November 5, 2012

Book of the Month

James K. Wellman, Jr., Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Reviewed by Susanna Morrill

[T]his study is a moral project, mirroring and comparing moral worlds for readers to see themselves more clearly and judge their own moral worldviews in the relative light of these worlds (284).

In the spring, I’ll be teaching for a second time my class on religions of the Northwest. I’m looking forward to again using James Wellman’s book, Evangelical vs. Liberal: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest. The title of the book captures the project quite effectively. Wellman compares and contrasts twenty-four thriving evangelical congregations in western Washington and Oregon with ten thriving mainline liberal Protestant congregations from the same area. The uneven balance of the comparison tells the story that Wellman is trying to explain: Evangelical congregations are the far outstripping liberal congregations in financial and membership growth despite, as Wellman points out, the well known reputation of the Pacific Northwest as a bastion of liberal social and political life (xiii).

Published in 2008, the book is an explanatory aftermath of the media buzz about evangelical influence in the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Wellman proposes that the Northwest is an ideal laboratory for exploring these national trends because the region has no dominant religious tradition. Mainline liberals and evangelicals have a level playing field and he can witness how these groups interact with each other and wider culture without one having an undue advantage over the other. I might moderate this contention a bit. As noted above, Wellman himself argues that the liberal Protestant groups seem to fit with the wider culture of the Northwest and I think, in agreement with Killen and Silk, this is partially because mainline liberal Protestants played a large role in creating the elite, dominant culture of the Northwest.

This, however, is a minor point in terms of the effectiveness of Wellman’s argument. Using qualitative sociological data and theorists (such as Peter Berger), Wellman sets out to answer three main questions: What are the religious worldviews of each group? How are these worldviews created and sustained? How can we understand the clash of these two worldviews (xii)? Wellman and his associates observed the services of each of the congregations, interviewed the senior pastor and an international missionary (if available) of each group, and also interviewed a representative focus group of members of the congregations.

I found Wellman’s book quite useful for my class and invigorating for my own thinking on the religious landscape of the region. Wellman writes in a clear and accessible style with a minimum of sociological jargon, though also communicating that his work is theoretically grounded. At the beginning of the book, he provides compact and useful background information about the history of the mainline liberal and evangelical Protestant traditions, as well as the religious and cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest. In his discussion of the Pacific Northwest, he offers a useful challenge to the contention (made in Killen & Silk’s The None Zone, among other places) that nature religion is the civil religion of the Northwest.

My students and I found most useful the way he breaks down the worldviews of each group and then, very systematically demonstrates how these different worldviews shape respective beliefs and practices of members. He begins with what he calls the moral core of mainline liberal Protestants versus evangelical Protestants—the foundational beliefs that shape how believers see the world. For evangelicals it is a personal and intense relationship with Jesus Christ; they believe he died to save them from their sins (60). For mainline liberals, the moral core is a more abstract belief that Jesus is an example of openness and inclusiveness that all are called to follow (63). From these core beliefs, Wellman traces the moral values of each group. For liberal Protestants these values are principally “modernism and personal autonomy,” while for evangelicals it is “stringent personal and scriptural traditionalism (67).” Using the qualitative data he has collected, Wellman argues that this core and these values shape how members create moral projects and they structure how members engage with Jesus, the Bible, ritual, organizational structures, leadership style, mission, social service, and political views on issues such as abortion, the environment, gay marriage, and the Iraq War. As an active mainline liberal Protestant, Wellman is particularly strong in expressing in a rather passionate way the complicated and little studied theological views of this group of traditions.

One might argue with Wellman’s breakdown of moral cores versus moral values or with the issues that he chooses to focus on. However, I found this breakdown very useful because he gives students a structure with which to talk about the slippery concept of worldview and proposes a way to look at how the internal beliefs of groups and individuals are translated into real world action. He gives us good tools to work with and argue about. He brings students into the religious worlds of folks they might not understand. Because of his clear expository style, I found students able and willing to engage critically with his categories and argument.
Occasionally the book reads as a very much a product of its time. For example, the section on the Iraq War seems to focus on an issue that is more specific than, say, abortion or gay marriage. But even here it speaks to the wider shift in the American religious landscape—the possibility that, as Wellman notes, evangelical Protestantism may become the establishment religion of the country (10). For a class, some of the later discussion about how values play out in belief and action can become repetitive because Wellman argues convincingly that we see clear patterns of connections between moral cores and values and ways of being in the world—we begin to be able to predict what he, in fact, finds.

This is an excellent book and an excellent resource for class. Wellman speaks with great clarity to one of the major issues in the contemporary U.S. religious landscape. His work can be read with a regional focus, or it can be read more widely as, he suggests, a laboratory experiment for the country as a whole. It engages the reader because, as the opening quote suggests, Wellman is intent on presenting to the reader a practical roadmap into two important Protestant traditions in this country, a roadmap that will allow the reader to better understand, interact with, and talk about these traditions in their day-to-day lives.

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