What’s up With the Christian Right?

The peculiar morphing of American evangelicalism.

Last week reporters on the campaign trail spent a few days hashing over some creepy old novels written by Virginia’s Democratic candidate for senator, James Webb. Apparently Webb liked writing about incest, and about 13-year-old boys enthralled with “every bouncing breast and curved hip” (are there any other kinds?). Incumbent Sen. George Allen says the novels reflect badly on Webb’s character and fitness for office. * Webb calls it literary license. As culture wars go, this one is pretty minor. But then, the press doesn’t have too many to choose from this election season.

Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania’s champion of the unborn, has already had his obituary run in the New York Times. Ken Blackwell, the Republican candidate for governor in Ohio and the new multiracial face of the Christian right, has fizzled. The stem-cell debate has turned into a minor joke on Rush Limbaugh. The New Jersey gay marriage decision just sort of faded away; for a couple of days Bush hit the campaign trail complaining about “activist judges” and then went right back to the terrorist scare. And in the latest scandal of the election—Ted Haggard, one of the most charismatic evangelical leaders of this generation, was just accused of seeing a male prostitute and using drugs—there is no us and them; Christian conservatives are their own enemy.

The conclusion seems obvious: The Christian right as we know it has peaked, and now it is morphing into something different. The issues stirring voters this year do not seem to be the ones conservative Christians have traditionally cared about. Whatever influence they do have has been diffused, and co-opted. It’s a Democrat, Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, who wins the prize for the most obnoxious religious ad; he aired one showing himself walking through his childhood church, his face framed by the stained glass, talking about how he learned right from wrong. Meanwhile Maryland’s Democratic candidate for governor, Martin O’Malley, sounds the most like Bush 2004, talking about the importance of faith and what’s in his heart.

All the election tick-tock stories hint that the drama is yet to come. Any day now Karl Rove will unlock the cages and poke the beasts out of their slumber. Any moment the right court decision, or medical ethics case, or sex scandal will have them storming the polling booths and taking back the country. This is the zombie paradigm that has been applied to the Christian right ever since its forces entered politics in the late ‘70s, and in fact for most of the century: One minute they’re dead asleep, and the next minute they’re biting your head off.

But the more likely explanation is the one offered by a host of recently published books: This time around, the Christian right we’ve grown used to has become just another part of the political establishment, with all the attending tedium. Once we had Pat Robertson’s apocalyptic visions to look forward to every election. Now we have Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California and author of The Purpose Driven Life, who roams around Washington quietly in his Hawaiian shirt making alliances with progressive pastors to save the environment. So mainstream is he that Starbucks loaned him their grande cups as his personal billboard: “You were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life will never make sense.” So mainstream is he that he’s practically invisible.

“Evangelicalism’s persona has come of age in 2005,” according to an editorial in Christianity Today quoted in Monique El-Faizy’s God and Country. “We’re no longer overlooked, persecuted, discriminated against, and misquoted in the mainstream media. So we’ve been mainstreamed, now what?”

To prove the “growing maturity and sophistication of the Christian right,” Jeffrey Sheler, in his new book, Believers, dedicates a chapter to following around Rich Cizik, head of the National Association of Evangelicals. Cizik meets with various interest groups, weighs the views of senators, waits for a long time at a restaurant near the White House for Tim Geoglein, the White House’s point man for evangelicals. “We evangelicals have learned to collaborate, to cross the aisles and religious barriers or whatever, in order to pass bills. This is what we have to do if we’re going to win in Washington,” Cizik tells him. Collaborate? Cross the aisles? Pass bills? Jeez. Where’s The700 Club when you need it?

If you think about it, though, the impending theocracy thesis was never really sustainable. Books about the Christian right written by ex-evangelicals or secular Jews tend to make two points: 1) Be afraid, be very afraid. And 2) Boy, aren’t they weird? The best example of this is Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming. After reading the first couple of chapters of her book, you will rush downstairs and bolt your doors because “something dark is loose,” as she puts it. The seed of darkness, Goldberg explains, is R.J. Rushdoony, a Christian nationalist who advocated Christian dominion over America, the idea that pushed the Christian right into politics in the late 1970s.

