May 14, 2005

"But Sex Sells!"

Over the past year, a handful of evangelicals, Jim Wallis especially, have been trying to get their conservative brethren to stop obsessing about sex and start paying more attention to poverty and other societal ills. It's a nice idea, but Michelle Cottle did some asking around and figures, eh, white evangelicals probably aren't ever going to play along. Her entire essay's brilliant, but this is the crucial bit:
In modern U.S. politics... personal piety has proved the more compelling rallying cry for a variety of reasons--perhaps the most basic being that sex sells. "Sex always gets people's attention," says Marvin Olasky, godfather of compassionate conservatism and editor of the religious magazine World. Talk of sexual sin "goes to the gut," agrees conservative columnist Cal Thomas…. By contrast, issues like health care and homelessness, while arguably more pertinent to more people's lives, lack the same sizzle and, as such, are unlikely to capture the imagination of the grassroots, not to mention a drama-loving press.

As a bonus, says Thomas, opposing abortion and gay marriage generally has more to do with changing someone else's behavior than one's own. He points out that, as far as the decline of American culture goes, Christians are just as guilty as non-Christians when it comes to high divorce rates, out-of-wedlock sex, and rampant materialism. (Supporting data for this and similar trends can be found in Sider's book The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.) But addressing this embarrassing reality would involve too much self-scrutiny, says Thomas...

Similarly, issues like poverty and racial reconciliation don't lend themselves as neatly to the same good-versus-evil, us-versus-them political paradigm as gay rights or judicial activism, the right's latest bugaboo. Sociologist Tony Campolo... likes to quote from philosopher Eric Hoffer's 1951 book, True Believer: "Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil." Hitler had the Jews, and the communists had the capitalists, says Campolo. "I contend that it's easy to rally people around opposition to gay people. In the minds of many, they have become the devil that must be destroyed if America is to be saved."

The uncomplicated, emotionally driven nature of the right's message gives it a fund-raising edge over the non-right. "Big-time TV evangelists tell people, 'Send us your money so we can stop abortion, stop gay rights,'" snorts Thomas. "If they were to go on and talk about how Christians needed to fix what's wrong in their own house, they wouldn't raise a dime." Moreover, if evangelicals seriously began pushing for tougher environmental regulation or higher Social Security taxes, it would strain the base's comfy relationship with the wing of the GOP that cares less about social than economic policy but that has, over the years, proved amenable to helping finance the crusade for personal piety...

On a more spiritual plane, the non-right also has the theological tradition of American evangelicalism to contend with... As historian George Mardsen relates in Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism, the progressive politics of the Roosevelt era (Teddy, not Franklin) "fostered a new wave of social concern in the churches and new types of proposals for social reform." Increasingly, progressive-minded Christians began insisting that believers should focus less on saving people's souls for the next world and more on redressing social ills in this one, a message referred to as "the social gospel." More theologically conservative Christians grew increasingly upset at what they saw as an attempt to supplant the message of salvation through Jesus's divine grace with a message of salvation through good works. They, in turn, responded by championing personal redemption and individual holiness over what famed revivalist Billy Sunday denounced as "this godless social-service nonsense."

American evangelicalism's emphasis on free-will individualism, personal responsibility, and the paramount importance of one's personal walk with God predisposes many adherents to distrust government intervention in social problems like poverty. In researching their book, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith found that evangelicals are more inclined than nonevangelicals to blame an individual's failure to thrive on personal shortcomings--say, a lack of ambition or character--rather than on any systemic disadvantages.
It's a harsh appraisal, and I certainly wish it wasn't true. But it's hard to argue against.

Continue Reading "'But Sex Sells!'"
-- Brad Plumer 2:59 AM || ||