Ten Questions for Catherine Wicker on The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church (HarperOne, 2008)
What inspired you to write The Fall of the Evangelical Nation? What sparked your interest?
I had actually written a book on how powerful evangelical megachurches were. But throughout my research, sources told me repeatedly that I was doing the wrong book. They said megachurches were in trouble and that the evangelical story wasn’t what it seemed.
I didn’t listen.
I’d already turned the megachurch book in, but I was still watching a campaign the Southern Baptists were waging. They planned to baptize a million people in one year. They were spending more than a million dollars, rousing churches across the country with a bus tour, walking blocks, praying. I was pretty sure they would do it.
But when the results came back, they had baptized even fewer than the year before, about 350,000.
That was the tipping point. I called my editor and said, “I’ve done the wrong book.”
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
We’ve been duped.
The religious right has only a fraction of the power and the people we’ve believed they have, and they’re losing even more. They’re not losing their power, as the media is telling us. They never really had it.
It’s time for “the rest of us” to re-take our rightful places in the public square.
Anything you had to leave out?
The megachurch book had more about me. I was saved at nine, left the church in college and have been fairly God-haunted ever since.
It’s easy for that kind of writing to go wrong. There’s still plenty of my story left, but now the book explores a lot of bigger issues that weren’t in the first one.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
People think I want conservative/fundamentalist faith to die out. I don’t. The book is filled with stories that show what amazing faith such evangelicals can have. I would never want people to lose that option.
In fact, a central question in the book is “Why aren’t more people joining this faith that gives people such tremendously good lives?” The answer, which comes in the second half of the book, is, “They can’t. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t.” And every day they are further from being able to. People still want faith. But concepts of God have to be freed from human ego needs. Hard to do, but I think it can be done. And I think the time is right.
I’d like to see bumper stickers that say “God said it, I believe it, That settles it,” replaced with ones that say, “Unchain your heart and set God free.” (Sorry if that’s dweeby. That’s as cool as I get. But hey, I grew up Baptist, not a group known for cool.)
I think lots of evangelicals are changing so radically that they are ready for that kind of thinking. I talk to change-oriented evangelicals all the time. They think God is using me. Laugh if you like.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
All of us. All of us outside of the religious right who have been convinced that most Christians in America are religious right evangelicals.
I wasn’t expecting a great reception from the religious right, and I haven’t gotten one. I’ve been happily surprised by how many other evangelicals and other Christians support the message. Oh, yeah, and atheists, too.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I hope to inform on two points.
First, outsiders wonder how anyone can believe as evangelicals do. To them the literalism of religious right evangelicals is mysterious. I hope to clear up some of that mystery by showing how great the rewards of that type of faith are. It provides victory in defeat, hope when there is nothing else, forgiveness for what isn’t forgivable, an enduring sense that God is near and able to act. Those things make life a lot better.
And second, I want people to know how small a percentage of Americans act, think, behave or believe like the religious right evangelicals who hoped to make this an evangelical nation. I tested my thesis in all sorts of ways. Many readers be will be happy about what this book proves. And pissed off at having been so deceived.
But I’d also like to do one more thing. I’d like to inspire Americans to begin telling their own ideas about morality and ethics. I’d like to hear what they are really doing in their own lives. We need less preaching and more sharing.
What alternate title would you give the book?
“Requiem for the Evangelical Nation” was my first choice. I liked it because it catches the sense of sadness I have about the end of an era. My great-grandfather was an itinerant Baptist preacher. My family is going into its sixth generation of evangelical faith. I heard Bible verses and religious songs long before I could talk. Evangelical faith is bred in the bone for me.
But the editors rightly thought the word requiem would imply that I think the influence of the religious right has been good. I don’t think so. It’s been disastrous for American Christianity.
Its public dominance over moral and ethical discourse has left the great majority of Americans adrift during a time of great challenge and change. It has caused the character and nature of America to be misjudged by the outside world and by Americans themselves.
How do you feel about the cover?
I like it. It shows a heart monitor flat-lining. The title is in typewriter type, which clues the reader that this is journalism. Still, I wonder how much longer that image will mean journalism. Lots of kids have never seen a typewriter. And if things keep going the way they are, lots more kids may never see a newspaper journalist.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written?
The Bible. Of course. If God did inspire it utterly and without error, I would have been the instrument of God. Who wouldn’t want that? If he didn’t, I would have been able to re-tell stories so great that they continue to have meaning generation after generation. As some people say, “You don’t read the Bible. It reads you.”
But either way, as long as I live, whenever there was a dispute about what verses meant for a particular time and place, people could come to me. I would know the true intent and be able to settle the matter. If people didn’t come to me, that would all right. Preferable really. They could pray and let God guide them. Or they could meditate and hear their own inner voice speaking.
All books belong to the readers. Every writer knows that or should. So I wouldn’t be very involved. But if anyone began abusing the text to get power for themselves or to keep others from being able to fully interact with the Bible’s wisdom, I could set things right. I also would never condone people using the Bible as a club to beat up others. That would take a lot of the fun out it, I guess. But I’d be firm on that point.
What’s your next book?
I don’t know. But it won’t be a Bible.