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December 1st, 2004 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

The J Crew

Portland's Christian soldiers may seem queer, but they're here. Get used to them.

     
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Stereotypes are wicked things. But let's indulge: If you're reading this, you probably didn't go to church, temple or mosque last weekend.

Religion experts claim that Oregon is one of the nation's least Godly states--and that Multnomah County, in particular, is a den of heathenism. According to the 2000 census, only 12 percent of county residents belong to a religious congregation. That's less than one fourth the national average.

But numbers that suggest we are a nest of nonbelievers hide a different truth. Here in "unchurched" Oregon, Christianity is in the midst of a revival. Specifically, evangelical Christians--the no-nonsense Protestant Bible-believers often tagged as "fundamentalists" or "born-agains"--are Oregon's fastest-growing religious group. They are multiplying fruitfully indeed.

Census stats show that between 1990 and 2000, evangelical ranks in this state swelled from about 300,000 to 400,000, outstripping the growth of Oregon's population as a whole and of its two largest denominations, the Catholics and Mormons. (Meanwhile, the old "mainline" Protestant churches, like the Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans, actually lost 9 percent of their Oregon membership in the '90s, by some counts.) Some analysts think evangelicals are now the state's single biggest bloc of believers.

But that's not why they've been getting attention lately.

Evangelical Christians are in the national spotlight because if it weren't for their support, George W. Bush would be planning a remodel of his Crawford ranch instead of his Cabinet. Twenty-eight million evangelicals voted on Nov. 2, and 78 percent of them voted for Bush. After John Kerry's defeat, pundits declared that "moral values" won the day for Bush.

While Oregon stayed blue on the presidential map, evangelicals asserted their political might here, too. Measure 36, the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, rolled to victory--and, make no mistake, Measure 36 was the evangelicals' baby. The campaign kicked off in a Clackamas mega-church last spring, when 2,000 conservative pastors gathered in response to Multnomah County's decision to let gays and lesbians wed. James Dobson, leader of the Colorado activist group Focus on the Family and a Christian-right power broker, flew into town to call the battle against gay marriage "D-Day." The Defense of Marriage Coalition, a spinoff from the evangelical-led Oregon Family Council, ran the campaign, screening videos and dropping literature at more than 2,100 churches.

So here's the deal: Even if you've never met one, evangelical Christians are arguably the most powerful subculture in America, maybe even in Oregon. (Indie rockers, Phish-heads and raw foodists don't seem likely to pass any ballot measures here anytime soon, after all.)

But who are these people? Finding ourselves just as clueless as anyone, we decided to learn what we could. So we met a few people and went a few places. This tour isn't comprehensive by any means. We understand that thousands of faithful Christians don't consider themselves part of the evangelical movement--and that the "movement" itself is diverse in its politics and culture. No one speaks for everyone.

But Election Day taught us this: Evangelicals are here. Through secular eyes, they may look a little queer. But we better get used to it.

So we asked a series of stupid questions, starting with the dumbest one we could think of.

JUST WHAT THE HEL--HECK IS AN "EVANGELICAL CHRISTIAN"?

Whaddya know? Turns out there isn't one right answer. But certain characteristics do mark evangelical Christianity.

First and foremost, evangelicals generally stress that the Bible is the supreme religious authority. (Other stuff--church hierarchy, ritual and tradition--aren't all that important.) Second, faith in Jesus Christ is the only key to salvation, period. More liberal mainline Christians increasingly stress interfaith dialogue. Many evangelicals, however, think Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Wiccans are all pretty much out of luck.

To be an evangelical usually means to experience a moment of conversion, when one becomes born again. And evangelicals are typically--well, evangelistic. They want to share their faith.

And they are succeeding. Consider the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, a denomination founded in Oakland in 1922. This church nearly doubled its Multnomah County membership in the '90s, from about 5,500 to almost 10,000. Meanwhile, the same study that tallied Foursquare's growth showed Portland's Episcopalian congregations losing about 700 members.

