In their efforts to reassure conservatives about Harriet Miers, the Bush administration has led with her conversion to evangelical Protestantism. Miers was baptized in 1979 at Valley View Christian Church in Dallas, Texas. She quickly became a humble servant at the church, teaching Sunday school and bringing doughnuts for coffee hour. What kind of Christianity do Valley View and its members practice—and what does worshipping there reveal about Miers?
Valley View is part of the “restorationist” movement that is one strand in the larger web of American evangelicalism. Broadly speaking, evangelicals have three characteristics: They believe that Scripture is infallible and view it as their sole authority; they emphasize their personal relationships with Jesus Christ; and, often, they can tell you the day, even hour, at which they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. (The dramatic, datable conversion experience has a venerable pedigree—think of the Apostle Paul’s light on the road to Damascus.) Specifically, Valley View’s roots lie with the 19th-century Campbellites, who sought to recover the simple form of Christianity practiced when the New Testament was written. The Campbellite movement gave birth to three different church communities. One of them is the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ fellowship, whose umbrella organization has 6,500 member churches, one of which is Valley View. Restorationism was in part about doing away with denominations, so the fellowship offers no formal oversight—Valley View is technically independent.
Evangelicals withdrew from society in the early 20th century, threatened by the rise of liberal Protestantism. They didn’t run for office, or watch network TV, or hang out at the local honky-tonk. Even the architecture of evangelical institutions of the era reflects a defensive mind-set—the buildings look like fortresses. The Rev. Billy Graham led the way to a tentative reacquaintance with American culture in the 1950s, making ecumenical overtures to Catholics and liberal Protestants. At the time, Graham was roundly criticized by fundamentalists like Bob Jones, the founder of Bob Jones University. (Fundamentalists are more unbending than evangelicals—an old joke says they’re evangelicals who are angry.) The subsequent fissures are still part of the American religious landscape: Evangelicals are more likely to participate in ecumenical dialogue and less likely to read the first chapter of Genesis as a textbook.
By the mid-1970s, evangelicals were not only engaging the larger culture—they were trying to remake and transform it. (It’s telling that when Joel Belz * founded his evangelical magazine in 1986, he chose a word that an earlier generation of evangelicals would have considered an epithet: World.) Evangelicals were energized about politics, of course, in part by Roe v. Wade, which they understood not only as a sinful taking of innocent life, but also as a broad sexual license that was eroding the fabric of American society. Eventually, some fundamentalists signed on for the fight. (And in this way, the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists is blurry.)
It’s no surprise, then, that Valley View is staunchly anti-abortion. When I asked Valley View’s pastor, Barry McCarty, whether he was pro-life, he quickly denounced abortion and euthanasia, but he didn’t mention war or capital punishment. Many Catholics—and, to be sure, some evangelicals, like Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action—advocate the “consistent life ethic,” which seeks to end nuclear proliferation, war, poverty, and the death penalty along with abortion. McCarty’s narrower pro-life agenda is more representative of evangelical churches, which have devoted vastly more money and more pulpit time to denouncing abortion than to denouncing, say, militarism.
Though most American evangelicals are pro-life, not all evangelicals are Republicans. (I myself am an evangelical Christian and a yellow-dog Democrat.) According to a 2001 Barna Poll, 38 percent of American Democrats self-identify as born-again Christians. (“Born-again” is an elastic term that refers to the moment of dramatic conversion.) McCarty told me that while most of his congregants probably vote Republican most of the time, “there are a number of people here who are very strong Democrats.”
And, like most evangelical churches, Valley View’s good works are not limited to counseling pregnant women against abortion. Church members also give time and money to the sorts of projects typically associated with liberal Presbyterians or even Unitarians. Last year, Valley View partnered with other evangelical Dallas churches, including Potter’s House, the congregation led by T.D. Jakes, a leading black evangelical pastor who is sometimes touted as the next generation’s Billy Graham. For “90 Days of Blessing,” church members worked in soup kitchens and homeless shelters and built houses with Habitat for Humanity. Valley View also has a strong relationship with H.I.S. BridgeBuilders, a 10-year-old Dallas organization devoted to transforming “cities for Jesus Christ through the revival of its people, the reconciliation of communities, the renewal of neighborhoods.” With BridgeBuilders, Valley View offers GED classes and eye-care clinics for low-income residents of south Dallas. If Valley View is an index of Miers’ convictions, we should assume not only that she’s anti-abortion (as her supporters have said), but that she also cares about America’s urban poor.
Valley View is representative of American evangelicalism in another way. It’s undergoing a ritual exercise in Protestant church life: It’s splitting.
In March 2004, Barry McCarty was named Valley View’s “preaching minister.” Under his leadership, the church began to shake things up a bit, in part to attract new younger members. Likely a church in your neighborhood has done the same thing in recent years, trading its organ for a guitar, tossing out some of the 18th- and 19th-century tunes and opting for what is euphemistically known as “praise music.”
At Valley View, these stylistic changes didn’t sit well with all of the congregants. This summer, 100 people left the church, led by Ron Key, who had been a pastor there for 30 years. Among the walkers was Nathan Hecht, Miers’ frequent defender. Hecht recently resigned from his position of elder at Valley View (though you can still find his elder page online). Key’s group—which reportedly voted Sunday to be called Cornerstone Christian Church—is meeting at a Doubletree Hotel in north Dallas. Last Sunday, with Hecht at the piano, the Cornerstoners got to sing their old favorites, like the staple “What A Friend We Have in Jesus.”
It’s not clear where Miers will cast her ecclesial chips. Last Sunday she went to the Doubletree for worship, but she has not said she plans to leave Valley View. Whether she stays at Valley View or goes with the breakaway group won’t reveal much about Miers’ political views, though. Cornerstone will likely prove to be, like Valley View, a representative evangelical church: Republican-leaning but not entirely so; concerned about abortion but also about poverty; and perhaps more exercised about prosaic matters like hymn selection than about national politics.
Correction, Oct. 17, 2005: This article originally inaccurately identified Marvin Olasky as the founder of World. Return to the corrected sentence.