God and Country by Monique El-Faizy by Monique El-Faizy - Read Online

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God and Country - Monique El-Faizy

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God

and

Country

God

and

Country

How Evangelicals

Have Become

America's New

Mainstream

Monique El-Faizy

For Theo and Xander

and of course, for Oliver

Contents

Prologue

Introduction

I. Belief

CHAPTER ONE The Triumph of Engagement

CHAPTER TWO A Brief History of Evangelicals in America

CHAPTER THREE How They Get You: Outreach

CHAPTER FOUR How They Keep You: Community

II. Culture

CHAPTER FIVE Spreading the Word

CHAPTER SIX Make a Joyful Noise

CHAPTER SEVEN Jesus Goes to Hollywood

III. Power

CHAPTER EIGHT Onward Christian Soldiers

CHAPTER NINE From the Ground Up

CHAPTER TEN What’s Next?

Acknowledgments

Notes

A Note on the Author

Prologue

I began this project reluctantly. It was at the urging of an insightful friend that I first considered writing about evangelical Christianity. I would likely never have come to it on my own, having turned my back on my fundamentalist upbringing in college. But when I revisited the world of my youth, I saw a vastly different place, one that had grown to resemble the secular world—in style, if not in substance. It was clear those changes had expanded the influence of the evangelical subculture, though not yet to what degree. At the time, President Bush was in the early months of his first term in office, the details of his religiosity were only beginning to emerge, and the impact evangelicals were having on American culture had not yet come into focus.

I also saw the bias the press carried against evangelicals as it chronicled their ascent—a bias I, in fact, shared. I had rejected evangelical Christianity when a cross-country move to attend the University of Pennsylvania widened my world and I had come to see born-again Christians through the same lens as that of my peers. I considered the religion oppressive, its believers closed minded, and I did so with the kind of fervor only a former adherent could muster. And yet, I was unable to completely dismiss evangelicalism, because there were people I loved and respected who belonged to its ranks.

I had assiduously avoided church since my early days in college, and any encounter with Christianity made me uncomfortable. Shortly before the conversation that prompted me to write this book, I had given birth to my first son. I realized that, since my husband was Jewish, if I wanted my child to have any understanding of my family's beliefs and customs, I'd have to overcome my aversion. I thought that undertaking this project might help me do that. Approaching it with journalistic detachment would give me cover.

So the writing of this book has, inevitably, been a personal journey as well as a professional one. I have tried to put aside my own negative feelings about the evangelical world and look at it with fresh eyes. Clearly the religion appeals to millions of people. I set out to overcome my own biases and figure out what it is about evangelicalism that people are drawn to. I have come to appreciate that evangelical Christianity can provide a warm, comforting, and, at times, even stimulating community. I have also seen the flip side: that it can be judgmental and closed minded. But in forcing myself to be more open minded about the people I was meeting than I was naturally inclined, I have come to know evangelicals who are genuine, interesting, intellectually curious, and engaged with the world in which we all live. They just happen to believe in something I don't.

Along the way many of the people I interviewed told me they thought God was using this project to bring me back to him. That hasn't happened, and I sincerely doubt it will—there are too many beliefs at the core of evangelical Christianity that I can't see myself ever accepting, and I have too vivid a memory of the shortcomings of the earthly Church to want to be part of it again. Still, I've met many believers whose intellects I respect and whose kindness I admire.

I see my role in the writing of this book as neither judge nor apologist. I wish simply to shine a spotlight on a world little understood by those on the outside. Just as leaving the church two decades ago allowed me to broaden my horizons, revisiting it has helped me open my mind and deepen my understanding of a phenomenon that has seized America and is affecting all of our lives. I hope anyone reading this book will come away similarly enriched.

Introduction

Saturday evening, Thirty-third Street and Seventh Avenue. Make your way up the escalators, past the pictures of Muppets, rock stars, and sports heroes and toward the Theater at Madison Square Garden. You'll encounter several smiling greeters along the way, handing out schedules and donation envelopes. As you ascend the final bank of escalators, you'll hear snippets of hand-clapping, stomp-inducing music. Round the corner into the upper level of the theater, and spread out before you will be thousands of people of all ages and races waving their hands in the air, swaying and dancing and singing praises to Jesus.

Not exactly what one might expect on a Saturday night in the heart of Gotham, perhaps, but it's happening all over. In the midst of New York City, emblem of fast living and vice, is a vibrant world of evangelical Christianity. You can find it at these weekly services at Madison Square Garden, preached by prosperity-doctrine evangelist Creflo Dollar, who flies in from his home in Atlanta. You'll discover it at Times Square Church, which meets in a converted theater and is visited by eight thousand people each week. It will be apparent in the speed with which appearances by evangelists like Billy Graham and Texas pastor Joel Osteen sell out or fill up. And you'll uncover it in hundreds of smaller churches that meet in apartments, schools, and renovated storefronts across the city. If you know where to look, you'll see it everywhere: a growing city-within-a-city of evangelical Christians, right under the nose of the city's intellectual elites.

