Religion, Ideology, and Belief
Religion, Ideology, and Belief
Abstract and Keywords
In this chapter the natural history of religious ideology is examined relative to each groups' view on Jesus Christ, the Bible, and epistemology. Ideology is a neutral term meaning the way in which cultural processes are used to shape and guide social and political behavior. For evangelicals Jesus Christ saves one from sin and nurtures one in love; for liberals Jesus Christ exemplifies the way of compassion, hospitality, and justice. For evangelicals truth is absolute, given by scripture, relatively static though deeply personal and persuasive; for liberals truth is love, justice in a dynamic spiritual journey that deepens one's perception of what is means to live out these principles in the world.
1. Ideology and Its Natural History
This chapter addresses the issue of ideological forms and beliefs of evangelicals and liberals. Why not simply use theology? I will not do so in part because religion is always tied in one sense or another to social reality and thus political power. Every language system (and thus religion) has a “natural history” (Davidson 1999; Geertz 1999). It arises from group processes that involve scarce resources that must be negotiated and distributed based on systems of power that are controlled by elites. In more complex systems this involves laws and systems of bureaucracy that control resources, distribute power, and shape status in a group, state, or nation. Religion is no different. Religion is isomorphic with politics and thus social systems tend to be mirrored in beliefs and theologies (Martin 2005). This is not to say that religions necessarily support the political status quo; they can resist dominant ideologies as well as partner with them depending on context and the varying beliefs, interests, and leadership of religions (Williams 1996). Thus, theologies are ideological as they shape, control, and deliver religious rewards or what might be called “spiritual capital.”1 This kind of capital is a resource that empowers, guides, and rewards human action; it is form of human capital developed communally, though its characteristics are subjective and invisible, and thus difficult to quantify. Nonetheless, as I will argue in part III, spiritual capital has significant effects on human (p.90) communities. I will keep this in mind as I compare and contrast evangelicals and liberals on their beliefs about Jesus Christ, interpretations of the Bible, sin, and finally, the nature of their epistemological claims.
Evangelicals and liberals inhabit quite different theological worlds. Polemicists, and occasionally myself included, have thought that these are two different worlds—even two kinds of Christianities. In some sense they are. However, I prefer to call them subcultures or species of the genus Christian. Of course, it is disputed whether there is one genus known as Christian. Nonetheless, there are family resemblances between these two groups, disputes between them to be sure, but they are commensurate with each other; they live in a similar language world so that differences are clear. Yet even though they speak with the same vocabularies, there are misunderstandings. Each of these systems reflects fundamental interpretations of what is true and good—some with sophisticated self‐reflexivity, others with a studied lack of self‐awareness.
a. Jesus Christ
As we have seen before, relationships are at the core of the evangelical moral worldview. And the heart of that inner layer is a relationship to Jesus Christ. During the height of our interviewing evangelical churches, the movie The Passion of the Christ was playing in theaters. An evangelical student who had come to see me summed up my findings with evangelicals when she said, “The entire movie was like a prayer for me; I was in tears for much of it.” The movie focused on Christ's shed blood. It was, in a tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, a meditation on Christ's crucifixion and his suffering. The evangelical Protestants in this study, who have traditionally been in tension with the Catholic tradition, found deep resonance with this meditation on Jesus' blood. For them, the blood was a sign of love; Christ's blood is the currency of their salvation, and it is symbolic of their intimate relationship to Christ. Indeed, evangelicals mentioned the importance of Jesus' blood nearly always in the context of their relationship to Jesus. Contrariwise, fewer than a handful of liberals mentioned a relationship to Jesus and fewer still brought up Christ's blood shed for sin.
For evangelicals, sin and redemption are the central theological drama. How one might overcome the corruption of sin and its consequences echoed throughout the interviews. Nearly a third of evangelical respondents shared stories of conversions; again, less than 5 percent of liberals spoke about a conversion. For liberals, faith is a spiritual journey that they often mentioned as a long, twisting path, but with no particular starting point necessarily. Evangelical (p.91) stories often expressed the most dramatic moments when their lives changed, or times when having shared with a loved one, that person's life was transformed. One evangelical story typified the drama of conversion for evangelicals:
I love this story because it happened. My mom and I had planned to go see that movie; my mom is in very bad health. I asked my mom, “Are you going heaven?” “Sure.” But it didn't sound very convincing to me. And so I had planned to take her to go see The Passion of the Christ. Well, before we got the chance to do it, the night before we were going to go, she was in bad shape. They called from the hospital and said, “I don't think she's going to make it.” She had pneumonia and she had like three organs that were going out and she was already on dialysis and her heart, it was just bad. So that was the night that the doctors thought she was going to die. So I drove to the hospital and on the way to the hospital I said, “Lord, I don't know if my mom is saved or not, only you do.” I said, “If she's not, let me take her to see The Passion of the Christ. Let me just have this one chance to take her to go see that movie and then tell her about you.” Well, she recovered and when she got out we did go see that movie. And after that movie was done, it was just her and I going, it was supposed to be a big family thing but it just ended up being her and I going. And I drove her home and I said, “Mom,” and I talked about Jesus on the way home, trying to explain the Bible to her a little bit. And I said, “Now Mom, last week you almost didn't survive and you are here today. Now let me ask you, if you died right now, would you go to heaven?” And she said no. I said, “Well, why not?” And she said, “Because I wouldn't.” And right there in my car she accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as her personal savior. And her face lit up and her eyes became alive.
In the evangelical interviews I frequently came across poignant stories about drug addicts who had been saved; dying children who accepted Christ; marriages that were saved because of conversion; young people who turned their lives around because of Christ. More often than not this was done in response to the love of God that evangelicals felt from and for Christ. Only occasionally it was also in response to the need to escape hell. Nearly 10 percent of evangelicals mentioned the reality of heaven and hell in the interviews. This threat of hell is in part what provides the urgency to “win” others to Christ. The vast majority of evangelicals would say if one does not make Jesus Christ one's (p.92) Lord and Savior, then one is bound for hell. Though evangelicals were also certain that love rather than fear motivates individuals to make decisions for Christ:
The challenge is becoming Christlike, doing the things that Jesus did. How he helped other people. It's not about politics or anything; it's about helping people remember it's the soul that's in jeopardy here. Where are you going to spend your eternity? Are you going to spend it with Jesus and with God or are you going to spend it in hell? Hell wasn't made for us. It was placed there for the angels who rebelled against him [God]. Satan, I mean, imagine, one‐third of the heavenly angels went and gathered with Satan. That tells you a lot. The fact that the social battle we're in here is about the soul, it's where we're going to go. I definitely don't want to see you go to hell. I don't. Really, that's our heart. Our heart is to reach other people, to let them see you've got to build a relationship with Jesus in order to get back that relationship with God and what he did.
Heaven is one's “natural home.” “Hell wasn't made for us.” From evangelicals I uncovered no Calvinist doctrine of double predestination. No one is “destined” for hell; one's true destination is heaven. In this sense the barriers to heaven seem less intimidating and more inviting, even more gracious, certainly, than their Puritan and Reformed Protestant forbearers. The question, “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” was a common refrain for many evangelicals. But again, it was also frequently mentioned that conversion was not because of fear of hell but because of the love of God in Christ. It would be a misunderstanding of evangelicals to think that their faith is a morbid or even a sober affair. Indeed, my overall impression of evangelical services is one of intense celebration and joy. As one evangelical pastor said, “Mainline worship is like a funeral service. We don't do that.” And this is true: evangelical calls for conversion are most often conditioned by the promises of a full life in Christ and, not uncommonly, promises of blessings, material and otherwise, on earth and, of course, in heaven to come.
The language of sin and redemption, which outsiders tend to take as a negative perspective, creates a powerful dynamic of “I was lost but now I'm saved.” Evangelicals in the study percolated with stories of redemption. One evangelical leader related his own story of redemption from alcohol to President George W. Bush's story of his own deliverance from a destructive lifestyle. In particular, this evangelical respondent was inspired by George W. Bush's answer to the question of what philosopher influenced him most. Bush (p.93) said, “Jesus Christ. Because he changed my life.” The evangelical lay leader exclaimed:
Well, in this specific case, as in the previous election, this comment is strictly personal, from me and means only what I believe, but when you have a candidate that when he's asked a question, Who is the most important person in his life? and he says, “Jesus Christ, because he saved me. I was a drunk.” You hear that from someone and you know in your heart that he passionately believes in Christ and he's a Christian and in doing so, his direction comes from a higher authority than himself, it is impossible for me not to support that individual. Particularly when I see on the adverse side totally different values. In the case today, a man that's a Catholic but he supports abortion. These things make it such an obvious difference for me personally. Yes, I have to be on Bush's side. I absolutely have to be. I do not feel compelled to share that with everybody. I share it with some.
For evangelicals, the symbol of a relationship to Jesus Christ that has changed one's life is the central identity marker. Bush's quip was more than a signal to the white evangelical community; it communicated to them the central doctrine of the evangelical moral worldview: an intimate and heartfelt relationship with Jesus. As we saw above, this cemented, for many evangelicals, their loyalty to Bush. Later on, Bush explained the importance of his declaration of faith, “If you aren't one (Christian) than you just don't get it.” And on this matter Bush was right. Absolute loyalty to Christ, to use a cliché, covers a lot of sin. It also helped Bush to receive the majority of white evangelical votes (Green 2004; Domke 2007).
