I was a teen-age Christian. Not just an ordinary churchgoer, mind you, but an evangelical, Bible-toting, tongue-speaking, holy-rolling, born-again Christian. From the time I was 13 until I was 20, I spent a good portion of my days passing out religious tracts and trying to convert my friends, and most of my nights sweating in packed church basements or living rooms, playing my guitar and singing for small prayer groups in Detroit. I believed.
Those days are surely past, and I've not really attended church since I turned 20 about four years ago. But this past year has brought back those adolescent years with a vengeance. In 1980, it seems that two, not entirely separate things occurred: the eastern press has discovered the evangelicals and the evangelicals have discovered politics. It is hard to say which phenomenon disturbs me more.
If you were to rely solely on the press, you would probably believe that evangelism has been renewed just in the past few years, is affecting only the uneducated and is centered in the South. In fact, this latest religious "great awakening" began at the same time as a political "great awakening," in this case late 1960s. Its influence has since spread to every region of the country and has affected all Christian denominations; the Catholic "charismatic" movement, to which I belonged, is one of the largest and most active groups. It is true that few inroads have been made in Manhattan's East Side, Georgetown, Cambridge or Berkeley. But then, that only leaves the rest of the country.
Evangelical involvement in politics has a good number of commentators worried. Can church and state really remain separate, they ask solemnly, if religious groups endorse (or disendorse) candidates, raise funds and lobby on single issues like abortion and school prayer? Government must stay out of religious values, not religious values out of government, reply the evangelicals, and we are only trying to maintain basic morality, not impose our religion. Another round of the recurring church-state debate has begun.
I tend to take the argument that churches should remain separate from politics quite seriously, but what worries me more is that liberals who argue for separation have totally misread the causes of evangelical political activism and, in so doing, invite even greater involvement. For the roots of this activism lie not in the religious revival itself, but in the simultaneous eruption of religious and cultural revolutions.
The nature of the evangelical movement has not changed in five years, but the America in which it operates surely has. A handful of evangelicals have always wanted to make this a "Christian nation," but most I know were willing to concern themselves with the morality of such private pastimes as smoking, drinking, gambling and premarital sex. Even a born-again Christian like Jimmy Carter could whip up only moderate interest in the idea of having "one of us" in the White Hosue in 1976.
But it is truly amazing how small and rapid changes in social conditions can move long-suffering people to react. Evangelicals who until recently were quite willing to live in a culture that has grown to disgust them have decided that things have simply gone too far. In a social demonstration of what physicists call the "catastrophe effect," a very few changes in liberalism that made it immoderate -- represented by such things as government funding of abortion, changing school curricula and increased gay and feminist activism -- have led to a virtual eruption in the "other-America." The liberalism of the New Deal, a secular movement, has become profoundly "moral" in its political aims and language. And since evangelicals hold moral views very different from those of modern liberals, they have been drawn into a moral political activity they previously eschewed. There has arisen a general willingness to become politically active in a general way and on special issues like abortion, school prayer and ERA. Independent Christian schools are now teaching "creationism," and book-banning in public schools by ad hoc parent committees has become commonplace. Where will it all end?
It must be understood that this is a believing nation; and while churchgoers and evangelicals may not be a large majority, Judeo-Christian values are so widely shared that is is not mystery why most American families see adversaries wherever they turn. Television advertising and shows "preach" hedonism, young schoolteachers "preach" what the evangelicals call secular humanism, and legislation and court decisions endorse behavior that traditional people simply consider immoral. It is precisely this sudden and confused reaction that leads me to believe that the sense of being embattled is widespread. The polls and the popularity of Ronald Reagan will tell anyone willing to admit it that the "Moral Majority" includes more than just the devout.
Liberals who have participated in this cultural revolution have misunderstood evangelistic activism. Desiring freedom of choice in all social realms, these activists have used examples of cultural diversity in American history -- early feminism, "alternative" family structures, gay literature -- to argue that more pluralism should be allowed: life consists of looking at a menu and choosing a family structure from Column "A," sexual preference from Column "B" and ethical values from Column "C."
But American pluralism has practical cultural limits, and I think we have reached them. The other other-America holds values of the family, education and ethics that, while tolerant, are not perfectly elastic, and a reaction is beginning to snap back. Liberals who have deluded themselves in thinking that they live in a very diverse nation, in which they might even be a majority, have also told themselves that politics consists of pursuing idealized and abstract human rights, rather than pursuing interests and beliefs within a society that, by and large, will not share their views.
My view of what constitutes the good life is probably a little closer to that of the "Moral Majority" than it is to that of the left, but my desire for mderation does not flow from that. Unless liberals are willing to risk a cultural backlash, led, perhaps, by the evangelicals but including many more citizens, they must wake up and see how fragile things have become. They are a tiny minority testing the patience of a large majority. Religious involvement in government is something I would like to see less of, but it is totally understandable and will continue if there is no sense of self-discipline among activists for any groups demanding cultural concessions. Modern liberals have picked a fight with people who see themselves defending not mere ideas, but their children and their entire way of life. It is a fight the left cannot possibly win.
Liberal intellectuals are apt to endorse a view of America, represented by Steinberg's drawings for the New Yorker, that sees the areas between the two coasts as a narrow cultural valley, a wasteland. But the other other-Americans are more apt to see themselves on a moral mountain surrounded by Sodom on the west and Gomorrah on the east, and there are more of them. My involvement with the evangelicals convinces me that their appeal is wide and that unless liberals understand this and moderate their claims, we will all reap the whirlwind.