Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pew Forum Items of Interest: Polygamist U.S. Muslims, and Evangelical Populists and Cosmopolitans

The current edition of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life Weekly Update includes two items that I found noteworthy. The first is a story from National Public Radio titled "Some Muslims in U.S. Quietly Engage in Polygamy." As Muslim immigrants bring their culture with them to the U.S. this includes their marital customs such as polygamy. According to the story, "No one knows how many Muslims in the U.S. live in polygamous families. But according to academics researching the issue, estimates range from 50,000 to 100,000 people." These Muslims have a lower profile than other groups that practice polygamy such as the various forms of fundamentalist Latter-day Saints (with no formal connection to the LDS Church), and thus they receive far less public scrutiny and critique. But this story comes at a time when the Fundamentalist LDS Church is engaged in an ongoing struggle with Texas authorities over polygamy and child custody, and when this is connected to the prolonged conflict between the Western world and certain expressions of Islam, it will be interesting to see if public discussion of such Muslims becomes more frequent and takes on a critical tone.

The other story comes from a May 2008 Pew Forum Faith Angle conference in an article titled "American Evangelicalism: New Leaders, New Faces, New Issues." This article comes in the form of a transcript from the recent conference that describes developments in evangelicalism. One particular facet struck me in their description of a "divide" between populist and cosmopolitan evangelicals. Michael Lindsey shares his thoughts on this situation:

"And I began to realize that there is a whole segment of the evangelical movement –many of those folks who are in the elite – who were trying to distinguish themselves from the rest of the evangelical subculture. And so I began to think more about this and pay more attention to it. And the real divide, in my opinion, in evangelicalism is not between the left and the right; it’s not between the young and the old. It is between a group that I call the “cosmopolitan” evangelicals and “populist” evangelicals. And these are very, very significant divisions.

"You see, populist evangelicals are what we oftentimes think about evangelicals. These are the folks who are culture warriors, who say that they want to take back the country for their faith. They see themselves as embattled against secular society. They are very much concerned that they are in a minority position, and they’ve got to somehow use very strong-arm tactics to win the day.

"So that populist evangelicalism is alive and strong, especially in the evangelical subculture: the music, the publishing, the entertainment segment of the evangelical subculture. But there is a whole other segment. The people who I interviewed, by and large, fit more this cosmopolitan outlook. They are less interested in taking back the country for their faith. They really are more interested in their faith being seen as authentic, reasonable, and winsome. So they still have an evangelistic impulse, but their whole modus operandi looks quite different. Because of that they have different ultimate goals of what they are actually trying to achieve. They want to have a seat at the table. They want to be seen as legitimate. They are concerned about what The New York Times or TIME magazine thinks about evangelicals because they [the cosmopolitan evangelicals] are concerned about cultural elites. They want legitimacy. Legitimacy is actually more important to them than necessarily taking back the country. And so that cosmopolitan-populist divide I find to be quite significant."

In my view, Lindsey has recognized an important difference within evangelicalism, but I would argue for more depth in the understanding of the cosmopolitans. While many do indeed want a "place at the table" in popular cultural discourse, their actions and differences with the populists must be accounted for by something beyond seek legitimacy. Indeed, it could be argued that the assume legitimacy and that they then seen to express this legitimacy outside of the evangelical subculture to engage the broader world. In my experience many evangelicals are rethinking what Christian spirituality means and how it is to be lived in light of a post-Christendom, globalized, pluralistic culture. This involves the need to rethink the roots of the Christian faith, to reflect more on the ministry and example of Jesus, and to constantly bring theology into dialogue with culture. This process of reflection results in a cosmopolitan form of evangelicalism which is very different from its more populist expressions of the past.


Steve said...

IMHO he sees a divide but is it the only one? is there perhaps an alternative evangelicalism? one that is not popultist, takes the 'top table' seriously but is also counter-cultural there, but with grace and intelligence? well perhaps i dream so ;o)

John W. Morehead said...

I agree that this is surely not the only division within evangelicalism, but I think there is some legitimacy to the distinctions he's making. And I dream along with you, Steve. Thanks for the comments.