Alan Wolfe Extended Interview

Read more of Jeff Sheler’s interview about America’s evangelicals with Professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College:

How influential is evangelical Christianity in the United States today?


It’s extremely influential. It’s certainly the most rapid-growing of all of our religions. It’s had an enormous impact on the society. Just look at who the President of the United States is.

What specific impact are evangelicals having on American mainstream culture?

It’s definitely mainstream. We used to talk about evangelicals as if they were kind of a countercultural force, as if they were marginalized from the society. But if the culture we’re talking about is the popular culture, the culture of NASCAR racing and Grand Ole Opry and all the things that I see when I turn on cable television, then the influence of evangelicals is everywhere. There is a kind of emotionality to our culture that I think owes a great deal to evangelical forms of worship. There is a kind of populism to our culture that I think grows out of the way evangelicals structure their entire approach to religion.

Rick Warren’s THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE and the Left Behind series, the success ofTHE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which of course was driven by substantial evangelical marketing and involvement — are those things an indication that movie marketers and NASCAR marketers are tapping a Christian market, just going where the money is, or is it really reflecting more of a homogenization of the mainstream culture?

I think it’s the homogenization. We’re dealing with an interesting situation here. Evangelicals, unlike fundamentalists — with whom they’re often confused — are charged with a mission to go out and make converts. The Great Commission in the Bible speaks of this: Make disciples of all nations. So evangelicals can’t ignore the culture. Their whole religious sensibility is based upon meeting the culture halfway. At the same time, American culture — just like American religion — is an enormously powerful force. It will change religion, just as religion will change culture. One of my arguments really is that evangelicals often lose this battle. They’re far more shaped by the culture than they are capable of shaping the culture to their own needs.

Can you give an example?

I could give lots of examples, but I think the whole megachurch phenomenon is premised upon the idea that we can’t do anything with people unless we get them to church first, so the priority is to get them in there. But to get them in there, you downplay the Christian symbolism, you take the crosses off the church, you make the pews as comfortable as you possibly can, you put McDonald’s franchises in the lobby. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re in church when you go to church, because the church doesn’t look like a church.

Would you say that contemporary Christian music, Christian pop and all of that, is part of the homogenization as well?

I definitely think so. It’s clear that that’s what people want. If you’re in the business of getting the people there, you’ve got to give them what they want. It comes at a huge cost. The job of an evangelical church is not to reach out to a guy like me, but I’m the kind of person that loves Johann Sebastian Bach. When I think of church, I think of organs and Bach chorales. These are the first things that evangelicals throw out of their churches. Sometimes I’m asked: What’s a megachurch? My one-sentence answer is: a megachurch is a church without an organ.

Is evangelical higher education an example of the evangelical Christian subculture?

Definitely, but at the same time, the same kind of forces are there. The colleges are in the same kind of dilemma, even if they’ve resolved it in somewhat different ways. It’s very important to places like Wheaton College in Illinois and Calvin College in Michigan to attract high-quality students, to attract a distinguished faculty. But when you do that, you inevitably become part of the whole admissions game and, in some places, of the sports culture of America. I’m fascinated, for example, by Baylor University, which retains a very strong Christian commitment, yet somehow that Christian identity in no way got involved with becoming as aggressively basketball-oriented as a school can be, and then having all the same forms of corruption and sin that go along in any big-time athletic conference. It’s a fascinating study in contradictions.

A school like Wheaton has a pledge for students. They have to abide by certain rules of conduct. The faculty has to abide by certain faith statements. Is one of the reasons in order to maintain a separate identity, to maintain the evangelical “distinctive,” passing it along to that next generation of young people?

