OCTOBER 27, 2003
Martin E. Marty
There being so many things to cover, Sightings seldom allows itself to focus too long or too often on a single subject. So, having recently devoted 16 lines to the recent California election, I apologize for returning to the scene.
Why do so? First, the California recall voting was the most covered non-presidential election in many years. Second, the whole had its eye on the controverted religious dimensions of the campaign. Third, evangelicals, a diverse lot who together make up about one-fourth of the United States and possibly more than one-fourth of its voting power, were in the spotlight and their California expression and national reaction can be fateful. Finally, focus on the event is the latest chance to observe one of the main battles for the soul of evangelicalism.
Hegel might have treated the evangelical skirmishing along the lines of his dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In this case, "thesis" was voiced in the much-publicized and principled remarks of Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council. He and his kind viewed the successful candidate with perspectives from historic, harder-lined evangelicalism. How could evangelicals vote for a pro-choice, gun-limiting, decades-long violator of every norm about sexuality that evangelicals held? An explainer but not a repenter, and anything but born again, even in his chastened and, presumably, newer chaste life. Bauer and company's statement of thesis was clear and simple: don't vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Next, "antithesis," the unprincipled "huge" and purely "pragmatic" polar opposite position, was reported on and spoken for by the first vice-president of the Southern Baptist Convention and California evangelical-right leader Rob Zinn. He knew all the things about Schwarzenegger that Bauer rejected, but seemed at ease with those culturally accommodated and politically ambitious evangelicals who paid no attention to Bauer types. Their support did not match the moral themes that evangelicals advertise. Instead, it's the economy, stupid.
You thought "synthesis" would never come? We see many signs and hear many signals of it. The editors of World, an evangelical magazine, were softer on talk-show host Rush Limbaugh's racial remarks and drug addiction than were Limbaugh's enemies, but still morally wrapped the knuckles of too-sympathetic evangelical Limbaughites. Now, in the October 25th issue, Joel Belz ends an editorial praising the late Neil Postman, as well he might and as well one should, for criticizing the character of "Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." Postman chronicled the collapse of the moral and political into the world of entertainment, the market, and the pop culture that is so alluring to and influential on adapted evangelicalism. Belz, on California and its ripples: "All across the nation were folks -- including a great many conservative Christians -- who couldn't figure out for themselves whether substance or style counted most in an election with profound political, economic, and cultural implications." In this election, "Californians bought a pig in a poke," Belz wrote, "and in doing so, they set a dreadful example for the rest of an already superficial electorate." He thinks "their celebration is likely to be short-lived."
They are enjoying it while they can.