"Mainline churches are suffering around the country, and that seems particularly true in Oregon," says Steven Green, a Willamette University law professor who specializes in church-state issues. "Here, the very people who would be likely to go to a mainline church would probably rather be out hiking on Sunday morning."

SO, UM--WHAT'S AN EVANGELICAL CHURCH LIKE, ANYWAY?

Evangelicals may share a set of bedrock beliefs, but to an outsider, it seems like they attend a bewildering variety of churches. There are Spanish-language congregations that meet in dingy North Portland storefronts; Korean churches; Russian churches; churches that belong to global denominations like the Foursquare Gospel or Vineyard Christian Fellowship; others that are completely independent.

But spend a little time driving from church to church in the suburban and working-class areas where evangelicalism seems to thrive, and you notice some distinct tendencies. Just like it's a good bet that a place with "Israel" in its name is a synagogue, it's a good bet a church with the word "Bible" in its name is evangelical. Evangelical churches often come supersized--New Hope Community Church, which started in the '70s with a dozen people at a drive-in theater on 82nd Avenue, seats 2,700 in its massive, cross-topped Clackamas sanctuary.

Architecturally, these places have more in common with convention centers or minor-league arenas than the stately stone mainline churches along the South Park Blocks. They have parking lots the size of the Sea of Galilee. They're short on stained glass, long on big video screens to facilitate interactive worship. They're more likely to boast a state-of-the-art sound system than a hand-crafted altar. Elaborate ritual is out; devotional pop songs and turbo-powered preaching are in.

To judge by a couple of sermons we took in, the messages are dynamic, fast-paced and a little militant--simultaneously designed to complement modern culture and give believers Kevlar protection against it.

On Wednesday nights, City Bible Church--a huge Northeast Portland complex topped by twin tan domes on the flanks of Rocky Butte--hosts Generation Church, a raucous service aimed at kids between 12 and 24. On a recent Wednesday night, about 550 kids crowded City Bible's basketball court. They looked more likely to mob Abercrombie & Fitch than start "a Bible revolution," which is what Doug Lasit, the black-T-shirted youth pastor, called for. But the theology was not kid stuff.

Lasit, a 36-year-old of Hawaiian-Filipino-Caucasian heritage, hit hard from the pulpit. He opened with a reading from Revelation portraying the Word of God astride a white horse, wearing a gown dipped in blood. He went on to declare that City Bible's young congregation faced a "spiritual war against the Bible," and claimed that unnamed forces want to ban the Good Book because it contains verses condemning homosexuality.

"Are we going to let it happen?" Lasit asked from the stage. "Not in America."

IS THIS PRETTY MUCH JUST A WHITE THING?

Not necessarily.

Just when you think you have evangelicals pegged--pale-faced Republicans, just as you suspected--you have to deal with the black church. Religious African-Americans may still vote for Democrats in overwhelming numbers, but religion scholars say they often share common ground with City Bible, where every other car in the lot wears a "W" campaign sticker.

"Eighty to 90 percent of churchgoing African-Americans would tell you that they believe exactly what white evangelicals believe," says Mark Noll, a historian of evangelical Christianity at Illinois' Wheaton College, a Christian liberal-arts school. "They're different politically. Culturally and socially, they're the same."

Oregon's gay-marriage campaign let those affinities flower.

"We've always had great relationships, but this time was on a much different level," says Mike White, one of the Defense of Marriage Coalition's leaders. "We were having rallies in black churches, getting our DVDs out in black churches. If this campaign had been 'vote for Bush, and for 36,' that never could have happened."

In fact, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, a largely black congregation based in North Portland, rounded up more cash for Measure 36 than any other single church, kicking in $15,000, according to campaign press coverage. The Sunday after Election Day, the ballot battle was still on Pastor James Martin's mind. "Remember that 36 was never about gay people," Martin told the 500 or so parishioners, mostly but not all black, at Mount Olivet's 11:30 am service. "It was about marriage." (Martin didn't return calls from this reporter.)

