A Catholic Ride Through America's Evangelical Landscape: by Peter Feuerherd
Visit Jerusalem in Orlando! Journey into the Sinai Wilderness! Expect to be inspired! These are some of the many exclamations splashed across the Web site for The Holy Land Experience, a Florida theme park advertised as “Orlando’s most inspiring destination.” This Holy Land facsimile, dotted with such sites as “The Dead Sea Qumran Caves,” “Calvary’s Garden Tomb” and the “Jerusalem Street Market,” is the locus, literally and figuratively, for author Peter Feuerherd’s introduction to the growing public influence of two religious groups in America: Catholics and Evangelicals. “This center of evangelical kitsch next to Route 4 is the last place in the world a liberal New Yorker like me would ever imagine being,” Feuerherd writes, “But I’m here because there’s a phenomenon happening in this country, and here is one of the best places to study it.”
The phenomenon Feuerherd refers to is the decline of one religious group and the steady growth of two others. “America used to be considered a Protestant nation, meaning one dominated by old mainline denominations,” Feuerherd says. But their numbers and influence have declined, and now it’s evangelicals and Catholics who largely shape the national religious landscape.
While the death of Pope John Paul II prompted all-night television vigils leading up to the papal funeral, the large-scale evangelical influence in the 2004 presidential election captured the attention of shellshocked op-ed pundits and reporters who scrambled to understand this suddenly gargantuan political force. Catholics and evangelicals also have a shared penchant for stirring up high-profile controversy. “Whenever there’s a religious scandal brewing, you can be sure, if it makes the big media, it will involve Catholics or evangelicals,” Feuerherd says.
Whereas until recent years there has been little overlap between Catholics and evangelicals, their increasing influence extends not only to other faith traditions but to each other. “Today, those worlds of the evangelical and the Catholic are intersecting, playing off each other, influencing how each group adjusts to life in what is often seen as a strange and alien culture.” Feuerherd notes this mutual influence with many specific examples. More Catholics are engaged in scripture studies than ever before, and Catholic “Passion plays” once scorned by evangelicals are becoming more common, even at destinations like Holy Land Experience, where they take place daily. The two groups may have something to learn from each other as well, says Feuerherd when he talks about preaching: “It’s hard to believe that the generally low-level of preaching in Catholic churches could continue if priests knew the quality of the delivery—if not the material—down the road,” he says.
Feuerherd delves into the thorny issues of salvation and conversion—because these concepts are understood differently by Catholics and evangelicals, they promise to continue to be sources of tension in the future. Feuerherd attempts to provide some background context for the common question “Are you saved?” and also for evangelicals’ repeated attempts to proselytize, which Feuerherd says is not something done out of malice. “A zealous evangelical believes they are simply doing you a favor,” he says.
An Oprah Reality
For Catholics, this book provides an engaging guidebook to evangelicals that helpfully dispels some shopworn stereotypes. After attending multiple services at evangelical churches, Feuerherd says that while their preachers have a fire-and-brimstone reputation, “the reality is more Oprah,” with preachers drawing from America’s therapeutic, self-help culture for solutions to money and marriage woes. Readers might be surprised to learn that “politics is rarely discussed in such precincts,” and that “the stereotype of the evangelical as exclusively Middle American and Caucasian doesn’t hold.”
As somewhat of a “Catholics and Evangelicals 101,” this book is a good starting point for grassroots conversations not only about the inevitable tensions between these two groups, but also the potential for further common ground. After his second and final visit to The Holy Land Experience theme park, Feuerherd has this to say about future Catholic-evangelical relations: “In a country where religion, and in particular Christianity, exerts itself more and more, it is these two groups that will be seen as the keepers of the tradition. And it will take more than $29.99 [ticket price] and an afternoon in the hot Florida sun to see how this reality gets lived out.”