I have many, many points of contention with this article by Alan Wolfe in the January 2004 edition of the British magazine Prospect. In the article, entitled “Dieting for Jesus,” Wolfe paints American evangelicalism with a broad stroke that is cheifly pejorative in tone.
The general thesis of the article is summed up in the subtitle, “We should worry less about America’s Christian conservatives. They are more American than they are Christian or conservative.” Wolfe is attempting to show that evangelicals are not a threat to American culture because they largely conform to American culture rather than reforming it. Again, I think Wolfe is way off the mark in much of the article, but for a non-Christian, he does get some things eerily right. Take, for example, this paragraph:
No other aspect of their faith is as important to conservative Protestants as worship: prayer, visible and frequent, is what attracts them to church. But worship in conservative Protestant America rarely involves introspective efforts to honour a supreme being whose concerns are other-worldly. “Lord, give me a clean X-ray when I go for a mammogram next week” or “God, help the search committee find a new pastor for the church,” are some of the forms taken by prayer at one Baptist church in New Jersey. At an evangelical church women’s group in the suburbs of New York City, each participant has a chance to ask God to respond to her concerns, and, as she does, others take notes so that they can pray for their friends during the week. Those concerns, moreover, are anything but other-worldly: most involve health, money, and real estate, along with issues facing the church. We should not doubt the meaning that worship has for conservative Christians. But nor should we ignore the fact that, judging by how many believers express themselves in prayer, these are people who believe that God helps those who focus on themselves.
Wolfe does miss the point in that evangelicals believe that things such as our finances, health, etc., are indeed affected by God, but the last sentence is particularly biting. I believe that there is a ring of truth in that an over-abundance of our evangelical prayer is focused on ourselves. Think about it—how much of our prayer life could, if the only addressee of the prayer were changed, be compared to a request of a genie? I’m not suggesting that prayers of supplication and entreaty are not biblical—they most certainly are, but when evangelicals have reached the point where we’re told such a thing by an unbeliever we should take heed.
Albert Mohler, in an October 2003 weblog article on Wolfe’s book, sums it up well:
Alan Wolfe wants to assure his fellow secularists that evangelical Christianity is not much of a threat. He provides a wealth of documentation and illustration in order to prove his point. While evangelical readers may find many points of disagreement with Wolfe, the basic thrust of his argument is difficult to deny. Cultural accommodation and surrender to the narcissistic culture of the self do indeed mark the transformation of American religion. Nevertheless, what Wolfe finds so culturally reassuring brings judgment upon American evangelicals.
“If the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?” [Matthew 5:13]