Friday, January 30, 2004

Martin Marty is a scholar whose writings I have often encountered and I encountered him today reading these remarks on evangelicals.

Some of his words are apt. The Religious Right has gotten together by creating a public, explicitly Christian, civil religion that cuts across denominational lines. He is also correct that Catholics and progressive Protestants were the dominant politico-religious culture of the first half of the 20th century.

Marty's thesis is that evangelicals and their ilk have thrived by adopting the vestments of mainstream culture through such tools as music and media outreach. This came about as the Catholics and progressive Protestants became too at-home in the culture realizing their goals, losing their "innovative spirit" and desire for change. In the end, Marty says that he will not predict the fate of evangelicals in America, but he hints that their dominant position will pass as they awkwardly deal with new situations.

It should be noted that his article is based on remarks at a National Association of Evangelicals convention, so his words will be spun favorably toward that group. Still, I don't buy the main thrust of his argument. Oh, I can understand the idea that progressive Christianity suffered from a realization of much of its social agenda and from assimilation into the mainstream. What I don't accept is the idea that evangelicals have reached a similar state, or are trending in that direction. While evangelicals now make up a significant part of what may be the controlling coalition in this country for some time, they still haven't realized much of their cultural politics, as Marty notes. And the national conservative coalition is held together in part by not pushing too hard on those issues dearest to evangelicals, such as school prayer and abortion.

Still, Marty's premise, borrowed from Thorstein Veblen by way of Robert Service, that those who are in the lead suffer from inefficiently trying out new things while laggers borrow successful strategies holds some merit. Last weekend, I visited a Catholic church that seemed almost indistinguishable from a Protestant mega-church, with a vibrant preacher and a rock band performing music that included things you hear on popular radio. And perhaps evangelicals will stumble trying to harness the internet or trying to adapt to scientific breakthroughs that contradict tenets of religion.

Only time will tell.

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