In this hour of “new day” presidential politicking, it is difficult to distinguish prophecy from wishful thinking, especially among those in the electronic and print media. 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.” And this, we were told, when “just three years ago,” by Kirkpatrick’s reckoning, “the leaders of this movement could almost see the Promised Land.”
Kirkpatrick’s piece of reporting borrowed from a familiar genre that we readily recognize, and come to expect, when searching the Times’ archives. The story line, though it might vary in its details, proceeds on certain cherished assumptions that are intended to keep theological conservativesbe they Protestant or Catholicculturally 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.
Whether descriptive or prescriptive in its intent, Kirkpatrick’s was a tale about religious conservatives’ dashed dreams over the past four years. These catastrophic disappointments, we are told, have resulted in a “coming apart” of the religious right as a political movement, with a markedly “leftward” shift among evangelicals, so-called.
Several factors are said to account for this supposed radical realignment. Kirkpatrick’s definitive claim of a leftward drift of many evangelicals is anchored in his mistaken assumption that only very recently have they developed an interest in a wider array of social issues. In addition, Kirkpatrick points to encouraging signs that the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is rethinking its relationship to the Republican party. And, of course, Republicans’ “fury” at the war in Iraq is said to be confirmed by the alleged precipitous decline in the president’s approval rating among white evangelicals.
“I bowed my head in a good number of swing-state churches in 2004,” writes Kirkpatrick in mock piety, where “I saw the passion Bush aroused among theologically orthodox Protestants.” And Kirkpatrick reminds us that in the 2004 presidential campaign, “I got to know many of the most influential conservative Christian leaders”leaders like Falwell, Robertson and Dobson. (This, as evidenced by “Dobson told me . . .” “Dobson told me . . .” “Dobson told me . . .”)
But a most encouraging sign for Kirkpatrick is that influential evangelical leadership is talking very differently now. Even dyed-in-the wool conservatives are having second thoughtsconservatives like the pastor of a large Southern Baptist church in Wichita, Kansas, who was named chairman of the SBC’s North American Mission Board and whose “confession” begins Kirkpatrick’s Times tale. With the 2008 presidential campaign heating up, Kirkpatrick decided to go to Wichita to investigate the evangelical “crackup” because, in his words, the city is “as close as any place to the heart of conservative Christian America” and because it “has a long history of religious crusades.” What’s more, George Tiller, the specialist in late-term abortions, is located there, and, as Kirkpatrick reminds us, it was there that a (religious right) activist shot Tiller.
Who is the vanguard of the new evangelical Protestant leadership? To whom should we be looking for guidance in terms of responsible political involvement? There is, of course, Jim Wallis, whose version of “God’s Politics,” despite routine nonpartisan disclaimers, reflexively and inexorably leads to the Democratic party. (For Kirkpatrick, as for Wallis, there exists no left, only a “right,” in geometric and political space.) But Kirkpatrick also excitedly showcases mega-leaders Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, who through their entrepreneurial skills are helping to lead evangelicalism out of the Republican doldrums.
What particularly energizes Kirkpatrick is not only that Warren is “fighting AIDS and poverty” but that he also “raised hackles among conservatives” last year by having Barack Obama give a speech at his home church in California. Warren, of course, is author of the mega-bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, which, along with assorted “Purpose-Driven” religious paraphernalia, like McDonalds hamburgers, has sold “in the billions.” (According to Publishers Weekly, The Purpose-Driven Life is “the best-selling hardback book in American history.”) Readers are encouraged to go the website purposedriven.com, where they will find a Purpose-Driven P.E.A.C.E. Plan, described as “a massive effort to mobilize 1 billion Christians around the world into an outreach effort to attack the five global, evil giants of our day . . . spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy.” Heads of state and United Nations beware.
Inspired as Kirkpatrick is about the combination of being purpose-driven and voting Democratic, he is equally in thrall to Bill Hybels’ entrepreneurial model of leadership. The founder of the mega-institution Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, Hybels also presides over the Willow Creek Association, which has grown in the past fifteen years to include more than 12,000 churches and which seeks to inculcate Willow Creek’s “seeker-friendly” style and philosophy of ministry.
What is especially satisfying to Kirkpatrick is that, while “most conservative Christian leaders have resolutely supported Bush’s foreign policy,” Hybels, by contrast, “calls himself a pacifist.” This pacifism, Kirkpatrick believes, will be the fountainhead of wise and responsible foreign-policy initiatives in the days to come. (Perhaps Kirkpatrick has in mind initiatives such as negotiating with Hamas; issuing drivers licenses to illegal aliens; and, more important, avoiding disconcerting international quagmires like genocide, enslavement, and outbreaks of egregious human rights violations.) But especially perceptive, in Kirkpatrick’s view, is Hybels’ ability to “trace the ‘J curve’ of mounting deaths from war through the centuries.” Here Kirkpatrick cites Hybels’ approach to morally serious statecraft: “In case you are wondering about this [i.e, deaths from war], wonder how God feels about all this. It breaks the heart of God.” (There is, of course, no mention here of deaths totaling 100 million, as per Stephane Courtois in The Black Book of Communism, or 170 million, as per Robert Conquest in Reflections on a Ravaged Century, that resulted in the past century from totalitarianism, oppressive tyranny, and political ideology.)
