The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
object(WP_Session)#187 (5) { ["session_id:protected"]=> string(32) "e651af9e5b8eed34e6666d4d5a8c56d5" ["expires:protected"]=> int(1411223327) ["exp_variant:protected"]=> int(1411222967) ["container:protected"]=> array(1) { ["ai_visit_counter"]=> int(0) } ["dirty:protected"]=> bool(true) }
Deep and Wide

American Evangelicals are far more diverse than media caricatures aver.

Published on September 1, 2006

Every weekend, at least fifty million American adults, with at least five million children in tow, interrupt the routine of errands and soccer games and lawn mowing and laundry to go to religious services. They are more likely to go if they do, in fact, have children in tow, but empty nesters and young adults and even teens are there, too. In addition to this dedicated core of weekly attendees, another 100 million American adults are connected enough to a religious tradition to attend a few times a year, put their names on the rolls of a local congregation at least some time in their lives, and tell pollsters that they believe in God and say their prayers with some regularity.11.
These figures (as well as religious preference percentages noted later) have been calculated from the General Social Survey, using pooled data from annual surveys since 1995. National Opinion Research Center, GSSDIRS: General Social Survey: 1972–2000 Cumulative Codebook (July 4, 2005).
To a degree baffling in much of the rest of the Western world, Americans think of themselves in religious terms.

But taking religion seriously is not to be equated with fundamentalism—or even Evangelicalism. While Evangelicals value the Bible and the soul-saving Jesus they find there, fundamentalists (of the Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson sort) profess a certainty about the Bible’s truths most Evangelicals are too humble (and civil) to claim. Despite the influence of “values voters” loyal to George W. Bush, not every Evangelical is ready to impose Christian values on the world at large. Voices of fundamentalists and Evangelicals have gained significant strength over the past three decades, and they have in this President someone they recognize as one of their own. What they do not have, appearances aside, is either unanimity of views on most policy issues or a majority of the population. Assessing the real import of America’s religiosity—and of the Evangelical presence in American religion—requires a much closer look than exit polls allow.

Field Tripping

A closer look immediately reveals that American religion and even American Evangelicalism are incredibly diverse. They bear almost no relation to the caricatures of Evangelicals so popular in Europe—knuckle-dragging throwbacks, Bible-thumping crusaders, purveyors of bobble-headed kitsch, saccharin-laced frauds lost in the crowd at a megachurch that has all the sacred charm of a K-Mart. To get a flavor of the actual diversity of the Evangelical community in America, come with me on a field trip. One weekend some years ago I managed to attend six religious services in the space of a little more than 24 hours (caution: professional researcher at work—don’t try this at home). These services took me from the north suburbs of Chicago to the South Side and from Episcopalian and Catholic services to four distinct versions of American Evangelicalism.

My first stop, on Saturday afternoon, was a small Assemblies of God mission on the edge of one of Chicago’s most notorious public housing projects. A group of young adults on mission, white and black, had moved their families into the neighborhood from more comfortable locations, rented a gym, and gathered kids and a few parents for sports, tutoring, Bible study and worship. On this day, the kids themselves led in lively singing, performed skits, showed off their Bible memorization, and generally behaved very well together. While this is a Pentecostal denomination, the service was without any faith-healing or speaking in tongues—just a message about salvation and a plea to live a godly life in the midst of temptations that were only too familiar to everyone in the room.

Later that evening, on the far north side, I joined 3,000 or so suburbanites on the campus of the famous Willow Creek Community Church for their “seeker service.” As I entered, a multi-screen, multimedia presentation reminded me that “This is my Father’s world”, and as I took in the rolling fields and the lake outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, the beauty and peacefulness were undeniable—a far cry from the scene on the South Side. But there were hints of the common culture of Evangelicalism nonetheless: “I Lift My Voice”, a Maranatha! Music praise chorus, was sung in both places. The service here, however, was led by a host of trained professionals, and the troubles to be avoided were loneliness and hypocrisy rather than drugs and guns. But sin and salvation were still the themes. People need to recognize that they “can’t do it alone.” They need God, and they need the support of a congregation.

Early Sunday morning found me at the early Mass in one of Chicago’s myriad ethnic Catholic churches—this one Polish by heritage, but on a block where Spanish signs competed with the Polish and English ones, where Our Lady of Guadalupe had taken her place in the sanctuary along with Our Lady of Czestochowa. At this Mass, the elderly Polish population came to visit with each other and experience the familiar rhythms of the service. Just being there was their way of expressing their religious devotion.

