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Mark Lilla Wonders Why Evangelicals Won’t Get With the Program–and Liberalize

Mark Lilla, a University of Chicago professor, decided to jump into the deep end of the church/state pool, and his article in Sunday’s edition of The New York Times is all wet–or mostly, at least. Lilla surveys the contemporary political scene and sees that everyone seems to want to “get religion.” The press is trying to understand all this, he explains, since conservative Christianity is “an alien world the press typically ignores.” Offering his own explanation, Lilla suggests that the Enlightenment-driven founders of the American experiment, along with the British, has made two wagers. “The first was that religious sects, if they were guaranteed liberty, would grow attached to liberal democracy and obey its norms. The second was that entering the public square would liberalize them doctrinally, that they would become less credulous and dogmatic, more sober and rational.” Alas, that has not come to pass. At the very least, the liberalizing of evangelical Christianity is taking longer than the secularists had hoped. To his credit, Lilla is clear about what he means by liberalism. In theology, liberalism means the following: “It includes a critical approach to Scripture as a historical document, an openness to modern science, a turn from public ritual to private belief and a search for common ground in the Bible’s moral message.” Why hasn’t that happened? Well, Lilla understand that evangelicals witnessed the collapse of the liberal churches and denominations that liberalized their theology. And he offers this┬áinsightful observation: “It appears that there are limits to the liberalization of biblical religion. The more the Bible is treated as a historical document, the more its message is interpreted in universalist terms, the more the churches sanctify the political and cultural order, the less hold liberal religion will eventually have on the hearts and minds of believers. This dynamic is particularly pronounced in Protestantism, which heightens the theological tension brought on by being in the world but not of it. Liberal religion imagines a pacified order in which good citizenship, good morals and rational belief coexist harmoniously. It is therefore unprepared when the messianic and eschatological forces of biblical faith begin to stir.” And those forces do stir, he warns. “The leading thinkers of the British and American Enlightenments hoped that life in a modern democratic order would shift the focus of Christianity from a faith-based reality to a reality-based faith,” he instructs. “American religion is moving in the opposite direction today, back toward the ecstatic, literalist and credulous spirit of the Great Awakenings. Its most disturbing manifestations are not political, at least not yet. They are cultural. The fascination with the ”end times,” the belief in personal (and self-serving) miracles, the ignorance of basic science and history, the demonization of popular culture, the censoring of textbooks, the separatist instincts of the home-schooling movement — all these developments are far more worrying in the long term than the loss of a few Congressional seats.” Professor Lilla is very worried about home-schoolers, Intelligent Design advocates, and those who simply will not accept the “reality-based faith” he would promote. He concludes by wondering “how long this dumbing-down of American religion will persist” before evangelicals give up our strange ideas about a “faith-based reality.” Well, if those on the evangelical left have their way, he won’t have to wait long.