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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2004 02:09 pm

God on their side

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COVER PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG

If God is indeed up there -- on a throne, in the clouds -- then what He's watching is a wildly unbalanced game of Red Rover. The exuberant kids have all run to one side. The quiet kids, who used to have a pretty good team, are drifting away one by one. And the cool kids stand in a knot, making fun of the players.

The cool kids, a small but increasing minority, profess no religion at all. If they voted last week, they mostly supported John Kerry.

The exuberant team, the evangelical Christians, is growing so fast, and in such determinedly political ways, that they've tipped the country Republican. They're also boosting traditionalist attitudes toward religion within the party.

And the big loser, the team whose members are walking off the field? Mainline Protestantism, the calm, reasoned faith that shaped this country from its colonial beginnings through the 1960s. Its liberal clergy pushed hard for social reforms, economic equality, and civil rights. Its members, who used to be the Northeastern sort of Republicans, increasingly tilt Democratic.

But the mainliners are quiet -- and their numbers are diminishing so fast, they're not sure they'd be heard if they screamed.

The Vanishing Protestant Majority, a recent University of Chicago study, reports that the overall percentage of Protestants in the U.S. may have already fallen below 50 percent. The total started to slide noticeably in 1993; by 2002, it had fallen 11 percentage points, to 52 percent.

"The change is big in magnitude and rapid in terms of demographics," says Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey, whose data fed the study. "The country is moving toward becoming a nation of minorities."

In a Tower of Babel where everyone speaks a different moral language, one needs patience to learn the nuances. It's easier to grab a phrasebook and make big gestures. Reach for people's deepest needs, allay their fears, repeat the same simple phrases so people can nod in eager agreement.

It's especially helpful if you can state, categorically, that God is on your side.

Getting filled up

West of St. Louis, in a moat of malls, farmland, and faux-gentry subdivisions, the St. Louis Family Church is holding its 7 a.m. Sunday service, the first of four. It's barely sunup, yet there are more people in these cushy movie-theater chairs than most traditional churches see in their pews at their main services. The music is recording-studio quality, and when Pastor Jeff Perry, as though on impulse, invites someone to read from the Bible, the passage is instantly projected in big white letters on the wall.

He's following the megachurch formula, anchoring his down-to-earth preaching in the Bible's most hopeful passages and avoiding shame or hellfire. Thousands come to listen, excited by global missions and social outreach and eager for the 24/7 programming that addresses their personal problems, giving them firm rules and Biblical certainty without ever, ever judging them.

"We're literally coming to the gas tank and getting filled up," Pastor Jeff calls out, and a ripple of assent goes through the room. "So how do we obtain help from God for our needs?" He jokes that he made 35 altar calls before he felt secure about his own salvation. "Now I know his ear is inclined to my prayer. How do I know that? Because I found it in Scripture! You pray for a good surgery, and there's a good surgery -- is that a miracle? Of course it is! Because it could have been a bad surgery."

On the wall behind him, where other worshipers might hang a crucifix or rest the Torah, huge brass letters spell out "HONOR GOD" and "HELP PEOPLE," replacing the mysteries. Because when Pastor Jeff scans his flock's anxious faces, he sees a hunger for clarity and peace, success, love, reassurance.

"When anxieties enter my heart, I have to counter them," he calls out, listing CNN news, terrorist threats, airport security and election politics and repeating after each item, "God is going to see us through."

"Here's the chant," he finishes. "'Have faith in God.'" People repeat the words again and again, arms raised in praise. Their country is being attacked by foreign fanatics and their society is rotting from within. Faith is the best way they know to fight back.

"Sept. 11 hit America," Pastor Jeff continues. "We have a president that took a stand. He is a believer. He came to town; we had a meeting; he explained what he had to do. These are warriors that don't respond to negotiation. It's like the Bible: David didn't negotiate with the Philistines."

He paces, his words impassioned. "There will be more of those attacks on the earth. Whenever there were wars through the ages, the church responded by putting their faith into God, and then certain things happened and the church surged forward. We are about to come into some of that." A man sitting alone in back leans forward eagerly.

"God is getting ready to download some wild exploits," promises Pastor Jeff. "God has called us to something big, and it's going to take childlike faith.

"Nation-changing faith."

The growth of evangelism

"Evangelical Christians used to be 40 percent of American Protestants; now they're over 60 percent," says Michael Hout, professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Different birth rates account for 70 percent of that growth: Evangelicals have had an extra child per family for about 35 years. The other 30 percent comes from a process few sociologists of religion anticipated: Upwardly mobile Evangelicals used to mark their arrival in the local establishment by joining the Episcopalian or Presbyterian Church. No more. Now they stay evangelical and start a power brokers' prayer breakfast."

