October 5, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
Take one day, say Friday, October 2, in the life of what we should start calling “Evangelicaldom.” One-fourth to one-third of Americans consider themselves “Evangelicals.” Many are exemplary citizens and, let us say, exemplary Christians. Somewhere along the way millions among them, however, sought what they would call “earthly power,” and won enough of it to dream of and work for “Evangelicaldom.” That “-dom” signals “domain,” as in old “Christendom” and modern “Islamdom.” In it, any hints of traditional “otherworldliness” were forgotten, and the once least-worldly sector among us came to be among the most driven by commerce, markets, media, and politics.
Regular readers know that Sightings does not target or heap on evangelicals. But several media sightings on October 2 prompted and merit response. The main story in the New York Times had to do with one of the several fallen born-again “Christian Right” valiants of the season, Senator John Ensign, adulterer and now alleged criminal in use of funds and power. Atop a full-page story is a picture of the Senator and the cuckolded husband of Ensign’s mistress, autographed by Ensign to his “friend and brother, in Christ.” The sinning senator issued the standard more-or-less apology with the more-and-more frequent substitute for reference to “sin:” He made a “mistake.” Enough.
The same day the Los Angeles Times published Neal Gabler’s absolutely pessimistic but relatively accurate assessment of the way the absolutist style of religious fundamentalism has found its place among the shouting populists who, while not necessarily always bannering “in Christ” – most of the signs at the shout-out rallies are quite secular – are always sure that they have no need for civility and thus for politics. Gabler: “Those who oppose the religification of politics may think all they have to do is change tactics, but they are sadly, tragically mistaken. They can never win, because for the political fundamentalists, this isn’t political jousting, this is Armageddon. With stakes like that, they will not lose, and there is nothing democrats – small ‘d’ and capital ‘D’ – can do about it.” For the sake of the future, any kind of future, they have to try.
Fortunately for civil readers’ sanity, there was a relatively calm assessment in David Brooks’ same-day New York Times column in which he notices and reports on the political limits of those who goad and inspire the religified political troops, people named Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, and O’Reilly. They boast hugely huge audiences. But, as Brooks chronicles, they have not converted those in their seething niche into real electoral dominance of the sort Evangelicaldom once had hoped it could produce.
Fortunately for Christian readers’ sanity, there is also a cover story in the October issue of Christianity Today, a magazine which represents evangelicalism when it was evangelical. Its headline: “Evangelicals desperately need moral and spiritual renewal – on that everyone agrees. But what do we do about it?” Editor Mark Galli at length concentrates on evangelicals’ spiritual sins – not ‘mistakes’ – in an analysis of the sort Catholics, Mainline Protestants, the Orthodox and others need to and often do make.
Until evangelicals can find ways to make clear to themselves, politicians, media, and publics that they are distancing themselves from the Armageddonist absolutism of the “religified Right,” they are more likely to look like and will be in danger of becoming like “the children of the world” against whom their spiritual forefathers creatively and courageously railed as they offered alternatives, not carbon copies.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.