who’re thinking in evangelical terms and systematic terms. So — with the caveat that David and I are probably miles apart on most issues — let him lead the way. His book, “Tempting Faith,” is a great example. I disagree with much of it, and even more of its underlying assumptions, but it does everything I’ve asked for. In it, David acknowledges the desire for power, the necessity of power, and the possession of power. And it condemns the humility rhetoric that so often serves as a veil for lack of systemic action. David wants to see things change, he wants to use power to make those changes, and he knows that has to happen on a scale bigger than soup kitchens. Me, I welcome engagement like David’s. He’s an evangelical I can really disagree with, and I mean that in the best sense.
A clarification of a point Michael rightly took issue with: Michael writes, “So I have to disagree with Jeff that the elite and populist branches of evangelicalism have merged. If anything, I think they have grown farther apart. Populist evangelicals go on as they always have, trying to storm the gates. But cosmopolitan evangelicals are already on the inside.”
Michael, like you I don’t believe that populist and elite evangelicals are marching to a single drum. But what’s different now is that elite evangelicals, long more concerned with foreign policy than domestic issues, have signed on for culture war, albeit to be fought in subtler ways, while populist fundamentalists have increasingly learned NOT to storm the gates. A great example is Rick Warren, who but for global warming is pretty nearly politically identical to the late Jerry Falwell. But Warren doesn’t storm the gates, he functions much more like an elite activist, combining nice guy rhetoric with back room maneuvering — and the denial of political ambition — to pursue his goals. Another example is the Fellowship, which we’ve both written about. For most of its history, the politicians associated with the Fellowship were primarily cold warriors, little interested in domestic affairs or the preachers who spoke about them. But if you look at some of the more prominent Fellowship fellow travelers today — Senator Sam Brownback, Representative Joe Pitts, John Ashcroft, Ed Meese, among them — you see guys who are maintaining strong ties to populist fundamentalism as well as the traditional concerns of elites. I’d argue that elite and populist evangelicalism are merging — not merged — toward a more sophisticated and effective center-right politics than either branch has ever achieved on its own.