Evangelical = Conservative?

In response to John D. Boy’s piece Icons of the New Evangelicalism that we ran on Monday, Mike Brislen wrote in from Pennsylvania:

I find the grouping of Brian McClaren, Shaine Claibourne (sp?) with Rick Warren, and then make a comparison with the ‘evangelical leaders of the 90s’ such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, rather disingenuous. So much reporting on religion by others who don’t share the same beliefs is overly simplified and relies far too much on ‘guilt by association’ and superficial similarities.

To see McClaren as a new leader among American Evangelicals is stretching both terms, leader and Evangelical. Most conservative Evangelicals would find McClaren anathema rather than a leader. McClaren and others who are advocated ‘something new’, currently calling itself emergent church, seriously claim to be beginning a change among Christians. Some would even call themselves, former-evangelicals. Then to uncritically link him and this movement to Rick Warren because of facial hair is rather absurd. And in addition, the article hints that all of these people will become right-wing conservative leaders. Has he even read anything they’ve written?

To which the author responds:

It’s worth noting that my recent essay The Icons of the New Evangelicalism prompted two opposite responses, so I will address them together. First Bruce Illig advised me not to underestimate the staying power of evangelicalism-qua-Religious Right. The discontinuity that I claim can be gleaned on the new face of U.S.  evangelicalism is deceptive. Then Mr. Brislen, contrariwise, questions my take on the new evangelical leaders, wondering whether I am ignorant of the new things they advocate because I seem to imply they are on track to becoming right-wingers just like their forebears. In short, in his view, I exaggerate the continuity.

Incidentally it was this clear dichotomy in public discussions about evangelicals in the age of Obama that prompted me to write this essay. When informed opinions about the future of evangelicalism in the United States so clearly diverge—with some arguing it is inevitably on the decline and others seeing it firmly established in the halls of power—that’s a pretty sure sign that change is underway somewhere beneath the surface, making itself felt through “a great variety of morbid symptoms.” The question is, what kinds of changes in the general orientation of evangelicalism can we expect? Against the general linear, left-right mappings of these changes, I wanted to give room in my thinking and writing on this issue to the unexpected: People like my friend, an evangelical minister and socialist, who preaches about Jesus, the Bible and Judith Butler, prays for the end of corporate domination, and risks imprisonment at antiwar marches. Or another friend who rejects secular music but speaks about blockbusters more than about being born again. Or the girl I know who is crazy about the Holy Spirit but still has time to worry about how her tattoos impact her sex life. We know anecdotally and from opinion polls that the story is not as easy as evangelical = conservative.

Mr. Brislen is correct: there is something literally superficial about how I address the question. In my exploration, I depart from the most obvious, surface-level change among evangelicals. This may seem glib, but there was method to it. Starting from the surface, I probed inward, unconstrained by the usual preconception of what is to be considered “liberal” and what is to be considered “conservative.” This led to some unexpected results. Indeed, what do people like Rick Warren and Brial McLaren share in common? For one thing, they are both immensely popular and influential. Having read their work and looked at their careers, I can see both having tremendous appeal and a big impact on U.S. society.

I end my piece not on a clear adjudication, but on a skeptical note. Change has come to evangelicalism, but has evangelicalism come to change as a result of it? Is the change more than stubble-deep? These are questions that tend not to be asked when analysis largely consists of cross-tabulating opinion-poll data with exit polls and counting how many born-agains gave their vote to a Democrat.

On a completely different note, over on Dating Jesus, one blogger suggests that the way to avoid the question of facial hair on priests is to…hire more clergy women.