Evangelical vs. Liberal
James K. Wellman
Oxford University Press, 2008
328 pp., $26.95
Matthew A. Sutton
Evangelical vs. Liberal
A few years ago I moved to the inland Pacific Northwest to take a position at Washington State University in Pullman. The university is located in a rich agricultural region known as the Palouse, which it shares with the nearby town of Moscow, Idaho, home of the University of Idaho. It did not take long for me to realize that something curious was happening in the area. New friends and colleagues warned me that the fancy French restaurant in downtown Moscow was run by members of a powerful "fundamentalist" sect. I was also admonished to avoid a particular coffee shop, also run by these religious fanatics. I was even more surprised to learn that the coffee shop housed a cigar lounge. A "fundamentalist" cigar lounge? (It has since been shut down by the passage of an anti-smoking ordinance).
My interest was piqued. Who were these dangerous fundamentalists who smoked cigars, indulged in French cuisine, and who were apparently determined to take over downtown Moscow? They were members of a local church affiliated with the Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches, a small movement steeped in the classical reformed tradition. Like most evangelicals across the nation, they have taken stands against gay marriage and against female ordination. But unlike many other conservatives, they place significant emphasis on cultivating the life of the mind and on rigorous intellectual debate. To that end they have established a small college, also located (of course) on prime real-estate at the center of downtown Moscow.
A clash of Christian cultures has been brewing ever since. Liberal Protestants and their allies are facing off against the aggressive, entrepreneurial, community-oriented conservatives in the area. What is surprising is that in this tie-dye drenched, hippie-loving university town, best known for its thriving farmers market, co-op grocery store, and natural beauty, the conservatives are winning. And apparently Moscow is not an exception in the Pacific Northwest.
James Wellman's fascinating Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest compares and contrasts evangelical and liberal Protestant (or mainline) churches along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Wellamn's study was driven in part by his interest in religion in the Pacific Northwest, a region that boasts the lowest per-capita church affiliation in the nation, with 63 percent of the population not affiliating with any religious institution. Furthermore, this is a region that is predominately urban, very educated, maintains a median income level above the national average, and has in recent years voted overwhelmingly Democratic. Overall, Wellman describes the region as "best delineated by a pragmatic approach that generally distrusts government, lionizes the entrepreneur, nurtures a libertarian and individualistic set of values, and seeks the preservation of the region's resources and beauty." All of these factors, Wellman believes, should guarantee the success of liberal Protestant churches. But they have not.
As Wellman set out to write this book, he planned to identify and compare successful liberal churches with successful evangelical churches. That proved to be difficult. Wellman identified and studied 24 "of the fastest growing evangelical churches in western Washington and western Oregon that had shown substantial growth in numbers and finances between 2000 and 2005." He compared these with ten "vital" liberal churches—these were churches that had simply maintained their membership and financial status over the previous few years (although by the end of the study they hadn't even done that). Only two of the liberal churches had grown, three had plateaued, and five had marginally declined, even as evangelical growth continued unabated. By every measure of "success," then, evangelicals far outpaced liberals. So, rather than providing liberals around the country with a positive model of growth from the Pacific Northwest, Wellman ended up adding another chapter to the familiar chronicle of liberal Christianity's continuing crisis. Furthermore, by focusing specifically on the Pacific Northwest, he actually demonstrated that the future of liberal Protestantism is even dicier than we have realized. In a region where liberal churches should be thriving, they are dying, and where evangelicals should be relegated to the margins, they are taking center stage. Much like what is happening on the Palouse.
Wellman places the different "moral worldviews" of evangelicals and liberals at the heart of his narrative. Evangelicals put a personal relationship with Jesus is at the center of their faith, while at the core of the liberal worldview is not so much the person of Jesus but the principles he embodies. In terms of values, evangelicals tended to be individually focused, emphasizing "honesty, integrity, service, traditional sexual morality, devotion to family, and hard work." Liberals, on the other hand, valued independent thinking and inclusiveness.