Of all the loathsome spectacles we’ve endured since November 2–the vampire-like gloating of CNN commentator Robert Novak, Bush embracing his “mandate”–none are more repulsive than that of Democrats conceding the “moral values” edge to the party that brought us Abu Ghraib. The cries for Democrats to overcome their “out-of-touch-ness” and embrace the predominant faith all dodge the full horror of the situation: A criminal has been enabled to continue his bloody work with the help, in no small part, of self-identified Christians.
With their craven, breast-beating response to Bush’s electoral triumph, leading Democrats only demonstrate how out of touch they really are with the religious transformation of America. Where secular-type liberals and centrists go wrong is in categorizing religion as a form of “irrationality,” akin to spirituality, sports mania and emotion generally. They fail to see that the current “Christianization” of red-state America bears no resemblance to the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century, an ecstatic movement that filled the fields of Virginia with the rolling, shrieking and jerking bodies of the revived. In contrast, today’s right-leaning Christian churches represent a coldly Calvinist tradition in which even speaking in tongues, if it occurs at all, has been increasingly routinized and restricted to the pastor. What these churches have to offer, in addition to intangibles like eternal salvation, is concrete, material assistance. They have become an alternative welfare state, whose support rests not only on “faith” but also on the loyalty of the grateful recipients.
Drive out from Washington to the Virginia suburbs, for example, and you’ll find the McLean Bible Church, spiritual home of Senator James Inhofe and other prominent right-wingers, still hopping on a weekday night. Dozens of families and teenagers enjoy a low-priced dinner in the cafeteria; a hundred unemployed people meet for prayer and job tips at the “Career Ministry”; divorced and abused women gather in support groups. Among its many services, MBC distributes free clothing to 10,000 poor people a year, helped start an inner-city ministry for at-risk youth in DC and operates a “special needs” ministry for disabled children.
MBC is a mega-church with a parking garage that could serve a medium-sized airport, but many smaller evangelical churches offer a similar array of services–childcare, after-school programs, ESL lessons, help in finding a job, not to mention the occasional cash handout. A woman I met in Minneapolis gave me her strategy for surviving bouts of destitution: “First, you find a church.” A trailer-park dweller in Grand Rapids told me that he often turned to his church for help with the rent. Got a drinking problem, a vicious spouse, a wayward child, a bill due? Find a church. The closest analogy to America’s bureaucratized evangelical movement is Hamas, which draws in poverty-stricken Palestinians through its own miniature welfare state.