I think so, for sure, but it’s almost like putting your finger in the dike. That’s what they’re designed to do. The real question is: Can they work? Wheaton College, for example, has decided to go back and revise its policy about forbidding dancing. I’m all for dancing, but Wheaton hasn’t been in the past. There was certainly a time when dancing was considered a sin in evangelical circles. It no longer is, and Wheaton is adjusting to the times. There’s another interesting example. What’s so important and what’s so fascinating to me about the evangelical approach to faith is that it’s based on a voluntary conversion, as opposed to, say, Catholicism. Evangelicals say it’s the individual himself or herself that should find a personal relationship with Jesus. But then when you have a faith statement and you have to sign it, and it’s a pledge, you’re taking away that voluntary character. If someone — a faculty member at Wheaton — finds that their personal search for Jesus leads them in the direction of the Roman Catholic Church, Wheaton won’t have a place for them. So it represents both the free-will style of faith and yet there’s this element of compulsion. How does an institution retain both of those in our culture? Wheaton is having a hard time with it, and I can understand why.

I want to talk about some of the questions that were in our poll. Did anything catch your attention?

Polls are very interesting. This one is as well. It certainly confirms that evangelicals, in many ways, are both part of the general American culture but also somewhat antagonistic to the culture. … The fact that evangelicals take the Bible so seriously, for example, which the poll reveals, probably makes them different from other Americans. I’d like to know more about that, though. I think there are certain kinds of things that go on in American religion that polls [find] hard to get at. So if a poll tells me that some percent of evangelicals believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, I want to know more. I want to know, how do you read the Bible? What parts of the Bible do you read? How familiar are you with all of its stories? And what do those stories mean to you? Those kinds of questions are much harder to get in a poll.

What do you make of the finding that evangelicals steadfastly believe they’re part of the American mainstream — 77 percent — but they believe by almost the same amount (three quarters) that the media are hostile toward their values, and they have to fight to get their voices heard by the American mainstream?

I think the media has been hostile to them in the past, although I think it’s not because the media tends to be atheistic, as many evangelicals might believe; it’s because the media looks for profit opportunities and, for a long time, didn’t see one in the evangelical community. Now, I think it does. The media has become quite aware of poll results, for example, and things like that. If they see an opportunity, they’ll move in that direction. So we’ve heard a lot of complaints from evangelicals about the way the media has ignored them. I think we’re going to hear even more complaints when the media starts paying a lot of attention to them, because then you just get drenched in the media culture, and that’s not a very good thing either if you’re an evangelical.

Is it surprising, though, that while 77 percent say they’re part of the mainstream, nearly half (47 percent) say evangelicals are looked down upon by most Americans?

I think most Americans think that they’re looked down upon by most Americans. The poll does a very nice thing of comparing evangelicals with nonevangelicals, so you do get a sense of the differences. But let’s not forget that many of the things revealed in this poll, to one degree or another, are shared by lots of people. We have a very funny kind of culture. If you’re a religious believer, you think that the whole world is organized by secular humanists and atheists who hate you. But if you’re an atheist, you believe that the United States is dominated by Christian fundamentalists who hate you. We’re such a complex country that anybody can find something that will make them feel marginalized and victimized. Religious believers, in that sense, are like everybody else. There’s a kind of culture of complaint, as one writer called it. And being an evangelical doesn’t excuse you from the culture of complaint.

No matter whether it’s atheists reflecting that view or Christians, it’s a way of creating solidarity within a movement?

I think it’s certainly part of that. I think it’s also part of belonging in America. This is what it means. That’s why evangelicals really aren’t that marginalized. Like everybody else, they worry about where they stand with respect to the markers of identity. So they look at the media and they have a problem. That’s such a classically American thing. All ethnic groups, for example – Italian Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish Americans — would say, “We haven’t been accepted by the media yet.” And they’d complain, and they register letters. Then, before you know it, they’ve got television programs. Then they felt that they belonged. I think we’re witnessing much of that same kind of phenomenon here.

The poll also shows that evangelical parents (76 percent) are more likely than other parents (54 percent) to prevent their kids from watching objectionable TV shows. Playing violent video games, 61 percent versus 47 percent. Do you find that surprising or significant?

