Monday, December 18, 2017

"Fox Evangelicalism"

I have never by choice ever watched Fox News. The most common occasions when I have briefly had occasion to watch it have been when trapped in a doctor's waiting room or similar site where it was playing on the TV, its contents inflicted on any and all in the waiting room regardless of their will or desire. (Admittedly, that is better than one waiting room I have been to occasionally, where the on-screen program is all about various diseases!) 

That said, no one in today's America can be unaware of Fox and the distorted world-view it presents to apparently an awful lot of people. So it was with great interest that I recently read Amy Sullivan's recent NY Times Sunday Review article, "America's New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism" 

Sullivan's premise is that journalists and scholars. who "have spent decades examining the influence of conservative religion on American politics," have "missed the impact conservative politics was having on religion itself." I don't think that is completely correct. I think people have been commenting on this for some time now. Even observed quite some time ago that once consequence of conservative Christians opting to consider conservative politicians as allies on some controverted moral and cultural issues was that they then tended to start agreeing with what those conservative politicians were advocating on social and economic issues as well.

Be that as it may, Sullivan is certainly onto something very significant about the changing landscape of American religion. Sullivan's contention is that there is an "emerging religious worldview," which she calls "Fox evangelicalism," which is "preached" - and presumably internalized by its hearers - "from the pulpits of conservative media outlets like Fox news."

As one immediately relevant example, Sullivan cites the so-called "War on Christmas." She notes that previous presidents also said "Merry Christmas," that Obama's and Trump's Christmas-tree lighting messages were "virtually indistinguishable," and that the conservative opposition to the supposed "War on Christmas" has little to do with the earlier, religiously motivated "anti-consumption, anti-Santa" movement reflected in the original "Reason for the Season" slogan.

As a result, Sullivan suggests, Christmas has increasingly "moved out of the church and into the secular realm," in the process "damaging Christian witness by elevating performative secular practices." (Anyone familiar with the decline in Christmas church attendance and the cultural emphasis on Christmas as a"family" - as opposed to church - celebration will hardly be surprised to hear this.)

Sullivan sees all this as part of a larger picture in which, on the one hand, the word "evangelical" increasingly "functions as a cultural label, unmoored from theological meaning," while in the meantime "conservative media" has increasingly defined how "a whole generation of churchgoing evangelicals thinks about God and faith."

Sullivan cites an Oklahoma pastor and popular evangelical writer, Jonathan Martin, who notes that, while a pastor gets "about 30 to 40 minutes each week to teach about Scripture," his congregation may be "exposed to Fox news potentially three to four hours a day." Martin also notes that, whereas someone like Jerry Falwell, Sr., at least cared to try to ground his beliefs in Scripture, "Now the bible's increasingly irrelevant. It's just 'us versus them'." 

What results "is a malleable religious identity that can be weaponized" to support "virtually any policy, so long as it is promoted by someone Fox evangelicals consider on their side of the culture war."

It seems to me that this transformation of Christian believers into a political interest group for causes unrelated to or actually antithetical to Christian faith can in the long term only lead to the weakening - or even disappearance - of authentic Christian faith in the American public square, as it increasingly cedes the moral high ground on social and economic to a militantly secularist faith that really is opposed to Christian moral and cultural claims. From this, no good outcome can be expected.

(Amy Sullivan's article appeared on-line on December 15 and in print on December 17 in the Sunday Review section with the headline "A Very Merry War on Christmas."

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