Searching for media-friendly evangelicals

FalwellAnd then there was the funeral, with flowers, politicos, hymns, memories, televangelists and that final ironic detail -- a potential whiff of napalm as a Liberty University student prepared a few makeshift bombs to drive away the right, right, right fundamentalists who planned to protest the work of that infamous liberal and sell-out Jerry Fallwell. There is no question that the younger Falwell began his career as an old-fashioned Southern fundamentalist and he was proud to claim the label as he built his megachurch. But, like anyone who gets baptized in politics and higher education, he evolved into a more complex individual who had to learn to negotiate with other complex individuals. His style did change and that's a fact.

But here are some of the questions that insiders have been asking: Did Falwell start off as a fundamentalist and end up as an evangelical? And, in doing so, did he pull a large number of evangelicals closer to the fundamentals of the faith? Or did the realities of his work pull him toward the evangelical mainstream? Or was it some of both?

At the very least, we know that Falwell began as an independent fundamentalist Baptist and ended up as a member of the nation's largest non-Catholic flock, the Southern Baptist Convention. Of course, the SBC has -- through a long, painful civil war -- moved to the right. This meant that Falwell could swing in that direction without much of a compromise.

Thus, I think one of the most interesting comments made during the Falwell funeral service was one reported by the SBC's Baptist Press. The highly symbolic speaker was the ever-blunt Franklin Graham, president and CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association:

"People have asked me, 'Franklin, did you agree with Jerry Falwell?'

"Every time he opened the Bible I agreed with Jerry Falwell," Graham said.

Graham called Falwell "controversial" and then ticked off a litany of social issues championed by Falwell, such as the sanctity of marriage and human life.

"He believed in the Gospel. That's controversial.

"He believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. That's controversial.

"He believed in the sanctity of life; he was against abortion. That's controversial.

"He believed in the family, and who would've ever thought that would be controversial?

"He believed in marriage as the union between a man and a woman.

"He believed that moral decay weakened the fabric of America. That's controversial.

"He believed that political leaders should be men of integrity and character.

"He believed in the local church. God bless him," said Graham who noted the impact Falwell had on his own family because all of Graham's children attended Liberty University.

The fact that the heir of Billy Graham sent all of his children to Liberty is an interesting comment and one, I am sure, would inspire many evangelical centrists to make snippy comments about Franklin being sharply different than his more "moderate" father. This younger Graham is not the kind of "young evangelical" who is media friendly.

This is the other big issue that has been raised in much of the Falwell coverage, such as the New York Times article discussed the other day by young master Daniel Pulliam. There is no question that the power of the older evangelical generation has faded a great deal, with the possible exception of Dr. James Dobson. It is also clear that the next generation, even in the SBC, has a different cultural style and a broader social agenda.

DrPagecloseWebBut does this mean that the new evangelicals are, as a group, somehow more theologically "liberal"? Since when are efforts for justice in Darfur and attempts to help the poor "liberal" theological stands? Does concern about a host of other social issues mean that the new evangelicals have to compromise on the sanctity of life and their defense of centuries of church teachings about marriage and sex?

You knew, after the Times piece, that there would be other "new evangelical worldview" stories in major newspapers. So it was no surprise to see Alan Cooperman's piece, "Evangelicals at a Crossroads As Falwell's Generation Fades," in The Washington Post. The key is that, as the older evangelical alpha males fade, the Rev. Frank Page (right) -- the current SBC president -- and others have stepped forward who are thought to be more socially acceptable:

... Page is one of many pastors and political activists tugging conservative Christians in various directions.

Others include the Rev. Rick Warren and the Rev. William Hybels, megachurch pastors who are championing the fight against AIDS in Africa. David Barton, head of a Texas-based group called WallBuilders, stumps the nation decrying the "myth" that the Constitution requires separation of church and state. The Rev. Joel Hunter of Orlando urges evangelicals to see climate change as a serious religious issue, because "our first order in the Garden was to take care of the Earth."

Although Falwell's personal influence had been waning for years, his death at age 73 last week threw into stark relief the current headless state of the political movement he founded with the establishment of the Moral Majority in 1978. Headless does not mean weak. In the view of many social conservatives, their organizational structures -- from megachurches to Christian colleges, broadcasting networks and public interest law firms -- have never been stronger.

The key is that evangelicals are in confusion as a "political movement." That is certainly true, if one assumes that the heart of evangelicalism is some kind of partisan Republican credo.

But that is not the case. There are millions of populist evangelicals who have been voting Republican -- often voting against their wallets -- because it is so hard for Democrats to survive if they take culturally conservative stands on key more issues. Both parties have litmus tests that affect biblical conservatives.

And what are we to make of this section of the Post piece?

Acceptance of homosexuality is also greater among young evangelicals. One in three under 30 favors same-sex marriage, compared with one in 10 of their elders.

Redeem the Vote, a group formed in 2004 to register young evangelicals to vote, is campaigning with black churches in Alabama for capping the interest charges on short-term "payday" loans, which can hit 400 percent a year. The group's founder, physician Randy Brinson, said he finds that young evangelicals are intensely interested in practical ways to help their communities and are little swayed by issues such as same-sex marriage.

Read that paragraph again. So young believers who yearn for racial reconciliation and economic justice are sure to swing left to oppose traditional Christian doctrines on marriage? Or perhaps a large minority of the young, young evangelicals are now considering political compromises on same-sex civil unions, which is a very different issue -- from a doctrinal perspective.

So what's my point? Let's hope there is more coverage. Let's see what these "young evangelicals" and their emerging leaders have to say when allowed to speak, at length, for themselves. Perhaps they will find a way to be quite traditional on moral issues and progressive on others. It has happened before -- many times. They may not, in the end, be as media friendly as some think.

Please respect our Commenting Policy