Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The expiration of the evangelicals

At the peak of the Bush presidency--the country behind him after 9/11, the war with Iraq not yet begun--and perhaps even before that, a number of observers noted that the evangelical bloc which gave him the White House was now a force to be reckoned with. Then, as per usual with the fare that populates the current affairs section of any bookstore, everyone extrapolated the present trend into the future. Theocracy--whatever that is--was here to stay.

But prophecy is a difficult art. Once believed to be invincible, the evangelicals were unable to swing the election in favor of McCain. Cue the same predictions from the opposite side of the political aisle. The "permanent republican majorities" of yesteryear are today's GOP, doomed to wander for an eternity in the political wilderness. No trend is so permanent that it cannot be bucked eventually.

While power is bound to vacillate between the two parties in our rotten system, the people upon whom they depend for support will change. For the culture, which forms the people, is always changing. The role played by evangelicals, like any other, will vary; and not for the better according to Michael Spencer:

We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.

More prophecy it seems. But because he attempts to back it up, we ought to hear him out. His second point especially merits consideration:

We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we've spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.

Spencer is very perceptive here. Although I was raised Catholic, I was also exposed to a good deal of evangelical culture, not directly since my family didn't know many evangelicals, but through the "music, publishing and media". Much of said is morally good, or at least mildly edifying, but a lot of it is disturbingly lowbrow. And a dreadful percentage of it was derivative, without necessity. Was the world really improved by Bibleopoly?

As an aside, the tendency to copy the culture with which we were supposed to be at war sent mixed messages. If Christian products are only clones of their secular counterparts, then young people will confuse a belated sense of hipness for religious principles. There's also the sheer bizarreness of trying to market Christianity; the gimmicks only make this weirder.

For all of the faults of evangelicals, I don't wish to insist that Catholics have this all figured out. For one, Catholics in America tend to be at least partially Protestantized. My family didn't have Bibleopoly, but we had Bible Baseball. On the other hand, Catholicism's basis in tradition means that ties to the past haven't been severed. Not many people seek out the heady spiritual and intellectual material which strengthens the soul and the mind to contest with powers and principalities. But I would argue that the material is more readily accessible to the Catholic. If you read the Catechism, you'll see the Summa cited. If you decide to pick up the Summa, you'll come across references to almost every significant thinker who lived before Thomas. Where would an evangelical begin his search with similar results?

In making an appeal to the past, I'm not insisting that everyone study the Church Fathers, or that without an intimate knowledge of Augustine's thought, you'll never become a saint. On the contrary, a great many holy men and women have had very little book learning, and Dante filled his inferno with bishops who at least knew their way around a church library. Nor is it true that good books could not be written today which might prove as beneficial as the great works of the past.

Instead, I merely note that a philosophy must have a solid foundation. Aside from the religious equivalent of current affairs book, an evangelical is armed only with his Bible and, if he is fortunate, with C.S. Lewis. Certainly this isn't a bad place to start, but one shouldn't confuse humble beginnings with a complete set of tools for life's journey. The Bible should be read and re-read throughout one's life, and although I am fond of Lewis--especially The Abolition of Man--there is too much good thought out there to confine oneself to one thinker. And yes, this even applies to my Chesterton.

My only hesitation in agreeing fully with Spencer is that monumental ignorance isn't confined to a subset of religious individuals. It's ubiquitous. I'd never profess optimism for a culture mired in hedonism and recklessly unaware of its own past, but neither would I discount a return to religion. An irreligious age will bear no resemblance to the promised land of secular utopias. This way have been mildly convincing when postulated by the philosophes of the Enlightenment, but it can hold little sway for mankind after the gulags and gas chambers of the twentieth century.

Man must return to God or perish. But what if those who speak in His name can't even convince their own?


troutsky said...

You hit the nail when you spoke of "intellectual material". Evangelicals filled their kids head with dumbed down philosophy, sociology and economics leaving them unprepared for the "secular" societal transformation. They have nothing to contribute to the conversation because their range is so narrow.

hoosiertoo said...

Interesting discussion at Cerulean Sanctum, an Evangelical blog, parallels your thoughts. Decent blog by the way.

It's not like the information isn't available. Part of the problem is that we fail to get it to our kids in time to do them any good. There's a big hole in education between, say, age 12 and age 18 when we're trying to spoon feed them pabulum.

They should be getting meat.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

They have nothing to contribute to the conversation because their range is so narrow.

That's mostly true, but what I left off is that the same can be said for most of secularists. Some people might be leaving Evagelicalism for, say, Voltaire, but most are quitting the faith because of Dan Brown and Sam Harris.

Poorly informed people do little good work no matter their faith.

They should be getting meat.

I totally agree. Left unsaid: what if they don't know where to get it? And, worse, what if they don't want it?

troutsky said...

For instance, how many have finished even book one of Capital?