MARCH 3, 2003
Wheaton's New Community
Martin E. Marty
When a liberal arts college adapts a new behavior code, other local colleges and the press yawn. But when Wheaton College in Illinois, the flagship of evangelical colleges, issued their
Wheaton is changing, however, and even this very minor change quickens curiosity about the choice of moral issues pursued in the one-fourth of America that is the "evangelical sector." Here's a clue, one that the Wheaton adjustment typifies: when "everybody's doing it" (or wants to) religious conservatives make some changes. They once massively opposed rock music (the "devil's beat," the pelvic thrust) and now their Christian rock is a $1 billion-a-year industry. The way to keep "the kids" was not to oppose all their practices but to adapt.
Such change reminded me of University of Oregon sociologist Benton Johnson's
Four issues in particular, however, saw great change: in 1962 virtually all conservatives (and many moderates) preached against divorce, gambling, and drinking alcohol, and for Sunday-closing laws. Only a few conservatives preached on these themes a quarter century later, and other issues had replaced them on the more liberal side. In 1987, Johnson found no churchly campaigns against no-fault divorce and legalized gambling, and no actions on laws affecting drinking and Sunday openings. It's clear from his essay that, with time, "everybody was doing it."
Then, as now, "it" means four things. Divorce reaches almost every preacher's extended family, so it's more often seen as tragic and not a stand-out sin. Church members make their living on river boat casinos or by working on Sunday afternoons at Wal-Mart, and most sip wine or drink beer. It would be hypocritical to pretend that they don't, and futile to rail against them. So preachers and churches adapt.
Johnson will be 84 in 2012 and promises a 50th year round-up.