The cover story of yesterday's New York Times Magazine is a long feature by reporter David Kirkpatrick on "The Evangelical Crackup." It's a comprehensive look at how the evangelical landscape is changing - theologically and politically. He begins by noting:
Just three years ago, the leaders of the conservative Christian political movement could almost see the Promised Land. White evangelical Protestants looked like perhaps the most potent voting bloc in America. They turned out for President George W. Bush in record numbers, supporting him for reelection by a ratio of four to one. Republican strategists predicted that religious traditionalists would help bring about an era of dominance for their party.
another confluence of factors is threatening to tear the movement apart. The extraordinary evangelical love affair with Bush has ended, for many, in heartbreak over the Iraq war and what they see as his meager domestic accomplishments. That disappointment, in turn, has sharpened latent divisions within the evangelical world -- over the evangelical alliance with the Republican Party, among approaches to ministry and theology, and between the generations.
Contributing to this change:
a younger generation of evangelical pastors -- including the widely emulated preachers Rick Warren and Bill Hybels -- are pushing the movement and its theology in new directions. There are many related ways to characterize the split: a push to better this world as well as save eternal souls; a focus on the spiritual growth that follows conversion rather than the yes-or-no moment of salvation; a renewed attention to Jesus' teachings about social justice as well as about personal or sexual morality. However conceived, though, the result is a new interest in public policies that address problems of peace, health and poverty -- problems, unlike abortion and same-sex marriage, where left and right compete to present the best answers.
Kirkpatrick notes the theological importance of these changes:
Ever since they broke with the mainline Protestant churches nearly 100 years ago, the hallmark of evangelical's theology has been a vision of modern society as a sinking ship, sliding toward depravity and sin. For evangelicals, the altar call was the only life raft -- a chance to accept Jesus Christ, rebirth and salvation. Falwell, Dobson and their generation saw their political activism as essentially defensive, fighting to keep traditional moral codes in place so their children could have a chance at the raft. But many younger evangelicals -- and some old-timers -- take a less fatalistic view. For them, the born-again experience of accepting Jesus is just the beginning. What follows is a long-term process of "spiritual formation" that involves applying his teachings in the here and now. They do not see society as a moribund vessel. They talk more about a biblical imperative to fix up the ship by contributing to the betterment of their communities and the world. They support traditional charities but also public policies that address health care, race, poverty and the environment.
And the political implications:
Today the president's support among evangelicals, still among his most loyal constituents, has crumbled. Once close to 90 percent, the president's approval rating among white evangelicals has fallen to a recent low below 45 percent, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals under 30 -- the future of the church -- were once Bush's biggest fans; now they are less supportive than their elders. And the dissatisfaction extends beyond Bush. For the first time in many years, white evangelical identification with the Republican Party has dipped below 50 percent, with the sharpest falloff again among the young, according to John C. Green, a senior fellow at Pew and an expert on religion and politics. (The defectors by and large say they've become independents, not Democrats, according to the polls.)
I could quote much more - it's a carefully-researched and well-written piece, but that's enough to give the general theme. Everywhere I speak, I come to the same conclusion as Bill Hybels told Kirkpatrick: "People who might be called progressive evangelicals or centrist evangelicals are one stirring away from a real awakening."