Friday, June 16, 2006

The Mellowing of Evangelical Christianity

In an op-ed at the Washington Post today, E.J. Dionne discusses the significance of the election of moderate Rev. Frank Page as president of the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this week.

Page defeated two other candidates who were well-known to have close ties to the convention's conservative leadership, which has been dominating the group's direction over the past two decades.

Dionne is quick to point out that this isn't a shift toward liberalism for this group of evangelical Christians, but rather a mellowing of its recent radicalism. As Page points out about his philosophy: "I believe in the word of God. I'm just not mad about it."

But it's the anger that has been largely driving the evangelical movement in the political world since the 1970s. While some evangelicals may take issue with the characterization of the movement as mad, there's no doubting the political side of it has had an "us against them" edge to it (hence, the successful use of that same frame by President Bush on numerous occasions).

Unlike some, I think the evangelical vote had a profound impact on recent electoral politics, particularly the last couple presidential elections. While the majority of Bush voters did not cite social issues as a predominant concern when pulling the lever in '04, it was the segment that did that made the difference. In my view, this was largely a group that wasn't politicized -- or at least not politicized as much -- prior to the growth of groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.

And mobilizing apathy is the real trick for political movements. Actually changing minds is often a hopeless task, at least in the short-term game of electoral politics. If you can excite the group who already tends to agree with you (at least on certain hot button issues) but doesn't normally care enough to show it, then you've really got something.

That said, it wouldn't take a liberal shift in the evangelical movement in order to defuse the edge the movement has given the GOP in recent years. A mellowing might do the trick.

However you slice the election of the moderate Page, it very well could be a sign of changes to come. The next couple of elections will tell for sure.


Blogger G.J. said...

It surprises the hell out of me that the press and general population of seemingly literate and intelligent citizens consistently fail to grasp that there is only one game in town, and it is Liberalism.

Republicans are liberals in political philosophy, same as Democrats. Republicans and most so-called "conservatives" are simply "more conservative" (on some issues) relative to the Dems today. Everyone is progressively liberalizing in the long run, i.e. articulating everything under the sun in terms of "individual rights."

There is nothing intrinsically conservative about this; in fact it is rather attached to the revolutionary aspects of modernity and is not capable of conserving very much. Even if being a conservative means being a counter-revolutionary (which Revolution? 17thC England? 18th-20thC France? 20thC Russia?), it is a losign proposition: fighting a rear-guard action for an army that is always retreating.

Liberalism is the air we breathe, a rationalizing, individuating process that has gone on for some five centuries. It is in the main hostile to premodern conceptions of political and social order that esteem tradition as a source of authority as much, if not more than, assertions of individual rights or the positivistic regimes of knowledge improperly referred to as "science." The odd mix of so-called conservatives today--libertarians, your evangelical conservatives, secular neoconservatives, neoliberal fiscal conservatives--do not share a shred of common philosophy and most do not have one at all.

Just consider things like Intelligent Design or any number of political issues that get labelled "moral" or "religious," especially by detractors. What is the relevant authority to decide such conflicts? Who decides? There is no overarching answer beyond the steady increase of "equality" and "individual rights."

In this situation, the Evangelicals are some of the most confused and lost souls on the so-called right. They have no answers either. Their main concern as increasingly educated, upwardly mobile, mainstream folks in a liberal society is bad press. They want to be moderates or centrists, liked by all. They are natural fence-riders. Some believe in and resent the caricature of fundamentalists and warmongering arch-conservative greedy capitalists. Again, a concern with "image." If the GOP loses them for this reason or that, it doesn't matter. Neither stands for much of anything beyond a weakly assembled bloc of anti-tax, anti-Clinton generation, anti-abortion reactionaries. They don't know what to do with limited success. They're tired. Some are sick of those issues or have changed their minds on them. Interesting news story I get, but it never gets told very well.

June 16, 2006  

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