Nearer My God To Thee
Their distinctive faith aside, evangelicals are acting more and more like the rest of us
Whether or not they are truly political insiders, America's evangelicals show no signs of reversing their engagement with the wider society and returning to the insularity of a closed religious subculture. That being so, the question remains: What will be changed more by their continuing engagement in politics and pop culture--evangelicalism or the culture?
Into the river. Wolfe, for one, thinks that evangelicals are likely to evolve in the direction of the mainstream more than the other way around. "American culture is an enormously powerful force," says Wolfe. "It will change religion, just as religion will change culture." Already, he says, evangelicals "are far more shaped by the culture than they are capable of shaping it to their own needs."
A case in point, he says, is the success of evangelical "megachurches"--huge suburban congregations like Willow Creek near Chicago, author Rick Warren's Saddleback Valley Community Church in California, and hundreds of others throughout the country--that are aimed at attracting "spiritual seekers" who may be disenchanted with traditional organized religion. "The priority is to get them in," says Wolfe, "but to do that you downplay the Christian symbolism: You take the crosses off the church; you put a McDonald's franchise in the lobby." Sometimes, he says, "you don't even know you're in church." The net result, he says, is that "the faithful now are remarkably like everyone else."
Others have pointed out that the mainstream success of Christian music, books, and movies can exact a similar price. Contemporary Christian music, a billion-dollar-a-year industry producing pop songs with Christian lyrics, has seen more and more of its artists successfully "cross over" to the secular charts. One popular rock group, Switchfoot, after making its name on the Christian circuit, has been on Billboard's modern rock charts for the past three weeks with the hit single "Meant to Live" and gets airtime on MTV. While it still sometimes performs for Christian audiences, industry insiders say group members have been told by their new secular label to downplay religion in their songs and publicity campaigns.
Crossing over comes with other hazards. Pop singer Amy Grant, who pioneered Christian pop in the 1970s, stunned many of her Christian fans in 1991 when she released "Baby Baby," a wholesome but decidedly secular song that went to the top of the pop charts. Some Christian radio stations accused her of betraying her faith and pulled her music from their playlists. And a few still won't play her songs after her divorce five years ago.
Tensions like these have not gone away and may be inescapable as evangelicals continue trying to walk the walk in a pluralistic culture, navigating through changes that probably are inevitable, for them and for the country, for better or for worse. "I have enough faith in the leveling capacities of American democracy," says Wolfe, "to say to the evangelical community, `Welcome to the culture! We'd much rather have you in here than out there being a fundamentalist, being marginalized, being angry.' " In a civil cultural engagement rather than culture war, maybe, just maybe, no one will be left behind.