And Kirkpatrick very much admires Hybels’ moral backbone for having invited to last year’s Willow Creek leadership conference Jimmy Carter, who has been a stalwart and unrelenting critic of the current administration. What’s more, Kirkpatrick is not at all troubled that the same Bill Hybels invited Bill Clinton to speak at Willow Creek Church, on the eve of another presidential election some years back. Note the moral calculus here: What is particularly noxious is when pastors and Christian leaders hobnob with Republicans; such associations constitute the unforgiveable sin. Invitations from the religious community to Democratic candidates, by contrast, are a sureand maturesign of social sophistication and political openness.
And not only entrepreneurs and megachurch prophets like Warren and Hybels, but even developments within Southern Baptist leadership are signaling change for Kirkpatrick. For example, SBC president Frank Page, described by Kirkpatrick as an “upset” victor in the Convention’s internal election, is said to be telling his constituency that “Republicans should not expect that kind of treatment [i.e., loyal support] from Southern Baptists again any time soon.” Kirkpatrick quotes Page to the effect that his recent election was a “clear sign” that rank-and-file Southern Baptists believed the “conservative ascendancy” to have gone “far enough.” Which pleases Kirkpatrick to no end.
Shortly after Kirkpatrick’s report of a “crackup” appeared, a writer by the name of David Sessions argued in the online journal Slate.com that the “evangelical right”whatever the merits of such a monikeris 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.
Conspicuously absent from Kirkpatrick’s reporting, a genre that rests on the perpetuation of false or exaggerated stereotypes, are several inconvenient facts. First, it ignores the remarkableand seldom reporteddiversity among evangelicals on matters social and political. Those of us who teach at the university level cannot help but be impressed by the current generation of young evangelicals, who possess a remarkably sensitized social conscience that is far more diversified and progressive than evangelicals of a previous generation. 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. Kirkpatrick need only consult a recent Pew study that reports “a small increase in the number of Democrats” that is coupled with an increase in the number of “independents and politically unaffiliated Americans.”
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 evadingor denyingthe 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.
But 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 entrepreneurswith their large congregations, their larger constituencies, and their even larger book salesmay not be the best, or even the legitimate, measurements of Protestant evangelicalism’s health and vibrancy. In fact, both the megachurch influence and the “emergent church” phenomenon belong to a peculiarly Protestant genus that is theologically suspect (eschewing the difficult doctrines of divine wrath and repentance), infatuated with postmodern sensibilities, and therefore notoriously hard to define.
In the end, megachurches may well represent the most glaring deficiencies in evangelical thinkingfor 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. Can evangelicals today confess, not merely with Dorothy Sayers but with their own forefathers, that the drama is truly in the dogma? One need only consider the accent that was placed by the magisterial Reformers on Word, sacraments, and discipline as the authenticating “marks” of the church.
And yet, had Kirkpatrick done his homework, his research would have taken him, not to Wichita, Kansas, but to his own backyard and New York City, where evangelical congregations are vibrant and socially engaged. Consider, for example, the very large and increasingly influential Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, which embodies what is salutary, healthy, and encouraging about Protestant evangelicalism. But because Redeemer, given its simultaneous commitments to theological orthodoxy and social responsibility, has been making a difference in the city for almost two decades (and doing so without a so-called leftward political shift), such evidence would undermine Kirkpatrick’s thesis. Similar examples abound in metropolitan areas nationwide.
Like their Catholic counterparts, evangelical Protestants face significant challenges in the present post-consensus cultural climate, partly stemming from their theological orthodoxy (where found) and partly due to a wider cultural backlash. Unlike Catholics, their fragmentation and lack of authoritative voice hinder their ability to marshal a concerted cultural witness.
In the end, 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. There isand will always bethe potential for uncritically adopting political allegiances that obscure the church’s role in society. But just for onceonly onceI would love to hear an activist, or a New York Times correspondent, chasten the religious left and warn against the idolatry of hitching our horse to the Democratic party. Indeed, the last time I checked, the new wave of political messianism had the unmistakable smell of Chicago-style politics.
J. Daryl Charles is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion & Public Life at the James Madison Program, Department of Politics, Princeton University, and senior fellow in the Center for Religion and Politics, Union University. He is author of The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism, Between Pacifism and Jihad, and most recently Retrieving the Natural Law.
"The Evangelical Crackup" by David D. Kirkpatrick