Frankly, I’m not sure whether I believe it. There is an effect — and the poll notices this with respect to church attendance — there’s a footnote when it comes to church attendance that says, because of a sympathy effect — in other words, because people want other people to believe that they’re going to church — there is a tendency for people to exaggerate how often they go to church. I think the same kind of effect can be seen in some of these questions. I think what the poll shows … is that evangelicals think they play fewer video games and watch less violent television, rather than that they actually do. It would be important to compare with other Americans not what evangelicals say in polls, but how evangelicals actually act in reality. On some statistics, like out-of-wedlock births or rates of divorce, evangelicals really aren’t all that different from nonevangelicals. This is a finding of George Barna, who works for the evangelical community. He finds this over and over and over again.

Another finding in the poll: white evangelicals are almost evenly divided among themselves over whether the country is going in the right direction or is on the wrong track, about 45 percent on both of those. But, at the same time, more than three quarters of evangelicals — and similar percentages of the general population (71 percent) — think that, in terms of moral values, the country is on the wrong track. That seems to put evangelicals pretty much in agreement with the mainstream on whether the country is morally on the wrong track.

That’s an interesting and surprising finding. I’m struck by this evenly divided nature here, because you made a reference before to the “Left Behind” series, which is an attempt to popularize somewhat of an odd tradition in evangelical circles, a particular theory about the nature of the Second Coming. But if people were taking the theology of the “Left Behind” series seriously, half of them couldn’t think that we were in the wrong direction, because that’s a very depressing and dark, apocalyptic view of the American future. It suggests to me that all these millions of people who are buying the “Left Behind” series are buying it as an adventure series and not for the theology it contains, which is called premillenialist. I can assure you it wouldn’t conform to the idea that America could possibly be on the right track.

What about the success of Rick Warren’s THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE and Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST? How would you explain those?

Rick Warren’s books are a fascinating phenomenon. I think he has come up with something that resonates with all kinds of people in the United States, and not just religious believers; that is, this idea of a purpose. I think he’s just simply put his finger on an unease that lots of Americans are feeling, that somehow their lives aren’t organized to a particular purpose. I see his book as appealing to many kinds of people, and not just evangelicals. I certainly come across people reading the book in all kinds of places that have very little to do with the evangelical community. It’s almost like a more academic study, Christopher Lasch’s book THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM, many years ago. He has just identified a term that resonates widely with people and offered an approach to it that makes sense to people.

One of the poll questions asked: How much influence do you think born-again or evangelical Christians have had on the Bush administration? White evangelicals (34 percent) thought they had a lot of influence on the Bush administration; 38 percent said some influence, so together 72 percent [versus] 57 percent of the general population. Evangelicals think they have more influence on the administration than the general population does. What does that suggest?

I think they have had a significant impact on the Bush administration, and they understand that and take a certain amount of pride in it. I’m curious to know whether it’s going to continue. To take one example: when I talk to my liberal, Democratic, more secular friends, they say, “Sure, the evangelicals have had a big impact on the Bush administration. Look how he’s catering to their prejudices,” and so on. Indeed, some of what Mr. Bush does, like the decision about stem cells, was an appeal to the evangelical community. But there’s another side and, I think, a much more positive side. I think evangelicals were very much responsible for pushing Mr. Bush, in his State of the Union message, to address the issue of AIDS in Africa, which is a big concern among evangelicals. It’s something they take very seriously. And the president addressed those concerns. But he addressed those concerns more in rhetoric. He hasn’t come through with the money. Evangelicals are paying a lot of attention to that. I wonder if they’re not going, at some point, to be disappointed by politics when they see, like every other group, that you can only have so much political influence. It does run out after a while. I don’t know how they’re going to feel when a man that they probably see as really the first truly, genuinely conservative evangelical Protestant President of the United States disappoints them down the road. That disappointment is inevitable, and it’s going to be very fascinating to watch the implications of that unfold.

Is there any reason for evangelicals to take credit for what we’ve been seeing in the last couple of months since the Super Bowl — the FCC, congressional committees, a lot of people in general who are not evangelicals speaking out against moral drift, sex on TV and in the movies? Do they merit any credit for that when we’re talking about influence on the culture? Or is it just that the culture and evangelicals seem to be drifting in the same direction?

