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Growing Up, Religious Freedom, and Evangelicalism

Posted by: John Schroeder at 04:00 am, March 25th 2013     —    6 Comments »

Last Friday, Jim Geraghty wondered “How Do We Win Arguments in a Fragmenting Culture?” and came up with some interesting observations:

Every day, you can discover some little subculture that a lot of folks dabble in, and some folks can get completely wrapped up in:

There are 211 million video-game players in the United States. For perspective, 130 million voted in last year’s presidential election.

About 35 million Americans and Canadians play a fantasy sport (fantasy football, fantasy baseball, etc.).

At least 31 million Americans are “foodies,” with an avid interest in food and culinary trends, as of 2008.

A site of “Bronies” — grown men and women who are really into “My Little Pony” — estimates that there are 7 to 12 million of them in the United states.


Mind you, the niche culture has been good for conservatives in a lot of ways. You could argue we’ve become a “niche” culture ourselves, with our own news channel (Fox News) and entertainment programming (“24”, the History Channel’s “The Bible” series, Sarah Palin’s reality show, some would argue “Duck Dynasty”), sports heroes (Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin) , our own books, our own newspapers, magazines, web sites, morning newsletters . . .

But by becoming the well-cultivated niche, we’ve become this acquired taste, not always easily appreciated by newcomers and outsiders. Things that we think are absolutely vital, like the debt or Benghazi, end up being ignored by large swaths of the electorate, while things that seem absolutely unimportant to us, like the latest celebrity news, are given enormous attention and focus by millions of citizens who have a vote just like the rest of us. (Right now on YouTube, a guy getting punched by a street performer has 11 million views in three days. Remember, that’s about two-thirds of the audience of the most-watched broadcast television show last week.)


If you are lucky enough to find a way to keep your favorite childhood joy in your life as an adult, good for you. Some kids who grew up loving “Star Wars” ended up working in Hollywood, I’m sure almost every professional athlete loved their sport as a child, and so on. But as one of Harry’s commenters pointed out, “not everyone has the luxury of holding onto their childhood.” Some people had to grow up and put their favorite toys aside and become farmers and lawyers and accountants and doctors and parents.

Some argued that when television was an endless succession of “Friends” clones, our culture was celebrating an extended adolescence — the carefree dorm-room life extending well into your 20s. Seeing grown adults almost obsessively embrace something designed for children exacerbates this sense that our culture is having a hard time groping with the concept of maturity.

“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Quick, that closing quotation, where’s it from?  Yep, the Bible. (I Cor. 13:11)  Church, religion generally should teach more than theology or even a simple ethical code.  In an age when education is largely propaganda, religion is the only force in society that pushed us towards maturity, some reasonable semblance of adulthood.  This is one of the many reasons to preserve a place for religion in our society.  Geraghty is right, we are rapidly becoming a culture of children.  It shows up in more ways than you might think.  Part of being an adult is wanting to stand on your own.  When you are a child, you accept your parents care and it allows you to pursue childish things.  Apparently now, we accept government care so we can pursue childish things.

Or is that “bread and circuses?”

Nor is it “crying wolf” to discuss preserving a place for religion in our society.  Consider this brief blog post at Christianity Today of real university legal cases where, “nondiscrimination policies and religious freedom” have clashed.

And speaking of crying wolf, at NR’s “Bench Memos” Matthew J Franck reports in three parts, on a “report” by Jay Michaelson which claims, among other things:

Michaelson writes, “The notion that the U.S. Constitution protects all religious liberty is really a creation of the last 80 years, and the result of the work of marginal religious groups, not mainstream ones.”

Franck describes the report as:

…characterized by factual errors, the bullying language of the smear artist, passive-aggressive advancing of and retreat from very grave accusations, and a pervasive begging of important questions.

You really should read all three parts to get a flavor of this thing.  The problem is a lot of people are going to buy this report.  A lack of education about religion in our schools leaves people free to but all sorts of nonsense in the press about it.  This includes, by the way, claims “marginal religious groups” like the Mormons at least were at one point in history – and even their cases go back more than 80 years.

Before we move on, there is some pressure that “religious freedom” should be the new theme for this blog.  Thoughts?

How did we arrive in a place where this kind of nonsense could see the light of publication, let alone, be considered seriously by anyone?  I really think we need to figure that out if we are to figure out how to recover from it.  In pursuit of that question, one of the things that caught my eye was a series, just beginning, at Patheos by Bradley Wright, trying to define “Evangelicalism.“  Being an academic, Wright takes a very scholarly approach to the subject and reports on a number of approaches to the definition.  This piece makes apparent something we have discussed here over and over and over which is it is pretty hard to decide just who is and who is not an Evangelical.

Of the many things Wright discusses, I found this most fascinating:

Historian David Bebbington defines Evangelical Christianity as having four main qualities (quoted from here):
* Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible (e.g. all essential spiritual truth is to be found in its pages)
* Crucicentrism, a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross
* Conversionism, the belief that human beings need to be converted
* Activism, the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort


Sociologist Brian Steensland and colleagues point to these characteristics: ”Evangelical denominations have typically sought more separation from the broader culture, emphasized missionary activity and individual conversion, and taught strict adherence to particular religious doctrines.”

I find both of those pretty good descriptives, and there are a couple of things I want to note about them.  Note particularly that in the sociological description, you do not have to squint your eyes much to see a child taking his ball and going home.  This takes us back to Mister Geraghty.  The predominate religious expression in our nation is a bit childish in its very foundations.  Evangelicalism could be viewed as a collection of niches.  Fracture, schism, and church shopping are prominent features of Evangelicalism.  Is it any wonder then that the culture grows childish?

Secondly, that historical description is quite a narrow description of what a religion should be about – particularly in comparison to the more robust expressions of Christianity like Catholicism or Mormonism.  This narrowness ceded cultural territory, and hence people can claim that “religious freedom is a modern creation.”

How we got here has less to do with the pressures of our culture than it has to do with how we choose to exercise our faith.  That is food for deep thought.


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