In 1991, James Davison Hunter introduced the term culture war into American public discourse. His book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, described “competing moral visions”—Progressivism and Orthodoxy—that generated heated conflict on a number of hot-button issues: family, education, media and the arts, law, and electoral politics. Many people interpreted these conflicts in geographical (Blue State vs. Red State), partisan (Democrat vs. Republican), or ideological/religious terms (secular Left vs. religious Right), although such interpretations were overbroad and simplistic. Two decades later, these conflicts still roil the waters of American society.
The purpose of Tom Krattenmaker’s The Evangelicals You Don’t Know is to introduce progressive readers to “the next generation of Christians” and urge them to work together on issues of common concern. In the process, he reframes America’s culture wars. “At the level that matters, the quarrels that vex American society are not between Christians and non-Christians, between religionists and atheists, between evangelicals and everyone else.” In other words, Hunter’s Progressivism/Orthodoxy dichotomy is inadequate. “The line that matters now is the one separating the ‘we’re always right/you’re always wrong’ arguers from unity-seeking, goodwill-mongering action takers of whatever religious persuasion, or none, ready to go to work to address a society’s aching needs.” What actually divides America, he seems to be saying, is not what you believe but how you behave—how you put your beliefs into practice. For Hunter, Progressivism and Orthodoxy are polar opposites; for Krattenmaker, mirror images.
This focus on behavior instead of belief explains why Krattenmaker profiles whom he does. Mostly, he profiles community organizers (e.g., Kevin Palau), activists (e.g., Stephanie and Shoshon Tama-Sweet), artists (e.g., Tony Kriz, Dan Merchant), and writers (e.g., Gabe Lyons, David Kinnaman, Jonathan Merritt), though he does profile an ex-evangelist (Jim Henderson) and cites theologians (e.g., N. T. Wright, Paul Louis Metzger). What is missing from his presentation of next-generation Christians are church leaders, whose work includes matters of belief: conversion, spiritual formation, and all things related to building up Christian community, the Church.
On the one hand, this is understandable. The vast majority of evangelicals live the vast majority of their lives outside the church’s walls, and it is important to see how they do so. Specifically, it is important to see how their faith helps them to navigate in the sea of an increasingly secular culture, and do so with integrity.
On the other hand, Krattenmaker’s description of “the next generation of Christians” is tendentious precisely because he ignores the processes by which people become and remain evangelical. An almost-exclusive focus on what happens outside the church walls is as lopsided as an almost-exclusive focus on what happens inside them. Surely, one cannot describe the new breed of evangelicals without some attention to both!
Further, I am somewhat surprised that in a book that explicitly eschews a “we’re always right/you’re always wrong” mentality, Krattenmaker nevertheless can’t seem to find anything right with the religious Right. Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying: Krattenmaker has many good things to say about evangelicals, at least certain evangelicals, and at least to the extent that they’re cooperating with progressives on community issues or moderating their tone. By the same token, while he takes his fellow progressives to task for their tone, he never seriously questions their ideas.
Even with this criticisms in mind, however, I think reading The Evangelicals You Don’t Know is a valuable exercise, especially for evangelicals.
First, it is a useful reminder that orthodox theology and political conservatism are not necessarily identical. (I would add, of course, that they are not necessarily contradictory either.) If you believe that the GOP is “God’s Own Party” (or that Jesus would’ve registered as a Democrat), you’re engaging in anachronistic, self-serving, partisanship, not honest inquiry.
Second, and consequently, the book helps readers engage in self-criticism. Evangelicals have a bad reputation with non-Christians and need to understand why. Sometimes, the reputation arises from the unavoidable conflict of moral visions that James Davison Hunter described in Culture Wars. Other times, it arises from evangelicals being wrong about an issue, or from being self-righteous, hypocritical, uncaring jerks. Progressives also need to engage in self-criticism, as Krattenmaker points out, for they sometimes have the same “totalitarian” (his word) mentality that they critique in the religious Right. (And I would add that some of their ideas and policies are wrong or less than helpful.)
Third, the book points out that there are issues pertaining to the common good on which people of competing moral visions can nevertheless cooperate. For example, Kevin Palau (evangelical) and Sam Adams (former gay mayor of Portland, Oregon) were able to agree to cooperate in addressing the city’s homelessness problem. And even where evangelicals may not be able to cooperate, they may find that there is a better way to talk about the divisive issues. Here, the best example in the book is Jim Daly of Focus on the Family. While he and Krattenmaker don’t see eye to eye on issues relating to homosexuality, both realize that a kinder, gentler tone in the discussion is helpful.
Twenty-two years after the publication of Culture Wars, America is still riven by competing moral visions. Some of these conflicts are irresolvable, because they touch on core principles, on moral absolutes. But as The Evangelicals You Don’t Know suggests, there are situations where both sides can cooperate, and even when they disagree, they can always speak and act with civility and respect toward one another. Despite my criticisms of Krattenmaker’s book, I resonate with those suggestions.
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