Must See TV: Evangelicals baptized in media America

When journalists want to know who "evangelical Christians" are and what they believe, one of the first people they call is the quotable pollster George Barna. Yet a major theme in Barna's work is that the subculture called "evangelicalism" is splintering and morphing into a more complex part of the modern Christian world. For example, he is convinced that the people who call themselves "born again" may or may not share the same core beliefs as "Bible-believing Christians." The former is defined by an emotional experience. The latter is convinced that the Bible contains a set of binding doctrines and principles. "Born again" folks may follow their feelings off in all kinds of interesting directions. Ask Bill Clinton.

So what is driving this state of affairs that affects 60 million or so Americans?

I find it significant that one of the most ringing and definitive statements in the 2001 book "Boiling Point: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century" (written by Barna and March Hatch) is the following:

The world of entertainment and communications -- through television, radio, contemporary music, movies, magazines, art, video games and pop literature -- is indisputably the most extensive and influential theological training system in the world. From commercials to sitcoms, from biographies to hit songs, from computer simulation games to talk shows, God's principles are challened every minute of every day, in very entertaining, palpatable and discreet ways. Few Christians currently have the intellectual and spiritual tools to identify and reject the garbage.

I also find it significant that Barna and Hatch offer exactly zero sentences, paragraphs, pages or chapters of information in the rest of the book to build on this observation -- zero, zip, zilch, nil, nyet, nada, niente. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

This Barna and Hatch passage came to mind while I was reading "Nearer My God to Thee," a state-of-evangelicalism feature by veteran U.S. News and World Report religion writer Jeffery L. Sheler (may the editors let him write more sooner, rather than later). The heart of this article is its claim that, lo and behold, something or another is turning evangelicals into rather generic, normal Americans. Whether this is good or bad depends on one's point of view. There may, for example, be good news ahead for Democrats who can emote about their souls.

(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. ... "This is a group that is integrated into the mainstream," says Anna Greenberg, vice president of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. ..."Evangelicals are just not that much different from the rest of America."

Life is changing out there in the suburbs and towns of Red State America. It seems that their theaters, cable-television systems and malls carry pretty much the same images, ideologies and information as everybody else's. If Barna were to read Sheler's essay, he might come to this conclusion: It's time to do a major survey -- what the heck, a whole book -- on the role that mass media are playing in changing the evangelical way of life.

Take, for example, the suburban Chicagoland home of third-generation evangelicals Steve and Sharon Clausen, the parents of four children. Life at church rolls on. It's the home front that has them worried.

(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."

Here is the big question that some journalists may want to investigate: Are the media of the Blue States evangelizing the people of the Red States? Do the clergy and parents of the Red States, cities and towns realize this?

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