Review of “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation”June 3, 2008
rating: 2 of 5 stars
Back in 1999, in the book “God Knows My Heart”, Christine Wicker described her journey out of the Southern Baptist church and away from God…and then detailed how she came back to God without necessarily coming back to her church roots. It was a pleasant and often insightful look at how religion can kill a heart seeking after Truth. It wasn’t in my top ten biographies by any stretch, but it was well written as a first-hand look at religious life in the Bible Belt.
That is why I was intrigued to see that she had taken on the gargantuan task of delineating how the Evangelical church in America no longer has the political influence it once did. She has so many problems in this book that it would take me several chapters to focus on them all. But more than anything, the reason she fails is because she takes on a subject with too much breadth.
Here is what I mean. It appears from the first chapter that Wicker wants to show that the true influence of the Evangelical church in America, especially in the political realm, is more perceived than actual. I have believed this for a long time, so I was intrigued to see her try and prove it statistically. From my point of view, Evangelicals have never been the Moral Majority that Falwell and Robertson wanted them to be. Even within evangelical circles, it was clear that the adherents to this expression of faith are no more moral than the rest of the country. Wicker expounds on that point later, but she has already lost her high ground when she does.
So, after starting out with an admirable thesis (i.e. to prove the diminishing power of Evangelical politics), she then branches out much too quickly onto other topics. She goes on to explore the ineffectiveness of evangelism, the declining numbers in Evangelical churches, the cynicism of people who used to belong to these churches and the decay of moral values among Evangelicals. After doing these things (any of which would be adequate fodder for a book of their own), she tackles the reasons behind the fall of the church, including its core beliefs. She maintains that Evangelicals will be better off if they read the writing on the wall and moderate everything they believe down to the Golden Rule.
As I said, the real problem with the book is that it tries to take on too much. That causes the following problems to emerge:
1. In her speed to get through it all, she looks primarily at the Bible Belt version of Christianity instead of its expression in other parts of the country. No one denies that the church of the Bible Belt is dying. Most of us have predicted that for a half century. As far as Wicker is concerned, the rest of the church in America outside of Texas and Wisconsin is a footnote.
2. Her statistics are all derived; she has no original sources in the entire book. Because of this, her numerical conclusions are suspect. However, though she does a poor job backing up her main idea that Evangelicals have little numerical force in politics, she still is probably correct. So why do I object to her fast and loose approach with stats? It is because she then uses her methodology for obtaining the statistics to justify other conclusions she draws. For instance, as far as she is concerned, the Evangelical church is only a fourth as big as it claims to be. So every time she runs into a statistic about the church, she cuts it into a quarter of its size automatically. She does this with everything. If I was her newspaper editor, I would have asked “Do you have any original sources Christine?” I wonder why her editors at Harper didn’t do the same? Perhaps it is because they just wanted a book in an election year that has a religious slant to it.
3. She relies too heavily on the work of one person: George Barna. As readers of my blog and other reviews I have written will know, Barna is on a one-man crusade to explain why the church is falling apart. His book “Revolution” is mentioned no less than 9 times in this book. The only author she quotes more vehemently is Henry James.
4. She uses way too many anecdotal characters and their stories in a book that wants to make a proof about a societal trend. She gives examples of people who have left the church. One woman leaves because her husband is a homosexual. Another leaves because she has trouble with the concept of hell. Another leaves because of her own bigoted attitude about fat people, which she blames on the church. Wicker would argue that she has several stories at the beginning of the book about people who stay with the church, but she always manages to make each of them look like a fruitcake or a zealot even when they’re doing good works.
5. Her reasons for why people are leaving the church are the same reasons people have always left churches. But turned around, they are the same reasons people seek out churches. One “for instance” will suffice. She mentions that people are leaving churches that are too dogmatic in their beliefs about God. But we also have volumes of evidence to suggest that at other times, people seek out churches that aren’t wishy-washy.
This book is actually about her own journey away from the church and her bitterness at the excesses and vagaries of the Bible belt brand of Christianity. I don’t disagree that this may be true. There are many people leaving the church today. But at the same time, there are many changes going on that she doesn’t see. The church has become much more maleable outside the borders of Texas. It is much more fluid and allows for much more dialog than she knows in this book. The Internet, podcasts and blogs have made all of us more accountable and less marginalized in what we teach and how it is taught.
If Wicker traveled to the West Coast, interviewed a few others beside Barna and didn’t put too much weight on her own journey, this would have been valuable. In fact, if she had just called this “God Knows My Heart – Part 2” it would have been much more appealing