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W. Bradford Wilcox

American Evangelicals: Tamed & Tolerant?

Sonic Boom

Sonic Boom

Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want
by Christian Smith
Univ. of California Press, 2000
257 pp.; $27.50

Christian America is an exercise in iconoclasm. In this engaging and forceful book, Christian Smith sets out to destroy the "myth" that evangelical Protestants are a monolithic force for—depending on your worldview—reaction or reform in American political and cultural life. This book is particularly aimed at critics, journalists, and academics outside evangelicalism who cling to the belief that evangelicalism is a "demonic" force in our national life determined to undercut basic American freedoms, as well as at Christian conservative activists who are convinced that evangelicalism is an "angelic" force for cultural and political renewal in America. Smith's essential argument is twofold: first, evangelical political and cultural attitudes are much more complex, ambiguous, and ambivalent than is commonly acknowledged; and, second, to the extent that there are common beliefs and strategies guiding evangelical political and civic engagement, these beliefs and strategies pose no fundamental threat to American canons of political moderation and tolerance.

Smith unravels the complexity of American evangelicalism by relying upon more than 200 in-depth interviews with evangelicals around the country. He begins by pointing out a number of fallacies that cloud academic and popular understandings of American evangelicalism and conservative Protestantism more generally. The first is "the representative elite fallacy," which holds that the opinions of average evangelicals can be understood by consulting the opinions of evangelical elites. Smith dispatches this fallacy by arguing that prominent evangelical elites cannot possibly represent the diverse opinions of evangelical laity and that such elites often stake out controversial positions that place them outside the mainstream of evangelical lay opinion.

Another fallacy is the "ideological consistency fallacy"—the assumption that most evangelicals hold an "internally consistent and nonparadoxical worldview." Smith notes that virtually all persons, including evangelicals, hold contradictory views that reflect tensions in their own lives and cultural repertoires.

Observers, critics, and supporters of American evangelicalism also make the mistake of assuming that this subculture has a monolithic approach to cultural and political matters—what Smith calls the "monolithic religious bloc fallacy." But such an assumption overlooks crucial religious, racial, and class differences—among others—that divide evangelicals. These differences, in turn, are linked to different orientations to key cultural and political issues. Indeed, Smith argues, the ideological makeup of American evangelicalism reflects a good deal of ambivalence, ambiguity, and diversity about the core cultural and political questions facing the nation.

Are American evangelicals poised to launch a putsch on behalf of "Christian America"? Hardly, Smith says. A substantial minority of evangelicals reject the notion that America ever was a Christian nation, nor do they think it will ever be one. And even the majority of evangelicals who think that America was once Christian hold sharply differing visions of what a Christian America might now look like. Some aim to promote religious freedom, others seek a religious but not a politically imposed revival of Christian faith in the populace at large, and still others seek to impose laws informed by biblical principles. But the latter group, whose spokesmen can be found in the likes of James Kennedy, of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, constitute a small minority of evangelical believers. Thus, there is no consensus in the evangelical world for the kind of theocratic political strategy that worries groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

At the same time, Smith's book makes it clear that the mainstream of evangelical opinion is culturally conservative. Most evangelicals would like the vast majority of Americans to be Christians. Most evangelicals oppose abortion and homosexuality and express concern about the general state of the nation's moral life—especially with respect to the family.

But the cultural conservatism of American evangelicalism does not translate into uniform support for a conservative political agenda because most American evangelicals also hold quintessentially American values about social change, civility, and tolerance. Their commitment to these values limits their ability to link their beliefs to larger political or social agendas.

For instance, most evangelicals embrace the contemporary American faith in "tolerance," which has become confused with unconditional acceptance in popular discourse. The respondents interviewed in Smith's book can be found voicing their support for tolerance by invoking mantras like "to each his own" and "live and let live." Such facile expressions of support for tolerance suggest that many evangelicals have accommodated themselves uncritically to contemporary understandings of tolerance.

But Smith is also at pains to show that some evangelicals are tolerant because they draw on deeper, Christian understandings of the importance of respecting persons regardless of their beliefs or practices. For example, one respondent expressed support for tolerance because "Jesus didn't cast out the sinner; he loved them wherever they were." This more deeply grounded desire to be tolerant makes many evangelicals hesitant to support causes, legislation, or groups that are commonly depicted as intolerant—such as vocal anti-abortion groups.

