"You won! What are you grousing about? You won!" Sociologist Talcott Parsons was speaking. In his range were American Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish scholars and advocates enjoying a coffee break at a Vatican Conference in 1978. What could "winning" have meant to any part of the American Christian church? With the Second Vatican Council still in recent memory, it looked to him that ecumenical Christianity had won, and denominations and confessions did not have to be isolated or at war but could relate positively. Major elements of the Protestant social gospel, the Catholic Bishops' Program, and the black Christian civil rights leadership had "won" as governments enacted what they stood for. Culturally, the same churches had "won" by having contributed to the liberal or open society, which mixed secular reasoning and religious prophecy; support for tolerance and respect among religions; celebration of individual freedom; and selective affirmations of popular culture.
Christians both within and beyond the groups to which Parsons was referring now tend to participate, with some critical reserve, in a culture that now takes for granted what these achieved, but first had to call hard-won.
Harvard professor Parsons did not have in mind, scope, or speech the one-fourth or one-third of America that his sociologist colleagues now lump together as "evangelical." This refers to the nexus of fundamentalist-evangelical-Pentecostal-Baptist-conservative Protestant denominations. Were he alive today, he would find that more media attention, more governmental access and influence, more new wealth, more popular cultural expression comes from that group than others. Anytime from the 1920s to the 1970s, had he been wearing historians' spectacles, he probably would have said to those churches: "You lost!" Today he would have good reason to say in respect to many aspects of their movement: "You won!"
What Evangelicals Won
Evangelicals won, first, by contributing to a new kind of ecumenism, which old-style ecumenists have also been evolving. Yes, there are still some fundamentalist separatists around, but most evangelicals, whether within their denominations or not, move rather blithely in a pattern (or in the chaos of) ad hoc witness and activity (e.g., "parachurch") that pays little attention to historical confessional definition.
Second, evangelicals won by moving from what I used to call "private Protestantism" to visibility and at-homeness in the genus "public" and the species "political" religion. While by no means do all evangelicals rally around a single set of political signals, enough of them have banded together in a sequence of Majorities and Coalitions until they have become the core constituency of the political party in power.
Culturally, which refers to the third sphere of earlier victories by other Christians, many citizens would regard evangelicalism as a winner. On the face of it, such a claim sounds absurd. Listen to the evangelical breeds of whiners, moaners, groaners, mopers, and fair-minded observers who speak about cultural decline and the raw secularity that comes with it. And they have reason to grouse, sharing whining rights with Catholics, Protestants, Jews, African American Protestants, Mormons, secular moralists, and citizens who possess eyes and consciences in all camps. A glance at the covers of the publications peddled at airport newsstands, at the entertainment advertised in the free metropolitan weeklies, at most films and cable television, at most of what goes on in the market and the mall—all this would make a visitor wonder whether a hint of a tinge of a whisper of a reminiscence of a "Jewish-Christian" culture exists.
Evangelicals, for all the cultural bogeys, have chosen to adapt more to the mainlines of American life than most other groups. Polls and surveys show them most ready to sing the battle hymns of the Republic and to support warfare in its name. They have bought into the language of reduced federal government while supporting the policies of the past score of years that see it enlarged—never more so than with the current administration. Their majority once supported the godliness-with-contentment school of stewardship but today they are as ready as any group to write and live by theological justifications for "the market" (as in Harvey Cox's famed article, "The Market as God").
Globally, thanks to their missionary and humanitarian ventures, they are well poised to "go global," though here the other religious clusters do remain very much on the scene. Evangelicals produce and buy religious bestsellers whose sales totals have left all other religious camps far behind. Though many heard the rock music beat as demonic a score of years ago, they now are at home in their $1 billion-a-year Christian rock business. They alone command religious television, and they alone produce religious celebrities—unless we want to count the Pope as one.
Such a chronicle might sound like the expression of sour grapes, envy, or resentment based on the displacement of those left behind. Parsons's word to those he called winners still applies to many taken-for-granted features of national life. Still, those Christians would have to hear the public now ask of them, "What have you done for us lately?"
Such a chronicle will almost certainly inspire some responses, noting that I here overlook important minority voices, among them the various dissenting "Evangelicals for" or "Evangelicals Concerned about" movements. And evangelicalism today, like its counterparts, has tremendous diversity. A Puerto Rican Pentecostal in New York, a billionaire Baptist in Texas, and a Yale Divinity professor can rightfully be called evangelical. I have lined up observation and evidence in these gross generalizations to make one point: evangelicalism has won enough in enough spheres that its leaders will do well to ask what happens after groups have "won."
Learning from the Bleeding Edge
The evangelical advance was not made in a historical vacuum. Its leaders both profited and learned from the successes and the mistakes of other Christian clusters. Anthropologist Robert Service borrowed two concepts from Thorstein Veblen that help explain this move. Veblen spoke of "the merits of borrowing" and "the penalty of taking the lead." A century ago, progressive Protestants and Catholics "took the lead" in relating to modern culture, and later-comers who once rejected modernity were able to "borrow" some of their positives while avoiding their negatives.
