Nearer My God To Thee
Their distinctive faith aside, evangelicals are acting more and more like the rest of us
It's a sunny Saturday afternoon in Monroe, La., and the LifeWay Christian bookstore in the Northgate strip mall is abuzz with activity. In an hour, two of the most popular writers in America, Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, will arrive for a book signing. Already, the line of autograph seekers snakes out the front door and around the building. Neatly stacked on a table inside are 700 copies of the authors' latest, Glorious Appearing, the 12th and final installment in a series of action-packed novels about the Second Coming of Christ.
Waiting at the head of the line are Shonda Bazer and her young daughter in matching, hot-pink T-shirts. Bazer confesses that she's become a Left Behind addict. "If you read one, you just have to read them all," she says. Farther back in line, Evelyn Hill explains that the books "have really enlightened me" about Bible prophecy and the Second Coming: "I believe it will happen in my daughter's lifetime."
The Left Behind books have all reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list and have sold more than 42 million copies worldwide--a publishing feat surpassed only by the Harry Potter series--but they aren't the only evangelical blockbusters. The Purpose Driven Life by pastor Rick Warren has sold more than 15 million copies, and Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez, which hit the 9 million mark, is about to become a movie. "It's one of the most profound changes in American publishing in the past decade," says Lynn Garrett, religion editor at Publishers Weekly. "They've broken out of the Christian ghetto and into the mainstream."
Nor is evangelical fervor confined to books, as the phenomenal success of Mel Gibson's explicitly Christian film The Passion of the Christ shows. Heavily marketed to evangelicals, it is the year's biggest box-office success so far, grossing more than $360 million in 10 weeks. Meanwhile, a growing constellation of Christian pop music stars like Switchfoot, MercyMe, Stacie Orrico, and Jars of Clay have scored with big crossover hits.
But despite the booming popularity of evangelical artists and authors, evangelicals themselves remain an enigma to many outside the tradition--a people often stereotyped, whose agendas and motives are viewed with suspicion. They are a people, too, who often seem ill at ease with their own success and insider status in an America that they often regard as hostile to their values.
Yet a new poll by U.S. News and PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly reveals that evangelicals--their distinctive faith aside--are acting more and more like the rest of us. They are both influencing and being influenced by the society around them. While they harbor deep concerns about the moral health of the nation, they are more tolerant than they're often given credit for, pay far more attention to family matters than to politics, and worry about jobs and the economy just about as much as everyone else. And while it comes as no surprise that white evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican and back President Bush by a wide margin, nearly a quarter say they might vote for Democrat John Kerry. (The small portion of African-American evangelicals mostly support Kerry, but their views often diverge strongly from the white majority.) "This is a group that is integrated into the mainstream," says Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, which conducted the survey in late March. "Evangelicals are just not that much different from the rest of America."