OCTOBER 13, 2003
Evangelicals: Right and Might
Martin E. Marty
Business and commerce may represent the most secular sector of our common life, but the daily paper that covers business and commerce has "got religion." Especially on Fridays, the Wall Street Journal notices faith and the faiths, and we like to monitor it for Sightings. October 10th was typical; a few lines about the Episcopal-Anglican traumas and an op-ed on a Catholic dissenter in Cuba, set the stage for unsurprisingly favorable probes of American evangelicalism.
In the editorial page, Daniel Henninger confirms some cynics' hypotheses about power among Evangelicals and Southern Baptists after the California elections. His was a reassuring "never mind" to non-evangelical conservatives who supported Arnold Schwarzenegger and feared that his self-admitted sexual escapades might drive away evangelicals of "the religious right." Not at all, assures Henninger; 65 percent of "self-described 'very conservative' voters" picked A.S. To confirm his hunches about evangelicals' ability to overlook what they used to call sin, half-repented for, he checked with the Rev. Rob Zinn, first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and a Californian.
Not to worry, Zinn also assured, we evangelical Christians voted "hugely" and "purely pragmatically" for Schwarzenegger. Forgetting about their battles for virtue, they chose to help win the one about power. Zinn found the sin instead in the Los Angeles Times for calling attention to the governor-elect's errant ways, past and near-present. Is Zinn observing accurately this historic post-virtue shift?
Happier is the lead unsigned editorial in the "Personal Journal," a deserving celebration of 300-year old theologian and evangelist Jonathan Edwards. The appraisal is sophisticated, but it takes a sudden and strange turn, signaled by the headline, "Hell, Yes." Cheered that "69 percent of Americans still believe" in hell, the writer cites a sociological finding that "economic growth responds negatively to church attendance but positively to belief in Hell." Nominal belief in hell may help economic growth, but the evangelists compete not to frighten sinners with hell but to offer them goods this side of the flames.
Allen Hertzke, an astute University of Oklahoma political scientist, does best by lifting out the changed and overtly moral-and-political endeavors of evangelicals far beyond the zone of their self-interest. His case study: the under-reported recent human rights breakthrough in the Sudan, the signing of a new U.S.-brokered security pact. Hertzke scolds the New York Times for saying that such human rights endeavors are a "pet cause" of the evangelical right. He asks whether the same paper would have called American Jewish support for the plight of Soviet Jews a "pet cause."
Hertzke shows that human-rights-minded evangelicals have recently worked freely and openly with liberal Jews, Tibetan Buddhists, feminists like Gloria Steinem, the black Caucus, the NAACP, La Raza, and Human Rights Watch on such causes. Since many of the victims of human rights abuses are allied to American evangelicals, one could see some self-interest, but the evangelical sweep was wide, courageous, generous, and deserving of applause.
Also in October at the Divinity School:
From October 21 to 23, the Divinity School brings together a group of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scholars -- philosophers, theologians, ethicists and legal thinkers -- for the 2003 D.R. Sharpe Lectures entitled Humanity before God: Contemporary Faces of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Ethics. The aim of the conference is to examine anew the shared ways in which the three monotheistic faiths in the Abrahamic tradition conceive the idea of humanity before God, and how each contributes to contemporary understandings of fundamental claims about the inalienable sanctity and dignity of human life. In multiple ways, the idea of humanity before God is informed by certain central narrative figurations of the creation of humanity within the Torah and the Qur'an. With a view toward these narratives, the conference will explore several crucial dimensions of the idea of humanity before God within the Abrahamic traditions and in relation to our contemporary situation. Events begin on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 21 with an opening keynote lecture at 4 pm by Hilary Putnam, Cogan University Professor (Emeritus) at Harvard University. The conference ends on Thursday afternoon with a closing keynote address at 2 pm by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, University Professor at George Washington University. The conference is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is strongly encouraged. For more information, go to the conference website at http://sharpelectures.uchicago.edu. Stay tuned for upcoming Sightings columns on topics related to the conference.