The shift extends to the top: Every U.S. president since 1976 has professed to be born again. White evangelicals, once split evenly along partisan lines, are now nearly 2-to-1 Republican. The Pew Forum's Fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics found that, since 1992, the number of evangelical Protestants who consider themselves conservative has jumped 13 percent.

Even historically Democratic African-American evangelicals were strong Bush backers -- nearly 20 percent, double the number who voted for him in 2000, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

"It's very hard to find a consistent ideological thread in this country," remarks Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

"Our system is split on at least two axes that don't logically go together, the social axis and the economic axis. But in the case of the Republican Party and the evangelicals who now compose more than half of all Republicans, there is a better fit, because they are both culturally and economically conservative."

Democrats have reached no consensus about God's will; most can't stomach the notion of trying. But line up conservative religious values next to the current platform of the Republican Party, and the pieces fit like a jigsaw puzzle.

Joseph Holst was 20, and heavily into drugs, when a woman whose carpet he was cleaning invited him to the Family Church.

"She began to tell me how I could start over, have a clean slate," he recalls. "I didn't fully understand what she was saying, but I went, and when the praise and worship started, I started to cry." He knows now that he was submitting to God's plan. He'd been saved.

Holst has attended the Family Church ever since. "I have a blueprint for my life now," he says. "Everything has fallen into place." Drugs are over: "God has weeded all of that out of my life." He pauses.

"It's also helped me to love people. I was pretty cold before I met the Lord. Now, if I get cut off on the highway, I don't stick my middle finger out the window, because I know that's a person for whom Jesus died."

Holst strongly supported Bush's reelection.

"I try to judge by what God is saying on an issue," he says.

"I think President Bush is actively seeking answers from God, and I definitely want to see him continue."

"A spiritual battle"

It's 9:30 on a Sunday morning, and the drummer's already sweating. Five women sing and sway, microphones in hand, in front of the altar of Harvest Church, also in St. Louis. People dance in the pews, having so much fun that it feels like a high school dance -- except nobody's standing in the corner with sweaty palms, "because the Lord," the women sing, "is on our side." Alleluias sail back, staid social workers cutting loose, and the amplifiers crank so loud, stray thoughts don't have a chance.

When the music softens to a slow dance, the handsome young pastor, Frank Thompson, announces this Pentecostal church's 10th-anniversary celebration. "If the Enemy had his way, we'd have never gotten out of the living room," he says. "About 30 adults paid $5,000 a month to rent a hotel room because the Enemy wanted to discourage us. But God kept us going. And when we got here, God said, 'I am going to work another miracle for you: I am going to change your mortgage from $5,400 to $3,400 a month."

When the amens subside, Thompson says, "Now God's about to reveal a plan he has to get the house full, not just of members but of souls who will never see Hell." Bursting applause. "They will never experience demonic torment," he promises. "They will never see the devil down in his pit, except from on top."

He moves into his preaching: "Did you all know that Procter & Gamble is doing a massive hiring of homosexuals and lesbians? We're supposed to be the ones receiving those people into church to get them changed. All the stuff they are trying to do to keep the church separate from the state, there's just a massive effort by the Enemy to eradicate what this nation was founded on. You vote for who God tells you to vote for. Don't be fooled by political rhetoric. As Oral Roberts said, this election is a spiritual battle, and it should not be motivated by whether we are at war or not. The Bible says there will always be wars. You need to be looking at morality issues, the stuff that destroys countries. You need to be paying attention to the homosexual and lesbian issues, because the Enemy is on the offensive."

They read aloud the opening of Psalm 118: "The Lord is on my side. I will not fear."

"Do you see that?" exclaims Thompson. "Now bow your heads. Father, we thank you that you're on our side." They repeat the phrase to each other in a crescendo: "The Lord is on our side." Sweet relief on their faces, they embrace.

"Spiritual warfare on Earth"

In one century, the number of Pentecostalistshas grown from zero to 524 million worldwide, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia. Wary of ideas, thirsty for direct experience of God, people are drawn to the movement's certainty, its irrepressible spirit, its joy.

Sandy Williams, Thompson's sister, remembers going to her school friends' Baptist churches and "sitting up on the bench, bored stiff" Her church came alive every Sunday, adding a syncopated beat to the traditional hymns, making a joyful noise unto the Lord. People would dance, clap, shout, praise God in whatever way the spirit moved them. Williams remembers the first time she spoke in tongues: She was 15, and she had her arms up, praising Jesus, and suddenly she could hear herself speaking, strange words flowing effortlessly from her, a prayer that came straight from God. She smiles, brown eyes lit: "There is a feeling that comes over you like nothing else. You know you're in the presence of God. And from that moment on, no one could tell me we were weird. They had never experienced it."

Still, faith is a daily struggle, says Williams, "because of the influence, the evil influence, that says, 'That doesn't make sense.' I have to follow what my spirit says, and not what my senses tell me, because time and time again, the spirit has been proven to be right.