This exemplifies the interplay of ideology, power, and religion. Evangelicals have used religious language and spiritual capital to persuade and sustain forms of cultural and political power. George W. Bush has mastered this dynamic in his interaction with white evangelicals that I will examine in chapter 11. On the other hand, liberals, who do not share this same Christocentric piety, tend not to understand the power of this religious piety. Some commentators believe this has led to the marginalization of liberals from political power (Domke 2004, 2007). And to some extent this is true; moral worldviews are more than words and can and do make political differences. The linkage between evangelicals, the American military, and politics has developed over time along multiple dimensions—it is neither natural nor quixotic, but historically constructed and deeply felt (Marsden 2006). But the relationship of religion and politics is also a fluid and changing enterprise. The fortunes of (p.94) Bush and the Republicans have risen as they have connected with white evangelicals, but this partnership is not a guarantee. Evangelicals may change their loyalties depending on their moral values. Moral values are sacrosanct for evangelicals; political parties and politicians are not.
The relationship of liberals to Jesus Christ is more complex. Liberals reject the evangelical take on Jesus, but do not want to give up on Jesus as a critical figure in constructing their moral worldview. Thus, there is cynicism toward the evangelical construction of Jesus, but also a longing to understand Jesus in a new way. As one liberal new member sarcastically described the evangelical idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, “I don't see Jesus as my imaginary friend.” This same person went on to say somewhat wistfully, “This is something I have to do some spiritual work on.” The term that many liberals use to label evangelicals is fundamentalist. It is a label that many evangelicals in the study have come to reject, interpreting it in the light of the American War on Terror (against Muslims) that is often couched in terms of “fighting fundamentalists.” Nonetheless, I sensed that when liberals said demeaning things about evangelicals there was some longing in their voices, as in this case: “So anyway, the personal relationship thing sounds fundamentalist to me. One of the pastors was talking recently about his image of Jesus kind of on his shoulder and I had this little mischievous image of a parrot, with Jesus as the parrot. But the sense of Jesus always being there with him and … I don't have that in my life.”
Thus, the series of cynical and at times snide remarks made by liberals against evangelical language about Jesus often ended in comments that exposed a certain yearning, revealing both a rejection of what are considered simplistic projections, but also a sense of interest and perhaps at times a point of envy. Liberals are suspicious that conversion to Christ is simply an excuse and a rationalization for inaction or a lack of social witness. As a liberal lay leader explained, “I think they [evangelicals] believe something like, ‘I've accepted Jesus Christ, now I am saved.’ Well, I call that cheap grace.” She is referring to the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer's distinction between cheap and costly grace. As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man He bids him come and die” (Bonhoeffer 1949). Bonhoeffer suggested that grace without action is cheap; grace with action calls for sacrifice. For Bonhoeffer, who joined a secret plot to assassinate Hitler, this cost him his life. For liberals, faith in Jesus is doing God's work in the world. Belief, for many liberals, is cheap; the real value of faith comes in action:
There's a second image that's almost as old and that is the image of Jesus as savior, but not necessarily personal savior. I came up and (p.95) came to personal awareness during the civil rights movement, in which the idea of Jesus as savior was not just simply, this was the guy that's going to get you to heaven, but this is the one that intervenes in whatever the heck is going on, who you can count on, look to, and follow. So the whole question of Jesus as savior also meant that he is intervening to aid, to rescue, to help. And it behooves us as a people of God to intervene. So that sort of served as part of the underpinning of my understanding of the civil rights movement and why religion was such an important part of us. If you have that sense of Jesus as one who intervenes with power. I want a God who's got some punch. So I say, gee, is there some other way that I can begin to have a place that we can talk about Jesus as the gentle teacher?
Jesus then is not an instrument of salvation for liberals, at least in terms of eternal life. Liberals tend to interpret the idea of eternal life for individual persons as a selfish act. As one liberal layperson said, “I think it's [speaking as an evangelical] ‘I have to be saved,’ as opposed to, ‘Why don't we make the world a better place for all people?’” Jesus did not come to save souls but to be an example of one who seeks justice, who was willing to give his life for those left behind and left out. This perspective for liberals changes how they interpret not only Christ's death but how they envision what resurrection means in the tradition. Liberals express disdain and mainly reject the substitutionary model of Christian atonement. For liberals, the idea that Christ's blood is required as a sacrifice for humanity's disobedience and sin is a “repulsive” image of God. That is, the liberals in this study tended to believe that God's holiness necessitates no sacrifice for sin. God's character, by definition, accepts and loves unconditionally. Liberals also offered other reasons for Christ's death, which were more political than metaphysical. As one liberal lay leader explained:
I have a lot of reasons Jesus died, as someone who was faithfully obedient and was killed by the very people and systems that he came to attempt to change. As the kind of overwhelming power of evil in this world that are subtle and not so subtle and the resurrection, which is what the early Christians focused mostly on, is about saying that God has the last word. That even these powers of evil, as powerful as they are, don't win in the long run. And that's very important. So resurrection is probably for me a source of hope more than anything else. Hope. Amazement.
For liberals then, the death and resurrection of Christ are not so much a transaction between God and humanity over sin, but an exemplification of the (p.96) power of evil, which Christ confronted in his crucifixion and overcame in his resurrection. In the victory of resurrection comes the hope to transform evil. For liberals, the problem is not human sin and how to overcome it. The question for liberals is, How does one overcome the evil of injustice by following Jesus' way of justice and peace? Christ faced the “sin” of injustice and because of his righteousness was killed by those in power. Dominant political powers that injure and destroy the public good and the common people are the true enemies of Christ. Thus, Jesus' life and death are exemplary for liberals; he showed what it means to walk in peace and justice as opposed to seeking political power for one's own selfish purposes. Religious ideology, in the case of liberals, is used to resist forms of government that they deem oppressive or politically oppressive to minority rights—illustrating once again the inevitable intermingling of religion and politics.
As I have noted before, half the liberal ministers in the study had experiences of either conversion (often at evangelical venues) or what they described as “extraordinary” experiences of God's grace. In one case a liberal pastor experienced a healing in his teenage years at a charismatic service that he interpreted as a miracle from God. This, in part, motivated him to seek ordination as well as to take risks in ministry on behalf of justice issues. For this liberal clergyman, Jesus embodies a gracious, open, and affirming attitude toward life. Jesus is the embodiment of the ideal of inclusive love—gracious, impartial, and merciful toward all:
My experience of God is one of incredible generosity and generosity expressed in embrace, in self‐giving sacrificial love. I often think of Jesus as this incredibly joyful person who laughs a lot. We don't see him depicted that way in much of the artwork that is common. But I can't imagine that children would have wanted to be around somebody who was dour. I can't imagine that somebody who was not glad and joyful and filled with life would have gone to wedding banquets and invited people to feast in the way that seems to be so consistent. So I suppose from all that, the great sort of theological pillars for me is, What does it mean to follow Christ who is always inviting people in? Jesus is not about casting people out, but inviting people in. And he is surprising about it. He's always doing it with a sense of gladness and expecting that people will encounter God in one another. So that is central to how I understand the ministry I have been called to. Certainly part of the vision, and I think you would probably not be surprised to hear that from that some things flow out of it. I think the work of reconciliation is one of the major (p.97) works entrusted to the church and to Christian people. And I think it's hard work. I think it's good work. I think it's glad work.
We see in this vision a living out of the message of Christian reconciliation. That is, in Christ all are already reconciled to God in Christ. Thus, to live out the kingdom of God is to recognize and acknowledge this reality with gratitude and exemplify it in one's life. So, it is not merely to celebrate unconditional love but it is to usher in the “kingdom” with an inclusive and reconciling lifestyle. Emerging out of this unconditional love was an initiative to end homelessness that came from several of the liberal pastors and rabbis in the city of Seattle, including several Protestant senior ministers in this study. For these ministers, the initiative puts into action the Christian work of reconciliation. For liberals, the poor, in light of God's gracious love and profound hospitality, must be welcomed into the common good, nurtured, and returned to health and wholeness.
The separation from God because of sin that evangelicals often mention simply is not recognized by liberals. Or rather, liberals argue the separation may exist but it is a misperception about God that creates the separation. For liberals God is always in communion with the world and so to follow Christ is to recognize this reality and live it out fully in one's life and through one's ministry and work of compassion and justice in the world. Sin, then, as one pastor suggested, “is negligence or resistance to God's appeal.” To become one with God for liberals is to act in obedience to the gracious, loving hospitality embodied in Christ. Or to use Bonhoeffer's terms, as one pastor did, “to become a person for others.”
The differences between how liberals and evangelicals view Jesus Christ expresses a fundamental divide between these two Christian groups. There are core differences in how each group interprets Jesus Christ, the cross, and resurrection. For evangelicals, Christ's work on the cross opens eternity for them, overcomes their sin, and creates a “new spirit” within them of love and forgiveness for all. This spirit sends evangelicals out to share this “good news” in response to the “Great Commission” found in Matthew 28 of the New Testament, where Jesus, in a postresurrection account, sends his followers out “to make disciples of the whole world.” Liberals do not quote this passage. Indeed, when I asked one liberal pastor about evangelism, one who, in fact, was quite open to the idea, he said that his church named this event “Outreach Sunday.” The concept of sharing one's faith is foreign to liberals. If it happens, liberals often reinterpret it as “meeting spiritual needs.” However, when asked about inviting others to church, liberals said they view this with some moral suspicion. As one said, “It implies that the neighbor is doing something (p.98) wrong.” A liberal pastor, who was new to the region, expressed his frustration with this liberal reluctance, which he interpreted as a “radical relativism, unique to the PNW.” For him, the “postmodern situation allows everyone to speak their truth and let the chips fall where they may.” Nevertheless, liberals emphasize the need to act out their faith but often feel morally constrained in sharing it precisely because they fear that it puts the other's truth claims in question.
