Lauren Sandler's Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement, is a book I had to get. I've had my fare share of sometimes disturbing contact with members of the local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ (see here, for example). That gives me one angle on the phenomenon, but I couldn't pass up the chance to read a thorough examination by a professional journalist.
Leading the "advance praise" that fills the back cover is a quote from Sam Harris which declares, "If you have any doubt that there is a culture war that must be waged and won by secularists in America, read this book." I fully endorse this statement, but it fails to express the way Sandler deals with both the frighteningly insane and the seemingly innocent. There is plenty of the former: An anti-abortion group that also opposes contraception and has a female member who insists on continuing to have babies even if it destroys her uterus. A private college made up of 90% homeschoolers, all required to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and the damnation of unbelievers, being groomed to run the country one day. An anti-evolution campaigner who admits, "for many of us Evangelicals, we follow the Bible first and look to science to confirm its truths" (this quote deserves to be widely circulated by those who value honest science). There's also the air force recruits who believe it is the job of the U.S. military to help bring about the end of the world.
When viewed alongside such fare, to give one of the books eight chapters entirely to a discussion of skate-board evangelism might seem like an exercise in triviality. However, in some ways that chapter is one of the most important in the book. It exemplifies the somewhat simplistic tactics used to get unthinking pledges of allegiance. "Wanna go skateboarding?" "Sure, why not?" "Wanna accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior?" "Sure, why not?" The idea is not to get people to accept evangelicalism after careful contemplation, but suddenly in a vulnerable moment, which every young person has from time to time (trust me, I am one). If the converts think, there's too much risk they'll realize what they're getting in to. Robert M. Price put it well: "Christ functions, in an unnoticed and equivocal way, as shorthand for a vast system of beliefs and institutions on whose behalf he is invoked. Put simply, this means that when an evangelist or an apologist invites you to have faith 'in Christ,' they are in fact smuggling in a great number of other issues." Among these beliefs is the inerrancy of a book whose God expects people to slaughter women and children on command, and who damns everyone who disagrees with the convert's new religious opinions.
This point comes across strong in the concluding section, when Sandler describes being caught up in a worship service she was attending as part of her research and briefly wonders if it was her moment to become born again, only pulling back because of her awareness of what was really involved. At the end of the scene, she remarks: "if I had been younger, teetering in my own sense of purpose, and less steeped in the literature, I have no doubt they could have had me."
The book wraps up with some profound insight mixed with a somewhat misguided notion of how to proceed. The key sentence: "Fundamentalism offers a snake-oil cure for their ills, promising the tight community groups of churches, the steadfast solidarity of activist groups, and most of all, the deep certainty of Biblical inerrancy." She then concludes that secularists must counter this by mimicking evangelical tactics. While making good use of music and other pop culture items isn't a bad idea, we must realize we cannot have the same final sales pitch. The brand of mental security that fundamentalism offers is a fraud, something we cannot emulate while keeping honest. Instead of going for quick conversions, we must patiently cultivate the desire and ability to inquire freely about the world. It may seem like an unfair fight, but it is one we must take part in. And we can offer something the fundamentalists can't: freedom from the worry that asking the wrong questions will result in eternal damnation. That a pearl far more precious than any religious mantra of certainty.