Orthodoxy's revenge

Posted: Feb 23, 2004 12:00 AM

America is in the midst of a new Great Awakening. It's the mainstream media, prompted by excitement over the Mel Gibson film "The Passion of the Christ," waking up to the fact that the country still has an enormous block of orthodox Christians. You can sense the bemused astonishment behind some of the press reports: "Didn't all of these people slink away in embarrassment forevermore after the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925?"

Sorry. They didn't. And it is impossible to understand what seems certain to be the commercial success of "The Passion," or -- more importantly -- to understand American domestic politics and foreign policy without appreciating the number and vigor of America's orthodox Christians. They are President Bush's electoral lifeblood, and are driving an era of idealistic American assertion abroad that is literally changing the world.

According to John Green of Akron University, there are 50 million white evangelical Protestants in the United States. There are 20 million black Christians, many of whom are evangelical. There are 50 million Roman Catholics, roughly 30 million of whom are traditional in their beliefs. There are 30 million mainline Protestants, many of whom are theologically liberal, but not all. That makes for -- give or take -- more than 100 million orthodox Christians, quite an audience base for a film drawn directly from the Gospels.

And they have money to spend. Back in 1993, The Washington Post reported that conservative evangelicals were "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." Laughable at the time, it is even more so now. Green reports that there has been considerable upward social mobility among evangelicals during the past 30 years. They spend on Christian books (roughly $4 billion a year) and albums ($850 million a year) and, as apparently only Gibson understood in Hollywood, will pay to see a movie that speaks to them.

The silver screen aside, orthodox Christians have an enormous influence on national life through the Bush administration. What trial lawyers are to John Edwards, the orthodox are to Bush -- his indispensable political base. According to Green, roughly 75 percent of evangelicals voted for Bush. White evangelicals accounted for as much as 40 percent of his total vote. Another 20 percent came from traditional Catholics and serious mainline Protestants. The Bush presidency should be stamped: "Brought to you by orthodox Christian believers."

It shows. The reinvigorated Wilsonian foreign policy championed by Bush -- and motivated less by Woodrow Wilson's secular values (international law, etc.) and more by religious beliefs (the God-given rights of all people) -- is a reflection of Bush's Christian base.

As Walter Russell Mead writes in his brilliant forthcoming book, "Power, Terror, Peace, and War" (Alfred A. Knopf): "The rise in the number of evangelical Protestants, combined with their increasing levels of affluence, political participation and education, suggests that for the next generation at least, we will be witnessing the rise and consolidation of an evangelical establishment that will view America's world role in a different way than the waning and dying mainstream Protestant establishment that once set the Wilsonian agenda."

This dynamic is already evident. The divide with Europe is partly driven by faith, as secular Europeans cringe at American religiosity. America's strong support for Israel is a product of a potent alliance between evangelicals and hawkish Jews. Evangelicals have supported an extraordinary amount of human-rights activism recently on issues from religious persecution to sex trafficking to AIDS. Bush has tapped into that idealism and made it an important aspect of his war on terror.

Domestically, the influence of Bush's orthodox base can be seen in his faith-based initiative, his signing of a partial-birth-abortion ban and his opposition to gay marriage, among other things. The rap against evangelicals used to be that they were intolerant, but they have lately demonstrated their ability to work with conservative Jews and Catholics in a new, powerful traditionalist ecumenism.

The fervor over "The Passion" has taken many observers by surprise. It shouldn't, and you ain't seen nothing yet.