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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.

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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.

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