Fault lines in modern evangelicalism

Obama and Rick WarrenIf you needed more evidence that not all cultural conservatives are true political conservatives, all you need to do is read the tea leaves on page one in today's Washington Times. If you needed more evidence that many of the populist Christians from the old Democratic Bible Belt have not been fully integrated into the country clubs of the old Republican guard, you can click on that same link. Because here is the news from reporter Ralph Z. Hallow:

A bitter fight is taking place behind the scenes over Republican presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.

Influential conservatives are clashing over whether Mr. Huckabee is capable of keeping evangelicals from fleeing the GOP to form a third party or if he's too liberal fiscally for the Republican electorate. The battle is bubbling into the public arena, fueled by fears that a three-way race could hand the presidency to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or another Democrat, and by murmurs of Mr. Huckabee as a vice-presidential candidate on the party's ticket.

"We called him a pro-life, pro-gun liberal, when I was in the state legislature and he was governor," said Randy Minton, chairman of the Arkansas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly's national Eagle Forum.

Mr. Minton voices the concerns of many conservatives that while Mr. Huckabee governed as a social conservative in opposing abortion and same-sex "marriage," he was a treacherous liberal on taxes, social welfare spending and illegal immigration.

See how that combination of populist economics and cultural conservatism threatens the more Libertarian side of things? Notice that some religious conservatives have bought the full "conservative" package and some have not? No one is worried that Huckabee is going to pull a third-party revolt. This is all about forcing religious conservatives onto the GOP ranch, no matter what. Meanwhile, the Democrats are trying to sound faith-friendly, while retaining their fundraising links to the Planned Parenthood/Hollywood bank.

The in-depth story that everyone is talking about, however, is in the other Times -- The New York Times Magazine, that is. That is where conservative-beat veteran David D. Kirkpatrick is writing about the story -- "The Great Evangelical Crackup" -- that your GetReligionistas have been talking about for three or four years now. That would be the splintering of the uneasy evangelical (whatever that word means) coalition that backed President George W. Bush. Kirkpatrick has the usual sad details about the lives of some religious conservatives who totally baptized the GOP. Yet the heart of his story can be found in this simple, but sweeping, passage:

The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines that go much deeper. ... The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world -- over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.

There are parts of this story that I would challenge and, to be honest, I should state right up front that I discussed them with Kirkpatrick as he approached the finish line on this massive, must-read project. It's crucial to know that many evangelicals (not to mention Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and traditional mainliners) never bought Bush -- period. He was yet another compromise in the real world, a man who seemed to have a born-again Bible study cover over his Texas oil-culture soul.

jan07 cvstI also think Kirkpatrick comes very close -- but just misses -- a key element of this story in this summary passage that follows up on his statement about the passing of the all-powerful era of the evangelical alpha males:

Meanwhile, a younger generation of evangelical pastors -- including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels -- are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus' teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty -- problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.

So close. So close. For example, who is Kirkpatrick describing when he writes that some believers are focusing on a "push to better this world as well as save eternal souls"? Is that the religious right or the new evanglical left? In the 1990s, who acted as if defeating Bill Clinton could bring in the New Jerusalem and make the world a better place? Who has been tempted to think that they could produce a culture of life at the ballot box, while often overlooking its role in their own homes, schools, pews and shopping malls? Meanwhile, traditional Christian faith has always been a both-and equation, both body and soul, both social justice and salvation. Name the political party in which that kind of believer can find comfort, today.

But Kirkpatrick is close to the mark when he starts talking about the essential divisions between, let's say, Warren and Hybels, between old evangelicalism and the "emerging church." Talk about two different cultures! Want to find the fault line today? Dig deeper right there. And it is crucial to pursue this as a matter of doctrine, rather than politics. That's where you will find the deep cracks in the foundations, the differences that affect politics, but ultimately are much more important than politics.

So how would you find these cracks? You knew this was coming, didn't you? Ask the evangelicals, from Warren to Hybels, from Richard Cizik to Jim Wallis, the following three questions:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

I promise that the answers will be interesting, much more interesting than the political questions that change from decade to decade.

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