October 14, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
"If you can't lick 'em, join 'em" could well have been the motto for CPs, conservative Protestants ["you"], in their relation to the world and the surrounding culture, especially popular culture ["'em"], during the past sixty years. Historians, and seniors with long memories, have plenty to mull over when comparing the ethos of fundamentalists, ["neo"-] evangelicals, Southern Baptists, and the like in, say, the 1930s and the 2000s. Daily documentation supports the thesis that they did a drastic turnaround in respect to culture.
For example, in the years when CPs were distant and dismissive of the culture, they almost universally opposed over-attention to sports and certainly to contests on Sunday. Now CP clerics cut sermons short so members, and they[?], can get to NFL games on time. And if pro athletes speak up for faith, it isn't Unitarian; it's quite likely Pentecostal.
You can look it up: all the periodicals and quoted sermons attacked beauty contests back when women's swimsuits revealed the knee and the forearm -- Miss America appealed only to the lusts of men, they charged. Now follow the reign of Erika Harold, current Miss America and soon-to-be Harvard Law student, and listen as she makes no secret of her conservative faith, espousing politics in the stripe of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, National Review Online, and the most conservative candidate in Illinois' gubernatorial primaries. The Chicago Tribune (October 9) typically covers her odyssey.
Rock music: the devil's own beat said CP critics when rock was young. Sexual gestures, pelvic rotations, and weird get-ups were the world's; avoid them. Instead they "joined 'em," and, without changing costumes or hair-dos or beats, became a billion-dollar-a-year venture. They changed the words, but no one understood them then, or now. The same Trib (September 1) retraces the rock-y road evangelicals took. Almost every article on the subject today, however, has to ask whether church or world, Christ or culture, won in this exchange, especially when many Christian rockers cross over into the straight-out secular sphere.
A former student of mine, Michele Rosenthal, now teaching at Haifa, wrote a not-yet-published doctoral dissertation on the way mainline Protestants -- and, read here, their cultural kin, Catholics, Jews, etc. -- rolled over and played dead, or were dead, when it came to taking high risks in the world of television. They became excellent critics, poor users and, if you check the ratings, losers. What CPs have done with television needs no documentation here.
Evangelical theologians and critics busy themselves asking about the pros and cons of the move. As well they must.