Alternet har en bra artikel om hur de traditionella moderata amerikanska religiösa samfunden har urholkats och ersatts av alltmer militanta samfund.
And the big loser, the team whose members are walking off the field? Mainline Protestantism, the calm, reasoned faith that shaped this country from its colonial beginnings through the 1960s. Its liberal clergy pushed hard for social reforms, economic equality and civil rights. Its members, who used to be the northeastern sort of Republicans, are increasingly Democratic, more comfortable with John Kerry’s style than George Bush’s.
But the mainliners are quiet – and their numbers are diminishing so fast, they’re not sure they’d be heard if they screamed.
The Vanishing Protestant Majority, a recent University of Chicago study, reports that the overall percentage of Protestants in the U.S. may have already fallen below 50 percent. The total started to slide noticeably in 1993; and by 2002, it had fallen 11 percentage points, to 52 percent. “The change,” said Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey whose data fed the study, “is big in magnitude and rapid in terms of demographics. The country is moving toward becoming a nation of minorities.”
In a Tower of Babel where everyone speaks a different moral language, one needs vast patience to learn the nuances. It’s easier to grab a phrasebook and make big gestures. Reach for people’s deepest needs, allay their fears, repeat the same simple phrases so people can nod in eager agreement.
It’s especially helpful if you can state, categorically, that God is on your side.
Getting Filled Up
West of St. Louis, in a moat of malls, farmland and faux-gentry subdivisions, the Family Church is holding its 7 a.m. Sunday service, the first of four. It’s barely sun-up, yet there are more people in these cushy movie-theatre chairs than most traditional churches see in their pews at their main service. The music is recording studio quality, and when Pastor Jeff, as though on impulse, invites someone to read from the Bible, the passage is instantly projected in big white letters on the wall.
He’s following the megachurch formula, anchoring his down-to-earth preaching in the Bible’s most hopeful passages and avoiding shame or hellfire. Thousands come to listen, excited by global missions and social outreach and eager for the 24/7 programming that addresses their personal problems, giving them firm rules and Biblical certainty without ever, ever judging them.
“We’re literally coming to the gas tank and getting filled up,” Pastor Jeff calls out, and a ripple of assent goes through the room. “So how do we obtain help from God for our needs?” He jokes that he made 35 altar calls before he felt secure about his own salvation. “Now I know His ear is inclined to my prayer. How do I know that? Because I found it in Scripture! You pray for a good surgery and there’s a good surgery – is that a miracle? Of course it is! Because it could have been a bad surgery.”
On the wall behind him, where other worshippers might hang a crucifix or rest the Torah, huge brass letters spell out “HONOR GOD” and “HELP PEOPLE.” Replacing the mysteries. Because when Pastor Jeff scans his flock’s anxious faces, he sees a hunger for clarity and peace, success, love, reassurance.
“When anxieties enter my heart, I have to counter them,” he calls out, listing off CNN news, terrorist threats, airport security and election politics, and repeating after each item, “God is going to see us through.”
“Here’s the chant,” he finishes. “‘Have faith in God.'” People repeat the words again and again, arms raised in praise. Their country is being attacked by foreign fanatics and their society is rotting from within. Faith is the best way they know to fight back.
“September 11 hit America,” Pastor Jeff continues. “We have a president that took a stand. He is a believer. He came to town, we had a meeting, he explained what he had to do. These are warriors that don’t respond to negotiation. It’s like the Bible: David didn’t negotiate with the Philistines.”
He paces, his words impassioned. “There will be more of those attacks on the earth. Whenever there were wars through the ages, the church responded by putting their faith into God, and then certain things happened and the church surged forward. We are about to come into some of that.” A man sitting alone in back leans forward eagerly. “God is getting ready to download some wild exploits,” promises Pastor Jeff. “God has called us to something big, and it’s going to take childlike faith. Nation-changing faith.”
In other words, the faith of George W. Bush.
The Growth of Evangelism
“Evangelical Christians used to be 40 percent of American Protestants; now they’re over 60 percent,” says Michael Hout, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Different birth rates account for 70 percent of that growth: Evangelicals have had an extra child per family for about 35 years. The other 30 percent comes from a process few sociologists of religion anticipated. Upwardly mobile Evangelicals used to mark their arrival in the local establishment by joining the Episcopalian or Presbyterian Church. No more. Now they stay evangelical and start a power brokers’ prayer breakfast.”
