All Souls Day, November 2, is for the ordinary folk. The "faithful departed" means all our brothers and sisters in Christ, including evangelical Protestants. (Some are less faithful than others, and, of course, the same is true of Catholics.) Evangelicals are seen as the especially ordinary folk. They are those whom the Washington Post described some years ago as "poor, uneducated, and easily led." At least that is the way they are seen when they are not being viewed with alarm as a ruthless, hypocritical, well-oiled, right-wing juggernaut on the edge of taking over the country. On the latter perspective, see Ross Douthat’s delightfully devastating " Theocracy, Theocracy, Theocracy! " in the August/September 2006 issue of First Things .
Our parish newspaper, the New York Times , goes back and forth between portraying evangelicals as the Snopes family of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, on the one hand, and as Machiavellian theocratic crusaders, on the other. In the Times Magazine this week, the cover story is about the Machiavellians¯meaning mainly Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council and James Dobson of Focus on the Family ¯and how they are losing their grip with the no longer easily led evangelical hordes. The story is titled " The Evangelical Crackup ."
The story is written by David D. Kirkpatrick. He is a decent fellow who was assigned by the Times some years ago to cover "the conservative beat." It seems the word somehow managed to penetrate the ideological bubble in which the editors live that, out there in America, there are a lot of people who think of themselves as conservatives. They even have organizations such as think tanks and political action committees, and some of them are very effective at communicating what appear to be ideas. So the editors sent out Mr. Kirkpatrick as their scout to discover why the natives are so restless. This week he returned to 43rd Street from his foray into deepest Indian territory¯Wichita, Kansas¯where he talked with three or four evangelical pastors who have had it with political activism and reports that we need not worry, the insurgency is petering out. Hence "The Evangelical Crackup."
The bubble-babble of the Times is not without its charms. A couple of months ago, the lead article in the Sunday magazine was an extract from Mark Lilla’s book The Stillborn God . (There is more on the book in a forthcoming issue of First Things .) On the cover of the magazine is this: "We in the West find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still inflame the minds of men, stirring up messianic passions that can leave societies in ruin. We had assumed that this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones." If you are not among the imperial We in that assertion, be put on notice that you are most decidedly among the threatening Them .
But back to "The Evangelical Crackup." As a scout in enemy territory, Mr. Kirkpatrick is given a certain leeway. After all, he has to show a certain measure of sympathy with the enemy in order to ingratiate himself into their tribal councils. But, decent fellow or not, the Times pays his salary. And so it is not surprising that his article ends with a less than complimentary image of the dreaded "religious right."
He talked with an evangelical pastor by the name of Fox who lost his leadership of a megachurch over what was viewed as his excessive political partisanship. He now preaches to a much smaller congregation that meets in rented space. Mr. Fox says that liberals should not start gloating over the evangelical crackup. "Some might compare the religious right to a snake," he said. "We may be in our hole right now, but we can come out and bite you at any time." The inference to be drawn is that the Times will extend Mr. Kirkpatrick’s assignment to keep an eye on the snakes.
In the division of labor at the Times , David Kirkpatrick has the job of reporting and Frank Rich the job of gloating. In the same day’s paper, he gleefully rubs his hands over the evangelical crackup. His column is titled "Rudy, the Values Slayer," and his point is that Rudy Giuliani’s standing in the polls shows that Karl Rove’s theocrats are a paper tiger. They don’t really care that much about abortion, same-sex marriage, and those bothersome "values" issues after all.
He cites as evidence "what the Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick found in his examination of evangelicals for today’s Times’ Magazine." The evangelical threat has been vitiated, says Mr. Rich, by "the hypocrisies that have always undone Elmer Gantrys in America, from Jimmy Swaggart to Jim Bakker." Mr. Kirkpatrick talks with three, or maybe four, disillusioned pastors in Wichita and Mr. Rich’s political hopes are buoyed. Thus is the Times bubble secured, at least temporarily, against further penetrations by inconvenient truths.
