Monday, October 29, 2007

The Evangelical Crackup

I don't really know how significant this is or what the situation is in the US in general but it is interesting to see what seems to be evangelistic Christians becoming perhaps less politically involved.

The Evangelical Crackup
NYT/October 28, 2007

The hundred-foot white cross atop the Immanuel Baptist Church in
downtown Wichita, Kan., casts a shadow over a neighborhood of payday
lenders, pawnbrokers and pornographic video stores. To its
parishioners, this has long been the front line of the culture war.
Immanuel has stood for Southern Baptist traditionalism for more than
half a century. Until recently, its pastor, Terry Fox, was the Jerry
Falwell of the Sunflower State — the public face of the conservative
Christian political movement in a place where that made him a very big

With flushed red cheeks and a pudgy, dimpled chin, Fox roared down
from Immanuel's pulpit about the wickedness of abortion, evolution and
homosexuality. He mobilized hundreds of Kansas pastors to push through
a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, helping to unseat a
handful of legislators in the process. His Sunday-morning services
reached tens of thousands of listeners on regional cable television,
and on Sunday nights he was a host of a talk-radio program, "Answering
the Call." Major national conservative Christian groups like Focus on
the Family lauded his work, and the Southern Baptist Convention named
him chairman of its North American Mission Board.

For years, Fox flaunted his allegiance to the Republican Party, urging
fellow pastors to make the same "confession" and calling them
"sissies" if they didn't. "We are the religious right," he liked to
say. "One, we are religious. Two, we are right."

His congregation, for the most part, applauded. Immanuel and Wichita's
other big churches were seedbeds of the conservative Christian
activism that burst forth three decades ago. In the 1980s, when
theological conservatives pushed the moderates out of the Southern
Baptist Convention, Immanuel and Fox were both at the forefront. In
1991, when Operation Rescue brought its "Summer of Mercy" abortion
protests to Wichita, Immanuel's parishioners leapt to the barricades,
helping to establish the city as the informal capital of the
anti-abortion movement. And Fox's confrontational style packed ever
more like-minded believers into the pews. He more than doubled
Immanuel's official membership to more than 6,000 and planted the
giant cross on its roof.

So when Fox announced to his flock one Sunday in August last year that
it was his final appearance in the pulpit, the news startled
evangelical activists from Atlanta to Grand Rapids. Fox told the
congregation that he was quitting so he could work full time on
"cultural issues." Within days, The Wichita Eagle reported that Fox
left under pressure. The board of deacons had told him that his
activism was getting in the way of the Gospel. "It just wasn't
pertinent," Associate Pastor Gayle Tenbrook later told me.

Fox, who is 47, said he saw some impatient shuffling in the pews, but
he was stunned that the church's lay leaders had turned on him. "They
said they were tired of hearing about abortion 52 weeks a year,
hearing about all this political stuff!" he told me on a recent Sunday
afternoon. "And these were deacons of the church!"

These days, Fox has taken his fire and brimstone in search of a new
pulpit. He rented space at the Johnny Western Theater at the Wild West
World amusement park until it folded. Now he preaches at a Best
Western hotel. "I don't mind telling you that I paid a price for the
political stands I took," Fox said. "The pendulum in the Christian
world has swung back to the moderate point of view. The real battle
now is among evangelicals."

Fox is not the only conservative Christian to feel the heat of those
battles, even in — of all places — Wichita. Within three months of
departure, the two other most influential conservative Christian
pastors in the city had left their pulpits as well. And in the silence
left by their voices, a new generation of pastors distinctly
suspicious of the Republican Party — some as likely to lean left as
right — is beginning to speak up.

Just three years ago, the leaders of the conservative Christian
political movement could almost see the Promised Land. White
evangelical Protestants looked like perhaps the most potent voting
bloc in America. They turned out for President George W. Bush in
record numbers, supporting him for re-election by a ratio of four to
one. Republican strategists predicted that religious traditionalists
would help bring about an era of dominance for their party. Spokesmen
for the Christian conservative movement warned of the wrath of "values
voters." James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, was
poised to play kingmaker in 2008, at least in the Republican primary.
And thanks to President Bush, the Supreme Court appeared just one vote
away from answering the prayers of evangelical activists by
overturning Roe v. Wade.

Today the movement shows signs of coming apart beneath its leaders. It
is not merely that none of the 2008 Republican front-runners come
close to measuring up to President Bush in the eyes of the evangelical
faithful, although it would be hard to find a cast of characters more
ill fit for those shoes: a lapsed-Catholic big-city mayor; a
Massachusetts Mormon; a church-skipping Hollywood character actor; and
a political renegade known for crossing swords with the Rev. Pat
Robertson and the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Nor is the problem simply that
the Democratic presidential front-runners — Senator Hillary Rodham
Clinton, Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards — sound
like a bunch of tent-revival Bible thumpers compared with the

The 2008 election is just the latest stress on a system of fault lines
that go much deeper. The phenomenon of theologically conservative
Christians plunging into political activism on the right is,
historically speaking, something of an anomaly. Most evangelicals
shrugged off abortion as a Catholic issue until after the 1973 Roe v.
Wade decision. But in the wake of the ban on public-school prayer, the
sexual revolution and the exodus to the suburbs that filled the new
megachurches, protecting the unborn became the rallying cry of a new
movement to uphold the traditional family. Now another confluence of
factors is threatening to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary
evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak
over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic
accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent
divisions within the evangelical world — over the evangelical
with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology,
and between the generations.

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