Worship at Mount Olivet--with its tuxedo-clad ushers and lavishly dressed families--feels much different from Doug Lasit's Gen-Y-friendly ministry. But here, just as at City Bible, there's a sense of community woven from a distinct set of values. Even though most of Mount Olivet probably voted for Kerry--almost 90 percent of African-Americans did--Bush's appeal to evangelicals makes a little more sense here. Even in among people traditionally considered automatically aligned with the left, an issue as primal as marriage resonates in ways mere policy can't.

"Suddenly, it's not, 'Did I lose my job?'" says David Gutterman, a Linfield College professor who's working on a book about evangelical politics. "It's 'Are we going to lose the core of our civilization?' 'Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve' is much more visceral than 'We must provide health care for the 25 million Americans under the age of 25 who....'"

WHERE DO THEY LEARN THIS STUFF?

Everyone knows the Catholic Church runs a huge school system--16 elementary schools and four high schools in Portland alone. It's harder to count evangelical schools because they don't answer to a single authority. But the Portland Yellow Pages list dozens of schools with "Christian," "Bible" or "Savior" in their names, suggesting parents who want their kids to learn in a Bible-centric atmosphere have plenty of options. Those options include curricula thoroughly infused with faith.

"The Bible's integrated into everything we teach," says Joe Morgan, the principal of North Clackamas Christian School, where the 270 or so students (and their parents) must all sign a statement attesting to their Christian faith. "We understand the Bible is the truth, and that it's relevant to all our subjects." (Morgan acknowledges that working Scripture into math is a challenge.)

For students who continue into college, the higher-ed nerve center of evangelical Portland lies on the outer east side, where small Christian colleges like Cascade and Warner-Pacific cluster in near-anonymity. The most prominent among them is Multnomah Bible College, a school at Northeast 86th Avenue and Glisan Street where every undergraduate majors in theology (most double-major in one of a dozen other disciplines) and a graduate seminary trains future pastors.

Multnomah is a great place to learn that there are more subtleties to the evangelical world than the post-election liberal freak-out has acknowledged. The college wears its faith on its sleeve ("If it's Bible you want, then you want Multnomah!"), but it's also a little different than you might expect. Students look pretty much like kids at any college--an eclectic mix of grunge, jock and prep. There are signs that debate, disagreement and intellectual tension are alive and well. In late October, as Measure 36 ramped up, the seminary organized a panel featuring pastors from gay Christian groups and liberal churches, both to debate conservative evangelicals and try to carve out some civility in a heated campaign season.

"We want our students to be able to engage in what's really going on in their culture," says Paul Louis Metzger, director of Multnomah's Institute for the Theology of Culture, which organized the seminar. "To look at the world with Willamette Week in one hand and the Bible in the other, so to speak."

Metzger, whose institute has attracted national notice, is eager to draw distinctions between Multnomah and the hardcore Christian right. "People like Jerry Falwell get the press," he says. "They have this media savvy--or anti-media savvy--that makes people's hair stand on end."

"Evangelicals are not a monolith," says Daniel Lockwood, the college's president. "I would be happy if people knew we were a serious higher-education institution. That we train our students to think, read and ask questions. That we value inquiry and intellectual discourse. But I don't imagine our neighbors understand any of that."

SO BESIDES THE LITTLE JESUS FISH, WHAT'S THEIR CULTURE ALL ABOUT?

If you want to sense the breadth and depth of the evangelical movement, you could do worse than spend an hour wandering the book section of Christian Supply.

The sprawling retail store at Southeast 102nd and Division Street is owned by Portland tycoon Bob Pamplin Jr. Pamplin, the heir to a timber and textile fortune, also owns the Portland Tribune, a suburban newspaper chain, a gravel pit and a radio station. But Pamplin's real growth business these days is his 16 Christian Supply stores, which are scattered across the Northwest, and his entertainment company, which produces Christian music and videos and is headquartered next door to the Division Street store.

