by Matthew Raley
Dr. Gil Stieglitz, western district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Churches of America, says, “The older pastor tends to think about electing a Christian president and being only one or two Supreme Court justices away from ‘winning.’ The most common point of view among younger pastors is that the culture war is over and we lost.”
Culture wars have been lost before. I have been comparing the American evangelical situation to T. S. Eliot’s description of pre-war Britain in The Idea of a Christian Society. How did illusions of “winning” politically fare then?
Eliot wrote (pp 6-7), “I am not at this moment concerned with the means for bringing a Christian Society into existence; I am not even primarily concerned with making it appear desirable; but I am very much concerned with making clear its difference from the kind of society in which we are now living.” To call Britain a “Christian society” was “an abuse of terms.” Eliot said, “We mean only that we have a society in which no one is penalised for the formal profession of Christianity; but we conceal from ourselves the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”
Among his many probing observations, Eliot said that the institutional structure of Britain had turned (pp 17-18). Believers now had the problem “of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society.”
It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals [emphasis original] holding an alien belief. It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianised by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space. Anything like Christian traditions transmitted from generation to generation within the family must disappear, and the small body of Christians will consist entirely of adult recruits.
We have seen evidence that the implication of American evangelicals in networks of non-Christian institutions is profound.
While formally professing a biblical view of the family, a large proportion of evangelical households are not only living contrary to that profession but are captive to the social engineers of the state. Many churches themselves are exiled to a media Babylon, with vision and mission that live parasitically on the marketing strategies of larger organizations, lulling the people into an infotainment stupor, giving them a diet of consumer cake under a biblical glaze. And the financial condition of churches tells the story: overhead is up, giving is down.
The more disturbing reality is that evangelicals seem unaware of the problem. As Eliot said, they are being “more and more de-Christianised” by “unconscious pressure.” That pressure, I believe, is coming from their own churches. The little platoons of evangelicalism are weakening because they have de-Christianised themselves.
Because of this change of values, it should come as no surprise that a new political atmosphere among evangelicals has been developing for some time. With the death or retirement of conservative organizers like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and the rise of liberal evangelical leaders like Brian McLaren and Donald Miller, the grass roots structure that supported conservative causes is troubled.
David D. Kirkpatrick reported on the new atmosphere as early as October 28, 2007 for The New York Times Magazine. As polls then showed, “White evangelicals under 30—the future of the church—were once Bush’s biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders.” Kirkpatrick wrote that the “sharpest falloff” in evangelical identification with the Republican party was among the young.
There was further evidence of the slide in Republican support in exit polls from the presidential election in 2008. John McCain won the evangelical vote 57% to 41%. But in 2004, George W. Bush won evangelicals 65% to 34%. McCain’s showing was nearly identical with Ronald Reagan’s in 1980, a strong one. But the most telling number may be that Barack Obama’s 41% was ten points higher than Bill Clinton’s in 1992, and seven points higher than John Kerry’s in 2004.
Those evangelical votes may shift back. But there cannot be any question that they are in play. The only way the religious right can retrieve them is with populist appeals to “Christian values” that many Christians themselves no longer have. Those appeals will probably work, at least in the near-term. But the spiritual fact of the matter is — and pastors need to face this — populism is not Christianity.
What would Eliot say to the religious right? You need urgently to face “the unpleasant knowledge of the real values by which we live.”