Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Religion is responsibility or it is nothing at all."

This NYT Magazine article ("The Evangelical Crackup") is allowing me to trot out all my hobbyhorses. Begin with what I regard as a truly shameful quote:

“Even in evangelical circles, we are tired of the war, tired of the body bags,” the Rev. David Welsh, who took over late last year as senior pastor of Wichita’s large Central Christian Church, told me. “I think it is to the point where they are saying: ‘O.K., we have done as much good as we can. Now let’s just get out of there.’ ”
Good? Good? 4 million people turned into refugees; 600,000+ dead, per the Lancet study, as of 2006? 'a country completely eliminated and the region plunged into chaos from which there seems to be no good recovery? This is as much "good" as evangelicals can do? Now they'll just wash their hands of it and walk away?

Truly, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

But that is just one person's opinion; it cannot be fairly attributed to others. In other news in the article, some opinions do seem to be more widely shared:

[Frank Page of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C.] told convention delegates that Southern Baptists had become known too much for what they were against (abortion, evolution, homosexuality) instead of what they stand for (the Gospel). “I believe in the word of God,” he said after his election, “I am just not mad about it.” (It’s a formulation that comes up a lot in evangelical circles these days.)
In my early days commenting on blogs I was forced, repeatedly, to point out I was religious not because I was against something, but because I was for the Gospels. And I pointed out that politics, being about power, was all about defending a position against other positions, which meant you were always more against something, or someone, than for someone or something. Interesting to see that coming from a person who would consider me quite liberal, both politically and theologically.

And if this is right, evangelical churches are becoming more mainstream by the day. Indeed, this could almost be said to parallel the experience of the ancestor churches of the United Church of Christ, which both started out as very conservative, and have by now become quite liberal and socially active:

For the conservative Christian leadership, what is most worrisome about the evangelical disappointment with President Bush is that it coincides with a widening philosophical rift. Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelicals theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft — a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft.

But many younger evangelicals — and some old-timers — take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of “spiritual formation” that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.
Of course, that shift to looking like the present-day UCC may take another 100 years or so, but stranger things have happened. And yeah, it happens as people become more a part of the social mainstream:

Secular sociologists say evangelicals’ changing view of society reflects their changing place in it. Once trailing in education and income, evangelicals have caught up over the last 40 years. “The social-issues arguments are the first manifestation of a rural outlook transposed into a more urban or suburban setting,” John Green, of the Pew Research Center, told me. “Now having been there for a while, that kind of hard-edged politics no longer appeals to them. They still care about abortion and gay marriage, but they are also interested in other, more middle-class arguments.”
Still, in case you were wondering, Jimmy Carter can no longer be considered "serious:"

“I think that a superpower ought to be the exemplification of a commitment to peace,” Carter told Hybels, who nodded along. “I would like for anyone in the world that’s threatened with conflict to say to themselves immediately: ‘Why don’t we go to Washington? They believe in peace and they will help us get peace.’ ” Carter added: “This is just a simple but important extrapolation from what a human being ought to do, and what a human being ought to do is what Jesus Christ did, who was a champion of peace.”
I mean, how could we do that an keep GE and Lockheed and all the other defense contractors in business?

I do have to say that Hybels is quoted in this article advocating for community change, but I've studied his model of ministry in seminary, and it's effectiveness as a change agent is dubious at best. His heart is in the right place, but as I've mentioned before, his results don't bear out his design. Changing hearts and minds is a much more difficult process than anyone appreciates until you try it, and I honestly believe the model of Jesus: an itinerant preacher who was executed for being a political troublemaker, is not an accidental model. Nor is it possible to reconcile it with being the leader of a mega-church; it's difficult even to reconcile it with being the pastor of a small church. It's back to that church of meaning and belonging v. church of sacrifice for meaning and belonging. Things are changing in the evangelical community, no doubt; but the more things change, the more they remain the same.

So what comes of this? I've seen it all before. The evangelical rise mirrored the power of very conservative Baptist churches in East Texas, where I grew up. For awhile the empahsis was on social issues, like desegregation or drug use or teenage sex and "free love." Then that ebbed, and even Southern Baptists I knew started to wonder about the importance of such issues in their daily, and their spiritual, lives. The pendulum just swings, back and forth. Which is not, in itself, a good thing either. To imagine you are on a swinging pendulum is to abandon all responsibility for your life and turn it over to a clockwork mechanism you can neither speed up nor slow down. There is a movement here, but it is nothing more than the natural movement of exhaustion, the flow of power out of the hands of those who thought they wielded it into other hands, who in turn will think they are in control.

And so it will always be, for those who think power is the ultimate, or even the penultimate, answer.

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