Christian Supply sells a lot of stuff secularists would expect: porcelain angels; manger-scene figurines; Bibles in every flavor, including some designed to look like glossy teen magazines. Over in the stacks, a book called The Gay Agenda promises to reveal how homosexuals are ruining America. The Left Behind series, a cycle of lurid thrillers set after the Apocalypse that has sold 60 million copies and counting, has spawned a cottage industry of imitators and knockoffs. Rick Warren, the California pastor whose motivational book The Purpose-Driven Life has spent 96 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, cranks out so many sequels and spinoffs that Christian Supply has given him his own section.

Other titles speak to broader concerns. Scores of books focus on faith's relationship to business management, like The 21 Most Powerful Minutes of a Leader's Day. There are Godly investment guides. The fiction section encompasses Christian sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, even Christian historical romance. (Think bodice-rippers, light on the ripping.) Christian thrillers, like Tim Downs' Shoo Fly Pie, which stars a medical examiner nicknamed "The Bug Man," sport jagged, edgy cover designs. Basically, if you can think of a genre, there's a Christian counter-genre. These books aren't junk--they're good-looking and well-printed, with slick covers and well-honed marketing hooks. They are the product, in fact, of the fastest-growing segment of the publishing industry.

Christian book sales are growing at a time when other book sales are flat. According to the trade report Book Industry Trends, Christian titles now account for 11 percent of sales. Across town, the secular humanists at Powell's have taken notice.

"Five years ago, we turned our noses up at that stuff," says Chris Faatz, the buyer for Powell's spirituality section. "Now, we're trying to build relationships with those publishers, because that stuff is selling."

Meanwhile, Christian music is the fastest-growing pop genre, now accounting for 7 percent of album sales. Christian radio (see "Radio with a Halo," page 26) is the fastest-growing segment of that industry, with audiences up 32 percent between '99 and last year. Evangelicals have moved into virtually every field of pop culture--it would be entirely possible to skip the mainstream entirely and still live a well-rounded, spendthrift cultural life.

Pamplin's biggest contribution to this Christian entertainment cosmos is probably Bibleman. For over a decade, Pamplin has produced a series of movies (which go straight to video) starring a masked, sword-wielding superhero for Christ. The films, with titles like Conquering the Wrath of Rage and Shattering the Prince of Pride, are huge hits on DVD and videotape. (Nine Bibleman adventures have gone platinum.) Bibleman and his sidekick, Biblegirl, battle goofy (but un-Godly) villains like Primordius Drool and Wacky Protestor in plots heavy on action, light on real violence, and underpinned by Biblical messages. Merchandise includes Bibleman and Biblegirl costumes, The Bibleman Combat Manual and an official soundtrack. A Pamplin-produced touring live show has shared the stage with Billy Graham.

Pamplin Entertainment wouldn't comment for this story. But Bibleman is set to conquer a new frontier--video games--and San Diego game designer Greg Schumsky, who persuaded Pamplin's people to let him make the Bibleman game, explained the character's appeal.

"There's enough action to hold kids' interest, but they're not really violent," Schumsky says. "As a parent, I like that they use Scripture in the episodes, and though they're not overly preachy, the characters end up praying together at the end of every story."

OK, Bibleman might be a little hokey. Christian Supply may look bland, as do the suburban mega-churches, with their strip-mall architecture, unfashionable locations and parking lots full of mini-vans.

But for a rank outsider, a wander through evangelical Portland leads to a profound--if not spirit-shaking--realization:

There is a whole other world out there.

Radio with a Halo

So you're driving down the road, humming along to a pop tune on the radio, when suddenly you hear, "Rejoice!" and you think, am I praising Jesus?