Catholics now constitute about a quarter of the American population, and many of them represent immigrant communities, new and old. At least 15 million Latino Catholics have now joined an American Church transformed by the Second Vatican Council and shaped by members who are nearly as educated, middle class and suburban as the well-heeled Episcopalians I met at the 10 a.m. service I attended that day in Hyde Park. Such “mainline” Protestants represent about 20 percent of Americans, and most are decidedly non-Evangelical in their piety. The accomplishments to be celebrated here were the beautifully renovated gothic building, the church’s contributions to neighborhood activities, and congregants’ involvement in a peace and justice ministry. Doing good in the world is the chief mission to which these Christians feel called.

From Hyde Park it was not a long drive to the Baptist church that was next on my list, but I was afraid that my late arrival would make me conspicuous. I should not have worried. The African-American Evangelical traditions share none of their white counterparts’ obsession with the clock. There were still a good three hours to go, hours that encompassed music and preaching that took the congregation from deep joy to solemn repentance, announcements that offered tips on job openings and recognition for students who had done exceptionally well, and a range of spiritual encounters, from speaking in tongues to full-immersion baptism to intense prayers for the deliverance of a young man from the demons that possessed him. This, too, is American Evangelicalism—relatively small in number (about 5 percent of the population) but large in visibility and influence.

After the intense engagement of that service, the last event of the day was far more serene and cerebral. The Sunday evening service held at a suburban, Dutch-heritage Reformed Church in America was as traditionally Evangelical as it gets. There were turn-of-the-(20th) century gospel hymns from the denominational hymnal, a sermon intended to encourage faithful church workers in their efforts, lots of references to missionaries, Bible study and church programs. This is the well-oiled institutional machinery that has served Evangelicals well for a century. As surely as they know that Jesus saves, they also know how to invest and organize to proclaim that message.

The weekend was ending, but if I had started 24 hours sooner, I could easily have added Friday jumah prayers at any of Chicago’s more than three dozen mosques, Sabbath services at one of the five-dozen synagogues, and perhaps even a service or two with a Buddhist, Hindu, Baha’i or African indigenous community. About 5 percent of active religious attendees in the United States go to something besides a church. And, of course, nearly 20 percent of the population never goes anywhere religious at all.

The roughly one-third of Americans who can be identified as Evangelicals are neither the whole story nor even a single story. They share a devotion to the Bible as their primary source of authority, but they differ widely on exactly what the Bible tells them to do. They share a devotion to Jesus as their Savior, but the Pentecostal branch adds an equal measure of devotion to the Holy Spirit. They share a commitment to living a Christ-like life, but it’s no longer assumed by everyone that Christ would want them to avoid drinking and dancing. And although black and white Evangelicals share all these beliefs, they have strikingly different community activities and worship styles that bear the marks of 200 years of separation.

Blend and Mix

The four Evangelical churches I have just described—white and black, Pentecostal and not, denominational and independent—are located in a major metropolitan area and in the North. They belong to well-established denominational traditions that go back a hundred years or more. They also span the full range of the American class system. To understand the role of Evangelicals in American culture, one must first be rid of any lingering misperceptions about where to find them. They are neither exclusively in suburban megachurches nor exclusively on the backroads nor exclusively in the South.

Conjuring pictures of Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, many otherwise smart people believed that if there were any Evangelicals left in America after 1925, surely they must have been odd and isolated remnants. When Evangelicals first re-emerged onto the national stage in the late 1970s, these people often wondered where they had come from. At that time, it was true that supporters of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were slightly more likely than political liberals to lack a college education, live in the South and belong to the working class.22. Clyde Wilcox analyzes early support for the Moral Majority in God’s Warriors: The Christian Right in 20th Century America (John Hopkins University Press, 1992). But the gaps were already closing.

Today the South and the Midwest are still permeated by an Evangelical presence in ways not approached in the Northeast or the Pacific region, but no region of the United States is without a substantial Evangelical population. In every region, some Evangelical churches are still located on rural lanes or in lower-class neighborhoods, but they are just as likely to be found in high-end suburbs, and the cars in the lot are just as likely to be BMWs as Chevy pickups. By the mid-1990s, those who called themselves Evangelicals had achieved an average of 14.2 years of schooling, compared to 14.3 for the mainline Protestants. Only 15 percent were in the lowest income categories (less than $20,000 per year), compared to 13 percent of mainline Protestants.33.
Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (University of Chicago Press, 1998).
The upward mobility that had begun in the postwar era had brought Evangelicals to socio-economic parity.