While liberals and secularists still operate the levers of power in New York, on a national level evangelicals have become the new establishment. In the planks of our culture—politics, publishing, music, and entertainment—evangelicals have risen to prominence. The 2004 presidential election opened the eyes of many so-called blue state Americans to the importance of evangelical Christianity (red state Americans were already aware of it), but its reach still hasn't been fully realized. Throughout the country—even in blue America—evangelical Christians exist in significant numbers. In the five boroughs of New York City alone there are at least eighteen evangelical megachurches—defined as a congregation with more than two thousand members—and at least three of those are in the ultraliberal borough of Manhattan. Democratic stronghold California not only has a sizable evangelical population but is the birthplace of some of the most critical developments in the religion and home to many of its most important churches. Some of the fastest-growing congregations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire are evangelical, and New England as a whole has come to be regarded by evangelicals as one of the most promising mission fields in the country.

Over the course of the past several years, America has undergone a realignment and is now a country in which evangelical Christians are no longer a fringe group but instead make up its core. It's a transformation that has taken place largely unnoticed by the East Coast media and Hollywood, but the fact is that nine out of ten Americans believe in God, and roughly one in three is evangelical. And while the rest of the country has finally woken up to the importance of evangelicals in American society, their understanding of them remains superficial. Alarmist media reports generally portray a unified, monolithic, right-wing bloc, and while there are factions—important factions—in the community for which that characterization is accurate, evangelicals cannot be painted fairly with such a broad brush. They are more diverse and, in many areas, more moderate than those outside of the fold realize, which is why they have become so influential.

While estimates as to the size of the evangelical community range from 44 million to more than 100 million, depending upon how pollsters phrase the question, evangelicals can be found in every Christian denomination and in nondenominational churches. In a May 2006 Gallup survey, 44 percent of American adults identified themselves as born-again or evangelical, about 86 million people. While the Gallup number bumps up and down in each poll, over an extended period of time it has been essentially flat. A January 2006 sampling conducted by the Barna Group indicated a significant spike in the number of born-again Christians, but it is unclear if that is the beginning of a trend. While it remains to be seen if evangelicals are growing in number, it is clear they are growing in might.

The strength of evangelicals comes in part from their sheer numbers and partly because they have learned to adopt the look and feel of secular America. Instead of living an isolated, parallel existence, as they once did, they are making the country over in their own image. Like other groups before them, including women, homosexuals, and African Americans, evangelicals have learned to straddle two worlds—their own and the one that the rest of us live in. They have blurred the lines once drawn between them and us, and in doing so, the evangelical community has become America's new mainstream. While some of the country's most visible and prestigious institutions are still left leaning and secularist, they no longer represent the center of American life.

The evangelical community derives its might from a local, grassroots base. In many parts of the country meetings of the school board and other local governances begin with prayer—not because it's legal, but because it's so accepted that it has never been challenged. The foundation of evangelical power is also widespread. Evangelicals don't sit in our nation's ivory towers or on the editorial boards of our major newspapers, but they wield sizeable clout over school boards, speak loudly through hometown papers, and, for the moment, run the United States government. Many reporters have, in the years since Bush was elected to his second term, been writing gee whiz stories about evangelical Christians that, in their incredulous tone, sometimes seem worthy of the cover of National Geographic magazine. As large and powerful as the evangelical community may be, it is still a mystery to those on the outside.

Evangelical dominance has been sped along by the proliferation of different types of media, such as blogs, Internet sites, and a burgeoning number of cable channels, all of which have helped break the influence monopoly held by a trio of TV networks and a handful of newspapers. As the number and types of media outlets increased, evangelicals found new ways to be heard. But despite their power, many evangelicals still feel that they are a persecuted minority whose beliefs and sensitivities are consistently under attack by the greater culture, a dynamic that creates a volatile situation. Evangelicals are upwardly mobile but they don't get the respect they desire and they feel their morals aren't reflected in the greater culture to the degree they think they deserve. The result is a resentment that helps explain the fervor with which many of them push to impose their values.

But that feeling is slowly beginning to change. In July 2005 Christianity Today posted an editorial on its Web site entitled We're Prime Time, Baby! The editorial noted that Newsweek had dubbed 1976 the Year of the Evangelical. If 1976 heralded the birth of the media reckoning with the crowd that took the Bible at least as seriously as did Carter, evangelicalism's persona has come of age in 2005. Now we're on during prime time, it read. The editorial identified a few recent articles and most editorial boards as exceptions, but concluded that we're no longer overlooked, persecuted, discriminated against, and misquoted in the mainstream media. The last line of the editorial summed it up: So, we've been mainstreamed. Now what?

