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The Incredible Shrinking Evangelical

By Heather Wilhelm

Ah, spring. Fresh flowers, fresh leaves, fresh leases on life...and, in step with a tradition dating back to around 2004--the year when Christian "values voters" reportedly seized our fragile nation's helm--there's also a fresh crop of new books unabashedly bashing evangelicals.

Leading the pack is "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power," which is yet another entry in the behind-the-scenes, just-like-Skull-and-Bones Christian conspiracy genre. Luckily for yawning readers, there's also a newer, cuter, echoes-of-Jon-Stewart form of Christian-bashing on the 2008 market, which involves shelving the drama, loading up on the irony, going undercover and making merciless fun of the poor religious saps. In early May, self-affirmed tolerant and open person Matt Taibbi (who, in a recent Rolling Stone article, ridicules "nerdy" evangelicals wearing "the gayest" shirts as "a slow-moving hulk of confused, shipwrecked masculinity, flailing for an Answer") comes out with "The Great Derangement," his own book on the topic. Daniel Radosh, meanwhile, offers a kinder, gentler evangelical skewering--but a skewering nonetheless--in his new book on Christian popular culture, "Rapture Ready."

The funny thing about all of this is, of course, that it's not 2004 anymore. And as any barely alert political observer can tell you, evangelicals are certainly not running the show. They're...well...where are they, anyway?

Seriously, where'd all those hard-right, Republican evangelicals go?

The supposed storyline is a familiar one: Religious fundamentalists, a.k.a. "values voters," catapulted Bush into office. (John Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it," in this questionable-at-best narrative, had nothing to do with it.) In the wake of the Kerry disaster, Democrats scrambled to appear more religious. As Austin Dacey recently pointed out in USA Today, "The Democratic Party concluded that because values voters are religious, the way to Washington must lie on the road to Damascus. Since then, it has been closing the God gap that is thought to stand between it and the White House."

As it turns out, Christians, including evangelicals, aren't as monolithic as everybody thought. The rising religious left has enthusiastically agitated for the environment, a more "fair" budget, and for other "social justice" issues. More importantly, the religious right, made up largely of those dastardly evangelicals, just isn't playing that large of a role in Road to the White House 2008.

Sure, we see all three presidential candidates offering lip service to faith. But that's an occasional outlier among the greater themes--the economy, health care, Iraq--of the 2008 White House race. And sure, there was that feverish spurt of support for Mike Huckabee. But we all know how that worked out. John McCain, the ostensible GOP (or, as the latest crop of books would likely have it, "God's Old Party") nominee, is famed for being tight-lipped about his religious beliefs, and he frequently annoys evangelical leaders by being notoriously tight-lipped on other issues as well. This week, the LA Times reported that Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said that the nation's values voters "are posing a very different question than they did four years ago: What are we going to do in November? 'The question this time four years ago,' Perkins said, 'was: 'What are we going to do to help Bush win?'"

Smell that shift in the zeitgeist? If anything, it's towards the material rather than the ethereal. On April 20, Slate writer Mickey Kaus offered a fascinating and honest dissertation on the philosophical roots of Obama's "yokels clinging to their religion" remarks, along with their larger implications for modern politics. "But of course it was a Marxist thing to say," Kaus wrote, "wasn't it? If Democrats had delivered on the economy, Obama suggests, all those GOP cultural "wedge" issues would lose traction. This idea--that the economy trumps culture--isn't new. It's 'materialism.'"

And it may be on the rise. While evangelicals loom large in the popular imagination, they've shrunk on the map of reality, particularly in context of the current campaign. Our presidential candidates, particularly Obama and Clinton, whisk past pressing cultural problems like disintegrating families, unwed mothers, and abortion with startlingly sanitized economic arguments. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, long lambasted by liberals for its "bias," has picked up one of America's more prominent modern materialists as a regular columnist: Thomas Frank, author of "What's the Matter with Kansas?" Frank, interestingly, also offers a glowing blurb for the most conspiracy-minded of the latest batch of Christian-bashing books: "Of all the important studies of the American right, 'The Family' is undoubtedly the most eloquent. It is also quite possibly the most terrifying."

Terrifying? For all of the hullabaloo about radical right-wing evangelical power, they're certainly acting fairly scattered, and they're certainly not making a very big impact on the domestic front as of late. 40% of births in America are out of wedlock. Gay marriage thrives in Massachusetts. Evolution is still taught in schools, and, yes, "Gossip Girl" is still on the air. Secular America seems to be safe, sound, and thriving.

What, then, is so scary about evangelicals? Why the fixation, particularly when the real shift in the political debate seems to be toward secular materialism?

The most common complaint about born-again Christians, often heard from left-wing quarters, is that the God-boggled can't "learn to be rational" when it comes to serious policy debates. Science and fact, they argue, are all left behind once one enters the hard-core Christian realm. Meaningful policy debate is impossible. Irrationality, prejudice, and apocalyptic fatalism rule the day.

This is all highly ironic, of course, given that materialism, in its essence, often misses obvious facts--particularly when it comes to connections between cultural realities and economic, material results. Perhaps even more to the point, many modern secular crusades find followers scoffing at facts and, yes, disengaging from science. Two prominent examples include abortion (an article on fetal pain in the New York Times, for instance, caused an uproar in certain circles, as have current pending laws requiring ultrasounds before abortions) and the environment.

Are there nutty fundamentalists out there? Sure. Are hard-core evangelical events and culture sometimes goofy and cringe-worthy? Certainly. Are there some wacky political ideas that can grow out of religious fundamentalism? You bet.

But "clinging" can happen on both sides of the aisle. In both the sacred and secular realms, zealots can come across information they don't want to hear--and on both sides, there's the capacity to ignore that information in favor of a certain belief system. And in this election, contrary to the tired old narrative, that capacity might be more likely to come from the fans of Marx and Engels than the fans of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

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