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."
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."
The Clausens' concerns echo those expressed in the U.S. News /PBS survey. Predictably, evangelicals worry about "family values," but not in the overwhelming numbers some might expect. About 34 percent identified declining morals as their top concern, compared with 21 percent of Americans in general. Another 72 percent said they are "very worried" that children are not learning values and respect, versus 63 percent in the total population. "Faced with a culture they see as debased and debasing, evangelical parents are devoting more attention to their families," observes W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia. "They are trying to ensure that their children acquire the values they worry other children don't have."
Remote control. The Clausens try to shield their kids by closely monitoring their TV and movie viewing habits. Steve wields the remote control, zapping shows with foul language or sexual innuendo. And movies are preselected by both parents based on reviews at a Christian Web site. According to the U.S. News /PBS poll, three fourths of evangelicals have prevented their children from watching shows with objectionable content, compared with just 54 percent of nonevangelicals.
On other "morality" issues, the divide between evangelicals and the rest of the population is more striking. Two thirds say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, versus 45 percent in the general population. Nearly two thirds of white evangelicals are "very worried" that the institution of marriage is under attack, as opposed to 42 percent among all Americans.
More than any other factor, concern over issues like these, says John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron in Ohio, explains the partisan ties evangelicals choose to make. "If we could remove these issues from the table," he says, "then this community would not be a strong constituency of the Republican Party. There'd be many more Democrats."
Still, evangelicals aren't always the aggressive conservative force they're made out to be. The Clausens vote but otherwise are not politically active. Neither is their church. Their pastor, Jim Nicodem, says he never talks about politics in the pulpit. "The kind of impact that I hope we have," Nicodem says, "is the kind that meets real needs. Jesus said, `Let your light so shine before men that they will see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.' That's our desire, that we will walk the walk and demonstrate the love that Christ calls us to."
The U.S. News /PBS survey found that a slightly higher percentage of white evangelicals go to the polls than in the general population (65 percent compared with 61 percent). However, only about a third have ever given time or money to political candidates or causes--roughly the same percentage as nonevangelicals. "I suppose we should be more involved," says Sharon Clausen. "But frankly, we don't see politics and government as the solution. We try to be involved in our kids' school and in our community. We may not be changing things nationally, but we're making a difference right here in St. Charles."
Voters like the Clausens will be a prime target for the Bush campaign in the fall. According to Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, some 4 million white evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals sat out the 2000 presidential election. Rove and the Christian Coalition are doing all they can to make sure that doesn't happen again. But getting out the evangelical vote this year is no guarantee of Republican success. For one thing, evangelicals do not always go for the straight party platform. Take gay marriage. While evangelicals are overwhelmingly opposed to same-sex unions (83 percent, compared with 61 percent of the total population), only 41 percent--less than a majority--favor amending the Constitution to ban them. And 23 percent of white evangelicals identified themselves as Democrats or leaning Democratic in the U.S. News /PBS survey; 71 percent of that group plan to vote for Kerry.
Then there are the "freestyle evangelicals," swing voters who account for as much as 30 or 40 percent of the white evangelical vote. They tend to be critical of Bush administration policies toward the poor, the environment, and some human-rights issues, which they see as lacking proper Christian compassion.
Evangelical freestylers helped pave the way for Jimmy Carter's victory in 1976, and some 55 percent of them voted for Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996. While they rejected what they perceived as the moral decrepitude of the Clinton administration and voted for Bush by a 10-point margin in 2000, that wasn't necessarily a permanent shift.
"The Lord's will." Even so, George Bush's apparent embrace of religious values is powerfully attractive to most evangelicals. In 2000, he captured 71 percent of the white-evangelical vote. This year, his statements on the God-driven nature of his Iraq policy--"God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom," he said in the State of the Union speech in January--are likely to solidify his standing among evangelical Republicans. Even at the outset of the invasion of Iraq, his professed thoughts turned to spiritual matters, according to Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack: "I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will . . . I'm surely not going to justify war based on God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case, I pray that I'll be as good a messenger of his will as possible."
Talk like that makes evangelical voters like the Clausens swoon. "We pray regularly for President Bush," says Sharon. "That's something we're committed to doing. And right now, I think it's a huge help. Maybe that's what God wants--for us to be prayer warriors."
The fact that evangelicals seem ascendant in Washington surely adds to Bush's luster. More than two thirds of evangelicals said they believe they have at least some influence on the Bush administration. And 57 percent of the general population agreed with them. "There's no question that evangelicals have had a significant impact on the Bush administration," says Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe. The president's decision to restrict stem cell research, he says, "clearly was an appeal to the evangelical community." One of Rove's deputies serves as chief liaison to religious groups, meeting at least once a week with evangelical activists. "We have a president who basically speaks for us," says Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. "He's said he's a born-again Christian, and we trust he's in the public arena doing what he--and we--think is right."
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.
Evangelicals in America
White evangelicals are often seen as a conservative monolith. Their beliefs are more complicated than that--and their influence undeniable.
How much influence do you think born-again or evangelical Christians have had on American society?
A lot or some influence 60 pct.
A little or no influence 29 pct.
Do you agree that evangelical Christians have to fight for their voices to be heard by the American mainstream?
All Americans who agree 55 pct.
White evangelicals who agree 77 pct.
Do you favor or oppose allowing gays to marry legally?
Oppose 85 pct.
Favor 10 pct.
Should the U.S. Constitution be amended to ban gay marriage, or is it enough to prohibit gay marriage by law without changing the Constitution?
Enough to prohibit by law 52 pct.
Amend the Constitution 42 pct.
How would you describe yourself in political terms?
Conservative 58 pct.
Moderate 29 pct.
Liberal 6 pct.
Source: Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research
With Caroline Hsu and Angie C. Marek
This story appears in the May 3, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.