Thursday, June 26, 2008

Are the Evangelicals "Cracking Up"?

Well, the NYTimes thinks so.

Others (who happen to BE evangelicals and scholars) are not so sure.

...Take, for example, the purported radical shift in alignment among religious conservatives that was reported as a cover story in the New York Times Magazine in October 2007. Under the definitive title “The Evangelical Crackup,” David D. Kirkpatrick announced that the “conservative Christian political movement” today shows signs of “coming apart beneath its leaders.”

...The story line, though it might vary in its details, proceeds on certain cherished assumptions that are intended to keep theological conservatives—be they Protestant or Catholic—culturally quarantined. Accordingly, the “religious right,” at least on the Protestant side, is a largely unthinking albeit well-organized and heavily financed movement. This “movement,” under the marching orders of the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons, is in bed with the Republican party and is a largely two-issue political phenomenon (i.e., directed by its obsessive fear of abortion and homosexuality). Moreover, much of the religious right’s influence stems from the hegemony of the Southern Baptists, the largest denomination (demonization?) in the land, particularly since the “conservative takeover” of the 1980s, when “moderates” were “forced out” of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Of course, little of the 'story line' is true.

[Kirkpatrick likes Warren and Hybels, without realizing that they are anomalic--these folks are similar to the Elmbrook Church group here in Milwaukee.]

Kirkpatrick’s reporting does do us the service, however inadvertently, of exposing problems that are internal to wider evangelicalism itself and its relationship to the culture. That megachurch leaders are placed on a pedestal, whether by New York Times reporters or evangelicals themselves, is instructive. What needs emphasis is that megachurch entrepreneurs—with their large congregations, their larger constituencies, and their even larger book sales—may not be the best, or even the legitimate, measurements of Protestant evangelicalism’s health and vibrancy

...megachurches may well represent the most glaring deficiencies in evangelical thinking—for example, heavy dependence on marketing, large numbers as a measurement of “success,” congregations run as businesses, and a strongly anti-sacramental orientation to church life.


Shortly after Kirkpatrick’s report of a “crackup” appeared, a writer by the name of David Sessions argued in the online journal that the “evangelical right”—whatever the merits of such a moniker—is in truth undergoing no such thing. Rather, he pointed out, the role of evangelicals in the 2004 election itself had been wildly overstated and inflated by the media to mythical proportions. Similarly, on the eve of the 2008 election, he maintained, the fiction of a widespread evangelical “desertion” to the political left needed to be challenged

...[Kirkpatrick] ignores the remarkable—and seldom reported—diversity among evangelicals on matters social and political ...This development, it needs reiteration, has been measurable since the 1980s and is both heartening and to be encouraged. To describe this as a “recent” phenomenon or a “desertion” of traditional priorities or a major leftward political shift, as Kirkpatrick does, is pure fiction

Correlatively, Kirkpatrick propounds a view of evangelicals that is patently false when he writes: “The phenomenon of theologically conservative Christians plunging into political activism . . . is, historically speaking, something of an anomaly.” While Times reporters cannot be expected to be experts in American religious history, they cannot be excused for evading—or denying—the rich history of American evangelical Protestants in terms of social reform, health and medical reform, not to mention a fundamental concern for human life, dignity, and welfare. And in this regard, we evangelicals gratefully continue to learn from our Catholic brethren.

...important changes surely have been afoot throughout wider evangelicalism, but neither are the most significant of these developments “recent” nor do they spell a collapse of traditional evangelical commitments in the social-political arena that equate to an exodus to the Democratic party, Kirkpatrick’s own wishes notwithstanding

...and don't count any votes until they're actually voted, folks.

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