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David Sessions Nails the Evangelical Zeitgeist…Almost

John on November 2, 2007 at 12:55 pm

There’s much to admire in this Slate piece debunking the “evangelical crack up.” First off, David Sessions is dead on about the media generated narrative being cooked up by the NY Times:

To hear the press tell it, the so-called values voter is disenchanted with the Republican Party …In October, New York Times Magazine gave the tale an epic reiteration with a cover story by David D. Kirkpatrick heralding a great “evangelical crackup.” … Kirkpatrick writes, and that desperation is supposedly sparking reactions from general disenchantment to leftward desertion.

But rather than pinpointing a genuine political trend, the piece just triggers a nagging sense of déjà vu, one confirmed by a search of the Times archives: In a February 2000 Times Magazine cover story, Margaret Talbot concluded that “it cannot be denied that as a political force, the religious right is flagging” and described “a newfound disillusionment with politics.” … If this convoluted chronology is to be believed, then no other political demographic has ever vacillated as impressively between retreat and triumph.

Sessions then goes into some analysis of what’s really going on in the evangelical camp, most of which just rings true to me. There is one moment where I think he completely gets it wrong however:

Young Christians indeed have a more redemptive view of society, rejecting the notion that America is slouching toward Gomorrah and must be warned regularly and loudly. They are interested in making society a better place in the here and now, as opposed to simply converting the lost.

That shift might be related to their embrace of Reformed theology, a doctrine that encourages believers to acknowledge that they are all inherently sinful and have received undeserved grace (thus making them respond less judgmentally to others’ sexual behavior). Reformed theology also rebuffs the idea that behavior makes one righteous, effectively discouraging the equation of patriotism and blind party activism with piety.

Now there are two links in that second paragraph. The first is to a Christianity Today piece on the resurgence of Reformed theology. Fine. The second is to a piece on loving gays by Chad Thompson. Here’s the thing though. I’ve interacted with the reformed enough to know that their doctrine does not lead them to be less judgmental. Quite the opposite in my experience. They tend to be some of the thorniest, sternest Christians I know. Their constant criticism is that other pastors don’t focus on hell and damnation enough.

As for that second link, I don’t know where Chad Thompson stands, but from looking at his website I’d guess that he’s considered a flaming liberal by a lot of reformed people. I’m prepared to be corrected if Chad turns out to be hardcore 5-point Calvinist, but I’m willing to bet the people buying his books are not.

If there’s a young group of Christians who are trying to be more positive and less judgmental to those outside the camp, it’s the so-called emerging crowd. In fact, they take lots of heat from the reformed camp for being “wishy-washy” on gays etc. It’s pretty ironic that Sessions would credit the reformed with something they, generally speaking, can’t abide.

That misdiagnosis aside, Sessions has some really insightful things to say:

There’s no disputing the fact that evangelicals feel burned by their ineffective intimacy with the Republican Party and are increasingly convinced that church and politics shouldn’t have such an intertwined relationship. Evangelicals young and old are not retreating or switching parties, but they’re carefully weighing their involvement and attempting to bring it into conformity with an all-encompassing commitment to their theology. It may be mincing words, but in this case, the truth of the story depends on definitions. And in that respect, the mainstream press still doesn’t get evangelicals and how to cover them without repetitive and questionable “cycle” narratives. Calling maturation a meltdown misses the mark—and the story.

Well said. But again, it’s the “emerging” who see it as maturation. It’s the reformed who see a meltdown.

[HT: HotAir for headlining this one.]

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Category: Religion & Faith |

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