Our local Christian Book and Supply store closed after more than thirty years on Main Street. The owner said it was the Internet that drove him out of business. I’d like to think there might be more to it. The first time I went in to poke around, close to twelve years ago, I was surprised that it only carried Christian literature oriented to the so called Christian Right. Other literature was limited to the most conservative wing of Republican politics. An NRSV or New Jerusalem Bible could not be found, though one might be able to stumble on something in the Jews for Jesus line. Window posters often linked hyper patriotism and Christianity. Other products, jewelry, cards, gifts, and so forth, tended toward the kind of syrupy sentimentality that sometimes provides a brief warming of the heart before meeting the reality of everyday life. That was the way it was and the way it remained until it closed a few days ago.
What I’d like to think is that a greater number of its clientele began to realize that its brand of Christianity, however deeply felt, made them feel uncomfortable. It left little room for conversation, and no room for deviance from the narrow path of religious/political belief it equated with Christian faith. Maybe they couldn’t put words to it, but perhaps they began to wonder if there might be more to following Christ than what they were seeing on the shelves, and that maybe Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, et al. did not have all the answers after all.
It’s hard to say. The community is shifting. Church attendance is down in most places because younger generations, even those raised as “good Christians,” are not convinced that the inside of a church building has anything to do with an authentic encounter with God. Newcomers that do come into the main line churches bring with them both a hunger for spiritual guidance and the courage to challenge asserted dogma. A couple of the more conservative congregations are growing slightly as a declining number of very conservative believers coalesce out of many congregation into a few filled with like minded persons.
The political environment appears less homogeneous than it did only a decade ago. The overall ethos of the valley remains politically and religiously conservative, but the voices of those who differ are heard more often, and have greater influence than they once did. In fact, I’d like to assert that the valley is less conservative than it is pragmatic, and I suspect that the ultra conservative ideologues, whether religious or political, are beginning to discover that they cannot assume that a majority will fall into line behind them. That can be quite unsettling for some who have been in that line. It’s so much easier just to float down the river where going along to get along has always meant a pleasant and predictable way of life.
As for me: I have little regard for ideologues on either side, but responsible conservative and liberal advocates, whether religious or political, tend to be correctives to each other, and I’m comfortable living in the tension that creates because it keeps me from becoming too comfortable with my own assumptions and prejudices.