Sometimes Christians can “tune out” the criticisms of unbelievers simply because they are non-Christians. It is a dangerous habit to develop. Very often those outside the Christian community can offer a fresh criticism that the Church needs to hear. Take sociologist Alan Wolfe for example. He serves as the Director of the Boisi Center at Boston University and is a self-described agnostic. Wolfe has spent several years now studying the beliefs of evangelical churches to see if they truly live their lives in ways consistent with what they believe. His method of finding this out was deceptively simple. He went out across America and visited specifically evangelical churches. His observations are put forth with disturbing clarity in The Transformation of American Religion.
Wolfe addresses whether or not evangelicals pose any sort of threat to secularism. His conclusions can be paraphrased in the following way:
“Dear fellow secular Americans, I know that you are concerned about the ‘Religious Right’ and their influence in America. You are worried that they possess too much power, and that if they are successful, they will make America into some kind of neo-theocratic state in which religious beliefs stymie the advance of personal moral freedoms in areas such as abortion, religious pluralism, and the normalization of homosexuality in the culture. But fear not, for on the basis of my studies, I have found that while evangelicals claim to believe in absolute truth and an authoritative Bible which governs all of life, they do not live like they say they believe. They say they believe the Bible is the Word of God, but somehow, strangely, the Bible always says what satisfies their personal psychological and emotional needs. They say they worship an awesome God, but their deity is not one to be feared, because He is pretty much nonjudgmental, always quick to point out your good qualities, and will take whatever He can get in terms of your commitment to Him. He’s “God lite”—not the imposing deity before whom Israel trembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, but the sort of deity who is always there to give you fresh supplies of upbeat daily therapy. And as for God’s people, well, they are really just like everyone else—no more holy or righteous than the rest of us. Put them in the crucible of character, and they’ll fold like a cheap suit. In sum, democracy is safe from religious zealots, because such people don’t really exist in large numbers. So relax, evangelical Christianity in America is as safe as milk.”
Here’s how Alan Wolfe describes his project’s conclusions in his own words:
“In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture–and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer; . . . Talk of hell, damnation, and even sin has been replaced by a nonjudgmental language of understanding and empathy. . . . far from living in a world elsewhere, the faithful in the United States are remarkably like everyone else.1”
Despite what one might think, Wolfe is torn, and even wistful, about the results he uncovered. He writes: “[W]atching sermons reduced to PowerPoint presentations or listening to one easily forgettable praise song after another makes one long for an evangelical willing to stand up, Luther-like, and proclaim his opposition to the latest survey of evangelical taste.”2 So anxious is evangelicalism to “copy the culture of hotel chains and popular music that it loses what religious distinctiveness it once had.”3
What Wolfe describes is a massive credibility gap for professing Christians. From what he has seen so far, nothing yet has convinced him that what is happening in the evangelical churches is anything particularly authentic. Of course, Wolfe has not visited every church in America. But one wonders how long it would take for him to uncover the kind of countercultural churches which he originally set out to find.
1 Alan Wolfe, The Transformation of American Religion (New York: The Free Press, 2003), 3.
2 Ibid., 256.
3 Ibid., 256-257.