Today, conservative white Protestants are virtually indistinguishable in demography and status from liberal white Protestants (or white Catholics, for that matter). The notion that Evangelicals occupy the backwaters of American culture is at least twenty years out of date. Whatever it is that motivates American Evangelicals today, it is not their lack of status or resources or education. They are neither deprived nor ignorant nor isolated. They are probably living on your block and bumping into you at Lord & Taylor. Maybe they are even reading this magazine.

An Historical Excursus

Evangelicals have, of course, rarely been far from the American mainstream. The term “Evangelical” was adopted from European religion (where it was essentially synonymous with “Protestant”), but it began to take on its distinctly American character in the early 19th century. The ground had been tilled by colonial Puritans and Baptists, each with an insistence on the obligation of every individual to study the Scriptures and live a prudent, sober and godly life. Into this soil, Wesleyans sowed the seed of pious conversions, and itinerant frontier preachers cultivated it. And the American Revolution added a commitment to political democracy and religious liberty. What sprouted was a tangle of energetic and entrepreneurial religious communities that shaped the American cultural landscape, even as they were shaped by it.

Both the Evangelical message and the Evangelical way of organizing perfectly suited the emerging American republic. Which gave rise to which is hard to say, but we do know that in a political system that valued the independent agency of its citizens, religious communities called upon individuals to take responsibility for their spiritual lives and choices. In a constitutional system that refused to help any one group succeed, voluntary religious communities took on the task of establishing themselves. Neither a sense of public entitlement nor a link to blood and soil characterized American religion, and traditions that made such assumptions elsewhere had to “Americanize” when they came here. Evangelicals, on the other hand, thrived on individual religious choices and voluntarily-constructed religious organizations. Theirs was a distinct home-field advantage.

Evangelicalism also meshed perfectly with the notion of a New World in which one could reinvent oneself, making profound transformations possible. Fate is not set at birth or even sealed by a string of good luck or bad behavior. Sinners can repent and turn their lives around. In Evangelicalism the impulse to avoid divine retribution is coupled with the expectation of divine empowerment. We confess and repent, expecting that a spiritual transformation will make our everyday life palpably different. As surely as being born again has eternal consequences, the earthly consequences are no less real. From the beginning, Evangelicalism and moral change have walked hand in hand.

Not surprisingly, that impulse toward moral change has often led Evangelicals into public moral crusades as well as revivals. They are often associated, of course, with the temperance movement. Trying to ban “demon rum” fits the image. But many liberals today forget that 19th-century Evangelical moral reform was equally responsible for the crusade to end slavery and, later, to secure female suffrage.44.
See Michael Young, “Confessional Protest: The Religious Birth of U.S. National Social Movements”, American Sociological Review (October 2002).
If each soul is to stand equally before God, then slavery is an abomination. And if women are to be entrusted with the moral and spiritual well-being of their children, they must be able to participate in shaping the communities in which those children live. Theological and political arguments shifted with each new cause, but the impulse was the same: Immoral societies need to be called to repentance and remade as civilizations in which virtuous souls can flourish.

One of the most striking things about America’s moral crusades is that they were most often led by laity—Sarah Grimké and Lewis Tappan, Francis Willard and Ida B. Wells-Barnett—ordinary people trying to persuade their fellow citizens to change their thinking and mend their ways. Indeed, throughout American history a succession of Great Awakenings democratized religion and society at the same time, empowering ordinary citizens to argue for change in their communities, just as they had experienced change in their own spiritual lives.

Persuading people to change requires, of course, both a convincing message and an efficient organization for delivering it, and Evangelicals have excelled at both. Their desire to spread the Gospel, set in the political context of American disestablishment, spawned a 19th-century organizing frenzy.55.
Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989).
Not only were Evangelicals consistent in creating new congregations to follow pioneering populations past the Eastern Seaboard, they also used—or invented—the organizational tools a voluntary religious system made both possible and necessary. They founded colleges and hospitals and orphanages, but they also created benevolent societies and publishing societies and missionary societies for every possible cause. Each group combined pleas for conversion with instructions for living a virtuous life and being a good democratic citizen, mixing education and health care with moral exhortation.

