DECEMBER 8, 2003
Martin E. Marty
Conservative evangelicals, one-fourth-plus of Americans, do not make up a
solid, changeless bloc. Monitoring them, observing their fluidity, is an occasional
task for Sightings. One of their voices, the weekly magazine World,
offers two glimpses that signal some change and surprise within the camp.
Change first: Editor-in-Chief and major funder Marvin Olasky headlines his December 6 editorial "Pluralism by Providence." Let me frame this by referencing John Courtney Murray, S.J.'s dictum from almost fifty years ago: religious pluralism is against the will of God, but it is the human condition. Get used to it, was his message. Olasky rings a change on that: it is the will of God. "Like it or not, America over the past two centuries has become pluralistic by God's providence," thanks to Constitutional assurances of religious freedom and the constant arrival of new immigrants bringing diverse faiths with them.
Olasky does not have the evangelical-right field to himself, but he is a major player, and what he says signals significant change from what the public usually hears from the likes of Pat Robertson and other popular leaders. Non-evangelicals who may not oppose all aspects of the political program of evangelicals, and who may favor many aspects of their cultural outlook, shrink when Robertson types speak in theocratic terms: God will rule through American law when the right kind of God's people grab enough power and assert it.
Olasky instead cites James Madison on how rights in America would be served by "many parts, interests, and classes of citizens," including religious. Civil pluralism was thus chartered. Not theological pluralism, which Olasky sees as relativism, in his case meaning Christians giving away the store. "Some of us might wish we lived in a different time, but that is coveting a situation different from that in which God has placed us … We have pluralism by providence."
In the same issue, World's "Culture Editor" Gene Edward Veith cites George Barna surveys to suggest that evangelicalism is anything but a bloc when it comes to theology and practice. Barna defined "born-again" rather precisely, and then polled "born-agains." Veith reports with some shock: "… significantly, born-again Christians are more likely than non-Christians to have experienced divorce (27 percent vs. 24 percent)." Now 39 percent find it morally acceptable when unmarried couples cohabit. Those practices trouble him less than doctrinal blurriness and half-belief among self-declared "born-agains."
Theological pluralism? Twenty-six percent of the born-again believe "all religions are essentially the same and 50 percent believe that a life of good works will enable a person to get to heaven." Whoa! "Slightly more born-again Christians believe in the devil than believe in the Holy Spirit." Off the topic but of interest: Barna finds that "one out of every eight atheists and agnostics even believes that accepting Jesus Christ as savior probably makes life after death possible." Back to the born-agains: Barna locates a subcategory of born-again Christians, "'evangelicals' -- who meet more stringent criteria of biblical faith." They represent only eight percent of American Christians.
Demand a recount?