One morning last summer, leaving my apartment on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, I noticed there weren’t many people outside. It was a fine June day, but there wasn’t the usual line of cars in front of Starbucks. No commuters schlepping insulated mochas, no dog walkers, no window washers at Cafe Latté, and no one else waiting for the 7:23 bus to downtown Minneapolis.
On the bus there were about a third as many riders as usual, and the kindly woman with the thick black braid was not in her usual seat. I tried to read, but panic was setting in. By the time I reached the skyway, my stomach was a prickly ball. I passed the jewelry store near the U.S. Trust Building and checked my watch. At least two clerks should have been in the display windows, draping necklaces and stabbing rings onto their holders. But the shop was dark and empty.
I knew it had happened: Jesus had fulfilled his prophecy, returned to Earth, and taken the believers. Now the Apocalypse was beginning. My hands were clammy as I dialed my mom’s number; I was certain she would not answer, now or ever again. When she picked up and chirped “Why … good morning!” my shoulders eased, but my heart was still pounding from the adrenaline. “Hi, Mom,” I said weakly.
It’s strange being the kind of person who sees a half-empty bus and thinks “Apocalypse!” In part it’s the result of watching Armageddon-inspired movies like Left Behind, but mainly it comes from being raised in an ultra-conservative church. When I was growing up, our congregation in the hamlet of Phillipsburg, Missouri, interpreted the Bible with the kind of literal fervor with which a non-believer might read IKEA assembly instructions—midway through a construction effort. On the outside, we looked like any other Christians: we dressed up, we sang, we went to Sunday school, we read the Dr. Dobson inserts in the church bulletins. But we also followed rules against women preaching, praying aloud during church, or serving communion; as well as the tenet that the only way to heaven is to make a public testimony and be fully immersed in water. Most of all, we believed that we had the one true way to heaven. In other words, we actually took the Bible at its word—unlike the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Seventh-day Adventists who were, sad to say, bound for hell.
Given this background, and my family’s continued devotion, I was rather smug during the 2004 election campaign, when national magazines were breathlessly reporting on the huge swaths of the voting public who considered themselves “born-again Christians.” “No shit,” I thought. (I had already left the flock.) After Bush’s win, I read how Karl Rove and the president’s other operatives had used a database of some 5,000 churches, as well as church directories gleaned from across the country, to home in on and court evangelical voters. Some 350,000 “pro-family” conservatives volunteered for the Bush campaign and nearly six million evangelicals—including three and a half million who hadn’t voted in the 2000 election—cast votes for Dubya. As Bush moved into his second term, the power of the religious right seemed palpable. Pundits talked in awe about Dr. James C. Dobson—the one who we read in church bulletins, the so-called Protestant Pope who built Focus on the Family, a $130 million, 1,300-employee media ministry in Colorado Springs, and the venerable National Association of Evangelicals, with thirty million members. It seemed like Rove had indeed established a “permanent majority” of conservative Republicans.
But behind the scenes, in the conservative Protestant capital of Colorado Springs, there was some serious soul-searching over a study released by George Barna, a well-respected evangelical pollster in southern California who had developed a reputation for delivering scientifically sound data on U.S. religious trends. In December 2003, he conducted a telephone poll of 2,033 randomly selected Americans from numerous cross-sections of the population, who were asked a series of questions:
- Would you call yourself a Christian?
- Have you made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in your life today?
- Do you believe that you will go to heaven when you die because you have confessed your sins and accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?
- Do you believe that you have a personal responsibility to share your religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians?
- Do you believe that Satan exists?
- Do you believe that eternal salvation is possible through grace, not works?
- Do you believe that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on Earth?
- Do you believe that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches?
- Do you believe that God is the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity?
- Do you believe that God created the universe and still rules it today?
Barna discovered that a solid thirty-eight percent of the U.S. population could be classified as “born-again” Christians, meaning they answered yes to the first three questions. The part that knocked strict Bible literalists on their heels was how few of those born-again Christians have a “Biblical world view”: only nine percent of them qualified by answering yes to all ten questions.
Worse still, Barna found that the ideological move from being “born again” to having a “Biblical world view” is crucial to developing evangelically “correct” views on divorce, gay sex, pornography, gambling, abortion, and other social issues near and dear to Bible literalists. As it happens, born-agains are not all that statistically different from their heathen counterparts in terms of how they act, or what they believe. For instance, the divorce rate for born-agains is exactly the same as for those who haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as their savior: thirty-five percent. But overall compare those with a Biblical world view to born-agains and there are marked differences down the line. True evangelicals (those who take the Bible literally) are thirty-one times less likely to accept cohabitation, eighteen times less likely to condone drunkenness, fifteen times less likely to condone gay sex, and on and on and on.
“There was a growing sense even before the Barna study that things were bad, that a large number of Christians were not living the Christian life,” says Marc Fey, an evangelical life coach and consultant in Colorado Springs, and director of something called “Christian Worldview” at Focus on the Family. “But what the Barna study really did was galvanize us in our belief that something had to be done.”
The question they faced: How do you convince ninety-one percent of born-again Christians that showing up at church, voting Republican, and putting a Jesus fish on the SUV isn’t enough?