Lyric Hassler talks about her Christian rock phase the way some of us talk about crushes on Sean Cassidy, or acid-wash jeans, or the hundreds of hours we wasted memorizing Pink Floyd lyrics. "Uchhhhhh, embarrassing," she says. The gaudy soundtrack of the "Christian ghetto" she lived in as a teenager. Lyric the high school "Jesus freak," chastising her church youth group for wasting time on frivolous pizza parties, ignoring any TV that wasn't "The 700 Club."
"It just makes me wince," she says now that her ghetto self is long gone, now that she's made it here, to Washington, to the languid Friday afternoon tea time in a congressional cafeteria, to her starched white blouse and a stint on the presidential campaign and a husband who works in the Senate, to a salon of what she calls "Christian intellectuals."
She is still the same Lyric Hassler, still young (26), still a Christian, still evangelical enough that some of her colleagues on the Bush campaign found her piety "a little weird," she says. But the kind of weird that blends in without too much trouble. "I've come a long way, in terms of Christian maturity," she says." I'm not afraid of what the secular world might do to me."
"Uccch." It's the sound of a movement shoving aside its past like so many pairs of braces. The conservative Christian political movement that burst on Washington in the '80s, the activists with their aborted-fetus placards and their heady plans to colonize school boards and their here-and-now visions of the Apocalypse, their early years are now a source of embarrassment to themselves.
Amen to them. No more thundering sermons on Wiccans and floods and child molesters, caught on tape and leaked by a political opponent. No more pronouncements about "signs" showing up in California. No more horrors from the Book of Revelation.
It's what Ralph Reed dreamed of, and now it's finally here. Christians in politics are ready to trade in their guerrilla fatigues for business suits and a day job. This year evangelicals in public office have finally become so numerous that they've blended in to the permanent Washington backdrop, a new establishment that has absorbed the local habits and mores.
Nearly every third congressional office stocks an ambitious Christian leader who calls himself "evangelical," according to Jim Guth, a political science professor at Furman University. They may believe everything they believed before, but they've learned to speak in ways that are more measured and cautious and designed not to attract attention.
Sen. John Thune is the movement's new David, having overthrown former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. When talking about abortion, the South Dakota Republican prefers abstractions: "I like to connect my principled view with my policy objectives," he says. "Good principles can lead to good policy."
"Principles." "Policy." This could be Hillary Clinton talking about health care, Ralph Nader discussing emission standards. He could be anyone in Washington, talking about anything.
To secular humanists or even your average Democrat, Thune Land is a scary, scary frontier. "He is this new kind of Republican creature who puts an innocuous face on the religious right," says a Daschle aide who worked on the campaign. "Behind this cheerful frat-boy basketball-star persona is just the same old beast of the far right."
Scarier even than the old stealth campaign of the '90s, like the Christian Coalition's plot to take over the schools. Those always found their way to the papers in "gotcha" stories that made everyone cringe. But Thune has nothing to hide. Ask him about abortion or gay rights, and he will answer straightforwardly, nicely, sensibly. He'd rather be elected deputy majority whip (which he just was) than lead a fringe movement.
Then again, when movements get inside the tent, they tend to dull their edges. The young ambitious Christians who work in politics don't want to martyr themselves, they want a good job on the Hill or in the White House policy shop, a house in Fairfax, a spouse they met in church where the contemporary Christian music won't be too down-home on Sunday morning. In Washington, the evangelicals are the new Episcopalians -- established, connected, respectable and quick to blush.
(Recently this reporter attended the Christian Inaugural Ball and spotted, there in the back of the VIP room, a vision of Tammy Faye Bakker but More! Longer eyelashes! Poufier hair! A flouncier dress! That's TV evangelist Jan Crouch, one of the party's organizers explained, then quickly steered the reporter to higher ground. Here, come meet this successful Christian lobbyist, this best-selling author, the beautiful young Thune daughters who look just like Barbara and Jenna!) The new establishment is reflected in Time magazine's cover story last month on the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. No Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson or Gary Bauer or Bob Jones; hardly a name, in fact, that anyone who doesn't follow this world closely would recognize. Instead it included presidential speechwriter Michael Gerson; Diane Knippers, who runs a think tank on religion and democracy; and Mark Noll, a professor committed to mentoring evangelical intellectuals.
Rick Warren heads the list, and he is the perfect embodiment of the new ethos. Warren, who is a pastor in California, wrote "The Purpose Driven Life," the best-selling hardcover book in U.S. publishing history. There is only one way to find purpose: "placing our faith in Christ," by being "born-again." Period.