In an amazing twist of cultural irony, it may actually be the evangelical church in America that teaches the United States how to once again agree to disagree.
Analyzing the fish bowl of my evangelical upbringing has become a hobby. When I was a kid growing up in the evangelical subculture, breaking intellectual stride with the heaven bound herd was almost unthinkable. Christians were almost drone like in their opinions about the world around them. From social issues to the role of government, if you met an evangelical Christian in the 90’s you could almost bet the farm on a shared worldview. In most cases, I think their worldview was largely correct. Forced to navigate the murky waters of politics, far removed from the proper theocracy of God’s Kingdom ethic, evangelicals would faithfully pick the lesser of two bad choices like most Americans.
But as the new millennia rounded the corner, I noticed some very distinct changes in the evangelical group think. Popular Christian books made the rounds questioning the political loyalty of the silent majority. Pastors and public speakers began singing a very different song in regard to the evangelical orthodoxy. Rob Bell and Brenning Manning would carve out an emergent counter narrative compiled of one-part conviction, two part contrarian. In short, the homogenous evangelicals became (wait for it) politically and ideologically diverse.
Contrary to the often mocked Hollywood cardboard Christian caricatures you see in films and nightly news segments, the average Sunday morning Christian is quite three dimensional. After 20 years of forced cultural introspection the evangelical church has come out the other side with an amazing amount of balance, self awareness and refinement. Walk into a mainstream American church on any given Sunday and you’re likely to find a group of people much more diverse, inclusive and welcoming than any college faculty lounge this side of the mason dixon line.
Quietly and without fanfare, there has been a very real cultural inversion happening in America. Like turning up the contrast on a photograph, what was once judgmental, homogeneous and dark, has now become welcoming, encouraging and light. What was once branded as inclusive and big tent is now ridged, dogmatic and insular.
At first glance this might seem counter intuitive. After all, isn’t it the Christians who cling to doctrine and tradition? How many times have we seen this cut out character in our popular entertainment?
The busy body church lady policing the speech and actions of strangers outside the favored fold. How many times have we collectively rolled our eyes while watching the unpleasant lectures of the token ‘‘teenage-virgin-Christian character” in a youthful romantic comedy?
This self righteous, one demential depiction of a Christian has been a punching bag in Hollywood for years. However, the painful truth is that all lies start with a seed of truth. This horrendous evangelical branding is without a doubt the consequence of a generation of Christians who chose to be the firing squad instead of the hospital.
Nonetheless, this cultural branding has not kept pace with the shifting societal sand under our feet. Ask yourself, are you more likely to get a lecture on what not to say from your evangelical neighbor or a PC speech police mob marching on campus? Are you more likely to get a lecture on “wrong think” from a college professor at a cocktail party, or an evangelical preacher on a plane?
In 2018 the roles have reversed. The “live and let live secularists’ of yesterday, have become a collectivist choir singing a “do as I say OR ELSE!” chorus; complete with tone-deafness and a cringeworthy lack of self-awareness. Religious fundamentalism is alive and well today, just not in the pews and pulpits. The truth is that today’s dogmatists are found in the news rooms and faculty lounges. Try offering alternative commentary about any number of societal problems at a wine and cheese party in the gated communities that like to talk about the poor. You’re likely to be burnt at the stake like a witch or forced to wear a scarlet letter. The non-religious among us have managed to carve out a form of dogmatic fundamentalism that could rival most Afghan villages both in backwardness and demand for unwavering adherence. The truly judgmental citizens in 2018 aren’t the people reading the Bible, but the people mocking it.
Nothing will make a person feel old like witnessing a cultural trend come full circle. In one lifetime I’ve watched the mantle of annoying nitpicker pass like a baton from the sweaty palms of the evangelical church, into the clenched fist of the social engineering secularists.