Exploring the influence of televangelism on American religion in his book The Struggle for America’s Soul, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow presents a typical, though hypothetical, case study: Mabel Miller. Mabel lives alone, thousands of miles from her family. She grew up in a Baptist Church, but now, approaching sixty-five, she no longer attends church. Instead, she gets up early on Sunday morning, switches on the television, and sits “alone in her living room getting God via satellite.” Sipping a cup of tea in front of a preaching face, Mabel “epitomizes what sociologists have been calling privatized religion.”
Yet, as Wuthnow brilliantly points out, on closer inspection we discover that Mabel’s “concerns . . . are not so strictly private as we thought. She tells of her deep interest in the direction moral standards have been going in recent years. She watches, she says, to gain information about important social and political issues of the day. She routinely receives letters from Jerry Falwell, sometimes sent by certified mail, which keep her abreast of the latest developments at the Supreme Court and in the White House.” Paradoxically, then, “at the same time [televangelism] privatizes, it also makes public.”
Mabel Miller symbolizes in a strikingly accurate way the theologically and politically conservative branches of American Christianity. Mabel symbolizes American Christianity not in the fact that she watches television preachers, but in the strange dialectic of public and private in her religious life. Her worship and doctrine are wholly private concerns; Wuthnow calls her personal brand of religiosity “Mabelism.” When she enters the public realm, she does so as a political actor—writing letters, signing petitions, donating money.
Notwithstanding recent, welcome appeals for an evangelical Catholicism, a large segment of that amorphous beast known as Evangelicalism remains caught in the same dialectic. Though evangelicals were not politically passive before the 1970s, few would deny that they have now entered the public arena in a more aggressively political way than in the preceding decades. The public presence of much of contemporary evangelicalism, both left and right, is a decidedly political presence.
Meanwhile, doctrinal standards are loosening. Survey evidence for this conclusion is supported by anecdotal evidence. I commonly hear stories of members and even elders of Presbyterian churches who have little understanding of or use for the church’s confessional standards, and of members of Calvinist churches who are shocked to learn that Calvin taught predestination.
Traditional forms of worship are dissolving as well. Presbyterians have historically been among the most strict in matters of liturgy. Yet the church growth “theology” of liturgy has taken some sectors of conservative Presbyterianism by storm and is making hesitant inroads even into the strictest of the Lutheran denominations. Psalms and the great hymns of the Church have been replaced by “scripture choruses” sung to warmed-over pop tunes. Profound but difficult music finds little or no place in worship. Anecdotal preaching has replaced the exposition of the Word. Most evangelicals commune almost as seldom as the congregation of a medieval cathedral. The Reformation principle that the chief work of the priesthood of believers is to offer the sacrifice of praise is overthrown in favor of the principle that the Church must at all costs make visitors feel comfortable.
Much of evangelicalism has been, in a word, thoroughly “Mabelized”: While maintaining high political visibility, it is increasingly doctrinally pluralistic, ecclesiologically invisible, and liturgically banal.
Privatization and politicization seem polar opposites, but they are in reality two effects of the same event. The late Alexander Schmemann once wrote that secularization is the “negation of worship,” of man as homo adorans, of man as priest. Secularists may genuinely believe in a Supreme Being, but what they cannot tolerate is the demand that, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “it is . . . our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks.” Secularism can be seen as a denial of the profoundly eucharistic character of human life.
Secularization often takes the form of politicization. James Davison Hunter’s researches detected among some evangelicals a “shift . . . from the transcendent to the immanent,” a part of a larger tendency to conform to “the cognitive and normative assumptions of the modern world view.” Hunter notes that on the edges of evangelicalism are some for whom “social and political activism is redefined as the essential Christian act.” What Hunter is describing is precisely a shift from worship to politics as the chief focus of the Church’s life and mission.
When the Reformers spoke of an “invisible” Church, they did not mean to suggest that Christianity is a purely private religion. On the contrary, they insisted that the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments—both public acts—were essential marks of the Church. For the Reformers, the “face” of the Church was publicly unveiled not primarily in political action or even in “little platoons” of Christians involved in ministry, but in the gathering for the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Eucharist. Though the Reformers were hardly apolitical, they knew that the Church has been given a public task that transcends politics.
The Church has always been the object of vicious ridicule and slander. In the early centuries of the Christian era, Christians were accused of incest and cannibalism. Today, many of the finest and most courageous American Christians are vilified as bigots and fascists. That is to be expected. Jesus warned, indeed promised, persecutions.
But the difference between the contemporary slander and the ancient one points to a significant difference in the world’s perception of the Church. Today, the world views the Church as an interest group, intent on seizing political power. That is certainly a gross distortion, but it tells us something important not only about the world’s own obsessions, but also about the “face” that the Church is presenting to the world.
By contrast, the ancient slander shows that pagans, if they knew anything at all about the Church, knew that the Church gathered to eat and drink the flesh and blood of her Savior and greeted one another with a kiss of peace. The world perceived the Church as a liturgical, not a political, community because the Church’s public presence was primarily liturgical. We will know that the Church is being de-“Mabelized,” and that a proper balance is being restored, when the slander of fascism recedes and the accusation of cannibalism regains currency.
Peter J. Leithart is a frequent contributor to First Things.