Moreover, Smith argues, evangelicals are keen on an innocuous, individualistic approach to social change that he calls "strategic relationalism." Because they believe that true change flows from spiritual conversion, Smith says, most evangelicals believe the best way to change the nation's religious and moral environment is by changing individuals on a one-by-one basis.

This strategy suits the individualistic religious ethos that has deeply shaped evangelicalism, and it is also in keeping with American canons of civility, but it leaves evangelicals unable or unwilling to focus on strategies for social change that address underlying structural or political forces. For instance, Christian America shows that evangelicals' reluctance to advocate fundamental and systematic change in education that might advance their cause—through support for vouchers, for instance—flows from their conviction that social problems "have spiritual roots and that spiritual is a matter of individual hearts" rather than "political, cultural-war solutions."

So there we have it. Evangelicals, it would seem, have been tamed by the American experience in much the same way that Catholics were in the 1960s and 1970s, their "Americanization" fueled by fantastic increases in education and affluence over the last three decades. They are democratic, civil, and—above all else—tolerant, even if their views tend toward cultural conservatism on family-related matters. Moreover, their views on matters of public import are often admirably complex, ambiguous, and ambivalent. So, the quicker that their opponents and advocates come to recognize how American evangelicals have become, the easier it will be for all Americans to "work together more successfully toward a common life of civility and justice in a genuinely pluralistic society."

Smith may be right. But one could just as plausibly argue that the relationship between evangelicalism and the national political culture is likely to become much more antagonistic than it currently is.

There are three reasons for not being sanguine about the relationship between evangelicalism and American democracy. First, Smith does not prove as much he thinks he does by showing that complexity, ambiguity, and ambivalence mark evangelical public opinion. A careful reading of American history in the late 1850s, for instance, reveals similar levels of attitudinal complexity within and between the North and South. Yet the play of events, differences in central ideological tendencies between the regions, and the impact of small but determined advocacy groups (many of which had strong religiously rooted convictions) brought the United States to a wrenching and bloody civil war.

Similarly, continuing differences in central ideological tendencies between evangelicals and other Americans—especially secularists—on cultural matters like abortion and homosexuality, the ongoing work of advocacy groups, and the play of events may yet promote sharp, and possibly even violent, conflict between evangelicals and the American political order.

A second, related possibility is that the American government will itself become so vested in supporting cultural liberalism that it becomes hostile to evangelical institutions or institutions with which evangelicals identify. In 1999, for instance, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the New Jersey Boy Scouts could not discriminate against homosexuals in deciding who was fit to be a Boy Scout leader. Although this ruling was overturned in 2000 by a 5-4 ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is quite possible that future rulings from a Supreme Court with one or two new members would make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal. Given the trajectory of American legal and political culture—George W. Bush's win notwithstanding—possibilities like this cannot be ruled out. Should evangelical institutions fall afoul of the law, evangelical commitments to political moderation, civility, and tolerance would probably wither.

A third possibility is that a serious economic depression would undercut Americans', and especially evangelicals', current support for an expansive understanding of tolerance. It's true that, as Alan Wolfe's recent work suggests, Americans have embraced a spirit of "moral freedom" that leaves them unwilling and unable to hold their fellow citizens—either publicly or privately—to an overriding standard of morality. But this laissez faire approach to morality is structurally dependent on the historically unprecedented affluence that most Americans enjoy. Most Americans can literally afford not to care about neighbor and family behavior precisely because they are not financially dependent upon others.

A serious economic depression could undermine the affluence that has made the spirit of moral freedom attractive to so many evangelicals (and other Americans). A serious downturn would force Americans to rely more upon their neighbors and family members in ways that might make traditional understandings of moral obligation more attractive. Such a downturn might also make extremist voices more palatable. In an America wracked by economic need, many of the cultural issues that have ceased to roil American political life might re-emerge as salient points of division precisely because they bear on common understandings of obligation, especially familial obligation.

If evangelicals are given a voice in public affairs, especially on matters dealing with deeply divisive moral issues, if evangelical (and other civic) institutions are given sufficient autonomy to set their own course on matters like homosexuality, and our economy recovers from its mild downturn and returns to sustained growth, we might indeed look forward to a "common life of civility and justice in a genuinelypluralistic society." But given the weak commitment that all parties in America's culture wars have to genuine pluralism, American democracy and American evangelicalism could still be in for a major collision. Only time will tell.

W. Bradford Wilcox is a research fellow at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Religion at Yale University.

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