Most of these groups would have folded in a fortnight had they lacked the organizational energy and genius of American women. Women pooled their pennies, held networks together through their correspondence, and touched many a heart with their public rhetoric. By the end of the 19th century, American Protestant women were running multimillion-dollar enterprises in dozens of countries around the world. For American Evangelicals, globalization is nothing new.66.
Here see Dana L. Robert, Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Mercer University Press, 1997).

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
Getty Images

Throughout the 19th century, this picture of organizational vigor and missionary zeal was the American religious mainstream. Increasing numbers of Catholics, Jews and secularists were taking their places, but Protestants were still in charge. And among Protestants, Presbyterians were as likely as Baptists to pray for the sinners of the world. Congregationalists and even Episcopalians contributed missionaries to the cause and hoped to see Christian moral virtues flourishing in their communities. What we came to know as the “Social Gospel” was, at first, as concerned with an eight-hour work day as it was with spiritual transformation. Until about the turn of the 20th century, American Evangelicalism was as worldly and progressive as it was spiritual and conservative.

That all came apart in the social, theological and political upheavals that we have come to call the “fundamentalist-modernist” controversies. Those on the “modernist” side gradually shunned the missionary activity of their forebears. Those on the “fundamentalist” side gradually shunned the reformist concerns that had been equally important. For the fifty years after 1925, revivalist Dwight Moody’s philosophy became the watchword of many American Evangelicals: “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’”

That did not mean, however, that fundamentalist Evangelicals became inactive. In the decades following the Scopes Trial, they went right on starting new churches, founding new schools and colleges, and sending missionaries abroad. They also founded innovative youth and campus ministries, added new publishing and broadcast ministries, and began the network of manufacturing and retail outlets from which the Christian Booksellers Association was eventually formed. Always ready to try new technologies and organizational forms, American Evangelicals had built by the 1960s a formidable network of churches and church-affiliated organizations and a sizeable corps of committed believers. They might not have been especially visible to cultural and political leaders, but they were there.

Dwight Moody preaching in Boston, 1877
Bettman/CORBIS

Politicization

What happened next is an oft-told tale. In the late 1970s conservative Christians entered the political arena—that much is undisputed—but just about everything else in the story can be told in a variety of ways. Just what propelled them into politics? Certainly there was the “moral breakdown” signaled by the Supreme Court’s 1963 school prayer decision, its 1973 abortion decision, and the general upheaval of the proverbial Sixties; but Evangelicals had been preaching about moral breakdown for a very long time. Why the change?

When sociologists and political scientists began to ask that question in the 1980s, the favored explanation was a combination of “status discontent” and “reaction to modernity.” As this story has it, the lives of rural southern Evangelicals had been disrupted by urbanization, increasing levels of education, and an awareness of the gap between themselves and a more privileged elite. Falwell and company were simply mobilizing their discontent. In the earliest days of the movement, some of these explanations seemed plausible. The status gaps were there. But by the early 1990s the demographic variables—education, income, place of residence—stopped telling us much about who supported what had become known as the New Christian Right.

Lurking behind that early telling of the story was also the suspicion that the status discontent in question actually amounted to white racism. Analysts had duly noted the shift of Southern whites into the Republican Party, and most of those whites were, after all, Evangelicals. Indeed, the massive defections of Southern Democrats in 1968 and 1972 (and their more gradual but still steady defection from 1980 onward) have been convincingly connected to shifts in racial politics.77.
See David C. Leege et al., The Politics of Cultural Differences: Social Change and Voter Mobilization Strategies in the Post-New Deal Period (Princeton University Press, 2002).
Those most discontented with an increasingly strong Democratic commitment to civil rights were the most likely to leave the party, and Republican strategists have not missed that point. They have consistently used themes with racial subtexts (local control, welfare reform, law and order), and those political themes have attracted and secured a white Southern base for the Republican Party. But those appeals were equally compelling to non-Southern and non-Evangelical whites who had been the working-class Democratic Party base. Catholics in the North were as likely to be swayed by racial resentment as Evangelicals in the South. Race has clearly accounted for much of the political realignment of the past forty years, but just how that fact is connected to religion is not altogether clear.

