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PERSPECTIVE ON RELIGION : Crusades Reap a Political Harvest : Evangelical faith translates into a strong political allegiance-- rightward--that the left can't match.

July 27, 1995|BRAD STETSON | Brad Stetson is the author of "Pluralism and Particularity in Religious Belief" (Praeger, 1994) and director of the David Institute, a social research group based in Tustin. and

The recently concluded four-day Harvest Crusade in Anaheim accomplished its religious purposes, according to its organizers. It also attracted significant, favorable press coverage. But unnoticed by both participants and observers are some important political consequences that flow from this annual gathering of evangelical Christians.

Overwhelmingly, the crusade draws and produces conservative evangelicals--that is, the "religious right," in the parlance of today's political acrimony. The political profile of such religious believers is well-known. They are almost uniformly pro-life, disapproving of homosexuality, supportive of school voucher programs and prayer in public schools, creationist and suspicious of big activist government.

Thus, in effect, the evangelical Harvest Crusade quite directly yields recruits for the Culture War, people whose religious beliefs incline them decisively to the right on many of the most contentious issues in American society. And it does so in substantial numbers. The gathering in Anaheim attracted 164,000 people over four days, a better turnout than the California Angels had in the entire month of June.

But perhaps more important than the sheer number of people inadvertently drafted for the American Kulturkampf as a result of their participation in the crusade is that Christians of this stripe bring an unusual fervor and depth of commitment to their political opinions. For them, conservative political beliefs are a subset of conservative theological beliefs. Political values are derived from religious values.

This is not always the case with liberals. It may be with the religious left, but their political power is small compared with religious conservatives'. The religious left is a largely gentrified and intellectual body, hard pressed to compete with the younger, more numerous and more grass-roots evangelicals typified by the Harvest Crusades. Moreover, the secular left, which is the dominant component of contemporary liberalism, is not energized with the religious themes that animate politically conservative evangelicals. These themes include: a moral absolutism; a missionary impulse that aggressively seeks to persuade and convert others to one's own worldview, and a visceral alarm at what is seen as the nation's apocalyptic decline into social debauchery.

And these Christian soldiers are likely to press onward. Over the last two decades, sociologists of religion have documented the stunningly rapid growth of evangelical churches. Their literalistic belief systems and emphasis on Bible study and individual service facilitates parishioners' commitment to their local church. This religious commitment translates into strong political allegiance--almost always rightward--because of the clear meaning and moral confidence evangelical faith provides in the midst of an increasingly ambiguous and unpredictable world. Thus, the political conservatives churned out by the now nationwide Harvest Crusades are enthusiastically committed to at least the outlines of a culturally conservative ideology. Their political influence is also enhanced because their commonly held and clearly identified religious beliefs allow for a ready-made solidarity among themselves. And since the left has no vehicle equivalent to the Harvest Crusades for laying a religious foundation for its politics, the political impact of the crusades is further magnified. They are a powerful conduit to conservative politics, without liberal peer.

And so the Harvest Crusades--along with their organizationally unrelated counterpart, Promise Keepers, the evangelical Christian men's movement also packing stadiums across the country--will continue to multiply and solidify conservative evangelical Christians. Moreover, the crusades, as annual conventions, will have a cumulative effect on the political climate. Year after year, in city after city, they will lead thousands of people, particularly young people, into the Kingdom of God--and the kingdom of Newt. The full significance of this double harvest will begin to unfold in the last years of this millennium.

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