It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.
Posts Tagged ‘evangelicals’
Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.
Over at Theos, a British think tank working in the area of religion, politics and society, recently released a new report asking: “Is there a ‘Religious Right’ emerging in Britain?“
Marcia Pally’s incisive essay on “the new evangelicals” highlights a relatively small but growing population of white evangelicals who appear to be embracing broader, less conservative visions of the common good, and public policy views (at least partially) more in line with Democratic politics than their recent forebears. While her descriptions presumably are not limited to those who necessarily call themselves “new evangelicals,” she does invoke the work and ideas of public evangelicals who clearly self-identify as such. This points to an interesting observation worth considering here: to assume the mantle of newness is to make an ideological statement as well as a historical claim.
Marcia Pally’s post tracks the important fact that contemporary American evangelical social and political engagement is fragmenting. She rightly observes that such fragmenting is not historically novel, and is a self-consciously critical response to the power of the Religious Right.
To read of “robust polyphony” among evangelicals was especially welcome to me, as I addressed this phenomenon in a recent ethnography, Emerging Evangelicals (NYU Press, 2011). As a cultural anthropologist, I explored the identities fashioned, practices performed, histories claimed, institutions created, and critiques waged among evangelicals influenced by the Emerging Church movement. Pally’s astute analysis returned me to a question I stopped short of fully developing: does fragmentation equal change?
Celebrating the ideological diversity of contemporary evangelicalism, Marcia Pally heralds the advent of a religious non-right. Shattering stereotypes of a monolithic conservatism, she performs a valuable service.
As Pally notes in her essay, this isn’t the first time evangelicals have hoisted the banner of social reform. Recalling the activism of nineteenth-century American Protestants, she sees the “new evangelicals” as their contemporary successors.
You don’t have to go back to the nineteenth century to find evangelical progressives. Like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, many got their start in the 1970s, building institutions that are still around today (Sojourners, Evangelicals for Social Action, Bread for the World).
As both Marcia Pally and David Gushee note, there is no historical reason why evangelicalism should identify with a single political orientation. There is also no global reason. Research on evangelicals in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is uncovering startling political diversity. Paul Freston, one of the most informed scholars on the subject, dismisses “facile equations of evangelicalism with conservative stances.” Historical and contemporary conditions, he writes, demonstrate “the distance of these actors—indeed, total independence of these actors—from the American evangelical right.”
The American religious landscape is being altered by what Mark Noll calls “a more pluralistic evangelicalism than has ever existed before.”
In the movement Marcia Pally describes, evangelicalism is no longer synonymous with white evangelicals. Conservative black churches have long held a pro-life, pro-marriage ethic in balance with energetic social activism. Immigrant churches, the fastest-growing segment of Christianity, tend to be conservative theologically while progressive on issues like poverty and immigration. The increasingly influential Hispanic community naturally aligns with this movement. As Samuel Rodriguez puts it: “Where Billy Graham meets Dr. King, that’s where you will see the Hispanic Christian community emerge.”