The familiar “Protestant-Catholic-Jew” mantra no longer defines American religion. Politicians, bloggers, statisticians, and demographers now conventionally add “Evangelical” to the classifying. When Will Herberg wrote the canonical book Protestant-Catholic-Jew in the mid-fifties, Evangelicals appeared to be marginal at best. In recent decades they make the news more often and they are more exploited by and influential among politicians and public life than are the many breeds of Protestants. Let’s look in on the Evangelicals.
Quite properly, much of the news and notice about them is explicitly religious, churchly. But in public life they were long most useful to politicians and news-people on easily-grabbed issues such as “contraception” and “abortion.” Today, contraception largely drops off the argument-charts. Catholic bishops make a strong stand against it, but with 90% of their “faithful” being faithless or other-faithed on the issue, look elsewhere. Anti-abortion is a much more complex case, and we’ll save it for another day.
Let’s look at how thoughtful Evangelicals change and make changes on three key issues: climate change, immigration, and gay marriage.
If readers think Evangelicals are changing because they stopped paying attention to the Bible, they don’t know evangelicals. But something happened that has occasioned re-reading. On this score, I think (often) of a Groucho Marx line: “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
First: climate change. Their “own eyes” focused on melting ice caps and a thousand other visual and measurable climate signals, Evangelicals are rereading their scriptures (re: “the doctrine of creation” and “stewardship”) and they see something different than the old-school scripturalists thought was God’s only word. They now often lead on this front.
Number Two is immigration. One might be cynical and say that the anti-immigration stance of Evangelicals is softening because they “believe their own eyes.” Which means: they seek a better reputation on this issue. But, along Groucho lines, they also “believe their own eyes” when they look, are dumbfounded, and are then motivated to change attitudes about the plight and agony of “illegal aliens” and so many others. And they also believe their own eyes when they look at their scriptures, which put the need of the strangers, exiles, aliens, and newcomers first as bidders for consideration and change. The Wall Street Journal (April 9) front-paged “Evangelicals Push Immigration Path,” and documented the changes.
Thirdly, gay marriage. Evangelicals are not as far along on their rereading of this one. The main organized resistance comes from some – by-no-means-all – African American pastors, some of them allied with Catholic leaders (whose church members are also changing). Not much happened as long as resistance was grounded in what they saw or had portrayed to them as participation in “the gay lifestyle.”
Change is coming, as many Evangelicals and others “believe their own eyes” and recognize devoted gay couples standing at the communion table, participating in church leadership, and being responsible parents – their status legally reinforced or not – while “the heterosexual lifestyle” in many manifestations is trashing the institution of marriage. And there is rereading of scriptures by many Evangelicals who, they will tell you, are placing stewardship and love before law and beyond convention. Their “own eyes” lead them to believe what they see and hear from consecrated couples, some of them their relatives and admired friends.
Miriam Jordan, “Evangelicals Push Immigration Path,” Wall Street Journal, April 8, 2013.
Bill Keller, “About the Children,” The New York Times, April 7, 2013.
Rich Miller, “Black Pastors Hit Gay Marriage,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 12, 2013.
Bret Stephens, “A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage,” Wall Street Journal, April 9, 2013.
Juhem Navarro-Rivera, “The Political Potential of Evangélicos,” Public Religion Research Institute, April 10, 2013.
Laura Washington, “Gay Marriage Foes Reek of Hypocrisy,” Chicago Sun-Times, April 9, 2013.
The Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, Dr. Martin E. Marty taught there for 35 years, chiefly in the Divinity School, where the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion was founded and to whose weekly column Sightings he contributed. Ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1952, he served from 1956-2013 as a columnist and senior editor at the Christian Century and authored more than 60 books including Righteous Empire, for which he won the National Book Award; the three-volume Modern American Religion; The One and the Many: America’s Search for the Common Good; The Mystery of the Child; Building Cultures of Trust; The Christian World: A Global History; Martin Luther (in the “Penguin Lives” series); and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography.