Saddleback Church, and its pastor, Rick Warren, were the bigwinners of last night’s presidential forum. Warren sponsored the evangelical version of the Al Smith dinner, the quadrennial white tie event hosted by the Catholic archbishop of New York at which presidential candidates appear, albeit with tougher questions. Playing host to candidates was not the only, or even the most important, analogy to be drawn between the contemporary megachurch and American Catholicism.
Saddleback is one of the nation’s largest megachurches with over 20,000 members at several campuses scattered across the suburbs of Southern California. They function in the contemporary suburbs in very much the same way the Catholic parish functioned in the urban ethnic ghetto of the early 20thy century. If ethnic immigrants faced the alienation that came from leaving their homelands to come to America, today’s suburbanites suffer the alienation that contemporary, consumer culture breeds in spades. And, if the early 20th century immigrant faced the unique challenges of urban poverty, the megachurch serves those who encounter the ennui of affluence. Both groups sought the kind of grounding religion can provide.
The megachurch of today, like the ethnic parish of old, creates a subculture and social texture grows out of its religious ground. There are schools, day care, and a network of small groups – for teens, for college students, for Moms – that meet weekly to discuss how their faith has impacted their daily lives. They have bookstores that sell books extolling a devotional approach to everything from child-rearing to finance. Megachurches create a humane world for people whose sense of their own humanity has been uprooted by contemporary culture and its economic imperatives, its fast-paced reduction of the human person to homo economicus.
A few years ago, while researching megachurches in the D.C. area, I drove out to a distant exurb to attend the weekly meeting of a dozen teenagers held at the home of one of the church’s youth pastors. I could not find the street where the home was located but, spying a jogger, I asked directions. The jogger did not know where the street was. It turned out to be only two blocks away. Finally arrived for the meeting, I discovered that unlike the jogger, the teenagers not only knew their neighborhood, they knew their neighbors. They spent two hours sharing each others’ travails and trials. They did this every other week.
Warren’s church is less stridently Calvinistic than some megachurches: Saddleback’s statement of belief does not mention human depravity nor predestination. Warren’s sermons consistently call his flock to undertake good works in a way that would make a more orthodox Calvinist squirm. All megachurches share a laidback worship style, complete with a saccharin-tinged Christian rock, auditorium-style seating and a preacher armed with a hand-held mike. Some, however, preach the kind of fire and brimstone we associate with Elmer Gantry whereas Warren’s homiletic approach is as soft as Saddleback’s liturgies. There is nothing "in your face" about Saddleback.
Warren’s approach to politics is different from that of earlier evangelical leaders not only because of his style, but because of his age. In the 1970s, evangelicals abandoned their previous traditional stance of keeping away from politics after a series of Supreme Court decisions, beginning with the prohibition of prayer in the schools and ending with the legalization of abortion, convinced them that they had to become politically involved. Especially on abortion, they found themselves in the political trenches with the GOP and foxholes are not known for inducing contemplation.
35 years on, Warren comes to politics with a desire to take a more comprehensive approach, one that includes addressing poverty as well as defending traditional marriage. The Gospels have a great deal to say about issues that would today be called social justice issues. He is certainly concerned to end abortion on demand in this country, but he is also concerned about the spread of AIDS in Africa. The questions last night reflected this broader agenda. Warren and many younger evangelical leaders also have questioned the advisability of being so beholden to the GOP that they find themselves and their agenda taken for granted. Evangelicals, in short, like other demographics this year, are evidencing a pronounced generational difference. In providing Obama such a high profile stage, Warren may be furthering the diversity of political opinions within the evangelical church. And that is a good thing for both church and state.
Michael Sean Winters