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Just when you think you've heard it all, along comes an even more distorted public characterization of evangelicals.

According to a recent critic, the belief held by evangelicals and Prison Fellowship (PF) in the "substitutionary and atoning death of Jesus," reflects "a legalistic understanding of the sacrifice of Jesus, [which] is not shared by many Christians." So much for the central tenet of every historic creed and confession of the Christian church.

Where is this critique—in The New York Times? No, it's the finding of U.S. District Judge Robert Pratt in deciding on June 2 the lawsuit against PF brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The judge declared unconstitutional the InnerChange Freedom Initiative in Iowa, a program started by PF.

Startlingly, the judge devoted a dozen pages to analyzing evangelicalism and PF's statement of faith, apparently determined to separate evangelicals from other Christians. Evangelicalism, he wrote, is "quite distinct from other self-described Christian faiths, such as Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, and Greek Orthodoxy." It is also "distinct from other … Christian denominations, such as Lutheran, United Methodist, Episcopalian, and Presbyterian."

Evangelical Christianity, he found, tends to be "anti-sacramental," downplaying "baptism, holy communion or Eucharist, marriage, [and] ordination" as "appropriate ways to interact or meet with God." (The charge of downplaying baptism will surprise my 20 million fellow Baptists.) Moreover, we are "contemptuous" of Roman Catholic practices, a conclusion sure to amuse my colleagues with Evangelicals and Catholics Together.

To sum up: Evangelicals are a fringe cult inherently discriminatory, coercive, and antagonistic ...

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In the Magazine

August 2006

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