Internet Monk.com is extremely honored to have Christine Wicker in the house for the IM interview segment today. Christine is the author of the book that blew my mind for at least two weeks, Fall of the Evangelical Nation. She is also currently is working on adapting some of her other books for television and planning a conference on literature and ethics.
Many of you have read Christine’s book and find her research interesting and provocative as I do. It’s great to have her at IM for a few questions. After snacks served by the gracious Van Til, we got to the interview.
1. Thank you, Christine, for doing this interview. You made it clear in your book that you grew up among evangelicals, but are no longer an evangelical or part of the Christian community. Can you tell us a little bit about your own faith journey and what were the significant contributing experiences to where you are now?
I wrote a book called â€œGod Knows My Heartâ€ in which I tried to figure all that out while covering religion for The Dallas Morning News. I was pretty devout as a kid and even in college.
Why did I leave? I once replied off the cuff that I wanted a world bigger than the Baptist Student Union. That might sum it up.
But leaving church and leaving Jesus are quite different. The first is easier. I sometimes suspect Jesus is not all that impressed with my belief or lack of belief, which fluctuates.
I say that because he continues to be a daily influence in how I conduct my life, the most important guide for how to behave. Sometimes he is also a presence. He shows up in all of my books, no matter the subject and whether or not Iâ€™m looking for him.
2. Iâ€™m imagining a person happily enjoying the programs of an evangelical megachurch would find your contention that the evangelical nation is facing its demise to be hilariously inaccurate. Whatâ€™s the credible evidence that the â€œevangelical nationâ€ is falling?
The evidence comes entirely from evangelicals themselves. When I talk about demise, Iâ€™m talking about numbers, growth, attitudes and behavior. The preachers often say that the culture has had more impact on the church than the church has had on the culture.
Thatâ€™s completely true. Some people decry that. Others think thatâ€™s a good thing.
I use the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals as my two greatest examples. I also figured in non-denominational evangelicals. Anyone who wants numbers can find them on my website, www.christinewicker.com.
3. Your book puts a lot of emphasis on the end of evangelical political dominance, but many younger evangelicals are just as political as before, they just arenâ€™t sold out to the Republican party. Do you see the politics of more left-leaning evangelicals like Brian Mclaren, Jim Wallis and Shane Claiborne playing a significant role in the evangelical future?
Iâ€™d say Rick Warren is a better example of where the bulk of evangelicals are going. Heâ€™s quite conservative religiously but independent on other matters. My sense is that heâ€™s positioning himself as the new Billy Graham, not the new Jerry Falwell/ Pat Robertson.
Wallis calls for engagement of a kind that would be radically different for many evangelicals. McLaren does too, and he breaks down some of the barriers that evangelicals have traditionally used to define themselves as Godâ€™s people.
I suspect that the notion of a God who is punishing but who also generally supports the American status quo will continue to appeal to many evangelicals. In fact, anything else seems ungodly to them.
Iâ€™m most interested right now in how Obama may change religious thinking and behavior.
Iâ€™d go for the second option if I had to pick. For me judging prosperity gospel depends on whom the prosperity gospel is being preached to. Poor people need powerful promises to help them believe they can overcome all the obstacles in their way.
And isnâ€™t prayer often about imploring God to give us something? Why is asking for health, which is far more valuable than money, more holy than asking for wealth, which allows us to be safe, to be fed, to be educated, to be treated by hospitals when weâ€™re sick, and even to help others?
Certainly it would be more noble to serve God with no expectation of return, but promises of Divine favor, which seem plentiful in the Bible, help humans feel hopeful and comforted and not so alone in our troubles.
Those are great benefits. Are they are a drug? Marx thought so, but who listens to him anymore?
5. Why has James Dobsonâ€™s method of moving from counseling and teaching family life to promoting high-powered political involvement been so effective among evangelicals? Is Dobsonâ€™s day as the â€œbig gorillaâ€ in evangelicalism over?
He got his credibility from his base as a counselor and teacher. His legitimacy as a family-values defender was higher than many other leadersâ€™ because he approached the topic so broadly and in such a useful, knowledgeable way. Since the Religious Right was so successful in taking over the idea of family values, his transition was a natural one. People learned to trust him in one role, and it wasnâ€™t hard for them to follow him into a wider sphere.
Is his day over? I donâ€™t know. He didnâ€™t do too well in this election. But America is full of second acts, and third acts, and fourth acts. I wouldnâ€™t even be sure Ted Haggardâ€™s day is over.
6. Despite enormous compromises on the pragmatic front, Evangelicalism continues to stand strongly against the culture on issues related to gender and sexuality. Does this surprise you?
It doesnâ€™t surprise me that the leaders stand so strongly or that their congregations do the same in opinion polls and voting. If nothing else, that kind of stand provides comfort during a time of threatening changes. And we need comfort.
What worries me is that the split between evangelical ideals and evangelical actions may be getting wider. Not because evangelicals are comfortable being hypocrites but because societal pressures are more intense.
For instance, Iâ€™m told that many evangelical kids and single adults come to church on Sunday and are regularly sleeping around or living with people they arenâ€™t married to. Why? Because waiting until youâ€™re married to have sex means that you are very likely never to get married and never to have sex either. Those are the â€œfacts on the ground.â€
Do you expect this to change?
I think the conservative evangelical stand on gay rights will change because science is going to demonstrate more and more convincingly that sexuality isnâ€™t a choice. Also, normalization of homosexuality becomes more complete every year, and thatâ€™s what really changes attitudes.
I suspect the stand on abortion rights wonâ€™t change. Once again because of science, which I suspect has become our true god.