Protestants who dominated in America during the first half of the 20th century had original privileged access to radio and early television. Meanwhile their theologians and theorists worried about what technology, media, and propaganda would do to dehumanize people, to harm soul and spirit. They and Catholics fumbled with the media. Along came evangelicals, who had developed radio expertise almost by stealth—who but fundamentalists were listening to them in the 1920s to 1950s?—and were ready with their own approaches when television followed.
In worship, such Protestants and Catholics experimented with folk music and dance in the sanctuary and awkwardly introduced visual aids into the holy place. But they were scorned by both secular and religious commentators who derided them for debasing holy things. They suffered the penalty of having taken the lead and then yielded to the main styles of evangelicals, who brought soft rock and multimedia and nightclub styles and dance into the sanctuary, where they prospered.
In politics, the Catholics and Protestants had developed leadership and lobbies, but were often perceived to be "generals without armies" when polls revealed that not all in the pews agreed with their out-of-step innovations. Evangelicals came along, having learned from the mistakes of those who paid the penalty of taking the lead, and took pains to line up armies behind their generals, publics behind their pronouncement-makers.
Word limits do not allow me to hedge every bet and qualify every generalization in those three paragraphs, but I hope I have been generally faithful in reports on the trends. I expect that some evangelicals will be critical of this picture of their at-homeness in culture and society, because they, like Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, often find it valuable to keep the group together by citing animosities and dismissals by outsiders.
'We Demand a Recount'
Nevertheless, prophets within evangelicalism are numerous and effective enough to say in the camp what I have here summarized from the margins. They hold up the biblical mirror and ask whether evangelicalism—perceived by some as politically partisan, identified with market (and Mammon?), bought into entertainment and celebrity culture—might along the way become fatefully identified with the current societal manifestations, "married to the Zeitgeist." They wonder if it will be unready to be disentangled when new cultural fashions and political fates appear, as they surely shall.
Thousands of years of history demonstrate that all cultural complexes eventually find limits, get over-adapted to the environment they helped create, lose their innovative spirit, and find it hard to relate to something that will replace what they knew. The more the Catholics and Protestants of whom Parsons spoke had become identified with a culture that reached its limits, and the more readily they became adapted to it, the more unnecessary did they appear to the public, which now found other forces that had voices of their own: nonwhite Christians, Mormons, evangelicals, Jews.
William F. Buckley, though he stood no chance of winning a political race, once ran for the office of mayor in New York. Asked what his first act would be were he elected, he said, "I'd demand a recount!"
Serious evangelicals who take long looks at the society and the culture that they have done so much to help shape might well say, after being told they won, "We demand a recount!" They will get a recount. Constitutionally, they have not won the anti-abortion amendment almost all of them seek. They have not succeeded in getting the school prayer amendment most of them would like. Their boycotts and legislative efforts have not found them successful at purging media images of the pornography that they all oppose, or the violence that many of them do. Their positive efforts to promote family values have begun to pay off in only small ways. Some of the waning "liberal media" still project pejorative or just plain stupid images of what it is to be evangelical. Polls reveal that evangelicals do not rate high among value systems when non-evangelicals get asked to rank them. The "principalities and powers" are out there.
In his The Genius of American Politics (University of Chicago Press, 1953), historian Daniel J. Boorstin observed the "generalized religion" that was having an effect on "those few religions—like Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and the uncompromising minor Protestant sects—which have remained socially or doctrinally unassimilated." (He regarded my Lutheran church, exotic to him as a secularized Jew, to be among the "uncompromising" and "intransigent Protestant sects.") They "remained in a sense 'un-American' because they [had] not yet completely taken on the color of their environment."
"Such sects," he added, "while accepting the moral premises of the community, can still try to judge the community by some standard outside its own history. But even these religions often take on a peculiar American complexion and tend toward validating themselves by their accord with things as they are."
Boorstin cited historian Edward Gibbon on the age of the Antonines and applied his observation to Americans and their support for their own civil religion: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful."
I don't think Boorstin would think any of "us" semi-outsiders came through very well. We "won" some things to help form the culture and to make our way into it, but then over-adapted. Now when evangelicals are the most depended-upon supporters of the civil religion and the market ideology and the most "useful" to those in power, he might very well ask, "Why do you gripe? You won!"
A half century has passed since Boorstin wrote. He did not prescribe for any of the groups, and I do not have credentials or invitation to do so for evangelicalism. I intend to keep observing, prayerfully, to see how things turn out.
Martin E. Marty is Fairfax Cone Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. He is the coauthor, most recently, of Visions of Utopia (Oxford, 2003). This article is based on remarks to the National Association of Evangelicals convention in 2003.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Marty is senior editor at The Christian Century.
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