Jesus Christ then is the one who brings evangelicals into a relationship that saves them, brings them joy, and sends them out to witness to him and serve others in his name. Most importantly, for evangelicals, how individuals respond to Christ makes all the difference for their eternal destiny; only those who name Christ as Lord are saved. For liberals, Jesus is the one whom they follow by including, serving, and loving others. Jesus confronts injustice and teaches liberals to overcome unjust systems. Jesus is the one who is for others, all others, no matter their sexual orientation, ethnicity, or gender. Most importantly, for liberals, this acceptance is unconditional no matter whether a person claims the name of Christ or not. If there is common ground between evangelicals and liberals, it is in the fact that these two groups point toward Jesus, even though what they see and respond to in Jesus is quite different. Moreover, each sees in their reading of the Bible the kind of Jesus that they seek to follow.
b. The Bible
If a relationship with Jesus is the core of the evangelical moral worldview, the witness to this relationship comes from the Bible. The Bible is the source of authority. The mediator of this authority is a pastor who preaches the Bible in a way that is perceived as convincing, powerful, and faithful to the scripture. Since there are few organizational structures to legitimize authority in evangelical churches—that is, bureaucratic associations or denominational structures—the personal quality of the pastor that enables him to preach from the scripture is the key element around which authority pivots. This biblically centered teaching and preaching is the most frequently cited reason that attracts evangelicals to their churches. In a sense the evangelical pastor has to be a virtuoso with scripture, quoting it, relying on it, and proclaiming it as the source of his ability to preach, and the prooftext for his points. I use the pronoun “he” because evangelicals rarely employ women as ministers, much less as preachers. I will explore gender issues further in chapter 9.
Scripture's importance is underlined by the fact that 38 percent of the evangelicals in my study mentioned, without prompting, that they believed in (p.99) the “literal” interpretation of scripture. What literal means is somewhat of a moving target. It has been known for some time that when evangelicals speak of a “literal” interpretation of scripture it means that scripture is their core source of authority (Hunter 1987; Crapanzano 2000). Pastors and laypeople in the study were frequently aware that not every word of scripture was meant to be taken “literally,” though the scripture is always the final authority.
One evangelical pastor, one of the most articulate of all the ministers, distinguished between “special” and “general” revelation of God. General revelation can come through our study and analysis of nature. Special revelation refers to scripture as the “final” authority. The Bible is God's inerrant word, written by men, but inspired by God. This means for evangelicals that the Bible is without error in matters of history, doctrine, salvation, and, a few said, in matters of science. However, the majority of evangelicals agreed that science “improves” our knowledge of the world. Indeed, an evangelical pastor was clear that the source of “general revelation” was God through God's creation. Thus, the general will of God is discovered by the scientific study of God's creation. However, the bottom line for evangelical pastors was that when special and general revelation conflict, scripture supersedes all other sources of authority. This is how an evangelical pastor explained these distinctions:
The authority of scripture is our final authority for faith and belief, but not our only authority. That is really an important distinctive chararcteristic of evangelicalism, is that the scripture is our final authority for what we believe and how we live, but we also understand the importance of God's general revelation. His special revelation is in the scripture, but he's also creator and he has revealed something of himself in creation that is discovered through good scientific research. So we have a great deal of respect for the hard and soft sciences, because all truth is God's truth, so even though archaeology is based and grounded in the teaching of the scripture, archaeology is also informed and shaped by our understanding of the world as God made it. And so that's why our understanding of life is dynamic. I mean, there's things we are discovering through scientific investigation that helps inform our understanding of the scripture, but ultimately if what is purported to be true through scientific investigation is in direct contradiction with the word of God, then our final authority is the word of God and our understanding, our faith, at that point would instruct us that science is always growing and learning and discovering new things, and our faith at that point would say science has got some things to learn yet here. But (p.100) oftentimes the church has made the colossal error of very stupidly dismissing or not valuing science and general revelation. I think the church in medieval times is the ultimate example of that where Copernicus and Galileo were dismissed as heretics, when in fact their understanding of outer space and the nature of the universe was a whole lot more accurate than the Catholic Church. At that time I think the church lost the trust of the intellectual world at that point and it was really unfortunate. Oftentimes the liberal mainline, not always but often, plays down the authority of scripture. The fundamentalists play down the value of general revelation and research and so forth, and that's why fundamentalism is oftentimes branded as being a nonintellectual approach to theology because they say it's the Bible and is its only standard for faith and practice. Liberals would say, well, the Bible might be one of the books we look to, you know, the authority of scripture from the classic liberal standpoint is very weak. Evangelicalism, I think, has found its vitality and strength in that it has a high view of the authority of God's word, but it also has a high view of creation and what is discovered and known through science.
This pastor distinguishes evangelicalism from liberalism (which too often relativises biblical authority) and from fundamentalism (which makes scripture the only authority). Indeed, I found only one or two evangelical pastors in the research who held this fundamentalist viewpoint on scripture. Most, like the pastor I just quoted, interpret science as a legitimate form of knowledge. This underscores how evangelicals, and most of those in the study, did not want to be called fundamentalists or identified as such. In one case an evangelical pastor said, when I asked him if he identified himself as a fundamentalist became indigant—saying that he felt this was tantamount to being called a “nigger” (Wellman 2002). Quite striking language, but it also shows the length with which evangelicals have distanced themselves from the label—whether because of ignominy that has come to be associated with the term through liberal discourse (proving one's ignorance) or through the associations of the word with religious extremists (proving that one is violent). In either direction, the interpretation of scripture has become a subtle problem for evangelicals. Most in the study continue to say that they take the Bible “literally,” although they are quick to explain that scripture has various “genres” that have to be interpreted for their “authentic” meanings. One evangelical lay leader explained:
One of the clarifications, we believe that the authors were inspired by God and they had a meaning for what they wrote at the time. We (p.101) know that there's poetry in the Bible, there's prophecy in the Bible, there's didactic teaching. All those things have to be taken in the context of which they were written. People talk about how you take the Bible literally, well, we take it literarily and how the author meant it to be. If it's poetry, it's symbolic. In Revelation there's a lot of symbolism; a lot of the prophets there's a lot of symbolism. It's obvious from the context that it is not a literal thing. It is a showing of things that we need to learn how to interpret what he's trying to tell us. So we try to get the meaning of what the person that wrote it meant, what God is trying to say, without just taking the words as they are written.
Throughout the study evangelical pastors and laypeople used a kind of generic common sense, or what some would call “the plain meaning of the text,” to interpret scriptures that would otherwise be taken literally. In the same vein, most evangelicals searched for the “intent” of the scriptures, to discern their “true” meaning. One of the evangelical lay leaders tried to explain the apparent affirmation of the system of slavery in the New Testament. Paul's New Testament letter to Philemon, a letter written to the slave Onesimus, encourages Onesimus to remain a slave. For the evangelical lay leader, this is no way supports slavery or encourages it. Indeed, the letter's “true meaning is about welcoming back people into faith.” As this lay leader says, “One must look at the inherent messages in scripture.” Of course, the fact that evangelicals used biblical rationalizations on either side of the U.S. Civil War underscores the multivalent nature of scripture and the tendency of social context to shape interpretation (Noll 2006). Nonetheless, PNW evangelicals do not spend much time debating issues of scripture. Indeed, evangelicals asserted a consistent certainty in all issues of the Bible. And this is the point. One's moral and spiritual identity is confirmed and tested to the extent that one is able to accept and believe what scripture says. As one evangelical new member explained:
I think that's one of the problems that Christians have had ever since the beginning of time. Ever since Jesus was crucified and rose, Christians have argued about this point or that point and this has caused tremendous problems in the church. All churches, particularly the Catholic Church, have split several times over this. And Protestant churches have too. You can't believe in one section of the Bible and say “No, I don't believe this. It's impossible.” You either believe what the Bible is telling you or you don't. And in a lot of the Bible is simply telling you what happened in that time; the Old (p.102) Testament leading up to the New Testament. And as I say, when Jesus was sent to earth, we must, if we're going to be Christians, we have to believe the New Testament. We have no reason not to believe it, and every reason to believe it. So these people who start nitpicking this or that, these are not true Christians, they're just not. They might say they are, but they are Christmastime Christians.
To question the authority of scripture for evangelicals is by definition to fall into error and, worse, to risk apostasy. Of course, not all evangelicals were quite so plain; most made this point implicitly. Others, including pastors, were crystal clear when it came to stating the authority of scripture. This clarity was one of the factors that made these churches and many of these pastors so attractive to members. In fact, one of the pastors who was most outspoken used bold and even vulgar language to make the point when asked about whether he believed in the inerrancy of Scripture:
Absolutely. Inerrancy, absolutely. There's one God. You cannot get to heaven without Jesus. Everybody is a sinful bastard. I'm old‐school quasi‐Calvinist. You're a piece of crap, Jesus is God, and you better tell him you're sorry or you're screwed. If you want the bottom line, I don't mean to be a dick about it, but that's where I'm at.
This kind of language does not show up in most of the interviews, but the tone of confrontation was not foreign to my conversations with evangelicals. This pastor's church was doubling in membership nearly every year, and, moreover, it was enormously attractive to young urbanites and particularly to young men in their twenties and thirties. There is at times within evangelicalism a flagrant disregard for cultural conventions and “politically correct” language of “liberalism.” Politically correct language was often disdained as an “accommodation to liberal bias” and a “selling out” to liberal culture. God, for evangelicals, speaks directly and boldly from scripture and so pastors, by extension, quite often do the same, and certainly do so in ways that shock (outsiders) and attract and keep many (insiders) in these churches. And this use of nonconventional language has been a part of what it means to be “anointed” in the American evangelical tradition with its populist sensibility. Indeed, I heard countless times from evangelical laypeople that they felt relief that their pastors' stood for something; they know the “truth.” Evangelicals feel that their leadership is willing to confront a culture of relativism.
