What with all the godly men and women of politics scrambling these days to prove their superiority in matters of faith, the timing of Carol Flake's new book about evangelical Christianity could hardly be more exquisite. It is the evangelicals, after all, whose noisy presence on the political scene is in large measure responsible for the religious posturings of candidates for offices from the presidency on down. Isn't it about time we took a closer look at these people?
A reasonably close look is what Flake provides in this book, the title of which she takes from "a time during graduate school when my colleagues and I invented an imaginary theme park called Redemptorama, wherein one could experience the most colorful events of the Bible in Cecil B. De Mille fashion." This "fantasy world of evangelical culture" is "the constricted dream of an America that never really existed," Flake argues, and the desire to achieve it explains the uneasy alliance between the evangelicals and the conservative politicians.
This "coalition between the religious right and the secular right is more a marriage of convenience than a match of long-term compatibility," Flake believes, and she's probably right; neither party to it is really comfortable with the other, as is invariably the case when ideologues climb into bed with pragmatists. She is also probably right that "the fundamentalist constituency has been greatly inflated by the news media" and that politically, at least, the strength of the likes of Jerry Falwell lies "more in zeal than in numbers."
Yet whatever the actual influence of the evangelicals, their presence in American politics and culture is very real, and they deserve serious, unbiased study. This on the whole is what they get from Flake, who as a 9-year-old in rural Texas had her own fling at being "born again" and who remembers the old-time religion with obvious affection. If anything, what irks her is the departure of the big-time evangelicals from the simple trappings in which fundamentalist religion was wrapped only a couple of decades ago; the modest country church has been replaced by "Christian networks, corporations and multiministried megachurches."
Flake believes, and she makes a good case for it, that this "Christianized culture" has simply co-opted the secular culture it purports to despise, producing "a kind of limited mass culture, turning out sanitized copies of secular products." She writes: "There were Christian self-help books, Christian sex manuals, Christian money guides, Christian quiz shows, Christian athletes, Christian rock stars, Christian T-shirts. In a sense, what these entrepreneurs were creating was not a counterculture but a counterfeit culture."
She depicts it in chapter after chapter: Marabel Morgan, author of "The Total Woman," who "articulated the American variation of Jeanne Moreau's Gallic feminism: the liberated woman is free to choose the man to whom she will enslave herself"; the macho world of sports religiosity, in which Jesus is not "a comfort and a constant companion," but "a coach"; the booming industries of televised preaching, religious publishing and pop-gospel music; the alliance between the panjandrums of the pulpit and rich, powerful captains of American industry.
To her quite considerable credit, Flake views these cultural and economic aspects of the evangelical movement just as she does the political ones: more with bemusement than with indignation. She understands, for one thing, that evangelical Christianity appeals to people with entirely genuine emotional and/or spiritual needs and with equally genuine complaints about being overlooked or condescended to by sophisticated society. She further understands that often this condescension is unwarranted. As one minor example, it is inexcusable that Christian books, some of which sell in staggering numbers, rarely appear on the national best-seller lists, "mainly because Christian bookstores are not among those stores used to compile the lists."
"Redemptorama" is for the most part a fair, balanced portrait of a part of American society that more often than not gets unsympathetic play in the national media, which tends to portray it as dominated by yahoos and bigots. The book's principal flaw is not a matter of substance but of prose, which can veer suddenly and without warning from competent journalese into Timestyle gone berserk, the most flamboyant example of which is: "Hard-nosed newsmen found themselves melting like communion wafers before the hearty charisma of the peripatetic pontiff, until John Paul's beaming pink-cheeked visage was superseded by the pale omnipresent scowl of the Ayatollah Khomeini." But the reader willing to wade through these occasional stylistic puddles will find "Redemptorama" well worth the effort.