Will Evangelicals Rediscover Religion?

Our ongoing public arguments about religion suffer badly from the fact that few of the arguers have a clue what religion actually is. This is true of the crusading atheists, who define “religion” as “knee-jerk obedience to literal interpretations of scripture while believing in imaginary sky fairies.” Yes, some religious people are like that, but that doesn’t define “religion” per se any more than the platypus defines “animals.”

A big part of the problem with our definitions of religion stems from the fact that most of us have had a very narrow exposure to religion. This is doubly true in the U.S., in spite of the fact that we may be living in the most religiously diverse nation in human history. Somehow, in mass media and in the public hive mind, the default definition of “religion” is “conservative evangelical Christianity.”

Emma Green writes in The Atlantic,

Evangelical Christianity has long had a stranglehold on how Americans imagine public faith. Vague invocations of “religion”—whether it’s “religion vs. science” or “religious freedom”—usually really mean “conservative, Protestant, evangelical Christianity,” and this assumption inevitably frames debates about American belief. For the other three-quarters of the population—Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, secular Americans, Buddhists, Wiccans, etc.—this can be infuriating. For some evangelicals, it’s a sign of success, a linguistic triumph of the culture wars.

Author Green will probably catch some flack for leaving out atheists. But atheists often are part of the problem, since so many of them have bought into evangelical hegemony.

For example, consider the alleged conflict between “religion” and evolution. Once on a web forum I mentioned that a large majority of mainline Protestants accept evolution theory, which according to Pew they do, and was promptly slammed by a chorus of atheists, who coughed up data relating to evangelicals. When I explained that the “mainline” Protestants were the older denominations that are not considered evangelical, they didn’t believe me.

A meme about Pope Francis accepting evolution, and how this is going to signal the end of religion as we know it, pops up about once a week in my Facebook feed. But the fact is the Catholic Church never denounced evolution, and back in 1950 Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical saying there is no direct conflict between evolution science and Christianity.

The rabbinic tradition of Judaism also accepts evolution, and there’s no conflict I can see between evolution and Asian religious tradition. Islamic views vary widely. Some Muslims are on the same page with most mainline Protestants and Catholics, which is that they accept the science but believe God is still the ultimate cause. Others are more like conservative evangelicals and believe in creationism.

So, to be accurate, the conflict is not between “religion” and evolution. It’s between Christian conservative evangelicalism and conservative Islam, on one side, and evolution on the other. And leave the rest of religion out of it. But try to explain that to an atheist in self-righteous “I worship at the altar of open-mindedness and reason” mode. Just try.

Emma Green’s article is a profile of Russell Moore, who is the head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. And apparently Moore has had it with evangelical hegemony, too. Green quotes Moore:

“Most Americans agreed on certain traditional values: monogamous marriage, the nuclear family, the right to life, the good of prayer and church attendance, free enterprise, a strong military, and the basic goodness of the American way of life. The argument was that this consensus represented the real America.” Presumably, everyone else—gays, divorcees, pacifists, socialists—lived outside the “real America.”

If such a “real America” ever existed in more than Leave It to Beaver re-runs, it certainly doesn’t exist now. Gay marriage is legal. Church attendance is down. Most TV shows are less about happy homes than the hectic, diverse tumble of American family life; the cultural preoccupation with perfectionist conservatism has largely come to an end.

Some see this as a loosely defined form of “secularization.” These are the people, Moore said, who approach him after church and ask, fearfully, whether Christianity is dying. “Behind that question is an assumption that Christianity is a sub-culture of American life,” he told me. “I think what is dying is cultural, nominal Christianity, and I don’t think we should panic about that. I think we should see that as an act of God’s grace.”

The assumption that evangelicals own American culture and politics has ended. This is good for minority groups, for other Christians, and for those who are still searching. But the radicalness of Moore, who by right of inheritance should be America’s Culture Warrior in Chief, is that he thinks it’s good for evangelicals, too.

This fascinates me, because a big problem with American evangelicalism is that it forgot about religion some time back. At some point, conservative evangelicalism became not just a subculture of American life; it came to be so wired into political conservatism as to be indistinguishable. As a result, “culture warriors” like Ann Coulter could write a book about how liberals hate God (Godless: The Church of Liberalism, 2006), claiming that liberals reject God and revile all religious people.  And she could do the usual television talk-show circuit to promote this book without ever being challenged how often she goes to church, or even if she belongs to one. Political conservatives in America are assumed to be members in good standing of the conservative evangelical tribe, by default, unless they are Catholic or Jewish. No further effort is required. Likewise, liberals can never be members, no matter how pious they may be. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

Green continues,

Like any good Southern Baptist preacher, Moore knows how to unleash some spiritual whoop-ass, though that probably wouldn’t be his preferred choice of words. The straitlaced, suit-wearing preacher from Biloxi, Mississippi, included a whole passage in his book about how much he hates tattoos; he is studiously polite and clean-cut. Yet he rails against people who merely perform their Christianity, who assume that following Jesus is the same as being a “shiny, happy Republican.”