What indeed. Over the past few decades evangelicals have become better educated and more affluent and thus have amplified their power. When they began to mobilize, they already had a network of well-placed business and political leaders who had quietly ascended to the tops of their fields. The growing preeminence of evangelicals has also been fueled by the demise of mainline denominations. America's elite used to be culled from denominations with roots that reach centuries back, such as the Episcopalians and mainline Protestants. In the past, as people from other religions climbed up the socioeconomic ladder, they would move into those denominations. Today that is no longer true. Successful evangelicals now choose to remain in evangelical churches, both raising the status of those churches and expanding their congregations. As a result more and more of this country's most influential figures call themselves evangelical—and they're not content to stop there. The movement's leaders are now training talented youth and encouraging them to enter areas of society in which there have previously been few who belonged to the faith. They want to expand their reach.

In most places in America, people consider their lives through the prism of their faith and speak about the role of God in their lives in the same concrete terms others use to talk about the weather. Those who are not religious tend to gloss over those statements as inconsequential. After more than a year of interviewing, I realized I was doing exactly that, and it was preventing me from fully understanding the people I was writing about. When people explained the success of various books or movies as a God thing, I'd think, Okay, but what's the real reason?

I became conscious of this tendency during an interview with a woman who had struck me with her insightfulness and intelligence. Partway through our conversation she started talking about seeing the forces of Satan working in the world, and I felt myself tuning out. The next day I was interviewing the former president of a major American retailer who was telling me that she consulted God before she made any decisions about her career. She opted to take a lower-ranking job for half her previous salary because she felt this was where God was leading her. These two encounters led me to rethink the way I was approaching the evangelical community. For those of us who are not believers it is almost impossible to grasp how essential an evangelical's spiritual experience is in his or her life. God is a living, tangible, and daily presence.

Those not part of the evangelical 44 percent will likely recall the Moral Majority and the pushy fundamentalists of the 1980s when they think of born-again Christians. The doctrines held by today's evangelicals are similar (the difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists is more one of attitude and terminology than of belief), but they have changed their approach. The fundamentalists of twenty years ago were about political confrontation and societal isolation, but there's been a paradigm shift since then. Today's evangelicals take a much softer line of attack and have carefully broadened their appeal.

Their core beliefs remain the same, but evangelicals have undergone a remarkable stylistic transformation over the past several decades. While you can read articles and books about Dominionism and secessionist groups, these evangelical factions lie at the fringe of the movement, and even most of their Christian brethren think they're peculiar. To focus exclusively on such groups is to define the evangelical community by its outer edges; in this book I concentrate instead on its core, a group that looks surprisingly like the rest of America. In this book you will read about people doing things you would never do, things you might find downright strange, but, aside from their faith, many of the people I met during the course of my research were not all that different from me and the people in my social circle.

This is by design. No longer isolated and other, evangelicals have learned to put forward a visage both welcoming and relevant. This change is apparent before one ever walks through a church door. The religious symbols and white clapboard buildings with bell towers have been replaced by rambling complexes that are inoffensively neutral. They have every amenity, from coffee bars to gyms to volleyball courts, but don't telegraph their purpose with obvious signs such as crosses or the hollow fish symbol believed to have been used to identify the early Christians. It's easy to be fooled, but no matter how warm and welcoming they appear, the essential belief of evangelicals remains the same: Without the salvation Jesus Christ provides, man is guaranteed an eternity in hell.

I am not an evangelical Christian, and yet I know the religion like an insider, having grown up as a fundamentalist and having considered myself a committed born-again Christian for more than a decade. I will use that insight to shine a spotlight into this little understood but crucially important facet of American society. In this book I'll go beyond the stereotypes and into the lives of evangelicals across the country. It's only through awareness that the rest of us can know how to appropriately respond to the considerable progress evangelicals have made in shaping the world in which we all live.

WHO ARE THEY AND WHAT DO THEY BELIEVE?