The shift extends to the top: Every U.S. president since 1976 has professed to be born again. White evangelicals, once split evenly along partisan lines, are now nearly two-to-one Republican. The Pew Forum’s Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics found that, since 1992, the number of evangelical Protestants who consider themselves conservative has jumped 13 percent.
Even historically Democratic African American evangelicals are backing President Bush in larger numbers (18 percent, double the number who voted for him in 2000, says the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies).
“It’s very hard to find a consistent ideological thread in this country,” remarks Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. “Our system is split on at least two axes that don’t logically go together, the social axis and the economic axis. But in the case of the Republican party and the evangelicals who now comprise more than half of all Republicans, there is a better fit, because they are both culturally and economically conservative.”
Democrats have reached no consensus about God’s will; most can’t stomach the notion of trying. But line up conservative religious values next to the current platform of the Republican party and the pieces fit like a jigsaw puzzle.
Joseph Holst was 20, and heavily into drugs, when a woman whose carpet he was cleaning invited him to the Family Church. “She began to tell me how I could start over, have a clean slate,” he recalls. “I didn’t fully understand what she was saying, but I went, and when the praise and worship started, I started to cry.” He knows now that he was submitting to God’s plan. He’d been saved.
Holst has attended the Family Church ever since. “I have a blueprint for my life now,” he says. “Everything has fallen into place.” Drugs are over: “God has weeded all of that out of my life.” He pauses. “It’s also helped me to love people. I was pretty cold before I met the Lord. Now, if I get cut off on the highway, I don’t stick my middle finger out the window, because I know that’s a person for whom Jesus died.”
Holst sees the upcoming presidential race as “a double-edged sword. I know who I want to win,” he says, “but on the other hand, I know that whoever wins, God has placed them in power for a reason. I try to judge by what God is saying on an issue. Obviously I’m pro-life, because that’s what God says.
“I think President Bush is actively seeking answers from God, and I definitely want to see him continue.”
“This Election is a Spiritual Battle”
It’s 9:30 on a Sunday morning and the drummer’s already sweating. Five women sing and sway, microphones in hand, on the altar of Harvest Church. People dance in the pews, having so much fun it feels like a high school dance – except nobody’s standing in the corner with sweaty palms, “because the LORD,” the women sing, “is on our SIDE.” Alleluias sail back, staid social workers cutting loose, and the amplifiers crank so loud, stray thoughts don’t have a chance.
When the music softens to a slow dance, the handsome young pastor, Frank Thompson, announces this Pentecostal church’s 10th anniversary celebration. “If the Enemy had his way, we’d have never gotten out of the living room,” he says. “About 30 adults paid $5,000 a month to rent a hotel room because the Enemy wanted to discourage us. But God kept us going. And when we got here, God said, ‘I am going to work another miracle for you, I am going to change your mortgage from $5,400 to $3,400 a month.”
When the Amens subside, Thompson says, “Now God’s about to reveal a plan He has to get the house full, not just of members but of souls who will never see Hell.” Bursting applause. “They will never experience demonic torment,” he promises. “They will never see the devil down in his pit, except from on top.”
He moves into his preaching: “Did you all know that Procter and Gamble is doing a massive hiring of homosexuals and lesbians? We’re supposed to be the ones receiving those people into church to get them changed. All the stuff they are trying to do to keep the church separate from the state, there’s just a massive effort by the Enemy to eradicate what this nation was founded on. You vote for who God tells you to vote for. Don’t be fooled by political rhetoric. As Oral Roberts said, this election is a spiritual battle. And it should not be motivated by whether we are at war or not. The Bible says there will always be wars. You need to be looking at morality issues, the stuff that destroys countries. You need to be paying attention to the homosexual and lesbian issues. Because the Enemy is on the offensive.”
They read aloud the opening of Psalm 118: “The Lord is on my side. I will not fear.”
“Do you see that?” exclaims Thompson. “Now bow your heads. Father, we thank you that you’re on our side.” They repeat the phrase to each other in a crescendo: “The LORD is on our SIDE.” Sweet relief on their faces, they embrace.
“Spiritual Warfare on Earth”