"Rather than being politically correct, we prefer to be Biblically correct," she continues, voice resolute. "Not whatever goes this year and will change next year. If we stick to the Bible, we don't have to worry about that." Pentecostalists will never agree that abortion or homosexuality could be right, she adds. But they believe that homosexuality, though sometimes a deliberate sin, can also be the result of satanic influence. "Some people have to be delivered from that lifestyle supernaturally," she explains. "We believe we are in a spiritual warfare on earth."

In the presidential election of 2000, Williams was so disgusted, she wrote in Jesus Christ as her candidate. But this time, the choice was clear. She sees our country's moral foundation disintegrating, and threats to family, decency, and holiness weigh far heavier than a distant war or a strangled economy. When she taught Sunday school, she brought in a newspaper article outlining the presidential candidates' positions on various issues. "Now you decide, based on what the Bible says, what type of person you want governing over you," she told the children.

"I always say, never make a decision based on your personal economic situation," she says now. "God knows, economically we're in terrible shape, and that is something that weighs hard on people. But Sodom and Gomorrah were flourishing economically, and morally and socially they were all sick."

The religious voice for liberalism

"Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit . . ." The murmured words come from the first few pews of St. John's Episcopal Church, absorbed by the dark wood and vaulted ceiling. Founded in 1841, this redbrick church stands on the south side of St. Louis, blending with turn-of-the-century homes in varying states of decay and renovation. Last year, about 15 parishioners worshiped here regularly, and they ran the gamut, from a lesbian university professor to a male attorney grumpy about inclusive language. They shared only one passion: keeping St. John's open. And their loyalty caught the attention of the bishop, who funded a full-time priest in an urban experiment to see whether St. John's can become self-sustaining again.

The new pastor, the Rev. Teresa Mithen, cheerfully admits that she can't prove that God exists. She is here because this is where she experiences God: in community. For traditionalists in the congregation, she leads an 8 a.m. Sunday service in the Elizabethan language of Rite I. At 10 a.m, she switches to Rite II in the Book of Common Prayer, supplementing it with prayers in which God is as likely to be Mother as Father.

If someone asked where the religious voice for liberalism is, Mithen would raise her hand. But she belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and when she stuck a campaign bumper sticker on her car, she immediately stopped parking it near the church doors. She didn't want to tell people how to vote, any more than she wanted to become a "McChurch offering a weekly Happy Meal" just to increase numbers.

"I don't care about the perpetuation of a human institution," she says. "I care about the body of Christ. If that means the Episcopal Church is eventually a totally voluntary church, fine. That's how the early church was."

"A Christian voice for justice"

David Greenhaw, president of Eden Theological Seminary, is less sanguine about the nationwide decline in mainline-Protestant churches and congregations, the numbers for both of which have dropped by about 40 percent over the past four decades. In part, he blames the decline on the tradition's radical success, noting the Protestant origins of the nation's Ivy League colleges and universities, its oldest hospitals and human-service organizations. The country made these institutions its own, just as it embraced Protestant values of transparency, democracy, thoughtfulness, equality, cooperation, and altruism, making them the values of mainstream America.

The split between mainline and evangelical Protestants only began in the early 1900s, he adds, and climaxed with the clash between Darwin and the Bible in the famous "Scopes monkey trial" of 1925. Fundamentalists won the case but lost their place in the mainstream. Perceiving that American culture had turned against them, fundamentalists retreated from public life and built their own infrastructure of Bible colleges, Bible camps, publishing houses, and congregations. Meanwhile, the institutions founded by mainline Protestants were working so hard to be open, ecumenical, progressive, and American that they lost their Protestant identity in the process.

Accidents of demography played a part, too: Mainline-Protestant churches were built earlier than Catholic or evangelical churches, so they stood in either urban or rural areas, far from the suburbs and exurbs where most of the country had decided to live.

But other reasons run deeper. "One of the hallmarks of mainline Protestantism is that faith and thought are inextricably bound," says Greenhaw, "but the institutions have secularized, the educational system has collapsed and the deep commitment to education has fallen apart. This incredibly thoughtful, stretching experience in which no question is too hard to ask has become 'Don't ask that question, because I might have to come up with an answer, and I don't think I could.'"

Many blame a widening gap between the radical ideas explored in the seminaries and the platitudes heard in the pews. Protestant theologians are questioning Jesus' divinity, rethinking the doctrine of salvation, re-emphasizing Jesus' social radicalism, asking whether God is all-powerful. But the clergy are reluctant to broach these ideas from the pulpit, and the faithful are terrified to hear them.

