Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg borrowed from a Republican tv ad against Howard Dean to give his latest book the long-winded title of Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times–Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show.

Likewise, several hysterical books of recent vintage have turned evangelical Protestantism into a fear-raising, toxic-Flavor Aid-drinking, nacho-eating, SUV-driving, World-reading, gay-loathing, theocracy-loving, and, above all, fundamentalist freak show.

Jeffery Sheler, a veteran religion journalist at U.S. News & World Report, does not need a Louis Harris poll, a horrified visit to a shout-laden church service, or a feverish imagination to figure out what evangelicals believe. As Sheler explains, he became an evangelical as a teenager and has considered himself one for most of his life. Sheler eventually found his way into a fairly conservative mainline Presbyterian congregation, and he retains a clear affection for the culture that nourished his early faith.

This isn't to say Sheler's travelogue is free of criticism, or that it should be. Sheler frequently questions evangelicals' involvement in fractious culture-war issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and sexual morality. He also grasps that many evangelicals believe they must, as citizens of both the United States and the kingdom of God, challenge a political culture that is hostile to their worldview.

Most of Sheler's book consists of travels to evangelical landmarks, including Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, Focus on the Family, and Wheaton College. A chapter that begins with a visit to Boston's Park Street Church, where Harold Ockenga was once senior pastor, provides a thoughtful history of evangelicalism's early days, but offers scant detail about Ockenga's time there or how the church has fared in the past few decades.

A chapter on the Creation Festival is standard fare, although slightly richer since Sheler stays for the entire festival and captures the spellbinding power, at least for teenagers teetering on the brink of conversion, of gospel-songs-round-the-campfire.

Near the end of Believers, Sheler visits with two rather different scholars: Albert Mohler Jr. of the flagship Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville and Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

Mohler is unfazed by the critique of the Religious Right by evangelical pundit Cal Thomas: "I have great admiration for him. But in his own words, he thought the Moral Majority was going to bring on revival. That was ridiculous. But then to argue that politics isn't important is equally ridiculous."

Mouw tells of how he gathered his Fuller colleagues, approaching the seminary's 50th anniversary, to discuss what holds evangelicals together: "It isn't just about doctrine. It isn't inerrancy. It isn't our political views. One of our church historians spoke up and said, 'You know what it really is? It's having a heart for the lost.' And we all looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, that's what it is.'"

Someday, maybe, evangelicalism's fiercest critics will calm down—maybe not enough to respect that belief, but at least enough to understand it. Sheler deserves evangelicals' gratitude for this work of cross-cultural translation.

Douglas LeBlanc is a CT contributing editor.

Related Elsewhere:

Believers is available through and other booksellers.

See also today's interview with Sheler.

Jeffery Sheler's website has more information about Believers, his book Is the Bible True? and his other work.

Religion and Ethics Newsweekly has an excerpt of Believers.

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