Cover Story

The sixth wind?

"The sixth wind?" Continued...

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

These outsiders see evident problems: Some churches combine big numbers with shallow commitment. But the two also see that Christianity "helps suburbanites to form communities in the atomized world of the Sunbelt . . . ordinary people all over America to deal with the problems of alcoholism and divorce, wayward children and hopelessness . . . the hard-pressed inhabitants of the inner cities to deal with the chaos that surrounds them."

Wooldridge said that researching and writing God Is Back had "made me a better person." When others around the table laughed, not expecting such a comment from a journalist who looks world-weary, he asked, "Why do you laugh?" and emphasized his seriousness. He spoke about how impressed he was with urban pastors like Richard Smith of inner-city Philadelphia. "Christians are the people looking after the homeless, the drug-addicted," Wooldridge stated fiercely. "Where is the atheist homeless shelter? Atheists are only interested in themselves."

Wooldridge sees modernization leading not to secularization but to more emphasis on God, as a search for meaning grows more intense, and he argues that "America has reached the future first." He and Micklethwait lay out specifics: "America leads the world in producing religious entrepreneurs . . . religious publishing is undoubtedly growing at a time when the publishing industry in general is struggling. . . . Evangelicals are rediscovering the life of the mind [and] are starting to produce intellectuals again."

All of these forays are dangerous-"pastorpreneurs," publishers, and professors all face temptations to glorify themselves rather than God-but, as Wooldridge said, "Evangelicals can choose between arguing for God or retreating." He argues that growing churches provide "social capital" that prevents social anarchy: These churches "keep their buildings open from dawn to dusk and provide a mind-boggling array of services," including schools, counseling and guidance groups, and children's activities.

And what of those polls? Wooldridge said, "What we see in the numbers is not a waning of Christianity, but a polarization. The number of people saying that God is central to their lives is going up. We're seeing the death of the Eisenhower era where everyone claimed to be a Christian or a Jew because that was just part of being respected, part of being a good American. Now, people who were lukewarm about religion are now more happy saying that they're atheists or agnostics, and people who claim they're serious about faith are serious about faith."

For further thoughts of Micklethwait and Wooldridge, see the interview with them in this issue-but they are not the only observers who have spent time with conservative Christians and come away impressed. The Princeton University Press, an outfit not known for positive portrayal of Christian conservatives, recently published a book with a surprising title, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. In it author Jon A. Shields writes, "although my liberal Protestant upbringing initially made me feel out of place hanging out with conservative Christians, I found them disarming, gracious, and more misunderstood than I ever imagined."

Shields criticizes liberal journalists for spotlighting extremists and "mistaking such marginal fundamentalists as representative of the Christian Right as a whole." He notes that "the vast majority of Christian Right leaders have long labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activists-especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of real dialogue by listening and asking questions."

Shields particularly scrutinized the pro-life movement and its critics. On one side, "Rank-and-file citizens are encouraged by their leaders to develop into truly Christian activists. The 'mantra' that the president of New York State Right to Life, Lori Kehoe, repeats to her activists is 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" On the other side he describes the reception of pro-life members of Justice for All: "An instructor at the University of New Mexico yelled at JFA volunteers, 'You are the American Taliban.' Professors at the University of Texas at Austin also routinely screamed obscenities at JFA staff as well. As one of the offending professors at Austin confessed, 'I am incandescent with rage.'"

Shields stops at that point, but some pro-life leaders are bucking the tide and becoming almost incandescent with optimism. For example, Frank Pavone of Priests for Life notes that we're seeing a "strong and ever-growing involvement of young people in all aspects of the fight to end abortion." He also points out that among older people working either in abortion businesses or pro-life centers, the flow of conversions is in one direction-from pro-abortion to pro-life.

Liberal secularists downplay such stories: It would be front page news if a pro-lifer were to repent of saving babies, but the many instances of abortion industry veterans repenting are like trees falling in the forest. (A broader measure of attitudes last month also received little attention: A Gallup Poll reported that 51 percent of Americans surveyed called themselves "pro-life" and only 42 percent "pro-choice." Gallup began asking that either-or question in 1995, and this is the first time a majority has embraced "pro-life." Ultrasound machines, pro-life pregnancy resource centers, and a generation of regret-filled women are all having an impact.)

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