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The return of an American religious “center”

George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 occasioned a sense of genuine anxiety precipitated by the sense on the left that he had won by revving up a kind of religious irrationality.  The combined sense in the broader electorate that Kerry was inauthentic and that Bush’s election was required to prevent the triumph of Al Qaeda and gay marriage has by now produced a shelf full of books arguing, variously, that the Democrats lost (a) because they have lost their ability to talk about faith and values, (b) because they have been regularly  and tactically outmaneuvered by conservatives better able to frame their message, (c) because they persist in making rational arguments when voters are more moved by appeals to fear, and (d) because they were simply out-organized on the ground, not to mention many other potential explanations.

Beyond the energy generated by the Obama and Clinton campaigns, some on the left also now find reassurance in an apparent shift among religious voters to the center.  Although the number of self-reported atheists crept up in 2001 from 2% to 6%, this shift couldn’t have had very much to do with the spate of pro-atheism bestsellers offered over the last five years by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.  Instead, opinion sampling finds this shift evident not in the number of new converts to atheism but in attitudinal shifts that are less individually drastic but which have accumulating collective consequence.

Broadly stated, the shift is said to reflect a “mellowing” of the American religious conversation.  Megachurches run by Rick Warren and Timothy Keller are now criticized by hard core evangelicals for preaching a more moderate gospel, animated by a fuller sense of doubt even as they grow and grow in size.  Although Harvard’s Peter Gomes is commonly associated with the religious left and has never had much of a following among evangelicals, his new book defending the outrageousness of the gospel (which relates, he argues, to its uncompromising commitment to compassion) has attracted attention for his call on religious people to “lower the decibel level.”  And (prepare for the shocker) Bart Ehrman’s new book actually has him conceding a newfound atheism after years of authoring smart and well-read volumes on Christian doctrine – it turns out the more he’s thought about the problem of suffering in the world, the less convinced he is of God’s existence, and now, in God’s Problem, he’s gone over to the other side.

Beyond the individual markers of theological shifting, which may actually have their greatest influence on broader audiences who are not mainly Christian and probably never would have been anyway, some new indicators are widely interpreted as signaling the increasing theological moderation of evangelicals, even in a season when Mitt Romney so shamelessly pandered (and failed) and Mike Huckabee’s more authentic but very conservative views sought (and succeeded) in finding a following.

Alan Wolfe has recently argued this is the logical culmination of forces active in evangelical circles aimed at getting “butts into pews,” a tendency that ends up blurring (if only in worship form and less so or not all in theological substance) religious conservatism and the forces of modernity – a key example of this is the way Christian conservatives denounced Elvis but then went on to produce Christian rock music.  As Walter Russell Mead recently put it, “The challenge is not overwhelming.  In American history, evangelical churches have been abolitionist and pro-slavery; pacifist and jingoist; laissez-faire and populist.  If well-educated, upper-middle-class suburban evangelicals want a ‘Christian environmentalism,’ America’s market-driven, demand-sensitive religious culture can and will meet the need.”

Another force at work is the growing fluidity of American religious belief, recently documented by a major national Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey that collected data from 35,000 Americans, a huge sample size.  The survey found that a very high number of respondents had changed their denominational preferences (44%) at least once in their lives; interestingly, as many as one in ten Americans is a former Catholic.  And while the extent of Muslim adherence in the United States seems to have been much overstated (Pew found only 0.6%), the pluralism of Christian beliefs is growing fast.  Moreover, the boom years for evangelical denominations seems to be ending, with their most active groups now growing at very slow rates.  Like the older and fast eclipsed denominations that shrunk most over the past two decades (United Methodism, Protestantism, and Lutheranism especially), today’s evangelical churches are also shifting demographically in the direction of older congregants.

Some draw comfort from the recent news that evangelicals are increasingly persuaded of the need to do something about global warming.  You’ve probably seem news clips of the soon-to-air Al Gore-sponsored television commercials that pair Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson in arguing for saner global stewardship.  Or you may have seen coverage of the decision by the Southern Baptist Convention to publicize (in an admittedly tame document) its concession that warming may have human origins.

I confess I am much less comforted by these trends, and I remain considerably nervous about the cultural and political influence of charismatic doctrinal coalitions such as those George Bush has so regularly cultivated, and whose mantle Mike Huckabee appears to have inherited.  This is likely for me a result of having been raised in a conservative Christian nondenominational movement that nonetheless rejected the idea of Bible-thumping faith-healing tongues-speaking as irrational and unscriptural, relying instead more fully on the doctrinal conclusions testable in debates and intellectualized encounters with the Bible.  The critical rationalistic impulses of not only these fundamentalist movements but also evident in the more liberal but intellectually rigorous denominations seems to me sorely lacking even in these most recent concessions to the earth sciences.  The discourses surrounding so called “greened evangelicalism” are still dominated less by the dictates of rational argument than by the logics of tribalism and their ever-watchful obsessions about the “blasphemer in our midst.”  Recent declarations about greenhouse warming are believed not because of grudging acceptance of the compelling evidence, what Habermas has called “the unforced force of the better argument,” but rather by testimony certified as emanating from “trustworthy” charismatics who say they are also scientists.

There was a time when certain conservative, even fundamental, faiths welcomed interactions with science and found significant common ground, confident enough in their beliefs to be certain that they would be confirmed by rigorous study of God’s creation.  Today, too often, science is still dismissed as a godless and therefore blasphemous humanism or by more nuanced fundamentalists as incommensurable with inerrant Scripture, and the Pat Robertsons and John Hagees of the world hawk their quack herbal supplements while others teach a sinister Prosperity Gospel that in my view grievously offends the most essential teachings offered by Jesus of Nazareth.  These are harsh words, I know, and my point is not to depict charismatic faiths as inevitably anti-intellectual – many caring and intelligent people lend their adherence to these denominations – but I think they are nonetheless accurate of the overall poor reception too often given serious intellectual work.  It is, in my view, no coincidence that the fastest growing locales for charismatic doctrine (Africa and Latin America) have also embraced some of the most outlandish and indefensible positions on issues like AIDS and poverty.

American’s religious opinions may thus be moving to the center, but if the dominating structures of argument among charismatic coalitions still insist on the supremacy of visceral inspiration (as GW says, what “I feel in my gut”) over rationally derived and empirically testable propositions, then it is too soon to celebrate the apparent shifts.

SOURCES:  Lisa Miller, “Moderates Storm the Religious Battlefield,” Newsweek, December 31, 2007 & January 7, 2008 combined issue, p. 89; Bill McKibben, “Taking the Gospels Seriously,” New York Review of Books, 17 January 2008, pgs. 42-44; Walter Russell Mead, “Born Again:  America’s Evangelicals are Growing More Moderate – and More Powerful,” Atlantic Monthly, March 2008, pgs. 21-24; Alan Wolfe, “Pew in the Pews:  A Survey on American Belief Overturns Some Scholars’ Theories,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 March 2008, pgs. B5-B6; Andrew Delbanco, “The Right-Wing Christians,” New York Review of Books, 3 April 2008, pgs. 21-28.


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