When Jimmy Carter was elected President, Newsweek christened 1976 "The Year of the Evangelical." And if 1976 heralded the birth of the media reckoning with the crowd that took the Bible at least as seriously as did Carter, evangelicalism's 29-year-old public persona has come of age in 2005. Now we're on during prime time.
Except for cases still found in some placesLewis Lapham's "The Wrath of the Lamb" in the May issue of Harper's being one of themevangelicals can no longer complain about a media conspiracy against them. We're no longer overlooked, persecuted, discriminated against, and misquoted in the mainstream news media. Clarification: the term "news media" here doesn't include the opinion writers, whose voices in The New York Times, for example, still alternate between befuddlement at discovery of evangelicals (Had you any idea people like this existed?) and insulting them (They're the ones who believe that science and faith are mutually exclusive!). But enough about the continuing education of pundits like Frank Rich and Paul Krugman.
The news and features reporters, editors, and producers exhibit more awareness of complexity in the evangelical worldnow featuring Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, Focus on the Family's James Dobson, and voices in between. We're represented on PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, in David Van Biema's reporting for Time, and on NPR's Morning Edition.
Turn on the TV during sweeps season, and what do you see? Our newfound status became poignantly apparent the evening of May 20. That's when ABC's 20/20 anchor and correspondent Elizabeth Vargas explored "what really happened" during the Resurrection of Christ. This is the same Vargas who last year employed too many words to hype little substance in the documentary investigating the groundless assertions of Dan Brown's page-turner The Da Vinci Code. (Did Jesus and Mary Magdalene have a romantic relationship? The answer after the break.)
This time, evangelical scholars such as William Lane Craig, Paul Meier, Lee Strobel, and Ben Witherington got the most airtime. And their claims about the empty tomb were corroborated by non-Christian experts. The usual skeptics got to throw in their two cents, but no more.
So, we've been mainstreamed. Now what?
First, we can thank God. Jesus Christ's unique message and values will gain a larger and more respectful hearing.
Second, as noted, we really can't play the persecution card anymore. As "players," we will be criticized sharply still, but that's just part of life in America.
Third, let's remember that how we got here is how we will stay here: Careful scholarship. Measured proclamations. Majoring on the majors. Grassroots organizing. Patience. Prayer.
Now that we're prime-time, we don't want to start acting like American idols.
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Lewis Lapham's "The Wrath of the Lamb" is not available online from Harper's, but the magazine's May issue offers two other paranoid looks at evangelicals. In Soldiers of Christ Part I, Jeff Sharlet reports from Ted Haggard's New Life church. And in part 2, Chris Hedges is "feeling the hate with the National Religious Broadcasters."
Weblog commented on 20/20's defense of the resurrection.
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