143: For Evangelicals, It’s Either a Very Tough Spring – or a Bright New Dawn

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I
can’t think of a more powerful way to demonstrate the dramatic turning point we’re reaching in the evangelical movement in America than to showcase — side by side — some of the powerful voices booming across our landscape from sea to shining sea this spring.
    All this week, we’re looking at the urgent question: What Do We Expect Our Religious Leaders to Say to Us? On Monday, we looked at confusion in Catholicism. On Tuesday, our weekly quiz honored Charlton Heston‘s many iconic performances that shape our spiritual landscape. Then, yesterday, we heard from an evangelical “Peaceful Warrior” about the deadly danger of ignoring other faiths and cultures.   

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T
oday, we’re focusing on this News Flash:

    The one enormous religious camp in America that many people assumed would never budge — evangelicals — are in the midst of a dramatic re-evaluation of their own fragmenting movement.
    Whether this year will turn out to be a terrible time for evangelicals — or, as some are hoping, a Bright New Dawn for millions of Americans — is an unfolding story that’s going to touch millions of lives this year.
    Today, let’s start with a snapshot of the battleground.

    (NOTE: Along the way, you can click on any of the book titles or covers — and you’ll jump to our reviews of each book.)

    First, most of us are familiar with Jim Wallis, the evangelical co-founder of Sojourners, who has become the poster boy for the “Bright New Dawn” approach to these painful struggles.
    In January, Wallis fired one of the loudest opening shots with his new book, “The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America.”
    In Wallis’ own words:
    “Despite how the Religious Right has discredited the role of faith in politics in recent decades, faith is now coming back to life as a force for progressive social change. Though religion had come to be seen by many as the problem, faith may indeed be making a comeback as the catalyst that could provide the tipping point in finding solutions to the biggest and most significant moral and social crises of our world today.”
    That’s the “Bright New Dawn” vision of these major changes, articulated by one of that movement’s chief architects.

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    But other guns are blazing this spring with far harsher critiques of the situation. And I’m not talking here about the so-called “new atheists” who condemn all faith as dangerous.
    No, these are shots from observers who are reasonably friendly to faith.
    If you want to smell the gunpowder, check out Robert S. McElvaine’s brand new “Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America.” He’s a historian who is deeply sympathetic to the power of faith. He writes movingly about what the Amish taught us after the shooting tragedy in Pennsylvania in 2006. But he devotes 300 pages to savaging the remnants of what we once called “the religious right.”
    A taste of his voice:
    “Far from conserving the teachings of Jesus — which, it is plain from a reading of the Gospels, were socially progressive, calling for nonviolence, cooperation and helping the poor … these self-styled conservatives have ripped those sacred teachings apart and thrown them away, replacing them with a radical doctrine that is on almost all counts the opposite of what Jesus said. They like to quote Scriptures, but their Scriptures should be called Strip-tures, because they have stripped the messages of Jesus from their religion.”

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    No, that’s not an odd-ball voice from the margins. This viewpoint is coming from the mainstream this year. If you’re questioning McElvaine’s argument — well, stay tuned for Christine Wicker’s book, due to hit stores in May, called, “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church.”
    In early review copies of her book, Wicker — who is a highly respected writer on religion — puts it this way:
    “Evangelical Christianity in America is dying. … Even as evangelical forces trumpet their purported political and social victories, insiders are anguishing about their great losses, fearing what the future holds. Nobody knows what to do about it. A lot of people can’t believe it. No wonder. The idea that evangelicals are taking over America is one of the greatest publicity scams in history, a perfect coup accomplished by savvy politicos and religious leaders, who understand media weaknesses and exploit them brilliantly.”

    Wow. Are our ears ringing yet?
    But here’s what’s so dramatic about these forces this spring — influential evangelical writers are joining in this chorus calling for change!