There have been thousands of news stories about evangelicals over the past several years, yet the group remains largely misunderstood. Just the word—evangelical—is a source of confusion. The Greek roots of the word mean good news, and the sharing of that news, the Gospel, is a central tenet of evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals feel they have an imperative to spread the story of Jesus Christ. They also believe that unless one accepts the salvation bought by Christ's death on the cross, one is doomed to eternal damnation. Finally, they believe that the Bible is God's authoritative word on earth. Anyone who shares in those three beliefs I have considered an evangelical for this book. The evangelical body is a very diverse one, so my grouping encompasses many seemingly different groups, but they all share one other crucial characteristic: They have an individual relationship with Jesus Christ. Their faith is private, rather than institutional. They believe that because of Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden man is condemned to eternal death, but that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ atoned for that sin. They have, at some point, made a decision to accept that forgiveness and in doing so gain eternal life. At that point, they entered into a personal relationship with Jesus.

There are many denominations that are primarily evangelical, particularly in Protestantism, but evangelicals can be found everywhere. There is, for example, a robust movement of evangelicals in the Catholic and Episcopal churches. Many evangelical churches do not belong to any specific faction. Indeed, evangelical Christianity is notable in that it transcends affiliation. Its rise marks the death of denomination.

For the sake of this book, what unites these people is more important than what divides them. Defining evangelicals is tough, since even those who proudly wear the badges disagree about what they mean, so I have been intentionally general and treat their differences as largely stylistic. Not everyone whom I term a fundamentalist will agree on every point of doctrine; equally, a fundamentalist may, theologically, be in lockstep with someone I term an evangelical.

For the rest of America, these internecine doctrinal distinctions (biblical inerrancy versus biblical primacy, the timing of the Second Coming of Christ, etc.) are generally of little importance. The most succinct clarification of the difference between the two comes from Notre Dame historian George Marsden, who writes: A fundamentalist is an evangelical who is angry about something.

The term evangelical can be used to describe people with the set of beliefs I previously laid out, or simply to define a style of Christianity. When I refer to evangelicals, I will generally mean someone who belongs to that broad group, which will also encompass fundamentalists and born-again Christians. I will, on occasion, use the term evangelicals a contrast to fundamentalist', in those instances I will be referring to the stylistic differences between the two. Evangelicals and fundamentalists often simply use the word Christian to refer to a person who has had a born-again experience, someone who made a sentient decision to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. (Those of us who haven't are pagans.) Evangelicals and fundamentalists share a lot of common ground doctrinally; where they differ is in their relationship to society. Fundamentalists are militant and antimodernist. (Though, ironically, since the latter part of the twentieth century it has been the fundamentalists who have been most active in the political arena.) Evangelicals believe they have a responsibility to reach into the larger culture, rather than provide a critique from the sidelines.

Over the past twenty-five years fundamentalism (as opposed to evangelicalism) has been on the wane. The dominant message in fundamentalist churches was one of the hell and damnation that awaits those who lack a relationship with Jesus Christ. Today's evangelicals have moved their attention from God's wrath to God's love. This change has made them more palatable to outsiders, and their willingness to involve themselves with popular culture has enabled them to affect it.

Because evangelicals have become the dominant Christian force on the cultural landscape, I have focused on them, largely to the exclusion of fundamentalists, some of whom, including Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, are already well known to American readers. While they still wield considerable influence in the political arena, they represent the old guard of evangelical Christianity, not its future, and are therefore of decreasing importance. In the hundreds of interviews I did over the course of researching this book, I found few, if any, Christians who said these most conservative leaders of Christianity spoke for them. While most evangelicals agree with the Christian Right's position on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, the average evangelical has an agenda that is much broader and an attitude less confrontational.

I have also chosen to exclude several high-profile and highly controversial figures, including Trinity Broadcast Network owner and founder Paul Crouch and charismatic faith healer Benny Hinn, both of whom have been the subject of several exposes in the media. While they have gigantic followings, the intention of this book is to focus on the mainstream of evangelical culture and its impact on society. The vast majority of evangelicals I spoke with expressed varying levels of discomfort with both Hinn and Crouch who raise questions with their lavish lifestyles and refusal to disclose financial documentation. In addition, neither has made much of a mark on the landscape of American secular culture.

CULTURAL ENGAGEMENT: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE

While evangelicals have valued societal involvement at other points in their history, the current trend toward cultural engagement took root in the mid-twentieth century, about the same time the community started to move its focus from the consequences of sin to the grace of God in an attempt to be more appealing to nonbelievers. I will use that refocusing as a jumping off point and will chart the community's progression to its current state of participation. Most of the churches I visited are megachurches, not because evangelicals don't attend smaller churches but because such large congregations are very visible and their superstar pastors can claim a disproportionate amount of sway over the body of evangelical Christianity as a whole.

Today's evangelicals may look and sound like the rest of America, but their very act of adapting to the culture around them ties them to their forefathers. The tussle between fundamentalists and modernists is almost as old as the country itself. The community has a history of reinventing itself to find new ways to appeal to outsiders and draw them in. Indeed, outreach is a key component of evangelical Christianity, and most churches of a