PLANO, Texas -- Soon after its decision in Lawrence on private sexual acts between consenting adults of the same gender, the Supreme Court this week decided that next year its bucketful of gasoline for the eternal flames of America's "culture wars" will be to decide the constitutionality of "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Generally, the culture wars are thought to pit extreme believers on the "religious right," living primarily in the Southern states, against sophisticates in the urban North and far West. In the North, where people get their information about life in the South mainly through a TV screen, the "religious right" came to life mainly as images of televangelists, such as Jimmy Swaggart, pourin' sweat and beggin' forgiveness, or Tammy Faye Bakker, mascara rivering down her face for similar reasons.
My first up-close contact with the tensions of the culture wars came in 1992 at the Republican convention in Houston, waiting in a large auditorium with several thousand "pro-life, pro-family" religious activists to hear Dan Quayle. What struck me is how far removed these people seemed from the Bible-whacking, shotgun-rack stereotype. Standing around in conversation, they seemed to be mostly educated, 30-something, Texas suburbanites who worked in the technology sector and worried about running their kids' sports leagues. They really loved Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush's running mate, and were mocked mercilessly, in public and private, by the out-of-town press corps.
The Robertson-Falwell tent show has faded, but it remains a given in our politics that something called the Christian right now aligns with the Republicans, and that President Bush is a co-dependent. With the presidential election upon us, it seemed a good time to revisit the "religious right," and so I ventured from Manhattan to the belly of the beast, or one of the bellies -- Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. The congregation numbers 22,000, and Prestonwood's pastor is the Rev. Jack Graham, who is also president of the almost 20-million member Southern Baptist Convention, a font of anxiety for orthodox liberals.
I showed up on a Tuesday for Prestonwood's weekly noontime Power Lunch, driving into a parking lot big as a Wal-Mart's and with almost as many cars. The speaker was the general manager of the Orlando Magic basketball team, Pat Williams. About 600 people were there. I loved Pat Williams' message: To better yourself, turn off the TV and read more books.
After spending some time at Prestonwood Baptist, one wondered just what it is that so vexes the critics of these evangelical Christians. Whatever their attachment to Jesus and his New Testament message, they seem more than anything to be deeply in the world. Prestonwood's many outreach ministries include prisoners and their families, troubled teens, woman-to-woman counseling, literacy, immigrant outreach, the newly unemployed, pregnant single women, Dallas's urban poor.