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Redemptorama: culture, politics, and the new evangelicalism.

One Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1970, a few people who had dropped in on Ronald and Nancy Reagan, then the First Couple of California, bid farewell by clasping hands for a round of prayer. For a moment, GEorge Otis, a California businessman, spoke in his own voice. Then his hand, the one holding Reagan's, began to shake. Immediately, he knew the meaning of his plasied flaps: the Holy Spirit had descended on him.

His voice changed. Addressing Reagan as "my Son," the voice assured the governor that he had been "pleasing." If "Son" would "walk uprightly before Me," Son would "reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue," the home of the First Couple of the Land.

For some, Otis's elevation to the role of medium for the Holy Spirit remains a cheerful prophecy of the Presidential election a decade later. For others, Otis is an example, far less cheering than that of lottery winners, of a man whose wish came true. But the fact that anybody--other than family, friends, customers or a random pollster--should want to interpret George Otis at all shows how much public attention religion has reclaimed. Carol Flake's Redemptorama is a smart, sharp, tartly engineered projectile that zips toward its target: the latest version of a Great Awakening, attempting to bestow on this country the status of a most-favored nation in a treaty with the Christian God. Drawing strength from the allinace of conservative institutions, patriarchal ideologies, state power and corporate ambitions that is as booming as bass drums in a homecoming parade, the Awakening is well under way.

According to Flake, the first signs of a religious revival became apparent in the 1970s. Jimmy Carter, though he proved to be a "liberal in sheepish clothing," was a born-again Christian. In 1977, Anita Bryant told gays to go and sin no morrah. In 1979, the year in which Pope John Paul II brought his roadshow to the United States, a small group chartered the Moral Majority. Although Redemptorama summarizes history hastily and theology tersely, it correctly identifies those events as the most recent incarnations of struggles as old as the European presence on the North American continent: the struggles between theocratic and democratic impulses; between "Christ and Culture" (a phrase Flake adopts from H. Richard Niebuhr); between the Scriptures and our secular texts. Not coincidentally, The Fundamentals, the series of booklets that chiseled out such essential principles of fundamentalist Christianity as biblical inerrancy, appeared in the same decade that produced the Armory Show, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Tender Buttons and that skeptical, luscious meditation on paganism, Christ and death, Wallace Stevens's "Sunday Morning."

Yet my metaphor--Redemtporama as weapon--is only partly accurate. Carol Flake can be explosively tough-minded about the powerful and the ambitious, about the jowly patriarchs in vested suits who go to prayer breakfasts with Ronald Reagan. And like many who have defrocked organized religion, from Voltaire to the scriptwriters of Ghostbusters, she knows that satire can corrode more effectively than philippics. She is, however, gentle with ordinary people. She praises the kindliness and generosity of many who seek not the heights of the electronic pulpit but the hardness of the church bench. She prefers Christ's more humble followers to his moguls. She also admires much of the work of radical theologians. With roots in nineteenth-century Christian socialism and Christian reform movements, they toil for peace and social justice.

Flake's past has prepared her for these deft negotiations between irony and sympathy, for she was raised in Texas as a Southern Baptist. Brother Johnny was her fire-and-brimstone preacher. The public schools first connected her little evangelical Christian community to the larger world, with its "more complex, contradictory values." Acutely sensitive to the importance of public education, she fears the double strategy of separatism and censorship that might weaken it.

Flake went on to college and graduate school. There she and her colleagues dreamed up "Redemptorama," an imaginary theme park that presented the Bible in "Cecil B. De Mille fashion," with redemption transmogrified into a roller-coaster ride. She traveled from such blasphemies to the secularism of the Northeast. As science once flattered itself for scouring out superstition, so Flake believed she had "outgrown" her faith. Still, no process, no matter how mind-altering, erases every bit of the past. In 1979, religion again drew her in. She undertook a "pilgrimage" through the world of evangelicalism. At the end, she found her religious faith renewed.

In Visions of Glory, a confessional history of the Jehovah's Witnesses, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison revealed far more than Flake does about the psychology of her belief--that potent fusion of personal fantasy and moral principle. Nevertheless, Flake is as shrewd and as vivid an anthropologist. Because she is both insider and outsider, because she is both immersed in religious experience and dry-eyed, this "ambivalent emigre," as she calls herself, avoids the liberal error of regarding evangelicals in the manner of an explorer "peering through the foliage at a stone-wiedling prehistoric tribe."

The evangelicals and fundamentalists (more rigorous than evangelicals) she describes have emerged from the threading of the Sun Belt through the loops that once held the Bible Belt. Churches are warmer and more comfortable, politics more sophisticated; the absolute commitment to the word has dissolved into a manipulation of the image. Indeed, Super Sanctuaries can have Total Image Centers as well as Bible classes and Nautilus machines.