If you're in Portland, chances are good you are. A dozen evangelical Christian stations can be picked up on the local AM and FM dials, more if you have a strong receiver. The K-LOVE and Air 1 Radio stations (heard on at least seven spots on the dial, including KLVP 1040 AM, 88.7, 96.3 and 107.1 FM; and KZRI 90.3, 97.7 and 102.7 FM) are part of the Entertainment Media Foundation, or EMF Broadcasting, an evangelical ministry that delivers the same satellite-fed syndicated programming to more than 250 stations nationwide.

Five other Christian stations broadcast directly from the Portland area (in addition to the region's sole Catholic station, KBVM 88.3 FM, from the University of Portland campus). They are talk-radio stations KPDQ 93.7 FM and 800 AM; contemporary Christian music station KFIS 104.1 FM ("The Fish"); and KKPZ 1330 AM ("The Voice of Reconciliation") and KKSL 1290 AM ("The Prophetic Voice of the Northwest"), both owned by Crawford Broadcasting and transmitted from 5,000-watt towers atop Mount Scott.

According to KKPZ's website, its mission is to bring about "Reconciliation based upon the Life, Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah!" Station manager James Autry says, "A lot of people who are not the average evangelical Christian are just interested." Indeed, the station casts a wide net, offering Spanish-language programming as well as shows aimed at Vietnamese, Russian and even Jewish listeners. Weeknights, there's the Melodies from Heaven urban gospel music show. And programming touches on a variety of spiritual subjects: One recent morning, several ministers warned how The Lord of the Rings is "inspired by Satan himself."

The most popular Christian station in the Portland area, according to the Radio & Records Inc. rating service, is KFIS "The Fish," which ranks 17th overall among both AM and FM stations in the Portland market. The station offers music rather than a talk format and is for the most part as free of theology as any other rush-hour station. DJs tease callers, the station broadcasts traffic reports, and there are as many ads for Fred Meyer lingerie as pleas to help the Portland Rescue Mission. Aside from the music's devotional lyrics, the alternative, rock and country songs on The Fish don't sound much different from their secular counterparts on other stations: The Newsboys' "He Reigns" recalls the Polyphonic Spree's "It's the Sun," and Third Day lead singer Mac Powell has the earnest growl of an early Eddie Vedder.

"We're trying to reflect the culture, with a more positive, God-centered message," says Bryan O'Neal, a Portland native who now works as a midday DJ for Air 1 Radio in Rocklin, Calif. "There's this idea that Christians are different--they look different, they don't have the same issues or ideals. We're not different; we go through the same things that everyone goes through; we struggle, but we think we've found this hope in God.

While to the secular listener, the "glory, glory forevers" may sound redundant, this is perhaps the point. "I'm trying to reach out to anyone, and one way to do this is through song," says O'Neal. "It's like I tell the teens when I do an outreach: They say, 'I just listen to the music not the words.' And I say, 'How did you learn your ABCs? In a song.'"--Nancy Rommelmann


Statistics cited in this article come from a number of sources, including the North American Religious Atlas (www.religionatlas.org), the American Religion Data Archive and The None Zone, a volume on religion and public life in the Northwest that's part of a region-by-region series published by Connecticut's Trinity College.

The four-legged definition of evangelicalism used in this story comes from an interview with Mark Noll, a leading historian of Christianity in Britain and the U.S. Noll cautions: "The best definition isn't very good."

Not all evangelicals are politically conservative. The so-called "Christian left" includes the monthly magazine Sojourners, edited by Jim Wallis. The magazine can be found online at www.sojo.net .

In addition to private Christian schools, many born-again parents choose to homeschool their kids. More on the Christian homeschooling movement can be found at www.oceanetwork.org .

This January and February, City Bible will host "Generation Unleashed," a two-part conference expected to draw between 6,000 and 7,000 young Christians to Portland.

This fall, Multnomah Bible College's Institute for the Theology of Culture published the first issue of Cultural Encounters, a scholarly journal focused on pop culture's relationship to Christian spirituality.

Former Eight is Enough and Charles in Charge actor Willie Aames used to play Bibleman.

 
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