When Carol Flake was in college, she and her student colleagues dreamed up an imaginary theme park, where one could experience Bible events in spectacular Cecil B. de Mille fashion.
''One could ride the roller coaster of Redemption, careen through the Fiery Furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, join Jonah in the whale's belly Tilt-a-Whirl,'' she explains. The entire gala was tabbed ''Redemptorama.''
From this perspective - but by no means in a vein of fun and games - Ms. Flake has written this important new study of contemporary Christian evangelicalism in the United States.
Herself a product of the Deep South and its religious fundamentalism, the author has long since left this culture and rejected it - not, however, with remorse and vindictiveness but with grace and pensive reflection.
This tone is apparent in a book that is at once scholarly and sociological but never loses the human touch. Even in its occasional outrage, it is gentle. And this is where this book distinguishes itself from other critical theses that write off the actions of the religious right as mass hysteria and brand its adherents as ignorant bigots.
Not that the author denies that passions exist within the religious right, or justifies them. But she does show that deep-rooted concerns about the disintegration of the family, coupled with fear that US military defenses are inadequate for survival, have drawn thousands of God-loving Christians into the fundamentalist camp. Once there, she explains, they have been held by smooth-tongued ''electronic'' ministers, including the Revs. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Rex Humbard, and Jimmy Swaggart. The ''Christian culture'' to be found there (Flake calls it a ''counterfeit culture'') is hyped by ''Christian self-help books, Christian sex manuals, Christian money guides, Christian quiz shows, Christian athletes, Christian rock stars, Christian T-shirts.''
In a Monitor interview, author Flake explained the lure of the ''New Evangelicalism'' and evaluated where it is headed in its search for a more anchored role amid the mainstream of US religion.
A well-worked theme of the fundamentalists, Flake says, is the need for a return to traditional family values - hardworking husbands, women tending to the home and devoted to serving their male spouses, obedient children guided by religious values and protected from the ''sins'' of society. And this, significantly, shapes the religious right's political views on abortion, capital punishment, school prayer, and homosexuality.
''It's the fear of the family breaking up that has really gotten a lot of Evangelicals involved with politics,'' Flake says. ''It is also this fear that motivates and supports the Family Protection Act,'' the bill Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada and Sen. Roger Jepsen (R) of Iowa have been trying to get through Congress.
Basically, the act forbids federal intervention in family matters, including suspected abuse of child or spouse, leaving these to local agencies and private resolution. ''It essentially says to the government: Stay out of the family entirely. That means don't even get involved in it if it is a case of wife-beating or child molesting.... Let the father handle everything - he's the head of the household,'' Flake elaborates.
But the author of ''Redemptorama'' hastens to add that these evangelicals do an abrupt about-face on federal involvement ''for things where they really want to impose their view on the rest of America.'' She cites the push for anti-abortion laws and strong support for so-called Baby Doe legislation, which would hold medical doctors and others criminally responsible if they did not provide medical life-support to infants thought to have severe physical or mental defects.
Flake also talks about the model Christian female as a ''total woman,'' who feels threatened by political and social ''liberation.'' ''She sees it (women's liberation) as something that could break up her home and drive her husband away.
''They say, if you treat a man as head of the household, if you make him happy, he is going to stay around and pay the bills and remain faithful. Whereas , if a woman is at all threatening to her husband and acts independent, he is going to be long gone,'' Flake adds.
Carol Flake believes that evangelicalism or Christian fundamentalism is not a temporary phenomenon. ''It won't disappear with the passing of Ronald Reagan from the political scene,'' she says. ''Fundamental leaders will still work with political operatives in Washington to create some permanent power base. They are going to continue to try to elect people, on every level of government.''
The author, who has closely studied evangelicalism and its adherents firsthand for the past three years in the South and elsewhere, sees an eventual split between the ''religious right'' and the ''secular right.'' The latter, she says, already draw the line at some of the unbending and simplistic solutions of the former.
And Flake further stresses that evangelicalism has always been a house divided. She explains in ''Redemptorama'': ''It was a community that was torn between those who were trying to learn how to live the good life, Christian style, surrounded by other Christians in a total Christian culture; those who were trying to return America to some mythical age of God-fearing virtue, bristling with guns and burdened with guilt; and those who were simply trying to live by the light of the gospel, simply and earnestly, one day at a time.''