For liberalism, as it is said, the Bible is “another story,” almost literally. One of the consistent themes within liberal churches that I studied was their tendency to stand over against evangelical culture. This became most apparent (p.103) when liberals spoke about scripture. Six percent (around nineteen liberals) came from evangelical backgrounds. Many of them spoke disparagingly about their upbringing, and particularly about the use of—or what they said was the “abuse” of—scripture. Several former evangelicals spoke about the “toxicity” of their evangelical upbringing that turned them into people who judged others and used the Bible to marginalize, shame, and injure others who happened not to believe in the “evangelical truth.” In one case, a liberal lay leader said that he had gone to a Christian college, and had read the Bible intensively, but it simply brought him to a place of despair. He turned away from his past, and had only over the last several years begun going to a liberal church. He had not read the Bible for twenty‐seven years and sounded as if he did not intend to do so again:
Yeah, so, it wasn't long after I left [a Christian College] that I … and got out in the world that I just couldn't live with what I'd been brought up to practice. And I, you know, I had a really, you know, I would say deeply spiritual experience in my whole upbringing pretty much. But, it was the particular religious beliefs that didn't jibe with, you know, what I believed needed to happen. It was all the social impact things that my faith was constantly making me reject, or put people as wrong or whatever. So, finally when it was people that were so critical to me and I just couldn't really look at them and say, you know, you're going to hell and you're wrong and you can't get this divorce and one thing after another that I just really had to let go of that stuff. And when I let go of it, I mean I totally let go, baby with the bathwater; and went through a good twenty years of not going to church and I still haven't picked up the Bible yet. I mean, one of these days, you know, I probably will. But, so that's, that's been like twenty‐seven years since I've been a Bible reader and I was, you know, I was a college student, at least an hour a day if not more up until that point in my life. Anyway, one of the things I think I discovered through that, and of letting go is that my spiritual life stayed, but my religious beliefs left. And I really feel that over that time that what I had that was real and genuine and religious beliefs that fit with my spirit, that those kind of crystallized. And I, you know, and finally came back to the point of saying, and even this can't fit with Christianity. And then to the point of saying, this is Christianity, that's what it's about.
This liberal layperson was deeply immersed in the evangelical culture. He knew scripture and understood the “demands” of evangelical culture. And in (p.104) response to these demands—that he must call the ones “closest to him” to Christ or reject them—he was simply unable to follow through. I heard many evangelicals speak of their “duty” to call others to faith, but I never heard one speak of the necessity to turn away from those who had spurned the faith. In fact, I found the opposite. Many reached out to those who did not “believe in Jesus.” Nonetheless, evangelical culture makes strong demands theologically and socially. Evangelicals are to “fellowship,” that is, to be in community with, those who share and nurture them in their beliefs. Others, who are outside the fellowship, are not rejected, but they (even one's spouse) become objects of evangelization and of intense prayer. At one wedding I visited, the minister made a clear demarcation between the married couple, who had repented and given their lives to the Lord, and those outside this spiritual fellowship. After the wedding, the wedding party went into a separate room and began praying fervently for the couple and for the salvation of the unsaved among the “friends and family” at the wedding. The “spiritual” family divides, at least emotionally, believers from the “unsaved” in evangelical culture. The liberals that I interviewed detested these distinctions and the drawing of boundaries between the “saved” and “unsaved.”
These distinctions that are rejected by liberals are a part of what liberals call the “misreading” of scripture. Here is the battle over biblical intent; evangelicals see one form of intent and liberals another. Liberals would often speak about the way the Bible is “used and abused” by “fundamentalists” to shame and push people away. For liberals, this form of literalism is intellectually insufficient and a form of misinterpretation. The Bible is not meant to be taken literally, and not meant to be used as a “baton” to hurt others. Moreover, the Bible must be put in its context. The historical and cultural methods of biblical interpretation are critical for liberals in order to place the Bible in a perspective that helps one interpret it appropriately. Again, liberals and evangelicals sound somewhat alike. That is, rightly interpreted, the Bible says what the group wants it to say. A liberal layperson defined who she was in relationship to the Bible based on her “right” to make up her own mind on scripture:
I'm not a religious person; I'm more of a spiritual person. Although I was raised in the Presbyterian Church, one of the things that is important to me about this is it's not the strict dogma that appeals to me, and you don't find that here at our church. The basic Reformed tradition is that it is a relationship between you and God, which comes down to your own conscience. And that is what's important to me about this church. Regarding the Bible, I think it is an important (p.105) historical document. I think that the people who were writing it were struggling with their understanding of their relationship with God and what the things that were happening in their lives and in their cultures meant. But I think God speaks to us every day; it's just a matter of being able to hear. As I was coming here I was thinking about a singer/songwriter who was on a program one Sunday morning and he was talking about that God understands every language. And what he said was, the words really don't communicate what's going on, but luckily the bridge is being built from the other side, which means, God coming to us. In my life, I've felt much more tuned into that and the promptings of the spirit. I keep thinking of what that Bible scholar said, “The Bible really can be dangerous to your health.” And I think it's a wonderful tool, but I think it can be a way of avoiding doing your own spiritual work.
Tellingly, in the last two quotes by liberals on scripture there is a critical distinction made: I am a “spiritual person” not a “religious person.” When religious beliefs fade, what remains is spirit. One must do the “spiritual work” that sometimes “religion” causes one to avoid. Moreover, religious work is a function of adhering to doctrines and dogmas in scripture taught by “others,” so that spiritual work is that which must be done on one's own. Similar distinctions are made by evangelicals, as we have seen; religion is ritual, while authentic faith is a relationship with Jesus. What this distinction means for liberals is that scripture is important, but one's own “personal spiritual work” can and should trump the Bible as an authority in one's life. In this sense the scriptures are valid and important as they teach about one's spiritual life and its development. Even in the churches that seemed to be “rediscovering” the traditions of scripture and the Bible, the language of liberal laypeople was put in the context of their own experience. Similarly, again, for evangelicals, one's “personal experience” with Jesus trumps all other sources of authority. Like evangelicals, liberals gain from scripture legitimation for their perspective. One lay liberal said in response to her pastor's biblically oriented sermons, “I understood Christianity and was able to find a place where there was a very inclusive message. A message that was quite countercultural. It helped me to discover a place where I was comfortable and where I felt very much at home.” In other words, the scriptures become an authority for liberals as they confirm messages that liberals tend to believe in: inclusion, hospitality, justice, and social outreach. When the Bible is interpreted in such a way to express judgment, exclusion, or even violence, it becomes “dangerous,” “shaming,” and “unhealthy.” It is exactly the “stronger” aspects of the Bible that evangelicals (p.106) find most attractive about scripture. That is, it is precisely when the Bible “confronts” evangelicals in their sin that they “feel the truth.” One evangelical commented that she “hated” it when liberal preachers tried to make her feel “satisfied” in her “sinful” condition.
Liberal pastors frequently spoke about the need to reclaim the scripture from “fundamentalism.” As one pastor said, “The Fundies got the Bible; liberals got social justice.” For him, “there must be a better sharing of the assets.” As this pastor argues, the Bible is “uniquely regenerative” and thus liberals need this “story” to enable them to become “people of the story, redeemed by it to do the work of justice in the world.” Another liberal pastor used quite traditional terms to narrate his use of the Bible's story:
I see that the scripture is sacred text. It's not historic text. It's not scientific text. But it is sacred text. So it's Holy Scripture. I don't have any problem saying Holy Scripture. But it's holy metaphoric scripture. It's holy story scripture. The Bible says what it says. But when it says you are the salt of the earth it doesn't mean you're NaCl. The Bible right there is using metaphor. It's a form of spiritual text, but not sacred scripture. Part of what makes sacred scripture what it is, is that it is an identifier within the religious community, within a particular religious community. So I'm associated with the stories of the Hebrew and Christian text.
In this case there is within the liberal community much less interest in “proving” the Bible correct or accurate historically, scientifically, or even theologically. There is little talk about evolution and the need to establish Genesis as a true (even metaphorically so) account of human creation. Within evangelical circles there is a strong belief in creation by God, literally. Sometimes this literal belief is in what is called a “young earth” scenario—that God created the earth in the recent past. God's creative act is interpreted literally, but in symbolic terms. That is, God used the six days of creation (interpreting the days in thousands of years) as a way to create the earth and all that is in it. These discussions are moot for liberals. Science has the authority and cultural power to shape our beliefs about human evolution, the earth's development, and nature's workings. Frequently, liberals mentioned, “Why wouldn't God use evolution as a way to shape human history and the earth's movements?” Again, in itself it is not a topic that evokes strong opinions for liberals. It becomes intense for liberals only when they reject the literalism of evangelicals.
