It's Respect an Evangelical Day!
Later today, Weblog will comb through the weekend's religion stories, discovering what's been happening the last few days in the religion world. Already, there's indications that it was a relatively busy weekend—at least 18 people are dead in fresh Christian-Muslim violence in Indonesia's Maluku islands, and there was lots of religion talk over at the D.C. abortion demonstrations.
But this weekend was also significant for something that we evangelicals—like everyone else—love to do: hearing what others are saying about us. Tony Campolo and other evangelicals have talked about a kind of inferiority complex in the movement. Christian leaders have often been driven by a quest for cultural respectability and acceptance. A few years ago, it was common to hear parachurch and advocacy organizations pushing for "a seat at the table."
Two major articles in the mainstream media this weekend touch on precisely those issues of cultural respect—but evangelicals may not like the conclusions.
The first item is noteworthy not just for its content, but for its authorship. "Nearer My God To Thee," in the new issue of U.S. News & World Report, marks the return of Jeff Sheler's byline to that magazine's pages (he was laid off about a year ago, and Jay Tolson has been writing most of the publication's few religion stories since then). Since Sheler is also a contributor to PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, which collaborated with U.S. News on this major survey of evangelicals, it's not too surprising to see him as the magazine's author for the piece. One hopes to see his byline on more articles.
"Despite the booming popularity of evangelical artists and authors, evangelicals themselves remain an enigma to many outside the tradition—a people often stereotyped, whose agendas and motives are viewed with suspicion," Sheler writes. "They are a people, too, who often seem ill at ease with their own success and insider status in an America that they often regard as hostile to their values."
Those internal and external attitudes aren't really supported by the survey data, Sheler says:
… [E]vangelicals—their distinctive faith aside—are acting more and more like the rest of us. They are both influencing and being influenced by the society around them. While they harbor deep concerns about the moral health of the nation, they are more tolerant than they're often given credit for, pay far more attention to family matters than to politics, and worry about jobs and the economy just about as much as everyone else. And while it comes as no surprise that white evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican and back President Bush by a wide margin, nearly a quarter say they might vote for Democrat John Kerry.
This will sound familiar to readers of Alan Wolfe, whose latest book, The Transformation of American Religion (Free Press), was discussed in a recent Christianity Todayeditorial and a review and interview in Books & Culture.
Evangelicals "are far more shaped by the culture than they are capable of shaping it to their own needs," he summarizes in the U.S. News piece. "American culture is an enormously powerful force. It will change religion, just as religion will change culture."
Those who have read Wolfe know that he sees this as a positive development. "I have enough faith in the leveling capacities of American democracy to say to the evangelical community, 'Welcome to the culture! We'd much rather have you in here than out there being a fundamentalist, being marginalized, being angry,'" he says.
But in here doing what? Being silent? Perhaps. Anna Greenberg, vice president of the research company that did the survey for PBS and U.S. News, says evangelicalism has simply "integrated into the mainstream. … Evangelicals are just not that much different from the rest of America."
Kristof makes nice—again
A slightly different perspective emerged from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who has for the past few years engaged in a one-man good cop/bad cop routine when it comes to American evangelicalism. On Saturday, he was back in good cop mode.
"If liberals demand that the Christian right show more tolerance for gays and lesbians, then liberals need to be more respectful of conservative Christians," he writes. And, he adds, Christians are showing more tolerance for homosexuals, so some reciprocity isn't entirely out of order.
(Kristof has an odd tangent about the Bible not condemning lesbianism. On the Times web site, he extends this point. Most of the arguments are familiar to those who've monitored the debate. "A number of experts," " Biblical scholars," and "scholars" say that not only does the Bible not lament lesbian sex, but that biblical bans on gay sex are more about patriarchy and "the Leviticus obsession with mixing" than with the Edenic model of human sexuality. [Doesn't that "Leviticus obsession" argument break down when you're explaining why the Bible prohibits sex with the same gender?] Romans 1:26 only seems to be about lesbianism, Kristof summarizes; it's actually about women who were "unnaturally aggressive about sleeping with men.")
Kristof has been down this way before. He's now left off the incredulity about more Americans believing in the Virgin Birth than in evolution (to include it one more time would have been almost prosecutable repetition), but he's still beating the statistic that more elites "can discuss the Upanishads than the Left Behind books."
A people set apart?
What sets Kristof's column apart from the Wolfe angle in the U.S. News article is his emphasis that evangelicals really are different—if not from America, than at least from America's cultural gatekeepers. And not in a bad way:
Liberals often protest that they would have nothing against conservative Christians if they were not led by hypocritical blowhards who try to impose their Ten Commandments plaques, sexual mores, and creationism on society. But that's a crude stereotype, and it ignores the Christian right's accomplishments. Polls show that evangelical Christians are more likely to contribute to charities that help the needy, and in horror spots in Africa Catholics and other Christians are the bulwark of the health care system.
Again, this point is not new for Kristof, and Wolfe's road is similarly well-trod. But the weak point of both is in downplaying the diversity among evangelical attitudes toward "worldly" culture. Few evangelicals will stand up and cheer with Wolfe about the assimilation of their Protestant reform movement into mainstream culture, but many will argue that little cultural change can be made from outside the belly of the beast.
Similarly, Kristof's solution merely replaces "crude stereotype" of conservative Christians with a slightly less exaggerated caricature. To understand conservative Christians, their critics would do better to read the New Testament than the Left Behind novels. It's not only important to understand "red-state Pentecostalism," as Kristof suggests, but also Pentecostalism's similarities to and differences from other conservative Christian communities and movements.
Ultimately, the issue may be that Christians aren't doing a very good job of being different from their neighbors. But a major part of this is a neglected (or uncommunicated) emphasis on why—not just how and on what points—we're different.
Kristof's conclusion is a fine case in point. "Bigotry toward people based on their faith is just as repugnant as bigotry toward people based on their sexuality," he writes. In other words, he believes that opposition to homosexual activity is based on personal animus. Quite the opposite: biblical Christian opposition to homosexual activity is rooted in the very same compassion that obligates serving the needy. But for some Christians, sadly, Kristof is right—and in such cases so is Wolfe in saying that evangelicals aren't fundamentally different from other Americans. Or Gentiles, and tax collectors, for that matter.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Suggest links and stories by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Check out Books & Culture's weekly weblog, Content & Context.
See our past Weblog updates:
and more, back to November 1999