Books claiming to decipher evangelical Christianity for the secular reader are nothing new, but the Bush years ushered in the genre’s golden age. Following the 2000 election, scores of pundits sought to explain the rise of the Christian right, and some of their efforts were worthwhile. For The Great Derangement, Matt Taibbi went undercover at a fundamentalist retreat that culminated with a mass exorcism where he was encouraged to vomit up demons, and he walked away understanding how easy it could be to “bury your ‘sinful’ self far under the skin of your outer Christian.” D. Michael Lindsay conducted interviews with evangelicals in business and politics for Faith in the Halls of Power and (perhaps to a fault) allowed them to speak for themselves.
Yet many recent guides to evangelicalism are vastly oversimplified, if not aggressively disingenuous. The worst are the Red America manuals that issue forth from career contrarians like David Brooks, who concocts a thesis about homely red-state virtues and works backward—making a few trips across state lines to churches, auto-body shops, and Red Lobsters—in search of anecdotes to support it. And in the era of family values and untrammeled free enterprise, a host of professional opinion mongers affected to don evangelical-tinted glasses through which they reassessed and cast doubt on progressive ideas that had entered the mainstream in prior decades. Never mind that “evangelical” is a slippery category, prone to many opportunistic manipulations. Do we count the Charismatics? PCA Presbyterians? Tongues-speaking Episcopalians? There are many camps along the spectrum of American Protestantism—camps often hostile to one another—and as a child I was dragged through a number of them.
In the post-Bush era, some of the most reductionist punditry on the evangelical scene has receded, leaving room for serious inquiry into how the past eight years came about. To that end, Eileen Luhr’s Witnessing Suburbia is a diligent and informative, if somewhat muddled, exploration of the ways mainstream evangelicals’ attitudes toward popular culture have evolved in the past forty years. Coming out of the ’60s, church elders were wringing their hands over the heathens, hippies, and rock stars putting their children’s spiritual lives at risk. Consequently, the ’70s saw the birth of a parents’ movement that sought to segregate Christian youth from the dangers of the counterculture and to “restore ‘traditional’ authority.”
By now, the Jimmy Swaggart–style objections to rock are legendary, the stuff of comedy skits. The music’s “pounding fury” was said to match the rate of the human heart, and its backward-masked subliminal content to endorse Satan and drug use, so that even the most devout teens would have trouble withstanding its “two-pronged, physical and psychological attack.” As record burnings made offending albums ever more desirable to the secular rock audience, however, some of the music’s fiercest opponents backed away from “threats of hellfire” and kick-started the family-values movement, urging Christian conservatives to protest as concerned parents rather than as people of faith.
At times, Luhr defines evangelicals to exclude strict fundamentalists, focusing on a more mainstream—“suburbanized”—subset of Protestants, while elsewhere, when it suits her thesis, she draws the category more broadly. She repeatedly highlights supporting examples while downplaying the force of countervailing evidence and employing an inconsistent time line. For instance, she suggests that evangelicals spent at least a decade shunning anything that resembled popular music after the close of the Jesus Movement, even as she acknowledges that “Christian rock exploded as a genre during the 1970s and 1980s.” As a result, Witnessing Suburbia’s organizing argument is frustrating and often hard to follow. Still, the overall trajectory Luhr identifies—of church leaders self-consciously borrowing from popular music and culture and using teenagers as ambassadors to the secular masses—is indisputable.
Obviously, the rise of Christian rock was controversial in fundamentalist quarters. Even artists as tame as Amy Grant drew fire, as I recall, although Luhr largely ignores the ’80s Christian pop goddess, focusing instead on more divisive Christian metal, rock, and punk acts like Stryper, Barren Cross, Lust Control, and Payable on Death and the emergence of zines devoted to the genre. Still, the more pragmatic evangelical parents realized that the youth ministry had to adapt to the new culture taking shape in its midst.