For liberal pastors in particular, the common comment is that “we take the Bible seriously but not literally.” What this means in practice is that the “story” of scripture is the story of the church, God's people. Jesus is the “One for (p.107) others.” As a follower of Jesus the church is called to serve the outcasts of society and to include those who are marginalized. A common characteristic of liberal discourse is the need to expand boundaries, to move beyond us/them rhetoric. Moreover, liberals often spoke of the importance of using the hate against them to understand the ways they judge others. One pastor, who is gay and publicly known to be so by his congregation, was baffled by the vitriol of opposition to his ministry (he had received death threats), but he took it as an opportunity for spiritual and moral reflection on his own tendencies to judge others. He sees the obsession with sexuality as a rationale to avoid serving others:
I find myself always asking the question, and I ask myself, it's part of my own spiritual discipline, when I find myself uncomfortable with somebody else, I ask why. If I'm in tune enough to be aware of the fact that I'm uncomfortable, Why? If I find that I have feelings of hatred or loathing, What on earth is going on here? What is it in myself that is perhaps being reflected from whoever or whatever group of people it is that's making me feel these reactions. That's a difficult process. I'm baffled by the way in which we seem to spend so much time on issues of human sexuality, when the scriptures barely mention it. The scriptures are filled with invitations to the table in the Gospels. Christ inviting people to banquets and to feasting and to fellowship. The scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, are filled with admonitions about care for widows and orphans and the homeless and the hungry and poor; they are filled with cries for justice. The prophets talk about mercy and walking humbly with God. We sometimes find ourselves talking about money and we talk about money being evil, but the scriptures don't talk about that. The scriptures say that money becomes evil when the love of money is placed above all things. And I wonder when our obsession with money leads us to unhealth. I wonder if our obsession with sexuality, or any one thing, leads us to that place.
For liberals, the call from scripture is not only to do one's own spiritual work but to include those left out and to serve those left behind in society. In this way, evangelicals and liberals hear the same message from the Bible: the importance of service to others. Of course, this means quite different things for each group, which I explore more fully in chapter 10. Each group feels a strong desire to make “real” the call to provide hope to those who are hopeless, and indeed, they accomplish a great deal along these lines. At the same time, liberals and evangelicals differ dramatically on biblical authority. For evangelicals, (p.108) the Bible is the inerrant word of God, perfect in every way. To question it is by definition to put oneself outside the evangelical community. For evangelicals, the scriptures are dangerous precisely because they confront sin and refuse rationalization of sin. For liberals, the Bible is potent and dangerous but in a different way. For liberals, the Bible must be rightly interpreted for how it calls them to ministries of justice and outreach; it is dangerous because it can be used to exclude and condemn the very people liberals include—gay people and others who are socially vulnerable. Liberals take the Bible seriously, but its authority is far from certain. In fact, to question the traditions and the Bible itself is a calling. Jesus did not “answer questions, but opened up new and deeper questions—the scripture makes that clear. He expanded the mystery; he did not diminish it.” Moreover, liberals see scripture as a story that nurtures and shapes their spiritual lives. This spiritual work is “holy” work, and it challenges them to reflect on their own “inner lives” and how they can overcome prejudice and judgment against others.
In the end, however, the Bible demands interpretation. Evangelicals tend to hide this fact or even on occasion refuse to admit that they are doing it, since scripture lays out “its plain truth.” Liberals, on the other hand, luxuriate in the art of interpretation. But both believe that they can come to the “true” intent of the Bible. They get there in different ways even as each wants to know what is “true” in the Scriptures. What this search for “truth” means is the subject of the next section on epistemology.
c. Epistemology and Truth
One of the fundamental aspects of religion is truth claims. In one form or another, religions make claims, whether implicitly or explicitly, about the ultimate nature of the universe and about human beings. In a sense, every one of us, as Christian Smith has argued, makes decisions based on our “moral worldviews” (2003). That is, all of us feel at least an inchoate sense that whatever one believes and does is what I should do (even if based strictly on one's own needs for pleasure). Thus, we make decisions on moral worldviews shaped by a combination of felt obligations, preferences and tastes, cultural contexts, and political circumstances. On occasion, people claim to be relativists (who make no truth claims) and they argue that all that they have is their perspective, which neither makes demands on others, nor puts moral obligations on themselves. Now some may truly be solipsists and therefore perfect relativists (knowing only their own perspective), but even here relativists make an implicit universal assertion. Moreover, scratch below the surface of an ardent relativist and one comes to core truth claims: no one should kill me or my (p.109) family; I should eat; I should be able to make a living. All of these claims assume certain truths, no matter how limited.
When it comes to religion, truth claims expand and become global and even cosmic. In Christian terms the core story is filled with these claims: God is good and God made the world and pronounced it good. God created humans in God's image and gave them dominion over the earth. Humans were called to name the animals and were obligated and covenanted with God to worship God and love one another. There was one tree that humans were told not to touch and eat; humans did so, and as the book of Genesis says, they were excluded from God's direct presence. They were sent from the garden of paradise and were punished to work by the sweat of their brow and toil in childbearing. God continued to seek after humans to bring them into righteousness, but humans were stubborn and so God sent God's Son to redeem humanity, unveiling the kingdom of God and sacrificing himself on a cross to give new life to all who follow him. God's Holy Spirit, given by Christ, would dwell with God's people in a group called the church. The members of the church would prepare for the Second Coming of the Son by living lives of righteousness, and should spread the good news of Christ's message and live in love with all.
As with all religions, this summary of the Christian narrative contains any number of truth claims, obligating those who follow Christ to act on them and to live into them. And even my own synopsis has implicit constraints; I avoid using male pronouns for God, which assumes ultimately that God is neither male nor female—a truth claim. Religion in the classical sense “binds” individuals and groups to truth claims for which humans are rewarded and punished, treated with grace or with discipline, and based on their relationship to these claims and obligations, blessed or cursed. Truth claims are multitudinous in religions in particular and in the human population more generally.2 Thus, this section brings to the surface various truth claims in the evangelical and liberal communities.
Claims about truth are critical to both liberals and evangelicals in the study. Indeed, truth claims were mentioned, in quite different ways, by 32 percent of evangelical respondents and 48 percent of liberals. What truth means to these groups is framed in distinct terms. For evangelicals, the claim that Christianity is absolute truth is an important religious identity marker. Evangelicals frequently argued that what made their churches attractive was that their leaders boldly stated the absolutes of their faith. Contrariwise, liberals were quick to reject this kind of framework by arguing that their faith is but one truth among many. Liberals rejected the exclusive nature of the evangelical claim. For liberals, this kind of intolerance goes against the true nature of the spirit of Jesus and is antithetical to their understanding of God. Hence, (p.110) both groups make truth claims, but the basis of each creates distinct epistemological trajectories.
The absolute nature of evangelical truth claims is a factor in attracting young people to the evangelical churches in the study. One of the unambiguous findings in my research was that evangelicals are rhetorically committed to recruiting, nurturing, and reproducing families, children, and young adults. They also show numerical success with families and young people. Indeed, more than half of the evangelical churches had large ministry programs (two hundred to four hundred participants) targeted at children, youth, and young adults. For the most part, liberal churches tended to have older adult memberships, some families, and, more rarely, smaller though active youth programs (fifteen to forty participants). Only one liberal church in the study had programs for young adults in their twenties and thirties. The obvious question is, Why is it that evangelical churches often have such robust ministries to young people? The conventional wisdom for liberals is that young adults are too busy experimenting with different lifestyles or simply not interested in church or God. Surveys show that this is not the case; studies of college students reflect strong interest in God, spirituality, and even religion.3 To the extent that young adults respond to churches, however, evangelicals dominate this market. But the question is, Why would young people be attracted especially to churches that are more conservative morally and theologically? An evangelical young adult explained why she thought her church was growing and it had to do with a specific set of truth claims (their absolute nature) and with how they are delivered:
I think so many people of my generation and my age, having been raised by a generation that sort of reveled in the denial of absolutes, or standards and morality, or basically a generation that ran from God, like all generations do. I think a lot of people are crying out or craving for someone to love and be a father figure and to discipline, because that discipline is a manifestation of love. I think that's a huge appeal of our church is that there's accountability, that it's not just another one of those superficially accepting, everything‐is‐subjective‐type communities, which can't actually exist in reality. But the fact that our church does acknowledge that there are absolutes and that God is the absolute and that we have these systems of accountability and believe in truth, God's truth. That has a lot of appeal for people my age, I think.
I heard similar sentiments from other non‐evangelical young adults. I sent out a group of 140 university students (most of whom were not churchgoing types, and who were either secularists or nominal members of their varied (p.111) faith traditions) to compare a large, liberal, urban church with a large, evangelical, city congregation (both churches were in the study). The overwhelming majority came back “impressed” with the evangelical church, not just because of the livelier and more contemporary music but also with the fact that the pastor did not accommodate to what they perceived as “politically correct” moral norms. The pastor made demands and challenged them to rethink their truth claims. They did not say “truth claims” but clearly their implicit moral frameworks were being stimulated and they had to think anew about what they believed to be true.
Another young adult evangelical layperson explained that her attraction to her evangelical church was in part a reflection of having grown up with few explicit moral or theological “absolutes.” She argued that young adults were attracted to the clarity and moral certainty of her urban evangelical church. She used the cliché “relativists” to label her parent's generation. Nonetheless, it was clear in my interview with evangelicals that certainty and the absolute nature of the moral and religious claims made upon them stimulated and challenged them. This may have resulted, in part, from the fact that young people viewed the confrontation with ultimates as new—a refreshing sense that choices had to be made and that these choices have consequences. These truth claims most often included calls to convert to Christ, to retain sexual purity (no premarital sex), or to share the faith with others. One of the ways that evangelicals tended to rationalize these truth claims was to say the minister or evangelical leader was speaking not to appease other humans but to please God alone. So evangelicals should also understand that causing “offense” to other humans was not his or her concern; he or she should only be concerned about offending God. An evangelical lay leader said:
I think that we're more concerned about offending God and we're focused on just what the Bible says. I mean, listen to what [our pastor] says and what the elders stand on, it's very offensive to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. If you come to our church for any length of time and go to a community group, you're going to hear things. People are very opinionated and passionate about their opinions, but at the same time, it's all about the gospel. We don't care about what people think, we care about what God thinks. But at the same time we want people to feel welcome. That's not the reason why we don't get involved, because we don't want to offend people. It's because we want to proclaim what we believe in and we don't want to stand for something other than Christ. Nothing else is more important than that.