Redemptorama offers a vigorous set of field studies in New Evangelical theories of sex and marriage, sports, music, publishing, media (including Christian soap operas) and social values, and in the movement's cunning congregations with the New Right. Flake writes convincingly of the New Evangelical culture of business. In The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer sketched a schizophrenic split between devout Christianity and the American corporation, "an unseen vise whose pressure could split . . . mind from . . . soul." However, part of the appeal of contemporary evangelicalism is that it seems to offer an ideological lubricant to help people slide out of Mailer's vise; to reconcile Christ, capital and marching on the Capitol. A "Super Saver" can be both a potent preacher and a high-yield certificate of deposit.

Flake might have speculated more about the effect of this Christian capitalism on the worshipers, who are mostly from the lower middle class. Perhaps 45 percent of all evangelicals in the labor force are manual workers, and less than 20 percent are professionals or entrepreneurs. Will a call to Christian capitalism prove inspiring or will it ultimately provoke a populism of disappointment?

The New Evangelicalism may just be the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. (History's zany joke is that the beast is clean-cut and prefers air-conditioned buildings to hot desert air.) It summons up memories of the terrible dangers of organized religion: the devaluation of women, the monolithic thinking that denies the dappled diversity of the world and rumbles toward totalitarianism, the conviction that one religious text is the single manifesto that will spur us toward our manifest destiny. Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on Virginia, had good reason to claim that it does us no injury if our neighbor says there are twenty gods or none.

However, Flake has written Redemptorama in the past tense, as if her subject were already a part of history. This grammatical nicety signifies her belief that the New Evangelicals--despite their numbers, money, pacts and PACs--will not get all they want. Tensions within Christianity and between Christians and non-Christians will hamper them. Inevitably, the New Evangelicals will move toward the confusing, often uncertain moderate center of American life. Although they woo that center, they will be unable to win it. Moreover, the evangelical use of electronic media may prove to be little more than a spiritual vibrator: a stimulus whose mechanisms, apparently so gratifying, will eventually demonstrate the inability of the mechanical to serve human needs. Of TV savior Pat Robertson, Flake remarks:

Robertson knew the loneliness, the despair, the anguish of the wounded or lost sinners of America. . . . His show offered the electronic version of group prayer. . . . Unfortunately . . . he could offer only an illusion of . . . spontaneity and sense of community. . . . For the televangelist, communications from God had to come on cue.

Flake joins, then, a special contemporary group. Raised as evangelicals or, as fundamentalists, they left the immediate circle of the church to join the modern United States. Less damaged less tormented than Rayber in The Violent Bear It Away, Flannery O'Connor's novel about wrathful Christianity, they never wholly repressed their past. As the New Evangelicals emerged these people began to examine what once might have seemed a rear-guard cluster. Although aware of the value of a craving for the divine, although aware of the valors of Protestantism, many of them predict the self-destruction of the New Evangelicalism.

For Harvey Cox, the supple and imaginative theologian, its values may prove too rigidly redneck; its apocalyptic beliefs, too fatalistic. Like Flake, he believes that the New Evangelical "romance" with the electronic media will blank out genuine spiritual experience. If Cox ignores some of the wilder forms of contemporary religion, he nevertheless journeys along the margins of Christianity to construct a renewed belief system that might escape New Evangelical errors.

Carol Virginia Pohli, another such observer, feels that evangelical Christianity may undercut efforts to consolidate its political influence, for the evangelical view of history is "elitist, teleological and separatist," not given to the bunting of conventions and the banners of parties. The traditional autonomy of local churches and denominations will resist pressures to act in concert, no matter the immense mailing lists in Richard Viguerie's office. Then, too, the "latent discontent" of some women may weaken evangelical authoritarianism.

Perhaps such prophecies are cool variations on post- rather than pre-millennial thinking. They promise that history is moving toward the light, not toward eschatological chaos. No matter how consoling, even how Whiggish, this expectation, it can hardly substitute for struggle against the aggressive clamor for power by those who would unite patriarchal church militant, patriarchal state militant and profit-sheet militant, and who would then flag down creepy secular humanists--even such agnostic secular humanists as me.

The virtues that modernity has bred--like Jefferson's "wall" between church and state--may crumble in this clamor. Where, too, will the Christ of grace and love be? Or the Christ of sheer common sense, who told the Pharisees to remember the difference between God and Caesar, between church and state?
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Author:Stimpson, Catharine R.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 17, 1984
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