From there the argument proceeds biblically. Rushdoony begat Jerry Falwell, Falwell begat George W. Bush, and Bush begat your one-way ticket to Canada. There’s only one problem with this logic. Have you ever seen Rushdoony, or read a lot of his writing? He looks like the ayatollah. He advocated the death penalty for homosexuals, blasphemers, heretics, people who cursed or hit their parents, and probably Howard Stern. Even some Falwell associates once wrote an open letter calling him “scary.” I’d bet a lot of money that any presidential candidate who had kind words for Rushdoony would lose a two-way race to Lenora Fulani.

In this new buttoned-up world you have to go outside Washington to get some of that old thrill back again. The weirdness of Christian evangelicalism has been passed on to the younger generation of believers, although it’s not so easy to spot anymore. They may have grown up with parents talking about persecution of Christians and separating from mainstream culture, but they don’t really feel it or live that way. They love Christ as much as they love their iPods, and they don’t see the need to make a choice. They conduct their evangelism in the edgy ironic mode of YouTube. The pro-life protesters on the Supreme Court steps look like refugees from Nirvana with their scruffy hair and ripped-up sweatshirts.

Lauren Sandler’s new book, Righteous, is filled with skaters for Christ and hip-hop moguls for Christ and evangelicals covered in tattoos. The guys she profiles wear T-shirts that read “Body Piercing Saved My Life” or—my personal favorite—”Lock the Cock,” a raunchy update of True Love Waits. She goes to Rock for Life and Skatechurch, where the young Jesus freaks “offer all the prankish irreverence of MTV’s Jackass crew, but cut with a depth and earnestness.” They style themselves on pop-culture icons their parents’ generation would have considered Satanic. They look so much like any other teenagers that “the difference between them and the unsaved is invisible,” she writes.

How are we to navigate this new mixed-up landscape? Yes, the younger generation is mainstreaming, but, unlike in politics, it doesn’t seem to be having the moderating effect. At a Rock for Life seminar, the kids sport ratty cutoffs and waist-length dreads. They insist that they are not a political movement, that they are only about Christ’s love—although when they take the microphone they sure sound like their parents, if a little more raw. “Listen, 40 million people have been sent to an early grave,” one speaker says, referring to the number of abortions since Roe v. Wade, and the crowd yells back, “Hell, yeah.”

The kids Sandler writes about seem to make no distinction between the personal and the spiritual, the spiritual and the political. They have all the intensity of, say, a budding feminist freshman in college who has just discovered Take Back the Night, only on the other side. These communities they belong to transform them, become their whole life, and any impact these all-consuming crusades have on politics is incidental.

The documentary Jesus Camp focuses on believers half a generation younger than the teens in Sandler’s book. They are 8- and 10-year-old Pentecostal kids at a week-long camp in Devil’s Lake, N.D. The campers in the film will satisfy every old stereotype of the backward fundamentalists, with their screaming and weeping and writhing on the chapel floor. They seem about as far away from the White House as you can imagine.

The filmmakers never set out to make a political film. But as camp week progressed, the theme became obvious to them. The kids prayed feverishly to “break the power of Satan over this government.” They smashed glass cups and yelled, “Righteous judges! Righteous judges!” They blessed a cardboard cutout of President Bush and were driven to Washington to protest on the steps of the Supreme Court. The camp organizer and star of the film, Becky Fischer, was taken aback that audiences interpreted those actions as political, and in a way, it’s not surprising that she was surprised. Political intent has seeped so deeply into Christian conservative culture that, even out in the hinterlands, they don’t notice it anymore.

It’s hard to imagine the Jesus Camp kids growing up to be Hill staffers. Maybe they will end up as skaters for Christ who gravitate to the world of Washington only to protest. When one of the kids, like young Christian conservatives everywhere, says he wants to “reclaim America for Christ,” I’m sure he doesn’t exactly know what he means by that. Like the Vietnam generation before him, he will probably grow up to realize that the elders he relies on to speak truth to power don’t really do a good job, that they either get co-opted or go down in flames (Ted Haggard is technically Rich Cizik’s boss). When they do come of age, they’ll have enough zeal to take up the fight where their parents left off. And their ability to blend will allow them to pull it off more smoothly. No doubt the odd mix of countercultural taste and religious intensity will find some echo in Washington, but what it will sound like is hard to say.

Correction, Nov. 6, 2006: This article originally and mistakenly identified Republican George Allen as the governor of Virginia and Democrat James Webb as challenging him for that office. In fact, Allen is a U.S. senator from Virginia, and Webb is his opponent in that race. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)