(p.112) The lay leader said this in part to defend herself and her church against charges made by other evangelical churches that wanted her church to take a stand on May Day for Marriage. Her church and its elders refused to participate, not because they did not support heterosexual marriage, which they do support overwhelmingly, but because for them it would distract from their concern to share the gospel. She felt that one should focus not on “issues” per se, but on leading others to Jesus Christ. The offense of the gospel should relate to God's truth alone and not peripheral “political” issues, which she felt were “distracting.” The evangelical churches that actively supported May Day for Marriage were all suburban congregations. The urban evangelical churches—perhaps more sensitive to their own diverse urban surrounds that were antagonistic to the May Day for Marriage—tended to avoid needlessly alienating potential members. The urban evangelical churches at certain levels are unafraid of “offending” with the exclusive claims of Christ, but they are careful about which political issues they publicly advocate.
For evangelical churches in general, and particularly for suburban evangelical churches, their moral and theological truth claims forced them to negotiate liberal and secular publics. One evangelical pastor expressed his frustration that the evangelical community was getting pushed into a corner on the issue of gay marriage. For evangelicals, as I have noted earlier, gay marriage is anathema. In response, of course, they are accused of being “hateful” or “abusive,” which came from some of the liberal respondents in this study. For this evangelical pastor, however, framing the issue was critical in establishing the truth of the matter and not being put in a losing situation in terms of public perceptions, particularly as he was one of the organizers for the May Day for Marriage event. As he recalled, the organizing pastors made sure there would be no “anti‐gay” speech at the event from the speakers or the organizers, and yet, from his point of view, protestors against the rally were intensely hateful toward him and his followers:
I think it's a battle or a war of words and the person who frames the issue has the upper hand. And they have learned that they can back people down, and Christians are about, you know, most Christians would say they're about love, so it's reprehensible to them to be pigeonholed or categorized with hatred, so it really intimidates Christians to be accused of hate. And they know that so it's a very successful ploy and they use it very successfully. Now is it true that there's probably some incidents, some legitimate incidents of hatred expressed by people who call themselves Christians toward homosexuals. I'm sure there is, because there's a wide, wide spectrum of (p.113) Christians and some of them are, I think, out of control. I certainly wouldn't condone what everybody who calls himself a Christian does or says. But on the other hand, in my experience in thirty‐five years of pastoring, I have never seen or heard a single incident of hatred of homosexuals. But I have seen many incidents of hatred of Christians by homosexuals. So in my judgment, the reverse is true. But I am a bit biased and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
For this pastor and the other evangelicals in the study, there are moral and theological absolutes that identify who “belongs” in their churches. However, when these truth claims are taken into the public light, opposition emerges. This tension, as other theorists have mentioned, reinforces the ideological perspective of evangelicals and solidifies their identity (Smith 1998). The tension confirms for evangelicals what Christ says in the New Testament: “You will be hated for my sake.” But this does not mean it is easy for evangelicals, many of whom do not want to offend or hurt others. Indeed, evangelicals told me that they constantly remind themselves that they had nothing but love in their hearts for “sinners,” which included gay and lesbian activists. And of course, this love is for the person but not the sinful actions—a distinction that liberals find unacceptable and hypocritical as I will explain further in chapter 11.
The “absolute truths” that evangelicals are so proud to proclaim also create a ready‐made explanation for evangelical success in numbers; people want “absolutes.” Evangelicals explain that liberal churches have emptied precisely because they have dropped the demands of the gospel and the offense it causes. In fact, one evangelical pastor suggested that evangelical churches have become refugee camps for discontented liberals, and this study shows that this is marginally true. Of the liberal churches in this study, 13 percent of their membership comes from evangelical backgrounds, and of the evangelical Protestant churches in this study, 17 percent of their membership comes from liberal Protestant church backgrounds. An evangelical pastor explained the numerical success of evangelical and liberal churches relative to how each negotiates Christian truth claims:
I would say that the top three things that drive people out of churches, whether they are liberal or conservative, is number one, ideology. A radical change has occurred from a biblical‐based authority to a culturally based authority where an authority outside of one's self gives way to relativism and the idea that the individual has the capability and the right to decide on their own truth. When that starts happening in a denomination, I think the people who believe there is absolute truth depart. The people who are attracted to relativism stay. (p.114) The whole idea of smorgasbord religion or Christianity where you come and take what you want, you decide for yourself, is very much part of the culture. It has been for several decades now and it's kind of a mix and match, designer Christianity. You make up your own mind. And the result is that no two people agree on anything. So there are refugees from that and some of those people show up here. I think there's a decay that takes place in the hierarchy of church organizations. Denominationalism has a history of imploding from the top. Like we say in Christian circles, the rot starts at the top. It starts in the schools, the seminaries, the denominational executives. And then it starts leaking down into the churches and so a lot of people have become very skeptical about what's going on at denominational headquarters or the denominational schools. Especially when they change their mind about things that the Bible seems to be very clear about. And then I think finally, egoism in the pulpit or in church government undercuts the Christian church. Sometimes it's the pastor who is a very controlling, authoritarian type of person and that drives people out, because he begins to act like a little king or pontiff and offends a lot of people. I think the attractive things about this church is that we're a very accepting group of people. We think of ourselves as a hospital. We expect that the people who are coming are going to be broken. Are going to have pain in their lives, are going to be the victims of their own choices. They've made big mistakes. Blown up big chunks of their lives, and they come here in deep need. And so we try to give them a safe place to heal, an accepting, healing community and to get healthy.
The pastor suggests that denominations, and here he means mainline Protestant denominations, have become less strict (moving from a biblically based authority system to one that is culturally based). Liberal churches practice a “designer Christianity” where individuals can choose what aspects of Christianity best accommodate their needs. And while it is true that this liberal accommodation to modernity (compartmentalization and individualization of interests) describes the liberal epistemological worldview, liberals in this study argue that the move toward individual choice and autonomous decision‐making is morally more challenging and spiritually more elevated. That is, the individual must do the work on his or her own and not allow an external authority to make decisions for him or her. This type of authoritarian group think is precisely what liberals accuse evangelicals of doing; evangelicals follow their leaders instead of making up their own minds.
(p.115) Evangelical pastors, on the other hand, react to these liberal accusations by arguing that in fact believing and following the “ultimate truths” of their faith is an overwhelming challenge. The evangelical faith contains moral and theological standards that no one is capable of fulfilling. And this is precisely what evangelicals leaders expect, the demands of the faith are absolute and all fail to meet the ultimate standard. The faith answers this dilemma with grace—undeserved favor from God—forgiveness that is effected by Christ's death on the cross. The church then becomes not a congregation of the perfect, but a “hospitable” for broken people. People who confess and repent the truth of their own limitations and in the process are made whole in Christ. Moral change is expected but perfection is not. The process and movement from confession to repentance, and then toward healing was a common theme in many of the evangelical churches. In fact, one evangelical lay leader said,
At our church it's 100 percent truth and 100 percent grace; there is no trade‐off or blending back and forth—and neither is it a compromise; within the limits of us as human that's how we can best do it, but that's hard. It's very hard.
This paradox of truth and grace is framed as a form of moral accountability, and church members are held to high standards. Leadership expects sinners but they must be willing to confess and change. This accountability was emphasized in every evangelical congregation that I studied, particularly on the issue of sexual morality. Failure is expected and accepted, and grace (by way of forgiveness) is given and is a part of the healing process. Indeed, evangelical laypeople were frequently amazed and impressed by the vulnerability of their leaders. In one case, an evangelical lay leader described how his own pastor was often vulnerable about his own sin in the pulpit:
Oh, he's pretty real. He talks about his anger issues with his kids and his family. He talks about his own, I remember one time he was on his way to some vacation in a tropical place and he asked the congregation to pray for him for his purity of thought, because he was going to be around a bunch of women in bikinis. And he said, seriously, I would ask for you to pray for me. I remember this being years ago and thinking, that is so real, that he would just say that kind of stuff.
Personal vulnerability about weaknesses was common in the interviews with evangelicals. Truth for evangelicals means “transparency,” in that one's sins are confessed and the need for repentance is expressed and forgiveness is given. On a regular basis, evangelical laypeople spoke endearingly about their (p.116) pastors and how “real” they were with the congregation. The laypeople felt that they could “relate” to the struggles of the ministers. But relating did not mean to wallow in sin but was a way of saying, “Look at me, I am willing to be honest with my sin, and willing to confess, repent, and be healed.” In several churches, worship services had the feel of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where leaders and laypeople were quite open with their sin in public settings and sought healing in the community of faith. The mix of absolute standards (what evangelicals called the truth) and grace (unconditional acceptance based on confession and repentance) was quite real and tangible in these settings; evangelical congregants experienced and frequently expressed a deep sense of freedom and renewal.
To outsiders the evangelical rhetoric of absolute truth and high moral standards tends to obscure the therapeutic atmosphere of worship services and smaller group settings. Evangelicals hold together quite stringent standards of personal morality with modes of personal vulnerability that was many times surprising to us as researchers. Again, to those on the margins of these communities the two appear contradictory, but to insiders it is a powerful pattern of moral strictness, personal vulnerability, and unconditional forgiveness that many evangelicals said in the interviews was extraordinarily life‐giving.