Protestant young people haven't heard much conviction or urgency in their churches; there's been little to engage their emotions or spark their idealism. The formal elegance of the liturgy feels out of step and hollow to them because so many of its precepts have been thrown into question. Above all, there's no base motive because nobody's convinced there's a hellfire in which sinners burn and nobody wants to say that mainline Protestantism is the only way to heaven. "Without a robust sense of sinfulness," observes Michael McClymond, a theologian at St. Louis University, "the appeal for salvation through Jesus Christ is less than compelling."

The new ideas have yet to be sifted. But liberal Protestants already feel adrift. "I think we have lost a sense that we make much difference, that we are saying anything very important," says John Cobb Jr., professor emeritus of the Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, Calif. "There is a vagueness about the reality of God." He talks wistfully of the social Gospel movement of the early 1900s, whose sharp cultural criticism and passionate optimism about social justice collapsed with World War II, giving way to bland normalcy. "The church became a kind of sanction of what was good in American society, generally liberal and progressive but flowing along with the main currents," says Cobb. "Preaching tended to be more psychological than social or ethical. And pop psychology is not something around which people can rally."

What will be lost as the mainline churches' influence wanes? Modernist mainline Protestants are the biggest supporters of same-sex marriage. They're pro-choice; they support stem-cell research; they oppose tax cuts for the wealthy. They're the only religious group that does not approve of providing public funds to faith-based groups.

"Now, when people think of the relation of Christianity to the political scene, they think of the right rather than the left," notes Cobb. "That's of enormous political consequence. To whatever extent Protestantism has supported careful, thoughtful foreign policy and encouraged peace and justice, that role will largely be played by Catholics.

"But the liberal-Protestant tradition has gone through its own reforms," Cobb adds.

"There are more women in seminaries than men; there is a huge movement to place concerns for homosexual individuals ahead of traditional teaching. These changes will be much harder for Catholics to make."

Cobb sighs: "What's being lost is a Christian voice for justice for homosexuals and for the genuine equality of women -- and it's going to take a long time for that to reappear."

"Intellectually, I just can't go there"

Janet Wilding grew up Catholic and married, in a Unitarian ceremony, a secular Muslim who'd gone to Anglican schools in England. Their little boy just went from Jewish daycare to kindergarten at Christ the King.

"Now you will be going to a place where they believe in Jesus," Wilding told him, "and some people believe Jesus was God."

"OK," said Joel, and asked whether he could wear his yarmulke from daycare.

His mom thought she was ready to swallow her own struggles with the Catholic Church for the sake of her son's education. But when a letter to parents from St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke came home in Joel's backpack, outlining the authoritative teaching of the Church on political issues, she exploded.

"Abortion and homosexual acts are intrinsically evil," the Archbishop had written, "and, as such, can never be justified." War and the death penalty ranked as lesser concerns. "What I give you," he concluded, "is the wisdom of the Church, the wisdom of Christ."

Wilding started to sputter. Her husband arched an eyebrow and nodded toward Joel, who was watching his mommy's face.

She is, she admits now, "very conflicted about religion. It would be nice to be so sure, to feel so supported. But, intellectually, I just can't go there -- and, politically, the Church is getting more and more conservative, which goes against my American culture."

According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, the percentage of adults identifying with no religion more than doubled between 1990 and 2001, rising from 14.3 million to 29.4 million (14.1 percent of the population). Meanwhile, baby boomers are more likely to float in and out of religious groups, less likely to "join." They see spirituality as an individual quest, not a tradition in which one dwells from birth to death. They insist on thinking for themselves, value tolerance, refuse to hold one religion's "truths" above the rest. They also tend to be liberal and Democratic.

But this new "lay liberalism" has not made much of a dent in the country's overall belief system.

Eight of 10 Americans say that prayer is an important part of their daily lives and believe in a Judgment Day when people will be called before God to answer for their sins. According to the Pew Research Center report, The 2004 Political Landscape, a greater proportion than that, 87 percent, say, "I never doubt the existence of God."

Wilding listens to the statements. "Yeah, I believe in none of that," she cuts in. "God [for me] is a creative force, very present in the natural world, and humans are just one expression of that. The Lion King is closer to my model," she adds wryly.

She's not alone: In 1987 and 1988, just 5 percent of the public disagreed with the three religious statements cited above. Today, the number of people younger than 30 who disagree has risen to 12 percent.

"I feel like there is a lot of fear in the institutional church," Wilding says. "I think they are afraid of being relevant because they don't understand the world we live in. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has become so conservative Christian that people can look away if we are killing Muslims, because they are heathen, and that's when I don't want to be a part of any organized religion. To claim the moral high ground -- to me, that's when you're in trouble, when you feel like you have God on your side."

Jeannette Batz Cooperman's most recent article for Illinois Times was "Abraham, Martin, and the little corporal," published on Feb. 5. This story was distributed by AlterNet, the news service of the alternative press.

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