Memo to Nick Kristof: Don’t Give Evangelicals That Much Credit

Nick Kristof has a piece in today’s New York Times regarding Evangelical Christians and doing good works. While he has the best of intentions, wanting everyone to get along, he gives Evangelical Christians far more credit than they deserve.

Normally when we think of Christians, it’s the jerks, the bigots, the “blowhards” (as Kristof says) who come to mind: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Mark Driscoll, etc.

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.

Yet that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice.

… But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

I’m curious whether the vocal anti-gay rights Christians are the same ones concerned with obstetric fistula and malaria. My initial reaction is they are two separate, barely-overlapping groups under the gigantic Christian umbrella.

There are a lot of important issues that progressive Christians address — I’m not dismissing that — but we’re not picking on the extremists when we use Falwell and Robertson as Christian spokespeople. Most evangelicals are against equal rights for gay people. Most evangelicals are against a woman’s right to choose. Most evangelicals don’t accept evolution. Most evangelicals would love to see at least a blending of church and state (if not a complete intertwining).

Most Christians care about those issues far more than they do about genocide. (***Edit***: An interesting rebuttal to what I’m saying is here.)

Yes, there are Christians who happen to do incredible things around the world (with and without proselytizing). But you can’t focus on the positive things they do without mentioning how much harm they cause. Kristof hardly mentions how many people are mentally, emotionally, and even physically abused because of their rigid beliefs.

He goes on:

I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.

Full disclosure: I don’t go to many New York cocktail parties. Only, like, 2-3 a week.

That said, I doubt anyone is mocking the Christians who try to make the world a better place for everyone. We mock the ones who claim to speak for them. And we mock them as a whole because they believe a god answers their prayers, god’s son died but magically came back to life, and that their holy book is full of wisdom when it’s riddled with monstrosities.

They’ve all done plenty to earn the mockery.

Kristof does make one fantastic point at the end and deserves some credit for it:

Why does all this matter?

Because religious people and secular people alike do fantastic work on humanitarian issues — but they often don’t work together because of mutual suspicions. If we could bridge this “God gulf,” we would make far more progress on the world’s ills.

This is the whole crux of the interfaith movement (with input from the non-religious community). There are people who need our help and we shouldn’t let personal biases or religious superstitions stand in the way of that.

It’s nice to see some acknowledgement that non-theistic people are just as likely as religious people to work on humanitarian issues.

But without religion standing in the way, far more people would get the help and support they need.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com miller

    “I’m curious whether the vocal anti-gay rights Christians are the same
    ones concerned with obstetric fistula and malaria. My initial reaction
    is they are two separate, barely-overlapping groups under the gigantic
    Christian umbrella.”
    My own baseless speculation is that these groups *are* overlapping.  Which would be really sad.

  • http://twitter.com/gordongoblin Gordon

    I wonder how much christians would be considered to give to charity if you didn’t count churches as charities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Burrows/582758031 Stephen Burrows

    Yesterday, I wrote on my blog, What is a “good” Christian?  http://gburgatheist.blogspot.com/2011/07/what-is-good-christian.html  I’m finding in my email that I expect too much from the relgious.  Oh well.    Yes, I want to see them actually on the ground doing good instead of just talk.  Let us see some documentation about the good they keep on saying they do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Burrows/582758031 Stephen Burrows

    Yesterday, I wrote on my blog, What is a “good” Christian?  http://gburgatheist.blogspot.com/2011/07/what-is-good-christian.html  I’m finding in my email that I expect too much from the relgious.  Oh well.    Yes, I want to see them actually on the ground doing good instead of just talk.  Let us see some documentation about the good they keep on saying they do.

    • Jack-O

      It’s honestly not too hard to observe (even as an atheist), but maybe that’s just because I’m friends with a lot of Christians. For example, have you been down to New Orleans area, lately? The Gov’t has essentially forgotten about them…most of the help they’re getting currently is coming from churches and other Christian organizations…heck, even the churches up north are still donating to those suffering from Katrina. One of my friends and other church members from Michigan went down there this past year to help build. Plenty of Christians ‘actually on the ground doing good’ wouldn’t you say?