Science has already bolstered the anti-abortion argument with sonograms and by keeping babies alive earlier and earlier. Now it is providing private ways to abort so early that the woman doesnâ€™t even know if she was pregnant. No knowledge, no guilt. So public abortions will be less needed and easier to condemn as something only stupid, careless, immoral women need.
7. For the first time, numbers of â€œnon-religiousâ€ are growing faster than the any version of Christianity. The growth is coming from significant numbers of people brought up in Christianity. Have we turned a corner?
Iâ€™m afraid we have turned a corner. We could turn back. A great revival might occur.
But the truth about those â€œnon-religiousâ€ people is that many of them arenâ€™t â€œnon-religious.â€ They are â€œspiritual but not religious.â€ They have their own ideas about God and life. Theyâ€™re making it up as they go, so to speak. They feel in touch and empowered by God or the Universe or Spirit. And they donâ€™t think they need the church. They have their own â€œbibles.â€ Their own leaders. And lots of company.
What are the major issues contributing to this shift?
Science, of course. I also mention in my book that Alcoholics Anonymous has shifted the concept of God enormously. It uses Christian principles. It rests on community. It gets results. But the God of AA has no attributes. He can be anything you want him to be.
Thatâ€™s a threat to traditional Christian faith because the â€œAA God of your own understandingâ€ has enormous power to change lives. So why convert to the Christian brand and take orders from some preacher?
8. One of your most provocative contentions could be summarized as something like this: When you send your kid to a good school like Wheaton and bring them up to be a tolerant, educated, non-fundamentalist, youâ€™re probably contributing to the demise of evangelicalism.
I guess my answer would be another question: How ignorant and intolerant do you have to keep them to preserve religious beliefs? And is that really the best strategy?
But I didnâ€™t quite mean to say what youâ€™ve described. My chapter on family is meant to point out that child rearing has changed enormously in the last 30 years. Traditional evangelical faith is grounded in authority. The Bible says it. God wills it. The preacher leads, the congregation follows.
Faith requires a leap. God desires that you make that leap. If you donâ€™t, you go to hell.
Traditional child rearing was also grounded in authority. So the two bolstered each other. I think thatâ€™s why conservative evangelicals sometimes allow their children to be paddled at school. Authority must be obeyed or punishment follows. Boundaries are essential to traditional evangelical faith. Child rearing once widely reinforced boundaries in action, speech and thought.
I argue that todayâ€™s children who are encouraged from their earliest days to question and contend with authority are less likely to accept religious ideas based on authority. And that parents have made this shift from supporting authority (their own first of all) because the pace of change demands that they prepare their children by teaching them flexibility and questioning.
Was evangelicalism wrong from the outset to believe that it could reject a fundamentalist posture and succeed as a movement?
I think the shifts evangelicals and other Christians are making may be painful and confusing, but they are also the hope of American Christianity.
These â€œnewâ€ evangelicals put following God above their own interests, above traditions, above certainties. They ask themselves hard questions and hold themselves to high standards of faith and reasoning. More than any great deed or sacrifice, certainly more than any political positions, the pure essence of who they are and who they hope to be speaks for their beliefs.
Will they still be evangelicals as they continue to question and change? Not as they have been defined by the Religious Right. But Southern Baptists, for instance, have always believed in the priesthood of the believer. So the changes rest on very traditional evangelical ideas.
9. I want to ask about your reaction/response to my two primary assertions regarding the demise of evangelicalism. A) Evangelicalism has failed to develop a real Christian spirituality that shapes and defines â€œWhat is a Christian?â€ Instead, we have culture war zealots, consumers, fans of various celebrities, and so forth. If asked to name a great Christian, most evangelicals would name a celebrity, not a saint.
Iâ€™d agree. American evangelical faith has become so identified with the Republican Party that the two were, until recently, thought of as one. Perhaps not what Jesus had in mind.
And certainly not what mainstream America thinks of as Christ-like behavior. So that has hurt the evangelical witness.
Iâ€™m hopeful that the growing evangelical focus on helping others will turn that image around.
B) Evangelicalism has deconstructed everything in Christianity in the name of numerical growth/church growth/relevance. So we have a church that isnâ€™t really a church, worship that isnâ€™t worship, pastors who donâ€™t pastor, sermons that arenâ€™t the Bible, Christians who arenâ€™t particularly like Christ and so on. The end of this, as Louis Bouyer predicted half a century ago about Protestantism, is self-destruction.
I would have to beg off on this one. As you know, I grew up as a Southern Baptist. Iâ€™ve never experienced any other kind of Christianity. Iâ€™ve heard about Christianity that isnâ€™t as youâ€™ve described it, and sometimes seen it. But I wonder if thatâ€™s too extreme for most Americans.
The kind of evangelicalism we have now suits them very well. Can is convert others? Usually not.
10. Itâ€™s been a delight to have you here at the IM interview. One last question:Â One of my personal quests is for a Jesus-shaped spirituality. If I asked you where to go in American Christianity to see and experience Jesus shaped spirituality, where would you suggest I go?
Iâ€™d say, â€œGo to church.â€ You can find it in other places of service, in neighborhoods, in families, among people who donâ€™t go to church, but the easiest way would be to look in the churches.
For the brand I like best, you would look among the quieter, more humble, probably the older members of the congregation. Iâ€™d look among those with the least power. Not because powerful people canâ€™t be Jesus-shaped, but the temptations are so much greater for them. I suspect itâ€™s easier to become like Jesus if youâ€™re among the â€œnobodiesâ€ of the world.