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    Have you seen Dan Merchant’s new book prominently displayed on tables in Borders recently? It’s catchy cover image shows Jesus floating above the U.S.A., holding up the book’s title: “Lord Save Us from Your Followers: Why Is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?
    Merchant’s book is an often funny, sometimes wild and woolly, occasionally even outrageous, campaign to kick some evangelical butt — in a book by an evangelical, published by the evangelical house Thomas Nelson.
    Along with the book, Merchant also filmed a half serious, half funny documentary, interviewing people across the U.S. about their attitudes toward religion — and their attitudes toward evangelicals in particular. The “news and views” he heard on street corners coast to coast was devastating.
    Here’s his shot as his own brethren, begging for a new openness:
    “To me, the division of America, this separateness, isn’t getting any of us anywhere. And both sides are making the same mistake: they think the culture war is a winnable war. Some think, eventually, one side will win out over the other. I don’t see it that way. I’m concerned that calling it a culture war presumes a few things, like, if it’s a war there is an enemy. This kind of adversarial posture serves to further entrench us in our own positions. The sad fact is, our country is polarized because we like it that way.”
    That’s one evangelical to another — from an evangelical publishing house.

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    AND, coming to a bookstore near you very soon — also from Thomas Nelson — is a major new book by Ken Wilson, who isn’t a household name just yet. But Wilson has been an influential figure in the evangelical stream that flowed from the 1960s Jesus Movement through the rocky hills of the Pentecostal movement in the 1970s.
    Wilson’s upcoming book is called, “Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back.”
    Based on reading an early review copy of his book, Wilson comes surprisingly close to conclusions drawn by Wicker and McElvaine — and he’s also very close to Merchant’s conclusions.
    Of course, Wilson also sounds a lot like Wallis in calling passionately for coming to terms with failures and wrong turns in the evangelical movement — and getting back on track to forge a “Bright New Dawn.”
    Wilson’s book ultimately is loving and hopeful about the future, encouraging the faithful to admit their failings and break out of their religious ghettos. But to appreciate the dramatic power of Wilson’s voice in this chorus, here’s a taste of Wilson scolding men and women who essentially are his old friends.
    In searching for a way to make his point as boldly as possible, he writes:
    “If my fascination with Jesus had started today rather than so many years ago, I wonder what I would do with it. How would I begin to pursue faith today? I’ll tell you what would put me off. I’d be repelled by the witches’ brew of politics, cultural conflict, moralism and religious meanness that seems so closely connected with those who count themselves the special friends of Jesus. It’s a crowd that makes me nervous. Beneath all the talk of moral values and high principles, I don’t think I could get over the hissing sound.”

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    Here’s one last voice on this urgent issue.
    This is a scholar at Wake Forest University who also is an ordained Baptist minister and, most likely, could go toe to toe for a few good rounds with anyone who wants to claim that he’s not an evangelical. He’s the Rev. Charles Kimball, who earned his doctorate in comparative religion from Harvard University and also is a specialist in Islamic studies.
    His book — “When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs” — originally was published in 2002 and is hitting bookstores now in a brand-new, red-and-white paperback edition, extensively revised and updated to include all kinds of religious developments since the first edition was published. Among other things, his new version of the book considers Pope Benedict XVI and the “new atheists” — who weren’t on the world stage when the original edition was published.
    Of all the books mentioned here, 10 years from now, Kimball’s book is the most likely to still be attracting curious readers. He offers the most timeless analysis of how to find our way out of the forest of religious conflict and violence.
    Here’s a taste of his voice:
    “In my view, broad-minded people of faith offer the best hope for correcting the corruptions leading to violence and for leading the way into a more promising future. … Religious ideas and commitments have inspired individuals and communities of faith to transcend narrow self-interest in pursuit of higher values and truths. Throughout history religion has often been connected with what is noblest and best in human beings. Now, perhaps more than ever, religious people must transcend narrowly defined self-interest and seek new ways to live out what is noblest and best in their faith traditions.”

    And, at that point in our whirlwind tour of the evangelical battlegrounds today, we can add a sincere “Amen” to Kimball’s plea and invite you to share your thoughts. 

    We always like to know what you think — because our readers like to hear from other readers. You can click on the “Comment” link at the bottom of the online version of this story. Or, you can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.
    COME BACK TOMORROW, as we conclude this week, with a creative — and downright cool — glimpse of a religious voice beloved by millions.

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