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Is evangelical 'surge' out of gas?

October 12, 2008|By ALLAN POWELL

Investigative reporter David Kirkpatrick, after months of study of many mega-churches involving interviews with many evangelical clergy and laity, became convinced that the once-powerful religious movement loosely tagged as the "religious right" is no longer the wave of the future.

In a lengthy article in the New York Times, Kirkpatrick ("The Evangelical Crackup" Oct. 28, 2007) offers evidence that suggests a state of decline. But, only the gullible would be persuaded by such a miniscule amount of evidence.

Can it possibly be true that "The religious right peaked a long time ago"? Do the facts support the opinion that "As a historical, sociological phenomenon it (the religious right) has seen its heyday"? Can we take seriously the assertion that the constant drumbeat by evangelicals against gay rights, evolution and secular humanism will give way to pleas for peace, poverty and health? Are they "tired of rants against abortion 52 weeks a year"?

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Even if we were to accept this limited report of evangelical restlessness about old, oft repeated complaints about "same old, same old" pulpit-pounding sermons, disillusionment with politicians and tensions within the membership brought on by differing visions about how to redeem a troubled world, does this permit one to be assured that a serious decline is in the making?

As one who has been an interested observer of the growth and power to the religious right, honesty compels me to confess that I would not be sorrowful to find out that Kirkpatrick is on target. It is an historical fact that religious, denominations and sects experience periods of expansion and decline. But the popularity of evangelical mega-churches and the ubiquitous presence of televangelists make one cautions about signs of decline.

We each have the personal responsibility of taking a hard, critical look at the messianic movements that plead for our money, allegiance and time.

I would like to suggest three criteria by which to judge their relative worth. These are: What kind of a person is produced by the rituals, doctrines and worldview put forward? What kind of a society and culture result from the dominance of a particular religious ideology?

Finally, how do the claims made in the revered books and by the various spokespersons (preachers, priests, prophets, etc.) square with history, literature and science?

The third criterion has a very important practical value because the quality and depth of the educational level of the various denominations varies greatly and has a bearing on the intellectual level of the religious experience offered to the believers.

Many evangelicals disparage worldly wisdom and encourage blind faith and emotional display in their services. Becoming attached to this orientation results in a lifelong isolation from a wide range of knowledge available and useful for preparation to live a full life in the kind of world in which we live.

My own inclination is to hope that, at the least, they retreat to the stance they had followed for most of their history. Before the advent of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority, evangelicals confined their efforts to saving souls and avoiding the temptation to seek political power. It is now clear that the Bush -Rove strategy of manipulating the religious right as a means to advance Republican hegemony was a colossal blunder. Their hankering to run with the big dogs came at a steep price. They should have stayed on the porch with the little dogs.

In addition to the setback brought by the alliance with Bush and Rove, the evangelicals are in danger of becoming irrelevant because of their anti-intellectual, anti-rational and anti-science posture.

True, they will always be able to recruit followers from the ranks of the uninformed, but those who have a modicum of education will shun their company.

Investigator Kirkpatrick may indeed have discovered some signs of disaffection among the evangelical faithful, but that does not show proof of a religious meltdown.

Modern life, with its relentless pressures, produces what sociologists call anomie - a widely shared sense of drift and loss of connection.

Whatever faults evangelical Christianity may have, it will always be a refuge for who those cannot cope with the high-tech push and pull that envelopes and crushes the will to power.

In evangelical meetings, the downtrodden believe they have found solid ground - the Rock of Ages. That should be the limit of their reach - they might not decline but society would benefit from a diminished presence.

Allan Powell is a resident of the Hagerstown area who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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