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Evangelical vs. Liberal
Evangelical vs. Liberal
James K. Wellman
Oxford University Press, 2008
328 pp., $30.95

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Matthew A. Sutton


Evangelical vs. Liberal

A report from the Pacific Northwest.

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.

The issue of gay marriage is one place where the differences between these value sets came into clear focus. Evangelicals in the study were staunchly against legislation that would allow gay men and women to marry. Liberals, on the other hand, made their support of homosexual unions (as part of their broader commitment to inclusiveness) a source of pride. Yet liberal church leaders and laypeople alike experienced a real ambiguity over how much emphasis to place on gay rights. While they made their support of gay rights explicit and worked hard to recruit gay and lesbian Christians, many worried that if they did too much, their churches might be stigmatized as "gay." Evangelicals in turn made it a point of pride to develop (heterosexual) family-friendly services, and they made children and youth their major priority. In most cases, they did so by investing heavily in children's facilities and programs. They also offered different types of services for people of differing tastes. "The liberal churches," in contrast, "would often complain about the lack of children and youth programs … yet were unwilling to change their services to appeal to families, young children, or youth." Even more telling was the way that evangelicals and liberals differed on their approach to youth ministry. "For evangelicals," Wellman concluded, "if children and youth are not enjoying church, it is the church's fault and evangelical parents either find a new church or try to improve their youth ministry. For liberals, the tendency is the reverse; if youth do not find the church interesting, it is the youths' problem."

In summarizing the appeal of evangelicalism in this supposedly hostile terrain, Wellman writes, "Evangelicals have an ideology that is centered on growth, and is in relation to the self, to God, to the family, the church, and the mission of the religion. Evangelicals have accommodated styles of group work that appeal to northwesterners because they activate a sense of belonging and moral accountability." In fact, while liberals sermonize about the importance of building a religious community, the evangelicals are living out community, supporting "one another economically, socially, and spiritually."

Liberals are not happy about being the losers in the clash of Christian civilizations. In fact, according to Wellman, they are preoccupied with evangelicals: "Liberals tended to comment more frequently about evangelicals than evangelicals about liberals." Liberal churches "felt directly tested by the numerical success of evangelical congregations, and frequently bemoaned this competition." In many ways, liberals viewed evangelicals, who they insist on calling "fundamentalists," as the enemy: "For liberals, the disparagement of 'fundamentalists' became a cliché throughout the study." In contrast, evangelicals' main enemy is secular society and liberal culture, not mainline churches. In fact, when asked about their co-religionists, evangelicals usually expressed pity about the challenges facing the nation's mainline denominations (which probably irritates the liberals even more).

Although religion in the Pacific Northwest mirrors national trends more closely than the author expected, there are a few ways in which the area is in fact unique. One is Pacific Northwesterners' profound commitment to the outdoors and to nature religions. Although liberal churches work to capitalize on this, such commitments most often keep liberally minded people out of church altogether. The liberal denominations also suffer from the region's laissez-faire attitude towards church. Unlike other parts of the country, where people experience heavy social pressure to fellowship, the norm in this region is for people not to go to church. Church membership is not a prerequisite for achieving good standing in the community. Finally, one of the central characteristics of church in the Pacific Northwest is the omnipresence of coffee. Maybe this is the true reason why evangelicalism is flourishing. "On numerous occasions," Wellman writes, "the idea of coffee and worship were twinned as normal and expected in evangelical churches. Coffee, as one evangelical put it, is the 'sacrament of the [Pacific Northwest].' "

Evangelical vs. Liberal is a balanced and engaging exploration of religious difference in the most unchurched region of the country. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this study was Wellman's reflection on how his research had influenced him as a Presbyterian minister and professor of religion. "I began by sharing some of the biases of liberals toward evangelicals," he writes. "But through my research I have come not to agree with evangelicals but to respect the power of their convictions and the perseverance by which they serve one another, their communities, and their world. Evangelicals, in this study, put their feet and their resources where their mouth is." This is not to say that liberals don't. However, evangelicals have a far clearer sense of community and mission. And in Moscow, Idaho, they also serve good coffee and know how to make really tasty French food. For all of these reasons, evangelicals are winning the clash of Christian civilizations, not just across the nation, but even in the Pacific Northwest.

Matthew A. Sutton is assistant professor of history at Washington State University. He is the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard Univ. Press).


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