Of course, the whole thing about an evangelical crackup is silly and would be easily ignored were it not that some of us are addictively amused by paying attention to the Times . And, let it be said in fairness, that there are others who still read the paper to find out what is happening in the real world. Let it be further admitted that there are divisions and conflicts among politically oriented evangelical leaders, especially with regard to the prospect of Giuliani being the Republican nominee. In the December issue of First Things , subscribers will find a very thoughtful analysis of that prospect by astute brain-truster of the pro-life cause Hadley Arkes. He carefully examines the troubling consequences for the cause if the Republicans are no longer the pro-life party, which, despite his more recent hedges, would be the case if Giuliani were the nominee.
But an evangelical crackup? Don’t believe it. The Times is whistling in the self-induced dark. They scare themselves by creating the boogeyman of a monolithic theocratic assault and then console themselves that the advancing forces are in disarray. Both the monolith and the crackup are fictions of their overheated imagination.
Since the most recent round of political activism by evangelicals in the late 1970s, there have been several times in which prominent leaders have called a retreat from electoral politics. Disillusionment comes readily to enthusiasts, and evangelicals tend to be enthusiasts. Mr. Kirkpatrick spoke to one minister who has thrown in the towel. "I thought in my enthusiasm that somehow we could band together and change things politically and everything will be fine," he said. But electing his preferred politicians did not change everything. "When you mix politics and religion, you get politics."
Anyone seized by utopian delusions about political action is bound to be rudely disappointed. The pastor is also right about ending up only with politics when you put religion in the service of politics. The organizing imperatives and urgencies of electoral politics, combined with its inevitable negotiations of competing ambitions for power, quickly overwhelm a church’s proper business of saving and nurturing souls.
Mr. Kirkpatrick spoke to a few disillusioned ministers. There are undoubtedly others. The well-documented fact, however, is that the great majority of evangelical clergy have never succumbed to the temptation to become politicians rather than pastors. Nor have they surrendered their right and obligation to point out the implications of Christian faith for public policy. Some call the exercise of that duty "mixing politics and religion." Others call it Christian discipleship in the public square.
Nowhere is the understanding of those implications more deeply entrenched than on the "life issues," meaning abortion preeminently but not exclusively. On no other controverted issue is there anything comparable to the theological and moral grounding found in, for example, "That They May Have Life," the statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The Frank Riches cheer on Jim Wallis and others associated with the "religious outreach" initiative of the Democratic party, wanting to believe that they will persuade evangelicals that the Iraq War, health care, global warming, and economic equality are more morally urgent than protecting unborn babies. With some evangelicals they have apparently succeeded. It is also worth remembering that in the 1970s the majority of self-identified evangelicals were Democrats. Many evangelicals, as well as Catholics, who have been voting Republican for pro-life reasons may return to old habits if the Republicans do not offer an unambiguous alternative, or they may simply sit this one out.
The reality is that, for millions of voters¯evangelical, Catholic, and other¯the number-one moral and political issue is the defense of the unborn. Join that to the defense of marriage and family and it seems certain that we are talking about no less than twenty million people. That is more than enough votes, or decisions not to vote, to decide a presidential election. It seems probable edging up to certainty that, if the choice is between a pro-abortion Republican, such as Giuliani, and a pro-abortion Democrat, such as any of the Democratic candidates, those millions will take it as an invitation not to be bothered with election day.
In sum, there is no evangelical crackup. Thirty years after the "religious right" appeared on the radar screens inside the liberal bubble, there is a normalization of conservative Christian activism in the public square. As on the left, organizations and activists on the right maneuver mightily to direct sometimes contentious constituencies toward their preferred political outcomes. In America, we call it democracy in action.
At the New York Times , there appears to be a crackup of its usual stereotype of the "religious right." I expect it is only temporary. Next week, or maybe the week after, they’ll be back to issuing apocalyptic alarums about the right-wing juggernaut and impending theocracy.