I don’t think they deserve any special credit. I’m very cynical about all this. We’ve had this with payola scandals in the past and all sorts of things like that. The media are pretty much unregulated in this country. They go out on a limb. They go too far. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing, and congressional committees, and so on. Then they say they’re going to rein it in. They fire Howard Stern, or they do something with Janet Jackson. Then the storm passes and it’s back to business as usual. I would have been prepared to say that evangelicals had a big influence on the culture if during the Super Bowl they took off all the Viagra ads, took off all the ads for every ED medication under the sun, if there was much less drinking. I’m struck by the fact that a company that I’ve long associated with sympathy for the evangelical position, the Coors Brewery, which has a long history of close interconnections with evangelicals, uses the most blatant, the most repulsive sexuality you can possibly use on its television advertising. Go after that, and then I’ll say that evangelicals have had a big impact on the culture.

They’re using the culture, the music, the movies, the books to convert, to evangelize. Are they successful at doing what they’re charged to do?

Everything I’ve seen suggests that they’re not very successful. I thought one of the most fascinating things in the poll was the fact that so many evangelicals — who are, after all, supposed to be born again — were born to evangelicals. This is an interesting dilemma among evangelicals. If you have had an experience in your life where you’ve seen the true light of Jesus Christ and you’ve made a conversion to that, and then you marry someone else who had a similar experience, and then you have a kid, now what are you going to do with that kid? If the kid goes through what you went through, you’ve got to let that kid find their own way. But it really does seem that evangelicalism is inherited and that its growth is really within the evangelical world. There’s a lot of switching, a lot of people moving from one evangelical faith to another. There are a lot of people that are converting from other faiths. For example, a surprisingly large number of evangelicals were once Catholics. But I think that’s much more out of a sense of personal search. I don’t see that the explicitly proselytizing, witnessing, heavy-duty evangelization has much of an impact. This is America. You’ve got to let people find their own way. And the way evangelicals generally do this is to say, “I’m going to do sort of a lifestyle form of evangelicalism. I’m going to lead a good life. Then I’ll shine and I’ll have this glow and people will see it and they’ll ask me about it. Then I can tell them about Jesus.” But the notion that you go up and ring doorbells, which Jehovah’s Witnesses do, or Mormons do — that’s not what most evangelicals do in America. It just doesn’t work.

What happens when evangelicals use the culture around them?

There’s a tremendous gamble when you use the culture, because the culture is using you. Amy Grant certainly found this out in her career, and all kinds of other evangelicals who use the culture will as well. If you want to use the culture, fine, but you’ll find that you’ll be talking about “the spirit” rather than about Jesus, that the specifically Christian content of what you’re saying will be downplayed to a much more general kind of spirituality. You’ll convert people to a general spirituality, but people are already, in this country, converted to that. I think the influence of explicit proselytizing on the part of evangelicals is exaggerated, both by evangelicals themselves who want to take pride in their accomplishments but also by secular people and by civil libertarians who want to exaggerate it, because then they can fear for the civil liberty violations they see that accompany efforts to proselytize.

Some people look at the influence of evangelicals — their numbers, their growth — and say we need to be afraid of these people, that if you’re not a Christian, if you’re not an evangelical, these people are dangerous. Do you agree?

No, I don’t. I think that the growth is, in fact, going to probably do more harm to evangelicals than less harm, because it’s going to expose them to so many parts of the culture that are going to change them in so many ways they can’t possibly anticipate. I’m always telling my more secular friends not to get so concerned here. We can’t forget that a significant proportion of the growth of evangelical Protestantism is African American. My liberal friends don’t worry about that even though, on homosexuality and other cultural issues, African-American evangelicals are just as conservative, if not more so, than white ones. We should recognize that the tremendous growth in evangelical America could not happen without the culture influencing the religion far more than the other way around. I have enough faith in American culture — in its democratic capacities, in its leveling capacities — to say to the evangelical community, “Welcome to the culture! We’d much rather have you in here, being influenced by the culture, than out there being a fundamentalist, being marginalized, being angry.” Really, it’s much better for democracy that evangelicals join the society than that they remain outside of it.