Indeed, a core critique of liberals by evangelicals is that liberals too often ignore sin and fail to confront it. Evangelicals are aware that liberals focus on the goodness of human nature. And it is true that liberals in this study frequently underscore the importance of discovering and recognizing the beauty and truth in human nature; they rarely emphasize or address human limitations or human failings. Thus, when it comes to sin (that is, behavior that is destructive or dysfuntional) evangelicals accuse liberals of denial and ignorance and, in this sense, evangelicals argue that liberals in fact “enable sin.” An evangelical pastor described what he called “the liberal way,” and he did it with some sensitivity, but he contrasted it in the end to the evangelical pattern of truth and grace and used the conversion of his sister from “a card‐carrying feminist” to an evangelical to make his point:
I think that one of the great strengths of the traditionally liberal mindset is inured in the compassion of Christ, the “give expecting nothing in return” model of Christ, and I think that it's hard to pop out liberal without getting into politics. But if we just take it as a general mindset, religious, political, whatever, I think the place that the liberal community misses is ignoring sin. Ignoring the accountability of individual humans for their actions. And I think it flows out into a lot of their solutions that end up enabling people. (p.117) I have drug users and alcoholics in my family. You have to love them, but not enable them. If you look at the mistakes that we're made with the Native Americans or Native Alaskans and then a correction of that mistake, OK, give them money. We're killing them. I don't like the fact that we killed them literally before, but what is done is done. And just like the dad who screwed up when he was a young dad and left his family and everything and then lets his drug‐addicted twenty‐six‐year‐old son live with him because he feels guilt about what he did in the past, you can't take away your own guilt. And I think some of the biggest mistakes I've made in life were trying to save people from pain that God wasn't trying to save them from. And I think that's what liberals do sometimes is they get confused that we can, well, a Utopian mindset, that we can make the earth a perfect place. It's never happened and I think evangelical Christians are this strange dichotomy of the greatest of pessimists and the greatest of optimists in the same. Whereas I think the thing that kills the liberals is that they tend to be optimists all the way to a place where they can't just look at what's not working and say, “You know, that's not working.” And you know what, people do have accountability. And you know what, there's some people we actually can't help. But still, I think people live in this world, like my sister, she was full‐on liberal, card‐carrying member of the National Organization for Women, we lived in a relative amount of conflict for a while. Well at age thirty‐six, she became an evangelical Christian. I was stunned. But as one who had worked and worked and worked for solutions and came up empty, empty, empty, the interesting thing was, she actually got involved in a business that had a bunch of Christians that said, “You are accountable for your life. You are responsible for where you are.” And all of a sudden when she moved from victim mentality to responsible and accountable, there became a whole grid by which she could comprehend the idea of sin. So I think one of the problems with liberals is, I mean, it is wonderful to champion someone's cause who's a true victim. It makes me feel good. They like me. It's not as fun to tell somebody, well, the bottom line is you screwed up some things, just like I did, and you need to deal with them.
For this evangelical pastor, liberals function in society out of a state of guilt—guilt over past sins (whether toward the Native Peoples or toward African Americans). The evangelical pastor admits that as a culture we have (p.118) sinned against these peoples, but where he differs with liberals is that handing over resources to these so‐called “victims” has not helped but only enabled them in their destructive behavior. For evangelicals, confronting “sin” and dysfunctional behavior has to happen. It “may not be fun” but it is necessary if healing is going to occur. Moreover, not everyone will turn from their “sinful” ways, but confrontation with the behavior is necessary before help can truly be effective. In this sense, evangelicals like to say that they see both sides of human nature, how evil and “sinful” it is but also how confession, repentance, and forgiveness can bring a person to wholeness and health. Truth for evangelicals may strike outsiders as doctrinaire and rigid, but internally, the mechanism of truth and grace is rather dynamic and fluid. Salvation for evangelicals is not simply a function of conversion but a process over time.
One of the striking points of overlap between evangelicals and liberals is that for each the “truth” of their faith has nothing to do with religion per se. For evangelicals, the truth of Christianity is their relationship with Jesus that confronts sin, redeems it, and brings them salvation and blessings in this world and in the world to come. In a sermon by a liberal Episcopal priest, a similar claim is made about his faith: “As I like to say, Jesus came to do away with religion. Christianity is not a religion; it's a way of life.” For this priest, religion is a way in which people mark themselves off as saved and safe, barricade themselves away from “dangerous others,” and uses the language and acts of sacrifice “to keep God happy with us … not with them, but with us who keep the rules, who observe the regulations.” This way of life, for this priest, means that “in Christ there is no more in and out.” This distinction for liberals underlines the robust nature of Christian grace that includes all no matter what. It is a liberal theological truism often drawn in contradistinction with more “dogmatic” forms of faith (evangelicals) as in the case of this sermon. Indeed, liberals commented frequently on what they called “the fear‐based theology of evangelicals.” For liberals, making God's grace scarce is not what they are about; making God's grace abundant and for all is their modus operandi—the veritas of their faith.
The contrast that liberals draw with evangelicals comes out most pointedly in the liberal view of the self and sin. For liberals, evangelicals function out of a place of shame and guilt; guilt because evangelicals concentrate on naming and confronting sin, and shame because a Holy God cannot tolerate sinners in God's sight. For liberals, this creates a God who is “intolerant and abusive.” And it demands from evangelicals a theology of payment for sin; Jesus' death on the cross substitutes for the death of the sinner. The proposition is flatly rejected in liberal circles. When I asked about the substitutionary model of the atonement, one liberal pastor explained: (p.119)
I have trouble with that too. I feel like, I think Rita Nakashima Brock has said that a God that would do that is an abusive God. I don't use quite that language, but I feel that God is a loving God and does not need us to sacrifice his son in order to find reconciliation. We need to ask for forgiveness and we need to confess our sins and we need to change our ways when we're going in the wrong direction. But I don't want to stress that Jesus had to die for us. I think Jesus didn't have to die. I think Jesus died because we're sinful human beings and we often do the wrong thing to the good people who are trying to do what's right.
For most evangelicals, this statement alone puts liberals outside the ken of theological orthodoxy and outside the banner “Christian.” For liberals, this is exactly the point: the relationship between God and humans is not adversarial, and it needs no mediator per se. The focus on shame and guilt only gets in the way of understanding the “mysterious and abundant love” of the divine. More to the point, the substitutionary theory of atonement not only paints a picture of God as an ogre, not able to forgive unless there is a blood sacrifice, it removes responsibility from humans for acting and doing what is right. Truth, for liberals, comes by way of individual exploration and decision. Humans not only have the capacity to do what is good, but they have the moral responsibility to act out with justice and compassion. Liberals are proud of the fact that instead of simple answers to questions of sin, liberals offer hope and belief in that humans can change and do what is right.
Mel Gibson's movie The Passion of the Christ is a kind of Rorschach test for differences between evangelicals and liberals. For evangelicals, the movie was emotionally moving, deeply pious, and showed God's compassion for humanity through the sacrifice of God's Son. For liberals, it was “primitive” in its sensationalism of Jesus' scourging; it falsely depicted the Romans as innocent and merciful while it made the Jews look rapacious and guilty; it did not capture the “message” of Jesus, but rather mired it in a sacrificial theology that is “superstitious and archaic.” Needless to say, these are two different moral and theological worlds as one liberal layperson argued:
I think that the differences between us and evangelicals can kind of be summed up in Mel Gibson's movie. We are a community of hope and love and optimism. And the evangelicals seem driven by fear and guilt and anxiety that is so pervasive through the rest of society that it's a message that resonates easily with people. That if they comply with the rules then everything is taken care of and they don't really have to think about it. And we're all a community of people (p.120) who really, deeply think about it and feel about it, have deep feelings about it, each and every single one of us and we allow those differences among us to be included and be perfectly accepted and fine. And there doesn't seem to be that in the evangelical community. I mean it's really fairly standard, and it's easy to market, it's easy to hype. There's an emotional message, a message of fear that resonates so easily with people and can be communicated easily. Ours is something more complex I think; it reflects deeper insights and requires more commitment on the part of the person to really think about it and know their feelings and share them and to be with other people who don't necessarily cookie‐cutter stamp their beliefs and their theology.
A major critique of the evangelical community by liberals is that not only are the answers too simple but the messages (truth claims) are also created to be attractive and “appealing” to people. In others words, there is the belief that these messages are created to be easily digestible in order to manipulate the masses. This same critique, of course, is what evangelicals use against liberals; the latter accommodates their message to people by soothing their conscience with a “soft” gospel. Liberals respond that because evangelicals offer such simplicity they enfeeble those who consume these ideas; they give false security in a message that says that God will take care of you and the “Father” will give you everything you need. The infantilism of God in evangelical culture is rejected by liberals and is found to be intellectually and spiritually wanting.
This rupture is at the heart of the differences between evangelicals and liberals: What is the meaning of the cross? What is the core consequence of Jesus' life and death? For evangelicals, the truth of Christ is the recognition of sin, the need of repentance, and the hope of salvation through the cross. For liberals, the truth of Christ is his confrontation with evil (both personal and structural), and his death and resurrection are the victory over this evil, which both models how evil must be confronted and shows that in Christ grace is open to all. Jesus, in his life and death, excluded no one, and loved and forgave all. Both messages can come from scripture and from the Christian tradition. But each is a quite distinct truth claim with diverse consequences as we see throughout this book.