By the 1990s, in fact, Evangelicalism itself was increasingly racially integrated, even in the South. To be sure, attending an integrated religious congregation—Evangelical or otherwise—is still the exception, not the rule. Only about 7 percent of all U.S. congregations have an ethnic mix that exceeds 80/20 (whatever the 80 happens to be). But Evangelical Protestant churches are as likely to be in that exceptional 7 percent as are liberal Protestant ones. Even in the South, congregations in expanding urban regions are increasingly likely to attract a mixed membership that would have astounded the parents of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings. And on the West Coast, the ethnic salad bowl is celebrated in dozens of highly visible, culturally hip, multicultural Evangelical megachurches.8
8.
Michael O. Emerson and Rodney M. Woo, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States (Princeton University Press, 2006). Gerardo Marti describes a West Coast church in A Mosaic of Believers (Indiana University Press, 2005).
We would be fools to think racism is dead, but young white Evangelicals clearly do not think and organize along old-style segregated lines. The emerging younger generation of leaders has more in common with the white Evangelical southerners who joined the civil rights movement—Clarence Jordan and Will Campbell, for instance—than with the segregationist legacy that dogged the leaders of Falwell’s generation. In the Evangelical heartland, churches have slowly transformed the meaning of “love thy neighbor”, reinforcing and perhaps facilitating America’s rejection of the overt racism of its past.

The mirror image of that movement, of course, is that non-white Evangelicals are experiencing increasing affinity for their white counterparts. African-American, Asian and Latino Evangelicals are beginning to echo the moral rhetoric that has dominated the white Evangelical political cadences of the past twenty years. Concern for traditional moral values is by no means new in African-American churches, nor are concerns about challenges to family life. These congregations do not have to be convinced to oppose gay rights (although they probably did have to be convinced to make it their top concern).

Since the late 1990s, Reverend Creflo Dollar (pastor of the World Changers Church in Atlanta) and a cadre of other visible African-American megachurch pastors have begun to cast their lot with the Republican Party, citing both their moral concerns and their enthusiasm for George W. Bush’s “faith-based initiatives.” As early as 1996, when Bill Clinton first pushed “charitable choice” legislation, African-American churches were the most likely to seek the funds. President Bush seems to have tapped that entrepreneurial openness, packaging it with traditionalist family values in a way that is making increasing inroads into the Democratic Party’s African-American constituency. Given the similar moral traditionalism of many immigrant groups, Democrats should not assume that issues of economic and political justice will continue to give them a clear advantage among minority communities.

This implies that for a significant minority of Americans, mutual recognition as born-again children of God may eventually replace class- or ethnic-based group identities in shaping political decisions. Of course, American politics has always been more about culture than class, so the possibility that religion might trump other interests and identities is really not new. Catholics voted disproportionately for John F. Kennedy in 1960, and Southern Evangelicals got over their discontent with the Democrats to vote overwhelmingly for Jimmy Carter (at least in 1976). In both cases, religiously based mutual identification played a significant political role, just as it did again in 2000 and 2004. Whatever other issues or interests may be at play in any given election, people really do vote for people they recognize as being like themselves. To the extent that an Evangelical identity has become a salient political identity, being born again counts.

Balances

But the issues count, too. In the early 1980s political scientists and sociologists searched their surveys in vain for a coherent “Moral Majority” platform that could identify this new movement. Everyone agreed that abortion was a key plank, although even within Evangelical culture there is disagreement over how strictly abortion should be limited. But beyond that, was it about anti-communism and being a patriotic American? Was it about the Panama Canal? Was it about prayer in school or evolution or pornography or Israel? If analysts measured support for the whole package of causes touted by the early leaders, the picture was more a random scatterplot than a straight line.

Thousands of Evangelical Christians gather to worship with televangelist Robert Schuller in the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California.
Vince Streano/CORBIS

Over the decade of the 1980s, however, the cluster of mobilizing issues became clearer. The domestic policy issues that matter most are those about families. Of course, many Americans—not just Evangelicals—worry that family life is under siege. They may have an ahistorical and nostalgic view of what a “traditional” family is, but they somehow know that staying married is usually better than getting divorced, that giving birth is more joyful than having an abortion, that sex between a married couple carries fewer risks and liabilities than other arrangements, that same-sex marriages seem “unnatural”, and that raising kids today is made more challenging by everything they encounter in the media and maybe even the classroom. Most Americans, including Evangelicals, have qualms about censorship and “legislating morality”, but few Americans have to be convinced that gender and marriage are confusing terrain these days and that families need more help than they seem to be getting.

