Nearer My God To Thee
Their distinctive faith aside, evangelicals are acting more and more like the rest of us
Coast to coast. The statistics alone speak volumes. White evangelical Christians today make up roughly a fourth of the U.S. population. More than 60 million Americans say they are "born again" and experience a daily personal relationship with God. Included among their number are farmers and factory workers, teachers and tycoons, doctors, lawyers, homemakers, and the current president of the United States. While they are slightly more likely to live in the South and in small towns and rural areas, they reside in cities and suburbs in every region and are just slightly older and just slightly less educated than Americans in general.
Yet, evangelicals have historically struggled over their relationship to the larger society. The New Testament teaches Christians to be "in the world" but not "of the world." Evangelicals traditionally have interpreted "the world" as non-Christian society. "Worldliness" meant sinfulness and was to be avoided. Thus, evangelicals created their own parallel institutions--schools and colleges, music, books, movies, and magazines to preserve their biblical values.
During the past half century, however, they have emerged from their self-imposed isolation in the cultural backwater of religious revivalism and biblical fundamentalism to attempt to carry out Jesus's command to "make disciples of all nations." In the process, they have become a potent force in American society. Their churches are growing at a time when many mainline denominations are languishing. Their colleges are attracting students in record numbers and turning out graduates eager to apply their faith vigorously in careers in business, education, government, and the media. And their increasing presence in the political arena has altered the dynamics of local and national politics by giving voice to a vast and predominantly conservative constituency.
But their place in the world is still not a comfortable one, as Steve and Sharon Clausen well know. Steve, who owns a landscaping business in St. Charles, Ill., a Chicago suburb, and Sharon, a stay-at-home mom, are parents of three teenage boys and a preteen daughter. As third-generation evangelicals, they are, in their words, "very plugged in" at their church--an 1,100-member evangelical congregation that features contemporary music and a cappuccino bar but is devoid of such traditional churchly touches as an altar, an organ, or stained-glass windows. Steve leads a weekly men's Bible study group, and Sharon leads singing at Sunday services. The kids take advantage of a huge selection of youth activities, from soccer camps and Bible studies to music and dance groups. What worries the Clausens most about life in America today is what worries lots of parents, Christian or not: the safety, happiness, and well-being of their kids.
But lately, they say, it's been harder to protect their children from the worldliness of the culture at large. "We want our kids to make a difference in this world," Sharon explains, sitting in the red, white, and blue family room of their country-craft-decorated split-level home. "So we decided we would put them in a public school setting and let them shine. But when things happen in school--the kids will come home saying there had been a drug bust or things like that--all of a sudden the walls close in, and I get tempted to yank my kids out and home-school them, sequester them, protect them." Steve is trying to guide his sons on sexual morality, but it's an uphill fight. "These young men are being bombarded on a daily basis," Steve says, "whether it's through television, through Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues, through walking the hallways of school, through the locker room banter. It's a real battle for my boys."