Although the bands appropriated outsider rhetoric, many were savvily capitalizing on the larger consumer culture, signing with secular labels to increase their clout in the mainstream. Eventually this “MTV approach to evangelism” led to rock ’n’ roll revivals like the Harvest Crusade, which in 1997 lured a crowd of nearly fifty thousand to Anaheim Stadium in California. By the start of the Bush era, white evangelicals’ youth culture had become a formidable and influential industry. Indeed, Christians’ gains in the marketplace were just as “significant and as ambitious” as their family-values agenda. By 2004, the “coalescence of exurban consumerism and religious belief” had found its most perfect expression in the opening of a megachurch on the grounds of a former Wal-Mart Superstore in Saint Petersburg, Florida. The teen Christian underground no longer needed a zine culture to get its message across.
Wal-Mart is also the spiritual center of Bethany Moreton’s probing and nuanced study of the latter-day evangelical romance with free-market capitalism, To Serve God and Wal-Mart. Like Luhr, Moreton is preoccupied with evangelicals’ acceptance and appropriation of consumer culture. Unlike Luhr, she sees the relationship as organic, even inevitable.
During the worst years of the Great Depression, it was what would become Wal-Mart Country—the Ozarks and environs—that led the revolt against the corporate reorganization of American society, while progressive opinion-makers tended to see this antichain movement as an impediment to economic recovery. Most chains were owned by Northeasterners, some of them Jews or Catholics, and Moreton shows that much populist-inflected antichain rhetoric was subtly designed to highlight these traits; meanwhile, southern preachers of separatist commerce attacked “foreigners”—basically meaning anyone not local—implicitly setting them in opposition to “Christian, ‘old-stock’ American whites.’”
Indeed, Moreton points out that Wal-Mart’s “procorporate populism” succeeded despite antichain sentiment because it “addressed the underlying logic of the old anticorporate populism”—both by stressing that its initial growth was locally financed and by crafting a friendly, small-town image that drew from idealized Ozarks culture. Founder Sam Walton opened his early stores in rural white towns, but before choosing locations he checked bank deposits and county sales-tax receipts and flew over proposed sites to find “heavy public supports” like military bases, universities, and hospitals, which vastly increased the potential for sales. The result was a series of “theme parks of landlocked small-town life,” where RVs were welcome.
Wal-Mart’s folksy illusion relied in part on making store workers feel like family; in particular, on making female workers feel valued as wives and mothers. Moreton does an excellent job of digging beneath Wal-Mart’s carefully imagineered vision of the rural good life. She not only recounts labor abuses such as the company’s notorious failure to promote and reward women but also stresses how the company appealed to white Americans’ feelings of entitlement. Many of their forebears, including Walton’s, had profited from government jobs and land grants, as well as from subsidies and protections in the form of Social Security, the minimum wage, health care, and education—many of which were effectively unavailable to African Americans. Wal-Mart was at the forefront of a burgeoning service economy that “capitalized on [the] broad social agreement that women weren’t really workers, their skills not really skills.” Its workers and the customers they served—often “friends, neighbors, and loved ones—were the same: white Ozarkers nostalgic for a wholesome, more homogeneous, and largely imaginary yesteryear, for a past in which the best opportunities were reserved for people like them.
Because many of the workers were religious, their approach to work originated in “a different cultural tradition, that of Christian service.” So closely did the store come to resemble the church that shoppers eventually came to invert the traditional relationship between Christianity and commerce, measuring the church “against the standard of the store” and finding the church “wanting in true religion.” Thus did capitalism and consumption become sanctified, and as Wal-Mart began to turn to Christian colleges—steeped in this same service mentality—for managerial talent, the connection with the church became increasingly explicit. Even more culturally significant was Wal-Mart’s creation of Students in Free Enterprise (sife), which “sought to impart faith in free-market economics to schoolchildren.” To sife, economics was not a discipline but a practical trade, and indoctrination started early, with a Kinder-Nomics class for preschoolers.
Yet as Moreton observes, for all this fervent propagandizing for the free-market faith, American evangelicals have always been resistant to categorization and prone to mutation. Calamities such as Hurricane Katrina and the botched government response to it have produced a renewed emphasis in many evangelical circles on the fight to reduce poverty and on political advocacy for the disenfranchised—trends that will likely gain traction as the global recession unfolds. As Moreton writes, “The invisible hand of the market and the hand of God are not so easily mistaken for each other when the former proves so fallible.”
Maud Newton is a writer and blogger whose novel in progress examines the impetus behind fundamentalism and will be excerpted in the spring issue of Narrative.