This distinction over these core truth claims creates divergent moral worldviews, and is claimed by evangelicals and liberals to be the path less taken. For evangelicals, the challenge of faith is the gospel's confrontation with individual sin and the need to submit to Christ. For liberals, the path of complexity (p.121) and taking responsibility is not for everyone; in fact, because this way brings some discomfort it becomes a reason why many have a hard time coming back to liberal churches, as one liberal lay leader explains:
I wanted to speak to something on a common thread. To me, it's more than just allowing each of us to explore our own theology, but it's actually requiring us, where there is this structure or box in more conservative churches, here, not only are the boundaries removed if we want to, they are removed whether we want to or not. There's a requirement and a demand on us to push ourselves outside our comfort zone and our box a little bit, where not everything this church does is going to make everyone happy. But what it does do is make you ask yourself questions and the question usually is, it's OK, and that's why the person is back that next Sunday. It might not be what I want and I'm not comfortable with this, but I'm comfortable with the totality of what this church embraces, so therefore I will be back.
For liberals, this “way of truth” is called “higher” and difficult, so that the challenge does not appeal to all and in a sense it cannot appeal to everyone. At the same time, I did come across several liberal laypeople who were quite aware of the evangelical critique of the liberal church. As one said, there is no “grit” to the liberal church's claims, so that few know “what we stand for.” Indeed, more than a handful in these vital liberal churches did not know how to describe the church or the church's beliefs. On several occasions this was a problem, in part because the liberal laypeople “loved” their church but were quite aware that their church “was the best kept secret in town.” In this sense, the inclusive, tolerant, and often libertarian nature of liberal churches tends to lessen the clarity with which liberal truth claims are reproduced, and mitigates the motivation to express and share these claims both internally and with outsiders. As I show in the chapters on organization and mission, liberals were hesitant at times to educate their own (children and youth) or share their truth claims with outsiders in any explicit way.
Nonetheless, theological truth is taken seriously by liberals. In research on West Coast liberal churches, I investigated at length the sophisticated spiritual practices and reflections of liberal laypeople and their ministers (Wellman 2002). Liberals care deeply about what they believe; they want something more than a rationalist understanding of the world. Liberals accept how the Enlightenment has come to explain the world, but they are also aware that modernity has its limits—there are areas of human consciousness that science (p.122) cannot explain. Spiritual truths illumine these mysteries. It is precisely the multifaceted nature of liberal theology and its willingness to relate to modernity that are profoundly powerful for many, as one liberal lay leader described:
I think that issue of complexity, to me speaks to why I am a member of this church and denomination. In terms of the term liberal, I mean, liberal isn't a bad word to me. In some ways I consider myself a liberal and in some ways I am much further to the left than that. I think a lot of people who belong to a church like this are people who believe that some kind of spiritual religious dimension exists and is important. They can't just take a purely rationalist view of existence. They know that they can't prove that there is a God. They are sometimes uncomfortable with God talk a little bit because they don't want to be viewed as just dogmatic types of people, but yet they also feel those who completely reject any kind of religious, spiritual understanding are being naive, kind of silly, presumptuous. There are a lot of people who struggle with living in a secular world, a rational world that think there is some kind of deity out there, and if we all talked about what we thought God was we might have some similarities and some differences. I think there are also a lot of people in this congregation and in more “liberal” congregations that believe that you have to live out your faith, you have to speak to those who are marginalized in some way. Like you were saying, the Bible is the kind of authoritative norm, that there is lots of room for interpretation, and there are other kinds of knowledge and learning and insight that are brought to it.
Liberals were quite often concerned that identifying as Christians made others think that they were “fundamentalists” and so they tended to avoid religious self‐identification. But at the same time they are unwilling to give up their “spiritual journey” to secularists. Thus, there is a balancing act that goes on, which, as I have mentioned, at times makes liberals quite cautious in sharing their faith. Nonetheless, the theological distinctions that are made are based on much thought. There were a handful of lay liberal respondents who had PhDs in religious or theological studies. One argued that the Christian faith is the “fullest” embodiment of religious truth, but he was quick to affirm the contributions of other religions: “I tend to believe that Christianity is the fullest revelation of God. That doesn't mean from my perspective that I devalue other religions.” I heard these careful distinctions often in liberal interviews, all in the spirit of ecumenism and, more important, as a part of a global liberal (p.123) truth claim that argues that difference is acceptable and one can learn from those who are different from oneself. Or as one liberal lay leader said, “Difference does not equal disagreement.”
The importance of dialogue and the “celebration” of the “other” is a part of liberal culture and this applies certainly to “other religions.” Indeed, a common characteristic of new members in liberal churches, according to several liberal clergy, is the “fear” that new members have to “give up” their Buddhist beliefs and practices. It was not uncommon for liberals to say that they were “Buddhist Christians,” or “Christian Buddhists,” or “Budepiscopalians.” And it was also widespread for liberal churches to have educational programs promoting understanding of other religions. One liberal pastor described this delicate ballet of laypeople identifying as Christians but also understanding the “good” in other religious traditions:
Somebody said they noticed that for the current five‐ or six‐week period we're in, we're hanging inside the nave, inside the main worship space of the cathedral, six banners from six major religious traditions, one of which is Christian. There's a Sikh, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, and Christian banner hanging in the cathedral, one for each of those traditions. And a person said in the newcomers class, “I love those banners, and I love what our church is about and I love seeing them there, but I've always understood Christianity to be exclusivist and those banners are inclusive. How do you reconcile that divide?” And of course we identified that “I am the way, the truth, and the life” is the main sort of text that has been used to promote that, but it's only one of many passages ascribed to Jesus from the Gospels. The other passages are much more embracing and welcoming of all people and so I think the question that we deal with all the time is, What does it mean to be in love with Jesus? What does it mean to say “yes, I'm a Christian,” and yet to know that God is also at work in other religious traditions, and to be in a place where that doesn't make you feel insecure? And we're constantly grappling with that question. One of our Wednesday night classes right now is a four‐week series on Islam 101, because people want to know more about Islam. Does it mean that people at our church want to convert and become Muslim? I don't think so. But it says that people want to know more. And they want to know where they encounter the divine in other traditions. At a newcomer's class about two years ago, there were thirty or forty people in the room one (p.124) Wednesday evening and I believe that every single person said they had experience in some other tradition, whether it was Buddhist, or Sikh, or Jewish, and the question was, Is it OK for me to bring what I've learned in those traditions to this place and to my encounter with Christianity? And some of them asked the companion question that I hear a lot, “I've been really bruised by the church in the past and I'm putting my feet back in the water in this place. Is it safe for me to be here and is it safe for me to bring my Buddhist meditative practice along with me?” And the answer is yes.
There were also voices among the liberal clergy that were less anxious to espouse this interreligious form of dialogue. As one put it, “People will say to me, ‘I pick a little here and a little from there’ and I say to them, ‘You know, don't do that, that's disrespectful. Dive in deep here or dive in deep there.’ I think the deeper you go into your own religious expression, the more affinity you have for other people who go deeply into their religious expression.” This claim is that the more intense one is in the study of one's own religious tradition, the greater one is able to understand and relate to the religious expression of other traditions. For liberals, religious fundamentalists undercut this notion of a “deeper unity” between religions. This does not bother all liberals, but it certainly disturbs some, who rail against fundamentalists and how “they corrupt the true essence of the faith.” Thus, liberals are not willing to give up their claims of a universal religious unity, even as they refuse to dogmatize about them.
This section has shown the intensity with which truth claims are made by both evangelicals and liberals. Each group argues for what is “true” about ultimate reality, the character of God, and the core of human nature. There is room to argue over who is more precise and articulate in their assertions, but there should be no debate that they both carry truth claims that guide their moral and ideological thinking. Each of these epistemological platforms has effects on their responses to wider publics and politics. For evangelicals, the strength and simplicity of their “truths” enable them to be quite clear about what they want and demand culturally and politically. In this sense liberals are correct about evangelicals; they are black and white in communicating their message to larger publics and are focused on reproducing these “truths” in their families and friends. Liberals, on the other hand, are also sure about their “truth claims” and seek to translate them into public policy, but, as becomes clear throughout this study, they are more cautious and reflective about these claims. This study shows that consensus on issues is not only more difficult for (p.125) liberals but in a real sense not expected; each person should make up his or her own mind. The very nature of liberalism calls one to question “authority figures,” and disrupts the capacity to mobilize politically or even to be motivated to reproduce one's ideals and ideologies. What effects this has on the ritual and organizational lives of these churches is the topic of my next chapter. (p.126)
(1.) See Lawrence Iannaccone and Jonathan Klick's “Spiritual Capital: Introduction and Literature Review.” http://www.metanexus.net/spiritual_capital/pdf/review.pdf. The authors introduce the idea of spiritual capital in relation to the literature on social, human, and religious capital. Human capital is defined as resources (for individuals and groups) that evolve most fully in communal networks, and in the case of religious capital, churches. Thus, human capital has the effect of increasing civic participation and general well‐being (Coleman 1988). Iannaccone and Klick relate human and religious capital and cite Robert Putnam to underscore the empirical connection: “[Faith] communities in which people worship together are arguably the single most important repository of social capital in America” (Putnam 2000).
(2.) I am aware that there are some religions, and perhaps some forms of religion within certain ethnic contexts, that may or may not make “universal” claims about their faith. Japanese culture generally, and their religions in particular, tend to be parochial as far as their national or religious claims go. Not all should be like the Japanese (or perhaps can be); multiple religions are validated and useful. I would argue, however, even within this more complicated cultural mix truth claims are made, even though limited in scope (Eisentadt 1996).
(3.) The recent report “The Spiritual Lives of College Students: A National Study of College Student's Search for Meaning and Purpose” shows extraordinary levels of interest (80 percent in each category) in spirituality, attendance at religious services, and ongoing discussions about these issues. See “Spirituality in Higher Education,” Higher Education Research Institute, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, at http://www.spirituality.ucla.edu/spirituality/reports/FINAL%20REPORT.pdf.