01 August 2011

Evangelical Christianity's Ugly Side Is Inseparable From Its Virtues

Nicholas Kristoff, in a column this past Saturday, summed up what liberals don't like about Evangelical Christianity, in the course of arguing that the negative stereotype isn't universal since there are nice evangelical Christians out there (like the late Reverend John Stott of Britain, and liberal evangelicals like Jim Wallis of Sojourners fame and Richard Cizik) who don't make headlines the way that the hellfire and brimstone, or prosperity gospel TV evangelists do.

This may be true, but his spot on summary of liberal distaste of the Evangelical Christian movement deserves restating for future reference:

In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as “evangelical Christian.”

That’s partly because evangelicals came to be associated over the last 25 years with blowhard scolds. When the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson discussed on television whether the 9/11 attacks were God’s punishment on feminists, gays and secularists, God should have sued them for defamation.

Earlier, Mr. Falwell opined that AIDS was “God’s judgment on promiscuity.” That kind of religious smugness allowed the AIDS virus to spread and constituted a greater immorality than anything that occurred in gay bathhouses.

Partly because of such self-righteousness, the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral. . . .

Centuries ago, serious religious study was extraordinarily demanding and rigorous; in contrast, anyone could declare himself a scientist and go in the business of, say, alchemy. These days, it’s the reverse. A Ph.D. in chemistry is a rigorous degree, while a preacher can explain the Bible on television without mastering Hebrew or Greek — or even showing interest in the nuances of the original texts.

Those self-appointed evangelical leaders come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him. Some seem homophobic, and many who claim to be “pro-life” seem little concerned with human life post-uterus. Those are the preachers who won headlines and disdain.

While I am more than willing to acknowledge that there are social gospel preaching intellectuals like Stott, a British theological writer, who are simultaneously humanistic and Christian, it is inaccurate to call him an "evangelical Christian" in the sense of the term that describes the movement within American Christianity that took off in the American South during the Second Great Awakening, with its "distinctives" having only remote and cryptic connections to earlier movements in Christianity that has spread and mutated from there, as opposed to its generic meaning of someone who is a Christian and actively engages in the business of trying to convert others to the faith.

There is a case to be made that this narrow sense of Evangelical Christianity makes positive contributions to society and doesn't deserve the wholehearted distaste which Kristoff explains that the movement has worked hard to earn. But, attacking it from the point of figures like Stott, Wallis and Cizik, who are either not a part of that movement at all, even if religious people in that movement do read what they have to say at times, or who are on its fringes trying to reform it from its flaws from a position of underdog movement insurgents, is not a credible way to redeem this movement.

If one is to redeem (or at least understand the moral basis of) narrow sense Evangelical Christianity, one needs to look at the positive or at least culturally important contributions of core followers of the very same people, at that core of that movement, who generate such liberal outrage, not the critics at its fringe.

Evangelical Christianity does have upsides: their willingness to engage in prison ministries, their willingness to acknowledge that their communities are broken and need fixing, their willingness to include the poor and working class as a part of their community rather than objectifying them as outsiders, their commitment to trying to reform people, their ability to unify a Southern ethnic identity that doesn't show up on census forms in the face of a dominant Northern national elite culture, their ability to devote private sector charitable effort to addressing the problems of the Third World, and their commitment to the possibility of a hopeful future even in moments when individuals think that their lives have reached dead ends.

This movement is fundamentally reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and immoral. For this movement these are features, not flaws. This movement is also inherently and centrally willing to include and support those who are down on their luck if those people submit to their broader cultural agenda. The two sides of the movement's agenda are mutually reinforcing and inseparable parts of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian in the narrow sense of that term.

Their stubborn, fact-blind righteousness is part and parcel of their unwavering attitude of hopefulness and acceptance of the inevitability of divine providence. Their anti-intellectual orientation is part of what puts this religious movement in a comfort zone for those who are themselves ill educated. One can't unify a cohort of people who as a matter of core ethnic identity refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of the North's victory in the Civil War if you are aren't reactionary.

Evangelical Christianity offers a port in the storm for losers of many shades and stripes that more mainstream Christianity does not. Mainstream Christianity is more open to letting a depressing (for the core constituency of Evangelical Christianity) reality in, mainstream Christianity accepts the authority of intellectuals who necessarily have profound cultural distance from working class flocks as their leaders, and mainstream Christianity is more insistent upon the importance of not sinning in the first place relativite to the importance of never ending forgiveness without regard to culpability than the average self-identified Evangelical Christian knows how to manage. In a world of ugly people, a taboo against mirrors can seem attractive; Evangelical Christianity offers such a world.

If liberals want to make inroads into the people who make up the core of the Evangelical Christian movement, which is closely identified with, although not 100% identical to, the core of the American political conservative movement exemplified in the Tea Party movement and core of the Republican party, it will not suffice to embrace and encourage people who self-identify as Evangelical Christians but operate from outside or at the fringes of that movement.

Instead, liberals have to offer an alternative that can provide an authentic core identity and belief system that works for people who are uneducated and regularly down on their luck who need abundant forgiveness for their psychological well being because they can't figure out how to keep from sinning on a regular basis. They need an alternative that can maintain an unrelenting campaign of calling attention to the failures in their community that need fixing without raising the hackles that outside criticism does, who keep trying even though there is no source of relief in sight. They need to provide people with a worldview that can give them hope in the face of a lack of possibility. They need to offer some filter that can allow these people to make sense of a world that confuses them because they have their feet planted firmly in the past. These people have deep spiritual needs and neither mainstream Christianity nor secular philosophy are doing a good job of serving their needs.

If liberals can solve that riddle to meet those needs, or can change the world in a way so that a critical mass of people no longer need these things, Evangelical Christianity will wither away. Until then, liberals are fighting fire with paper. Every now and then it can smoother a hot spot that is getting out of control, but their own efforts to fight it also fuel the fire.

I suspect that if an alternative is found, it is as likely as not to be something other than mainstream Christianity. For example, Americanized Islam came close to leaping into that role under the leadership of Malcolm X for African-Americans. Mormons, while in many respects a part of the Evangelical Christian movement, similarly offer a different enough community and theological model to offer a genuine alternative to the traditional Evangelical Christian model, even though they do not completely break from that mold. It would likewise be unsurprising to seem some sort of innovation along these lines emerge from the non-denominational megachurch movement. Or, it could be something entirely different. But, until an alternative comes along, Evangelical Christianity, as pernicious as it is, will have staying power because it addresses needs that other movements do not for tens of millions of Americans.

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