Born Again

America’s evangelicals are growing more moderate—and more powerful.

Perhaps “values voters” are disillusioned with politics and ready to turn their backs on it. But Mitt Romney wants you to know that liberty is impossible without religious faith. Perhaps an evangelical crack-up is upon us. But Mike Huckabee surged this winter, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did their God-dances in megachurches and at the debates. This political season has only heightened the confusion over the future of religion in the nation’s culture and politics. Journalistic coverage of evangelical Christianity has oscillated between confident declarations that the Christian right is dead and horrified discoveries of its continuing influence.

In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, a sly and subversive classic of secular humanism too often mistaken today for a mere lecture on the benefits of capitalism. In it, Smith said relatively little about religion and even less about the United States. Yet he managed to put his finger on the forces that are still shaping the role of religion in American politics today. His analysis is a better guide to the future of the evangelical movement than are most contemporary accounts.

Smith saw what we see: the progress of modernity, he noted, was not undermining religion in the Britain of his day. Instead, religious revivals were blooming. These new religious movements often rejected the liberal values of a free society. They favored absolute moral codes, conservative interpretations of religious doctrines, and political activism to enact their values into law.

Smith observed a relationship between these revivals and the process that we now call urbanization. Young people, arriving in cities in search of work, faced new opportunities and temptations without the structure that village life—with its communities of relatives and others that watched and guided young people—had provided. “A single week’s thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman forever,” wrote Smith about life in London. But the city’s small sectarian religious congregations gave rural immigrants a social-support network and a moral code that could keep them on the straight and narrow as they built new lives. These movements were a response to the dislocations of modernity; there was no reason to expect them to fade away.

Yet in the teeming religious marketplace of Britain’s cities, Smith also saw pressures that would limit the political impact of religious beliefs and prevent theocracy. With so many competing denominations, he noted, religious leaders could acquire political influence only by finding allies outside their own version of the faith—and the process of forming those alliances would drive them toward agendas that could appeal to a wider, multi-faith audience. To be politically significant, he wrote, religious extremists had to move toward broader and necessarily more-moderate coalitions. Their entry into politics would, itself, moderate them.

The symbiotic relationship between alienating, amoral modernity and fervent religion can still be seen in the United States today. In a rapidly changing world, strong religious movements and convictions help many Americans cope—and not just the uprooted or the poor. In the coming years, we may well see religious devotion increase among society’s elite: admission to top colleges has broadened beyond the handful of feeder schools and legacy families who dominated the process in past generations; the intense competition for top university spots favors adolescents with steady homework habits, harmonious relations with school authorities, and the ability to please adults. A variety of surveys and anecdotes suggest that the freshmen entering colleges such as Harvard, Yale, and Brown these days are more likely to have strong religious convictions than their wilder, less conformist predecessors of decades past. Evangelicals (as well as devout kids from other backgrounds) are entering the halls where America’s future leaders often sit.

From the archives:

"Today's Most Mischievous Misquotations" (March 1998)
Adam Smith did not mean what he is often made to say. By Jonathan Schlefer

Yet American religious movements are also still following a path toward pluralism and moderation, along the lines that Smith described in 1776. (Indeed, Alan Wolfe argues, beginning on page 56, that worldwide, most religious movements are now on this same path.) Contemporary American evangelicals trace their roots back to the fundamentalist-versus-modernist controversy of the early 20th century, still the key event in American Protestant history. The “modernists” incorporated the ideas of thinkers like Darwin into their theology, and revised their understanding of biblical authority to reflect new scholarly findings on how, by whom, and when the books of the Bible were written. Their beliefs became the foundation of the liberal or mainline Protestantism common today among many Methodists, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians.

In the 1920s, marginalized fundamentalists (so called because they defended the “fundamental” tenets of classic Christian theology against modernist deviations) formed networks of believers and organizations committed to such doctrines as the literal inerrancy of the Bible. Over time, the fundamentalists split again. One group chose to remain “pure”—and, as a result, it remained relatively small in size, and largely powerless. Another group—led by Billy Graham and known today as evangelicals—sought to preserve its orthodoxy while engaging with modern American life; it wanted an orthodoxy that could reach the masses.

Relentless pressure to connect with the public—to get “butts in the pews”—is one reason so many evangelical denominations are so vigorous. It is also why American religion stays close to popular culture. Many evangelical preachers denounced Elvis Presley and rock and roll in the 1950s, but very quickly “Christian rock” became a popular genre. Today’s evangelical megachurches offer services to suit every demographic niche and musical preference. Christian hip-hop fills the air in some of them.

Click the play button to watch a video by the Christian hip-hop group Cross Movement

American evangelicalism today is flexible, user-friendly, and market-driven. It has its core convictions: that a personal encounter with the risen Christ is necessary for salvation, and that the Greek and Hebrew scriptures offer a wholly trustworthy guide to God’s will for humankind. But given those core convictions, this religious tradition seeks above all to be relevant, to be engaged, to reach sinners regardless of their culture, their ethnic background, or their politics.

From the archives:

"Welcome to the Next Church" (August 1996)
Seamless multimedia worship, round-the-clock niches of work and service, spiritual guidance, and a place to belong: in communities around the country the old order gives way to the new. By Charles Trueheart

Today’s megachurches flourish in the suburbs of the Midwest and the Sun Belt, reaching audiences that are better educated, more urban, and in many ways more sophisticated than the largely rural, southern fundamentalists of the 1920s. These new evangelicals share many values with their secular neighbors; they and their pastors are reshaping their politics to match. The challenge is not overwhelming. In American history, evangelical churches have been abolitionist and pro-slavery; pacifist and jingoist; laissez-faire and populist. If well-educated, upper-middle-class suburban evangelicals want a “Christian environmentalism,” America’s market-driven, demand-sensitive religious culture can and will meet the need.

In every way, the evangelical movement in the United States looks as if it is maturing. That means more social and political influence, not less, as the movement broadens, reaches into the elite, and develops messages with wider appeal. Yet it also means a more pluralistic and less strident movement, more apt to compromise and less likely to be held hostage by a single issue or a single party. The real story of the evangelical political movement today involves neither its death nor its triumph, but rather its slow (and ongoing) shift from insurgent to insider, with all of the moderating effects that transition implies.