Wednesday, September 5, 2007

After Evangelicalism?

D. James Kennedy has died:

Though never quite as well known as his brethren in Virginia (Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson), televangelist D. James Kennedy was led a religious right powerhouse for a generation, creating a megachurch in South Florida, a $37 million evangelical multimedia empire, the Center for Reclaiming America, the Center for Christian Statesmanship, and a major annual religio-political conference called Reclaiming America for Christ. He also helped establish the Moral Majority more than 30 years ago.

Here's his NY Times obit.

With Falwell's death earlier this year, and now Kennedy's, the religious right is doubtlessly reminded that the leadership that brought them to national prominence as a political entity is rapidly reaching the twilight of their lives. There are still a number of prominent "old school" evangelicals left in the public spotlight, but the cadre that is now in a position to inherent the born again movement is conspicuously less "fire and brimstone" than their forerunners. The new generation doesn't seem as motivated by political power as they do by, well, the prosperity of their congregations.

The new message seems to be that God will make you rich, and if He can't enhance your bank account He sure as hell can increase your sense of self-worth. To a certain extent the contemporary megachurch elites with their brand of Theology Lite can at times look like the punchline of a joke that begins Jesus, Warren Buffet, and Tony Robbins walk into a bar ... all of which makes me wonder if American (Christian) Theology is finally getting ready to merge with the American Dream.

If you can't "get money" (see Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer) then you're invited to "pursue happiness" (see Rick Warren). There are serious theology disagreement between the two groups, and this is the kind of "a la carte" protestantism that evangelicals have been criticizing lax Catholics for since they began the effort to bring them into their political fold in the late '80s and early '90s (see here for starters), but that might indicate a sign that contemporary evangelicals are less concerned with doctrine than they are with the proverbial "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" of their flock.

The focus on financial and emotional prosperity represents a tectonic shift in this country's religious thought. It's a far cry from the "end times" rhetoric favored by just about every prominent American Christian leader since Jonathan Edwards. Call it a "New Age" influence, a product of a self-obsessed Baby Boomer generation, whatever the reason, asking someone one to prosper in this life as they are intended to in the next isn't exactly the model of the emulation of Christ that has been presented for the last 2000 years.

Which is not to say that this is necessarily an incorrect interpretation of scriptures; it's just one that will need a good deal of effort to reconcile with hundreds of years of protestant teaching. That might mean that the political progress made by evangelicals over the last 30 years will have to be put on hold while doctrinal disputes are settled, modernized or adapted to the 21st Century. That could ease the encroachment of the church onto the state's turf, a relationship that could use some cooling off given the efforts of the current crop of aging evangelicals.

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