Alan Wolfe is optimistic about a future progressive turn among American evangelicals.
Writing in today’s New Republic, Wolfe sees Rick Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation to pray at the inauguration as a sign that evangelicals are moving out of their own secluded subculture and into the mainstream of American (political?) culture. For Wolfe, Warren’s willingness to accept Obama’s invitation is more important than Obama offering it. (Despite what many liberals and members of the LGBT community seem to think). Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation, according to Wolfe, will (and has already) resulted in backlash from the more conservative wing of American evangelicalism. Wolfe’s hope is that “Obama’s election will lead the more extreme right-wing Christians to purge their ranks of people such as (Richard) Cizek (sic)–and Warren. Maybe we should encourage them to do so, for this will weaken them politically by drawing them even further from the center.”
I am struck by four things about Wolfe’s short piece.
First, Wolfe understands, unlike much of the recent press coverage, that Warren, despite his opposition to gay marriage and support of California’s Proposition 8, is indeed a different kind of evangelical than those who associate with the Religious Right. Warren represents evangelicals concerned with cultural and political engagement in a way strikingly different from folks like Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson. He represents evangelicals concerned with the poor, global suffering, health care, and climate control. Warren does see eye-to-eye with the Religious Right on gay marriage, as most evangelicals do, but he stands more for the future of the movement than its past. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference is important. It goes a long way toward explaining why Warren accepted Obama’s invitation.
Second, I think Wolfe, who seems somewhat giddy about the way that Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s offer to pray has divided evangelicals, is overly optimistic about evangelicals changing their minds about gay marriage and other social issues. Wolfe has studied evangelicals, but I am not sure he really knows them. The Christian college where I teach (a place where Wolfe will be visiting in the spring) has recently been addressing the question of Christian homosexuals. In fact, there have been some members of the student body who have been open about their homosexuality in the college newspaper. But despite these isolated cases, most college students I encounter at a Christian college (and I might add, a Christian college often accused by conservative evangelicals as being too “liberal”) still uphold traditional views of marriage and would be opposed to thinking about this social institution any other way.
Third, I DO think that Wolfe’s accomodation thesis has some merits. Evangelicals, remember, are Protestants. And ever since the Reformation Protestants have felt free to change their interpretation of the Bible on a whim. Evangelicals have made this an art form. Wolfe, in other words, has evangelical history on his side. The story of American evangelicalism has always, as historians such as Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll have suggested, been one of cultural accomodation. (I make a similar argument, drawing from Noll and others, in The Way of Improvement Leads Home). I just think, as I argued in the previous paragraph, accomodation on gay marriage is going to take a lot longer than Wolfe projects.
Fourth, Wolfe writes as if Rick Warren, as an evangelical pastor, is breaking new ground by accepting Obama’s invitation to pray. “Warren’s decision to accept an invitation from a liberal president,” Wolfe notes, “is as clear a symbol of the entry of evangelicals into mainstream culture as one can imagine.” If this is the case, then what does Wolfe make of Billy Graham’s decision to pray at both of Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremonies? (Graham was also a part of Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural festivities). Clinton may not have been as “liberal” as Obama, but he was certainly pro-choice, pro-gay, and, if I remember correctly, drew intense heat for it from the evangelical community.