In 1925, H.L. Mencken traveled to Tennessee, to cover the Scopes trial for the Baltimore Evening Sun. These dispatches helped forge Clarence Darrow’s legend—later gold-plated by Hollywood’s 1960 version of the play Inherit the Wind—as the sharp criminal lawyer who defended Darwinism by illustrating the illogic of reading the Bible literally. Mencken wrote so persuasively (albeit haughtily) against Christian fundamentalists, deeming them “ignorant” and “cowardly,” and declaring that they knew “little of anything that is worth knowing,” that it’s easy to forget substitute biology teacher John T. Scopes lost his case. He was guilty of teaching evolution, but the nation’s evangelicals were the ones shamed, and in the following decades they largely retreated from the public sphere.
The recent, explosive growth of the evangelical movement—some polls count 60 million Americans as evangelicals—and its return to the forefront of national politics has led to reams of news stories addressing the same big question that Mencken tackled: Who are these people? Jeffery L. Sheler attempts an answer with Believers, a book that ambles through evangelical America, stopping at the California mega-church Saddleback, home of Hawaiian-shirt-clad mega-pastor Rick Warren (author of Christian self-help tome The Purpose-Driven Life, reputed to be the best-selling hardcover of all time, with 25 million copies sold); Wheaton College in Illinois, where faculty are required to sign a statement attesting to their personal faith; and the annual Creation Festival, a Christian rock love-in (chaste, natch) held on a farm in Pennsylvania.
Sheler, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and a former evangelical himself, states in his prologue that Believers was born of his desire to “discover the heart and soul” of the movement and rectify the mainstream media’s “superficial” portrayal of it. The snag, though, is that Sheler fails to render individual evangelicals with the kind of depth that constitutes heart or soul. He offers instead benign, even self-evident explanations of their beliefs and motivations: We learn that James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, is a man whose “personal confidence and strong sense of moral certitude was rooted in an unshakable conviction that he is doing God’s work,” and a group of missionaries building a house in a Guatemalan village “believed they were responding to the biblical mandate to spread the gospel.” It seems Sheler didn’t ask the tough questions about evangelical faith and (to the secular mind) its paradoxes, nor did he observe his subjects with a critical eye. He’s more Mr. Rogers than reporter, wearing his sympathies on his cardigan sleeve.
Lauren Sandler’s Righteous undertakes a similar cross-evangelical- country journey. A former NPR producer and self-described “unrepentant Jewish atheist,” Sandler smartly uses herself as a foil for the evangelicals she meets, many of whom regard her as a spiritual charity case or potential convert. “My three decades on this earth have been something of a liberal cliché,” she writes. “I was raised in Harvard Square, and have long been registered to vote in New York. To me, the Bible is essentially a game of telephone: a number of word-of-mouth accounts that took hundreds of years to be recorded on paper.” She makes her skepticism clear, but still presents a portrait of evangelical life that is more balanced and nuanced than Sheler’s.
Righteous focuses not on Warren’s flock of suburban devotees, but on the teens and twentysomethings who make up a vast Christian counterculture in which, Sandler writes, “dreadlocks ally with buzz cuts, organizing against anything that challenges the perceived literal perfection of the Bible.” It is, she continues, “a dominant ideology without a dominant aesthetic.” Sandler draws characters deftly and has an ear for dialogue; she’s helped by her subjects, many of whom are articulate, ambitious, media-savvy hipsters—that is, media-savvy evangelical hipsters (subtract the penchant for irony). More affecting are the kids hanging out at festivals, rock shows, and skate parks in suburbs and desolate old downtowns across America, who say they felt a deep sense of “brokenness” before they were saved. Sandler describes one anguished teenage girl, whose military boyfriend ended their relationship before he left for Iraq, sobbing at an evangelical youth event as the speakers onstage “promised salvation from loneliness and doubt.” It’s clear why the girl “surrendered everything right then,” as she later put it, while a volunteer softly prayed for her.
Sandler, alarmed by the crusade she sees mounting around her, is most troubled by young evangelicals’ anti-intellectualism—their “extreme contempt for facts,” as she writes, quoting Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. Her frustration reaches fever pitch in a chapter on intelligent design, in which a 25-year-old teacher at Christian private school lifts his lessons from the Bible, telling his students that our planet is only a few thousand years old. Carbon dating is a hoax, he argues: “God created the earth to look old to test our faith.” Public school students across the country, too, learn creationism in their classrooms, though on the sly. In addition to the book of Genesis, their reading lists feature The Purpose-Driven Life. Mencken would turn over in his grave.