Sunday, September 17, 2006

Divine intervention


Sunday September 17, 2006

Divine intervention
* Believers A Journey Into Evangelical America Jeffery L. Sheler Viking: 324 pp., $24.95

By Steven Barrie-Anthony

EVANGELICAL Christians are responsible for President Bush's presidency, but electing a fellow born-again only made them hungrier. Now these 60 million soul-winners are intent on transforming our democracy into a theocracy under Christ. At least, that's a common conspiracy theory among liberals who, still shell-shocked by the emergence of evangelicals from their cloisters of non-engagement, see them as simple-minded people of unified intent.

But evangelicals are not a monolith, political or otherwise, as Jeffery L. Sheler illustrates in his compelling and important survey of evangelical America. (Evangelical, like fundamentalist and born-again, can be defined in different ways.) Most evangelicals share a few characteristics -- the Bible as God's word; salvation via a personal relationship with Jesus; spreading the "good news" -- yet as Sheler converses with evangelical preachers, academics, televangelists, missionaries, teenagers and cowboys, it becomes increasingly difficult to lump them together.

Sheler successfully taps into the vast complexity and pluralism of evangelical Christianity -- and it is a sizable achievement. Too many nonbeliever journalistic and scholarly authors reduce religion to the sum of its statistically measurable parts, particularly when addressing evangelicalism, which from the outside can appear simplistic and mechanistic. On the flip side, believer accounts are often awash in theological assumptions and fail to take a critical view. The trick is to balance respect for religious experience with an informed analysis, and Sheler walks the line with aplomb.

It undoubtedly helps that he was a longtime religion writer and editor for U.S. News & World Report and a former evangelical himself. The meta-conceit here is Sheler's own spiritual journey -- as a teen he rebelled against his parents' mild religiosity by joining a fundamentalist Baptist church -- and he wonders if this journalistic exploration will rekindle the spiritual fire of his youth.

The evangelical story comes alive, its roots in the Protestant Reformation, the optimism and social benevolence of the early 1800s followed at the end of that century by a darker outlook -- premillennialism and the idea of the Rapture -- and, over the past century, by the seesaw of political and cultural engagement and non-engagement. What results is a book that's valuable for anyone who seeks to grasp the nuances of American evangelicalism.

To begin untangling the knot of evangelicalism in politics, Sheler visits Washington and meets with Richard Cizik, a vice president of the National Assn. of Evangelicals. Cizik is a force for the life-cycle concerns of the 30 million NAE members -- anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-embryonic-stem-cell research -- but he and like-minded colleagues are also steering the evangelical lobby toward a more diverse range of causes. To the list of what they oppose, append some "pros": pro-humanitarian aid to Africa, pro-religious freedom and, perhaps most vociferously in Cizik's case, pro-environment. The "shadowy forces" of the Christian right in Washington are not engaged in an epic battle only against Darwin, it seems, but also against global warming. Protecting God's creation is the broad Biblical rationale, and Cizik is busy forging alliances with fellow evangelicals and with unlikely political allies such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).

Even among leading evangelicals, disagreement about how to define and execute the cause is common and sharp. There remain, first of all, those who believe that religion and politics should not marry, but the large turnout of evangelical voters in the last two presidential elections, combined with substantial anecdotal evidence collected by Sheler, indicate that most evangelicals are not headed down the path of noninvolvement.

So evangelicals are ready to engage on a multiplicity of issues, and some have shrugged off the anti-intellectualism that handicapped the movement for much of the 20th century. The task at hand, then, is defining a political and social agenda that appeals to the wide diversity within evangelicalism but fails to alienate its traditionalist roots. This gets hairy. When Cizik and other NAE leaders published a statement interweaving typical evangelical concerns with environmental and humanistic ones, radio and TV host James Dobson co-signed -- while the vice president for public policy in Dobson's organization, Focus on the Family, opined to a reporter, "The movement to preserve marriage characterizes evangelicalism. The issue of global warming does not."

What is the future of evangelicalism, then? Some of its most prominent stewards are aging, most notably Billy Graham, who at 87 suffers from Parkinson's disease and prostate cancer and is by his own account nearing the end of his life. Who will take Graham's place? The sheer variety of perspectives in Sheler's book suggests a plurality of futures for evangelicalism rather than a singular destiny, and yet there will always be overarching trends.

Sheler channels two opposing visions. On the one side is radio host R. Albert Mohler Jr., who lays into the universalism and inclusivism that he sees sneaking into progressive evangelicalism. Opposite Mohler is Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. Mouw agrees that hard truths are essential to evangelicalism, but he allows for some mystery in the mechanics of how Jesus goes about saving souls, how exactly the spiritual phenomena happen. Perhaps ecumenicalism and evangelicalism need not be mutually exclusive.

No amount of left-brain analysis can unveil the experience of religion, however, and although Sheler weaves in statistics and expert opinion, he's at his best when traveling with missionaries to build a hut in Guatemala or hanging by the campfire with teenagers at the Christian rock festival Creation 2005 or interviewing a middle-aged couple still dripping from their baptismal dunking at a mega-church in Orange County. These voices are often refreshingly disengaged from divisive "join-us-or-be-damned" rhetoric. Agree or disagree with the theology, it's tough not to recognize some of yourself here, in the desire to call on God personally, to invite celestial order -- or, better yet, grace -- into the messiness of life.

And so it is a bit disappointing that Sheler, our shepherd through this complexity, doesn't reveal much about his own spiritual struggle. He embraces evangelicalism as a child, leaves it as an adult, and when, in researching this book, he revisits the church of his youth, he is unmoved. It's fine that there's no dramatic reawakening or rejection of faith, which would probably seem inauthentic anyhow. But didn't his exploration of a vein that spoke so fervently to him at one time evoke some personal journeying? If yes, it would have been valuable to hear about it. If no, well, it doesn't seem right to wish that Sheler had revised his spiritual arc for the book's benefit.


Steven Barrie-Anthony is a research fellow in religious studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles and journalist-in-residence at NewSchools Venture Fund.