Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement
By Lauren Sandler
Viking. 254 pp. $24.95
Ever since President Bush's 2004 reelection demonstrated the strength of so-called values voters, liberal activists have fretted about the Democratic Party's inability to capture the loyalty of a comparable purpose-seeking populace. As a remedy, some have urged Democratic politicians to embrace explicitly moral and religious language in their appeals to voters. In Righteous , journalist Lauren Sandler goes further: She urges her fellow liberals to embrace the tactics of the evangelical youth movement. An unlikely amalgam of Christian skateboarders, pierced and tattooed pro-lifers, hip-hop and rock musicians, and straitlaced Christian college debate champions, the movement includes creation-science buffs, former drug addicts and the sons of the well-known Christian evangelists James Dobson and Jim Bakker.
These believers, Sandler argues, are united in their mission to redeem American culture. She calls them the "Disciple Generation" and describes them as "an ever-growing population of people ages fifteen to thirty-five who are equally obsessed with Christ and with culture as a means to an Evangelical end." She views their movement as "something that is at once political, emotional, deeply anti-intellectual, and more galvanized than I ever imagined."
Sandler, an editor at the online magazine Salon, has an old-fashioned reporter's knack for telling details. Her portraits of the leaders of this movement are sharp and often hilarious (she skewers the proselytizing pretensions of born-again actor Stephen Baldwin, who parlayed his status as a minor Hollywood actor into celebrity on the Christian youth revival circuit). And Sandler is honest about her own perspective. An "unrepentant Jewish atheist," she is frequently appalled by the worldview of young people who flock to the skateboard demonstrations and Christian rock concerts so popular among this group. She is baffled by young women who proudly embrace anti-abortion policies and traditional gender roles, and unnerved by their male peers who express unquestioning support for the war in Iraq. Her hostility to traditional conservative values makes her an unlikely tour guide through the world of evangelical Christianity.
Yet Sandler clearly has a talent for getting people to open up about their beliefs, and she has enough respect for her subjects that she rarely indulges in caricatures. (The exception is her portrait of students at conservative Patrick Henry College in Virginia, describing them as "like robots" and the experience of being surrounded by them as "creepy.")
Sandler is at her best when she documents the longing this generation feels for certainty, community and purpose, and her interview subjects often speak movingly about having endured broken homes, addiction and adolescent anomie. But she oversimplifies when she suggests that evangelical faith is just this generation's form of therapy; "fundamentalism offers a snake-oil cure for their ills," Sandler writes, and "I can't help but wonder, though, how many people have convinced themselves they believe, just to experience the benefits of being a believer."
Although she is wary of the evangelicals' mission, it is her fellow liberals whom Sandler chastises for failing to court these disaffected youths. Of one young anti-abortion activist, who "sparkles with compassion and intelligence," Sandler laments, "if only leftists had offered the promise of love articulated within a genuine expression of youth culture" that the evangelical youth movement did. Then, Sandler concludes, "she'd make a formidable feminist."
Perhaps. But Sandler leaves unexplored the fact that these kids are part of a generation that is coming to terms with the more ambiguous consequences of the secular (and sexual) revolution she so eagerly supports -- and what they have endured in the form of divorce, anything-goes sexual relations and cultural relativism has not made them as enthusiastic about it as she is.
Problems also arise when Sandler abandons careful observation for sweeping (and ultimately unpersuasive) assessments of this movement's broader significance. She embraces the tired metaphor of Christian conservatives as an army that "aims to destroy everything that it is not" and believers as people bent on establishing dominance through "a trifecta of indoctrinating, voting, and breeding."
Since her intent is to prod her secular audience into action, Sandler needs to link these disparate Christian subcultures together in order to bolster her claim that a monolithic right-wing movement is on the march. But in attempting to do so, she treats religion like just another homogeneous political interest group, a characterization belied by the multifaceted portraits of believers throughout the book.
Indeed, in her effort to appeal to another kind of true believer (devout secularists), Sandler demonstrates the same weakness that she claims to find in her faithful subjects: too rigid an orthodoxy. Rather than advancing alarmist conclusions, Sandler would have done better to explore what this Christian youth movement might look like when its members reach middle age.
Nevertheless, Sandler's book is an intriguing journey into a burgeoning and often contradictory phenomenon. The glimpses it gives us of a new, God-fearing generation of young Americans -- intelligent, comfortable with popular culture, technologically savvy and intent on saving souls -- will surprise many readers, even if it does not convince them of the righteousness of this movement's cause. ·
Christine Rosen is a fellow at the Ethics & Public Policy Center and the author of "My Fundamentalist Education."