On the foreign policy front, the specific issues have shifted from anti-communism to anti-terrorism, but the common denominator of Evangelical concern is the two-century-old conviction that America has a divine calling in the world. For Evangelicalism, patriotism often carries more than its usual load of civic-religious fervor. America must live up to its role as a beacon to the world, must live out the Christian commitments embodied in its Founding. Arguments about the historical accuracy of these perceptions have little effect on what amounts to a divine myth of origin.

The American calling that Evangelicals claim still includes the complicated mix of political, humanitarian and religious impulses that gave rise to the missionary movement from its beginning. The same determination that sent American missionaries to China and the Congo in the 19th century is still there today, and it still leads Evangelicals to go abroad to preach the gospel and better the lives of indigenous peoples. Now as then, Evangelicals judge prevailing regimes mainly by their willingness to keep their borders open to the mission presence. Old empires determined to exclude Westerners, communist states determined to stamp out religion, and Islamic ones determined to maintain Muslim privilege—Evangelical Christians have opposed them all (sometimes making unfortunate alliances in the process). But they have also judged those regimes on humanitarian grounds. From foot-binding in 19th-century China to genocide in 21st-century Sudan, Evangelicals abroad and their network of correspondents have often made remote troubles visible back home.

The other orienting point on the Evangelical international compass is Israel. The theological grounds for an Evangelical-Zionist alliance lie in the obscure doctrine of “dispensationalism” (more popularly, “rapture theology”). Those few who can fully parse the plot of the Rapture-Tribulation-Armageddon scenario can explain exactly why Christians should rejoice in the establishment of the State of Israel and should protect its existence against all threats. Generations of fundamentalists grew up with elaborate pictorial charts that illustrated the dispensationalist version of what lay ahead for the world, but they were a rather small cadre even within the larger Evangelical community. Then Hal Lindsey published The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins followed with the first of their Left Behind novels in 1995. Now millions who have never darkened the door of a fundamentalist church have been immersed in plots in which Christian Zionism is taken for granted. There are many other reasons for the U.S. commitment to Israel, but this is surely one of them.

The Evangelical presence in American public life, then, has coalesced around family issues on the domestic scene and, on the international scene, a conviction that America can and should do some good in the world, especially in protecting Israel. The early Moral Majoritarians were clearly angry about school prayer and abortion, and their movement conveniently coincided with a massive shift in racial politics. Today, however, thirty years into the movement, a much more diverse set of issues allows Evangelicals to appeal to groups of Americans far beyond their original base.

Looking Ahead

I began with a reminder that Evangelicals, broadly defined, constitute only about a third of the American population, and also that this third is not a uniform political bloc any more than it is a uniform theological community. Insofar as there are convergences between Evangelical religious impulses and any political agenda, however, this is a community that brings formidable mobilizing strength to the table. Among other things, Evangelicals simply believe more fervently and go to church more often than other Americans. Evangelical congregations, white and black, are more likely than mainline Protestant or Catholic ones to become communities of political discourse, not because of what is preached from the pulpit so much as what is talked about at the pot luck or in the Bible study group. Karl Rove need do nothing to switch on the informal e-mail lists that already knit these communities together through the joys and crises of everyday life.

Beyond vigorous local congregations, Evangelical life also continues to be strengthened by the organizational and cultural entrepreneurship of its members. Evangelicals re-entered the political arena on the strength of a century and a half of energetic institution-building. In the half century between the Scopes Trial and the Moral Majority, those institutions sustained a kind of parallel culture. Evangelicals had their own schools and colleges, their own television shows and movies and bookstores, their own clubs and resorts. The most conservative among them—those who still proudly called themselves fundamentalists—were most careful to stay within this sheltering canopy, while other Evangelicals were content to blend a healthy dose of secular middle-class culture with their consumption of Evangelical products and ideas.

Over the last three decades, however, the line between middle-class consumption and Evangelical culture has become increasingly blurred. Pious believers of all sorts have always enshrined their devotions in material objects—from Bible verses on a wall plaque to saint statues in the garden. But the commercial explosion of the last three decades is unprecedented. Sales at Christian bookstores run into the billions, and every media genre has its Evangelical counterpart, often entertaining enough to attract non-Evangelical audiences. Media studies scholar Heather Hendershot writes,

Today, Christian rockers star in MTV-style videos, and Christian girls’ magazines look like Seventeen and YM. Kids can even find “a superhero who lives up to his calling” when they play Joshua: The Battle for Jericho, a video game that is Sega-, Nintendo-, Game boy-, and PC-compatible.99.
Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

What is more, Evangelical buying power has forced the American market to recognize this as another consumer demographic worth catering to. Isolated and penurious they are not.

