The churching of an unchurched region

A University of Washington prof interviewed 450 members of liberal and evangelical Christian churches in the Pacific Northwest. His mission: to understand the "clash of cultures" between two sides of the same tradition.
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(Oxford University Press)

A University of Washington prof interviewed 450 members of liberal and evangelical Christian churches in the Pacific Northwest. His mission: to understand the "clash of cultures" between two sides of the same tradition.

In March 2003, while visiting Venice, Florida just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I walked past a Baptist church and witnessed a bold statement of evangelical support for the war. Along the sidewalk in front of the church, placards read, "God Bless America," "Pray for Our Troops," and "Jesus, The Supreme Commander." This strong advocacy by evangelicals for state-sanctioned violence that confronts and deters what they perceive as "evil" was confirmed by a 2002 survey of 350 evangelical leaders by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which found that 70 percent agreed that Islam "is a religion of violence," and 59 percent thought the United States should use military force against Iraq; 19 percent disagreed.

On October 31, 2004, two days before Election Day, George Regas, the Episcopal Rector Emeritus of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California — a liberal Protestant congregation — preached a sermon entitled, "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." On June 9, 2005, All Saints Church received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service questioning whether the church, because of the sermon, had violated its status as a non-profit organization. Because of the nature of the sermon, the IRS said that the church had "implicitly opposed" one candidate (George W. Bush) and endorsed the other (John Kerry). The sermon eviscerated the Bush administration for its lack of concern for the poor and its war-mongering — including Kerry in the critique and encouraging church-goers to vote "their values."

This book comes from my attempt to wrestle with the internecine conflicts percolating in the American Protestant landscape. The dramatic rise of conservative Christians into the field of political power is a product not just of elites at the top, but of evangelicals at the grassroots level, advocating in their churches and at times on their sidewalks for the righteousness of their causes. While evangelicals have had some success, the voices of liberal Protestants have, if not been silenced, at least been muted in the public forum — and sometimes, as above, by organs of the government. It seems for many that the battle has been taken to a new level of intensity pitting liberal Protestants against evangelical Christians.

In this book I seek to get beneath the rhetoric and cut into the substance of these positions. I do an archeological dig into the moral worldviews of evangelical and liberal Christians, by asking these questions: What is the moral terrain and religious worldviews of American evangelicals and liberal Protestants? How are these worldviews created and sustained? How can one understand the putative "clash of cultures" between the two? This book makes clear that the clash of cultures is real between these groups, but not so simple. The moral worldviews of each of these movements share common structural features; though often reaching quite different conclusions. Moreover, in the process of analyzing the two moral worldviews I found myself seeing strengths and weaknesses in both and coming to a sometimes grudging respect for each of their perspectives.

This study is based on more than 450 interviews from 10 vital liberal Protestant churches and 24 growing evangelical churches in the Pacific Northwest. It tells the remarkable story of the churching of an unchurched region; a region that is known for those who are spiritual but unchurched. And yet, congregations are flourishing. Thus, I compare these two forms of Christianity and their moral worldviews in relation to identity, belief, organizational dynamics, mission and outreach, and finally religion and politics. I describe the moral worlds of evangelicals and liberals as clearly and objectively as I can in order to create a moral mirror for the reader to make up their own minds. In this sense, this study is a moral project, mirroring and comparing the moral world for readers to both see themselves more clearly and judge their own moral worldviews in the relative light of these worlds. From Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (Oxford University Press, 2008).  

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