In the Bible Belt in particular, “Christianity became a totem to secure a happy marriage, a successful career, well-behaved children—all that, and eternal life, too,” he writes. “Such a Christianity doesn’t have a Galilean accent, but rather the studied clip of a telemarketer.”

I assume Moore is still a cultural conservative, and someone with whom I would disagree about many things; the difference is that he appreciates religion as religion. And what is that? It has been many things through the ages, but to think of it merely as a supernatural belief system, or a calcified relic of Iron Age metaphysics, is to miss it. Until modern times, anyway, religion was not a system of propositions about the physical world one was required to accept. Through most of human history, religion was a commitment to a way of living, usually one that promised some sort of transcendence of the limited self. Karen Armstrong said,

“Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice.” [The Spiral Staircase]

In other words, religion is something you do, not something you are, or believe, or something to adopt as part of your tribal identity. And as something you do, it should not necessarily be easy, or be a socially enforced norm. And it’s that last part that’s hard for conservatives to accept. And for more on this, please see Rethinking Religion: Finding a Place for Religion in a Modern, Tolerant, Progressive, Peaceful and Science-Affirming World.

Back to the Atlantic article:

“There was a larger mentality that came along with the last generation of evangelical political activism that assumed that we represent the real America in ways that turned out not only not to be true, but turned out to be damaging to the larger mission of the church,” Moore told me.

It may be more effective to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, rather than sin and Christ and blood, but in Moore’s eyes, it’s less authentic. As he wrote in his book, “We were never given a mission to promote ‘values’ in the first place, but to speak instead of sin and of righteousness and judgement, of Christ and his kingdom.”

It’s a lot easier to package Christianity in terms of God and country and tradition, but it never seems to occur to these religious people that the faithful in other countries also package Christianity in terms of their country and tradition.

The worst thing that can happen to religion, IMO, is to become entangled with ethnic and national identities, and thereby with politics. That’s where religious violence comes from; it’s the confluence of ethnic and racial bigotries and political power with conservative religion that drives the worst of what is called “religious” violence.

Moore is making an argument for embracing Christian strangeness. “Our message will be seen as increasingly freakish to American culture,” he writes. “Let’s embrace the freakishness, knowing that such freakishness is the power of God unto salvation.”

I interpret this to mean that Moore rejects the idea that Southern Baptists must fight to make sure the larger culture reflects Southern Baptist views, and instead learn to accept that they will be at odds with cultural and social norms in America. Granted, this might be seen as a self-pitying whine on Moore’s part, but by separating Christianity from social convention, it can become more authentically religious. It can become something that people make a personal commitment to doing, rather than something one attaches to because it’s conventional.

Skipping a bunch of stuff to the end:

This is not an assimilated, salable Christianity. If anything, it troubles the anodyne, dog-whistle-y “values” rhetoric that Moore rejects. It calls for politicians to be committed to living out Christianity beyond the breath it takes to utter “God bless America.” It goes against “a certain cultural moment in American life which sees Christianity as a mood, rather than a life-changing truth,” like the Willie Nelson concert where the singer seamlessly transitions from “Whiskey River” to “Amazing Grace.” And inevitably, it undermines Bible Belt identity, which has long depended on pairing God with guns and Republican politics. Not to worry, Moore says: “The Bible Belt was no Promised Land.”

Perhaps this moment of evangelical clarity could also be a moment of clarity for other kinds of American Christians. Conservative Protestants have longed crowed about the decline of mainline Christianity, citing shrinking attendance as a sign of tepid faith. Then again, “American Christianity” has so often been used as a shorthand for evangelical Protestantism; if the faith is delineated in terms of conservative “values,” it’s a little unclear what it means to be a progressive Christian. If evangelicals embrace their weirdness, perhaps progressive Christians will embrace a similar cultural moment.

The progressive Christians I know are clear about the difference between them and the conservative evangelicals, but it might make it easier for others to appreciate the difference.

At the other end of the scale, see Andy Schlafly, son of Phyllis. Andy — who is such a dweeb he appeared on the Colbert Report without realizing he was being mocked — is running a “conservative Bible project” to revise English translations of the Bible to make them more conservative. He’s finding too many translations with “liberal” words like “comrade.” He also doesn’t find enough anti-abortion language and wants the new translation to emphasize “free market” principles.

Schlafly is quite certain these changes reflect the “original intent” of the author, and the stuff he doesn’t like obviously are errors created by those nefarious liberals. Indeed, one of his reasons for revising the translations is that “the ensuing debate would flesh out — and stop — the infiltration of churches by liberals pretending to be Christian.” In other words, liberals can’t be Christians in Andy’s World.

And be clear, this is not a re-translation. He’s not calling on scholars to review the source material. He’s calling for conservative volunteers to rewrite the Bible to make it more perfectly reflect their ideology.

Any of the great Abrahamic theologians or rabbis of history would have called Schlafly out as a heretic for doing this. The very idea of any mortal man assuming to know “original intent” was unthinkable once upon a time, and would have been recognized as the sin of Pride, on steroids. But the inversion of Christianity from religion to political/cultural ideology is pretty much complete with Schlafly.