The separateness of Evangelical culture has eroded in other ways, as well. Older generations may have shunned (or been unable to afford) elite universities, but Yale and UC-Berkeley are today full of Evangelicals who have learned to engage secular philosophies rather than avoid them. They are supported by the same campus organizations that have always provided a home—Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity and the like—but the activities and speakers today may include tips on getting a job in government or a casual chat with a Fortune 500 CEO. Nor are those campus groups the lily-white enclaves they might have been fifty years ago. Indeed, the Evangelical presence on many elite campuses today has a decidedly Asian look.

The Evangelical presence in American culture today is, in fact, as much about Asian Yalies and CEOs who talk about their faith as it is about crusades to ban abortion. It is as much about the crossover success of Amy Grant or The Chronicles of Narnia as it is about Republican Party strategies to mobilize anti-gay sentiment. Evangelicals do want morally wholesome communities, but they also want to enjoy a night out at the movies, to secure a good, market-worthy education for their kids, and to feel good about what America does in the world. They have increasingly learned to talk to their neighbors about those concerns, and they are occasionally persuasive.

These are not “culture wars” in any literal sense. In the United States only the tiniest sliver of a radical fringe advocates violence in service of God’s mandates. The vast majority of those who believe abortion is murder nevertheless believe that the American political system allows them sufficient space to pursue their convictions through normal avenues of persuasion. American Evangelicals would rather offer a good example than force their beliefs on others, and they are just as committed to living civilly as are more liberal Americans.1010.
See Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (University of California Press, 2000), and Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion (Free Press, 2003). See also Ziad Munson’s study of pro-life activists, “Fighting for the Sanctity of Life: Juggling God, Democracy, and Abortion in the American Pro-Life Movement”, in Taking Faith Seriously, Mary Jo Bane, Brent Coffin and Richard Higgins, eds. (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Nor is this country a theocracy in the making. There is neither an institutionalized religious establishment ready to take over nor enough agreement on an Evangelical platform to pose a credible threat to the constitutional separation of church and state. While abortion and gay rights have mobilized many Evangelicals, others are mobilized by poverty and global warming. Like their 19th-century abolitionist forebears, many Evangelicals have become morally outraged; and as in that earlier era, they are acting as citizens trying to persuade their fellow citizens to change.

American politics has always been as much about our moral convictions and sense of destiny as about our economic system. The irony (and genius) of our constitutional system is that even as it prohibits churches from compelling obedience, it also protects the rights of religious believers to try to persuade us. The argument over what our national moral convictions and sense of destiny should be is likely to remain at the heart of American politics, and Evangelicals are likely to remain in the debate. The points they win will depend entirely on their ability to persuade a majority that theirs is, after all, the moral world in which we wish to live.


1.
These figures (as well as religious preference percentages noted later) have been calculated from the General Social Survey, using pooled data from annual surveys since 1995. National Opinion Research Center, GSSDIRS: General Social Survey: 1972–2000 Cumulative Codebook (July 4, 2005).

2.
Clyde Wilcox analyzes early support for the Moral Majority in God’s Warriors: The Christian Right in 20th Century America (John Hopkins University Press, 1992).

3.
Christian Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (University of Chicago Press, 1998).

4.
See Michael Young, “Confessional Protest: The Religious Birth of U.S. National Social Movements”, American Sociological Review (October 2002).

5.
Nathan Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press, 1989).

6.
Here see Dana L. Robert, Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Mercer University Press, 1997).

7.
See David C. Leege et al., The Politics of Cultural Differences: Social Change and Voter Mobilization Strategies in the Post-New Deal Period (Princeton University Press, 2002).


8.
Michael O. Emerson and Rodney M. Woo, People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States (Princeton University Press, 2006). Gerardo Marti describes a West Coast church in A Mosaic of Believers (Indiana University Press, 2005).

9.
Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2004).

10.
See Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (University of California Press, 2000), and Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion (Free Press, 2003). See also Ziad Munson’s study of pro-life activists, “Fighting for the Sanctity of Life: Juggling God, Democracy, and Abortion in the American Pro-Life Movement”, in Taking Faith Seriously, Mary Jo Bane, Brent Coffin and Richard Higgins, eds. (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Nancy T. Ammerman is professor of sociology of religion at Boston University.