Young evangelicals gathered in divided Washington this week for a sometimes odd mix of civil exchanges and hipster Christianity.
About 700 mostly young evangelicals convened this week amid the soaring Doric columns of the august Andrew Mellon Auditorium in the Federal Triangle of Washington, D.C. It was the fifth convocation of “Q,” which aims to provoke cultural and political conversation among Christians. President Obama sent greetings by video. New York Times columnist David Brooks discussed humility, while his fellow Times columnist Ross Douthat talked politics. Conservative philanthropist Roberta Ahmanson discussed art. Southern Baptist leader Richard Land conversed with Evangelical Left activist Jim Wallis. NPR’s Barbara Bradley Hagerty peered into the future of religion and the media. American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks defended capitalism, almost provoking an approving smile from the dour portrait of former Treasury Secretary and financier Andrew Mellon that graced the auditorium’s entrance.
Immersed in slickly produced sound and light, amid the performance of stirring old hymns, “Q” founder and leader Gabe Lyons presided from the stage in a fashionably tight jacket, his bare ankles showing no socks, and a shock of blonde hair cascading over one eye. Other speakers replicated his mode look, and hipster Christianity was definitely de rigueur. An after party appropriately convened in the esoteric D.C. office space of Google. A temporary coffee house, always bustling, serviced “Q” across 3 days.
Ostensibly young evangelicals, discomfited by the culture wars of their conservative grandparents and leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are shifting somewhat left. A poll of “Q” participants showed not quite 60 percent opposing Obama’s reelection, and just over 40 percent supporting. This result almost mirrors how young evangelicals voted in 2008, even while white evangelicals as a whole favored Republicans by over 70 percent. But even among young conservative evangelicals, or at least the activist elites, there is often a preference for non-controversial humanitarian causes over hot buttons like abortion and homosexuality. About 60 percent of “Q” reportedly professed no allegiance to a political party.
Sojourners chief Jim Wallis tries to speak for this new demographic, focusing on social justice, disavowing partisanship, and mostly avoiding the hot buttons. “Christians should not worship at the altar of politics,” he opined without irony, even though he is of course intensely political. “We should be the ultimate independents.” He pointed to “common ground” issues like foreign aid, religious liberty, Comprehensive Immigration Reform, “abortion reduction,” strengthening families, and a “foreign policy that reduces conflicts.” By “abortion reduction,” Wallis mostly means larger federal social welfare programs, not legal restrictions. He is also typically reluctant to define “family” or suggest aids to it beyond more government largesse.
Richard Land, as head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was more direct, especially about abortion: “Vote for unborn citizens; they can’t vote!” He warned that spiraling federal deficits were “generational theft.” And he retorted to Wallis’s usual claim that federal budgets are “moral documents” that tax policy is also a “moral issue.” Wallis wants to address deficits with more taxation, Land warns of taxation’s impact on the economy and on families.
Ross Douthat admitted his New York Times readers are likely more secular and liberal than America as a whole. He suggested America has become more religious but also less theologically orthodox, thanks to the decline of institutional religion, especially Mainline Protestantism. Therapeutic religion, Oprah-style spirituality, and prosperity Gospels have often filled the vacuum. Across America, Methodists and Lutherans and Presbyterians have been replaced by generic evangelicals, noncommittal church hopping Christians, and persons who are spiritual but not religious. Douthat’s new book is Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. The lack of a “theological center” in America is leading to cultural and political polarization, he warns. He worries that that while evangelicals have become ascendant, they likely cannot fill the breech left by imploding Protestant churches and slowly declining Roman Catholicism. A poll of “Q” shows participants mostly belong to nondenominational churches.
Maybe representative of the new evangelical is Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, often cited as spiritual counselor to President Obama, and prominent on the National Association of Evangelicals. “Government Is Not the Enemy,” was the title of his talk, as he bemoaned increasing hostility to “big government.” Instead, Hunter insisted, government is an “instrument of God” with which churches should partner. “Let’s not fool ourselves” that churches could feed the poor if government retreated, he opined. “Government can’t changes lives, but they have resources,” he said. “We can change lives with those resources,” he suggested, hailing government grants to faith-based charities. Hunter called President Obama a “very humble man” who reads the Bible and prays every day.
Making the “Moral Case for Capitalism,” Arthur Brooks thanked globalization and free markets, not the United Nations, for reducing extreme global poverty by 80 percent over several decades. Liberal lobbyist David Beckmann of Bread for the World repeated this good news, saying global poverty had been halved in 30 years, while mostly crediting foreign aid. “Our loving God is bringing hundreds of millions out of poverty,” he celebrated. “Many more Christians are involved in advocacy with government for poor people around the world.” But turning negative, Beckmann complained: “I don’t think our country is serious about reducing hunger and poverty.” Not since Lyndon Johnson have Americans been willing to vote for someone who really pushes against poverty, he bewailed. More optimistically, a USAID official noted that foreign aid is “building the markets of tomorrow,” citing prosperous South Korea as a former aid recipient.
Two evangelical environmental activists fretted over climate change and mercury poisoning. A winsome Palestinian Christian complained of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, implicitly criticizing typically pro-Israel U.S. evangelicals. An Israeli lawyer largely agreed, fingering “dispensationalist” pro-Israel evangelicals who don’t think he’s “patriotic enough.” Conservative thinker Jay Richards of the Discovery Institute hailed increased cooperation between evangelicals and Catholics, whether in overseas missions, or the “mission field outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.”
A final sermon to “Q” seemed to warn against too much creative hipster evangelical Christianity, emphasizing tradition, historic Christian worship, and the ancient church creeds: “We can’t reinvent the world if we keep reinventing the church.” Wise words, though traditional Christians don’t typically think they can totally reinvent the world, which is ultimately a divine prerogative. “Q” offered an intriguing window into America’s always vibrant religiosity, at once both troubling and reassuring.
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