Icons of the New Evangelicalism

rickwarren1Protestantism, Paul Tillich said, is not a religion of the eye. Like most Protestant flavors, evangelicalism has an austere aesthetic. Its iconography has always been very limited. Its icons, in fact, have generally been its leaders, whose faces captivated the gaze of thousands upon thousands at revivals and evangelizing crusades, behind the pulpits of megachurches, or on televangelical satellite networks. The inauguration of Barack Obama brought another icon into the spotlight—the face of Rick Warren. A rising juggernaut in the evangelical scene in recent years, Warren exemplifies the new generation taking over from the old patriarchs of evangelicalism. Slowly but noticeably, it is displacing leaders from the old guard such as James Dobson (Focus on the Family), Chuck Colson (Prison Fellowship Ministries), Pat Robertson (The 700 Club), and the late Jerry Falwell (Moral Majority). What can we learn from these surface-level changes? How is the emerging evangelicalism likely to differ from the old?

One difference stands out at first glance. Picture Warren alongside several other emerging leaders, such as Brian McLaren (bestselling theologian), Mark Driscoll (Seattle-based megachurch pastor), Doug Pagitt (author and pastor), Jay Bakker (star of One Punk Under God), or Shane Claiborne (author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical). They share a clear mark of distinction from the old guard: a patch of facial hair around their chin. As French literary critic Roland Barthes once remarked, “Among priests, it is not due to chance whether one is bearded or not.” Warren’s choice not to shave, then, suggests a pointed attempt to remake the evangelical iconography.

But what is the intended significance of this makeover? Why change the visual representation of America’s most influential religious tradition in this subtle, stubbly way? Again, Barthes is incisive: “Behind a beard, one belongs a little less to one’s bishop, to the hierarchy, to the Church as a political force; one looks freer, a bit of an independent.” Like a hermit or monk who does not waste his time shaving for the sake of earthly powers and instead dedicates himself fully to his vocation, the goateed proselytizer appears more of an authentic man of God than his well-groomed, overly politicized, GOP-loving forebears. The scruffiness may point to an important shift that’s occurring in evangelical households, Bible-study groups, churches, publishing houses and many other cogs and wheels in the evangelical machine that provides a wide swath of the U.S. population with a spiritual home, surrogate welfare state, and parallel public sphere. Surely this vast assemblage does not move as a single, monolithic bloc. Any change in American evangelicalism will not be linear but rather multiform and unpredictable. How can we begin to comprehend the shifts that are underway?

Over the past two decades, the old leaders of American evangelicalism have managed to swap the future of their sect for political clout. An acute observer of American society once said something quite profound about the effects that ensue when faith and politics enter into the kind of unholy alliance the United States has recently seen. “There have been religions intimately linked to earthly governments, dominating men’s souls by terror and by faith,” Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835, “but when a religion makes such an alliance, I am not afraid to say that it … sacrifices the future for the present, and by gaining a power to which it has no claim, it risks its legitimate authority.” Does this insight apply today? Given the many signs of crisis—Newsweek has already declared the U.S. to be “post-evangelical”—it may not be entirely misguided to conclude that we are witnessing evangelicalism’s fall from the American power elite.

Tocqueville also had a theory about how this loss of authority happens. “When [religion] is mingled with the bitter passions of this world, it is sometimes constrained to defend allies who are such from interest rather than from love; and it has to repulse as adversaries men who still love religion, although they are fighting against religion’s allies. Hence religion cannot share the material strength of the rulers without being burdened with some of the animosity aroused against them.”

In light of the egregious entanglement of the religious right with the former administration, we may ask whether evangelicals become disaffected with their sycophantic leaders, turned wary of their pastors, and perhaps even “secularized” themselves out of the church en masse? Without a doubt, something like that is happening on some scale, though it appears unlikely that Bible Belt churchgoers would quit their places of worship solely for political reasons. What Tocqueville didn’t consider is that a religious tradition does not necessarily sacrifice its future by cutting a Faustian/Falwellian deal in the present, but that it may live on in a transformed shape as different movements, figures and ideas come to the fore and give it a new direction.

