“Who are these people?” someone asks about evangelicals in the early pages of Redemptorama, a book billed as an exploration of Christ and contemporary culture. Despite years of research and her own Southern Baptist upbringing, the author, Carol Flake, offers only caricatures in response to the question.
The book is supposed to help sophisticates bewildered and appalled that evangelicals still exist, having supposed that Spencer Tracy (alias Clarence Darrow in Inherit the Wind) had taken care of them. However, Flake herself left behind Southern Baptism when she went to college because it “didn’t seem to me then to be a very portable kind of religion—it seemed out of place, certainly, with the new clothes and the new books I had bought for college.” Flake’s safe aerie in the “bastion of secular humanists” was disturbed by the noisy entrance of the Religious Right on the national stage. Now she worries (with what sincerity we are entitled to question) that the increasing prosperity of evangelicals is threatening the “real community” of “clapboard churches” and “plain white steeples” she somehow remembers warmly (but never would have set foot in again if it hadn’t been for the writing of this book). But the evangelical world didn’t stop turning when Flake left; its endurance puts her newfound sophistication and tolerance to the test. She flunks.
In a candid and generous “Author’s Note,” Flake complains about the difficulty of writing about the religion she fled. As an ex-evangelical, I can understand some of her ambivalence. But the mixture of “criticism and kindness” she came up with as a solution to the dilemma is a peculiar and unpleasant concoction. This is the Mary Jane school of criticism: sarcastic bashing alternating with (what evangelical females are notorious for) “making nice.”
The recurring charge of the book is that the Religious Right merely reflects the values of self-righteous, materialistic America instead of leavening the culture with the sacrificial values central to Christianity. One needn’t go far for evidence of this. Evangelicals often seem to be the only remaining true believers in the middle class. Some of the “prosperity” advocates give the impression that Christ was crucified so that all Americans could have two-car garages.
Not only is this criticism true, but some of the noisiest to have voiced it are evangelicals. A few years back, for example, Christianity Today took a hard look at Robert Schuller’s “possibility” preaching, which often bypasses unflattering doctrines like Original Sin in favor of psychic pep talks. Alternatively, people like Francis Schaeffer (to choose only one) have attempted to provide a more thoughtful grounding of evangelical belief and practice. Yet Schaeffer, whom Flake acknowledges as the “guru of fundamentalism” and who has had extensive popular influence, gets only a paragraph while the TV preachers Flake loves to despise (“Super Savers” she dubs them in one of the book’s many tiresome flippancies) get an entire chapter. Of course, to deal with Schaeffer Flake would have to analyze an idea or two, rather than huffing and puffing about TV fund-raising. She’d also have to acknowledge that conservative evangelicalism has more variety and depth than she’s letting on.
While some evangelicals display an absurd identification of their own notions of the American Way of Life with the Gospel of Christ, there is no denying the correctness of some of their impulses. But Redemptorama does nothing to distinguish the legitimate from the spurious in evangelical goals. Consider the “pro-family” agenda. Since Bill Movers’ February TV special on the breakdown of the black family, it is suddenly okay to talk about the damage done by family dissolution and even, heaven forfend, the value of chastity. But evangelicals have been fighting for this in the public arena for 20 years now. One could even call this stance prophetic—though Flake doesn’t.
Flake does find some evangelicals she can admire: those, like the Sojourners community, who inhabit the McGovern wing of liberalism. For Flake has new allegiances and creeds that appear to prohibit certain perceptions. In his early career, Billy Graham was a “tent-rattling” evangelist with an unbecoming interest in the powerful in business and government; but when he wanders tentatively into the peace movement. Flake thinks she hears prophetic bells ringing. She quotes Senator Hatfield (R-OR) approvingly on the misuses of religion to justify national policy, however immoral, but cannot give him a full endorsement. He hasn’t yet learned the entire New Left catechism:
His conscience remained torn between Christ and Caesar, as he continued to vote right on most economic matters and left on most military issues.
So, if you identify with the political right, you’re “encultured”; if you identify with the political left, you’re Christian. Never mind transcendence. Never mind that voting left on economic matters means voting MORE power to Caesar. In fact, never mind anything but the fact that “they” are the Enemy.
Liberals like to cast the debate between themselves and conservative evangelicals as one between “theocracy” and “pluralism.” But the lacunae in Flake’s analysis tell a different tale. She recounts the gracious reception of Senator Kennedy at Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College and does not neglect to mention the cries of “Nazi” with which the good, pluralistic undergraduates at Harvard had greeted Falwell a few months earlier. Yet the settled conviction of the book is that evangelicals have a “hunger for hegemony” and want to relieve America of its “shaggy and tangled pluralism.” Again, on one page Flake reports, with apparent sympathy, the omission of religious books from best-seller lists and on the next charges that evangelicals have yet to recognize “the rights and needs of other groups who . . . also . . . claim America as their own.”
Such blindness is not the result of a lack of “fairness,” at least in surface reporting; it is indicative of a clash of creeds. Many people unthinkingly subscribe to some form of secular humanism as a religious attitude (what Walker Percy has called “a passionate conviction about man’s nature, the world, and man’s obligation in the world”). In this view, evangelicals are heretics. Flake left the bush league bigotry of Texas for the big leagues.
[Redemptorama: Culture, Politics, and the New Evangelicalism, by Carol Flake; Baltimore: Penguin Books]