Partly inspired by poststructuralism and its rejection of grand narratives, so-called “emergent-church theology” has managed to cross-pollinate social theory with nonacademic concerns. Where “classic” evangelicals were moralistic, heavy-handed, and rigid, the “emergent” school rethinks atonement among communal lines and even ventures to historicize categories of good and evil. In other words, they stress living well in a community over holding sternly to certain beliefs.

In an attempt to distance itself from the “fundamentalist” rigorism that has previously defined evangelicalism, the new crop eschews calling their approach a movement or a doctrine. Instead, they present their views as an open and ongoing “conversation” that anybody is free to join. As a result, the churches newly founded (or  “planted”) by emergents tend to be more welcoming of queer folk and other groups commonly ostracized in evangelical faith communities. They don’t guilt-trip each other for failing to live up to ideals placed too high and out of reach.  And while it would be wrong to see this merely as a repackaging of the social gospel, emergents generally espouse a  deeper understanding of the evils they denounce. Indeed, they are more concerned with the log in their own eye rather than the speck in someone else’s, so we can expect much less  “holier than thou”  finger-pointing.

All that sounds good, but the question remains: How sustainable can these changes really be? Among Catholics, Vatican II eventually led to a harsh backlash; why should we assume evangelicalism is on a sure track toward lasting change? Do the new icons represent a mere “shop-window of saintliness … substitut[ing] with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice,” as Barthes put it? The example of Rick Warren already suggests that a healthy dose of Barthesian skepticism is in order. His support of the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in California—albeit rather muted—was highlighted by opponents of his involvement in Obama’s inauguration and suggests he hasn’t veered too far from the old evangelical path. Just because some evangelicals are comfortable with voting for Democrats, destabilizing epistemological boundaries and, yes, growing goatees, doesn’t necessarily mean they have become agents of progressive social transformation.

Mark Driscoll, the hip founding pastor of Seattle’s 7,000-member Mars Hill Church, is at least as troubling as Warren. Reporting on the head pastor of Seattle’s fastest growing megachurch in 2003, the Seattle Times commented that he “comes off as a smart-aleck former frat boy,” and that’s not just because he’s that kind of white boy. He’s about as misogynistic and lewd as your average frat boy as well. Among his favorite targets of derision are wimpy men who minor in women’s studies. He has apparently forgotten that a major in theology isn’t exactly considered manly either. In 2006, after Episcopalians elected a female bishop, he said they might as well have elected “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit.” A large number of his sermons are dedicated to issues of sexuality, and all of them carry the same message: Love, but don’t touch—unless you are married, straight, and Bible-believing. This message is conveyed in fierce and explicit terms. Many fellow evangelicals disapprove of his preaching style, calling him the “cussing pastor.” In fact, the Mars Hill Church website contains frequent “mature content” advisories.

Now, Driscoll may just be a bad peach in the basket. In fact, he dissociated himself from the emergent-church conversation some years ago—and of late, his chin stubble is conspicuously absent. But while Driscoll may not be representative of all of the shifts underway, he still serves as a good indication of where evangelicalism is heading. Earlier this year, Time named his Reform theology among “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.” A journalist writing for Christianity Today wrote that Driscoll has a “growing sphere of influence”—perhaps the fastest-growing in the entire evangelical scene. His church, located in one of the least-churched cities in the country, has grown as much as 60 percent per year; he is frequently invited to speak at conferences; and his books are selling exceptionally well in Christian bookstores around the country. At this year’s meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical body in the United States, Driscoll’s remarkable popularity among Baptist seminarians was one of the most divisive issues, prompting numerous motions to curb his influence. At this point, all such efforts are a chasing after wind.

If this is what’s in store for us, perhaps we are well advised to consider the insight of the German social critic, Theodor W. Adorno: “The beard is the oppositionist costume of juveniles acting like cavemen who refuse to play along with the cultural swindle,” he wrote, “while in fact they merely don the old-fashioned emblem of the patriarchal dignity of their grandfathers.”

John D. Boy grew up in Germany learning about American culture from Dr. Dobson’s youth magazines and dubbed episodes of Batman. Now he’s a sociologist living in Brooklyn. When he’s not busy donating adjunct labor to the City University of New York, he works on his dissertation which tries to make sense of the social implications of global religious change.