    • Jack-O

      It’s honestly not too hard to observe (even as an atheist), but maybe that’s just because I’m friends with a lot of Christians. For example, have you been down to New Orleans area, lately? The Gov’t has essentially forgotten about them…most of the help they’re getting currently is coming from churches and other Christian organizations…heck, even the churches up north are still donating to those suffering from Katrina. One of my friends and other church members from Michigan went down there this past year to help build. Plenty of Christians ‘actually on the ground doing good’ wouldn’t you say?

  • Marjorier

    I was so mad about this article this morning that I had to write a letter to The Times. Evangelicals who do “good works” do so for two reasons: they get points to get into heaven and they are trying to convert the masses. Their acts are not unselfish. On the other hand, secularists or humanists who do good works, simply do so to ease suffering. I am tired of Kristoff being an apologist for christianity. 

    • http://odgie.wordpress.com Odgie

      It’s amazing how many alleged skeptics seem to believe that they have the power to read minds, seeing as how you seem to *know* the motives of every last evangelical are self-serving and that those of every secularist are purely altruistic. If Kristoff’s defense of Christianity is so odious to you, don’t read him.

    • dauntless

      @Marjorier: I wouldn’t be quick to that generalization, as I have similarly heard Christians say atheists only do good work to trick people into thinking they’re good. Also, I’m fairly sure Protestants are not required to do “good works” to get into heaven.

  • Anonymous

    If I’m to be convinced the quackery of Pat Robertson, Mark Driscoll, Steve Furtick, Jerry Fallwell, etc. don’t represent the evangelical or otherwise respective movements they claim to be part of, I need to see some kind of notable backlash within their movements against them, either from the grass-roots or from other prominent members of their movements.

  • BC

    There’s also a thinking among fundamentalists that whatever is done in this world is inherently inferior to saving souls.  In their view, waving someone from famine or starvation might be nice, but life on earth is temporary.  Saving souls is infinitely more important because it saves them from *eternal* damnation.  From that perspective, worldly concerns like genocide and disease are secondary to eternal concerns about people’s conversion.

  • http://odgie.wordpress.com Odgie

    Kristof draws on his own experience and observation in this piece. You draw from what you read on blogs and your own biases. I think most people will put more stock in what he has to say. Anyone who gets in a twist over one column defending a group of people that they don’t like must lead a very small life.

    • http://www.nowhere-fast.net Tom

      So you’re saying that the experiences and observations of someone you agree with are worth more than the experiences and observations of someone you disagree with? 

      • http://odgie.wordpress.com Odgie

        I’m saying that Kristof’s first-hand observations trump Hemant’s  (and a lot of other commenters’) stereotypes.

        • http://www.nowhere-fast.net Tom

          No, Hermant is offering his own first hand experiences and observations rather than stereotypes.

          First hand observations by anyone are suspect because they’re not backed up by hard data, and therefore they should be taken with a grain of salt.  But you are clearly given precedence to the first hand observations of one person over those of another because one agrees with your worldview, while one does not.

          So long as you consider one’s “observation” versus another’s “stereotype” any conversation you may want to have will go nowhere.

          • Anonymous

            Tom wrote:

            “No, Hermant is offering his own first hand experiences and observations rather than stereotypes.”

            Really? I didn’ t realize that he and so many other commenters on this blog were (as Kristof said) on
            “the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide,” etc. It seems to me that on the matter of actually easing suffering  most internet atheists’ “contribution” is to sit in the comfort of their homes and question the motives of the Christians who are actually engaged in the work. And so long as that is your game then you are absolutely correct that any conversation will go nowhere.

          • Anonymous

            Tom wrote:

            “No, Hermant is offering his own first hand experiences and observations rather than stereotypes.”

            Really? I didn’ t realize that he and so many other commenters on this blog were (as Kristof said) on
            “the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide,” etc. It seems to me that on the matter of actually easing suffering  most internet atheists’ “contribution” is to sit in the comfort of their homes and question the motives of the Christians who are actually engaged in the work. And so long as that is your game then you are absolutely correct that any conversation will go nowhere.

            • http://www.nowhere-fast.net Tom

              Two things: first, you don’t know what people’s experiences are.  You are assuming based on your own preconceptions.  You are basing your opinions on stereotypes.

              Second, it doesn’t matter if someone else’s experience isn’t exactly what Kristof says because they are speaking from their own unique perspective.  That’s just how conversations work.  If everyone agreed on everything and had the same experiences, there wouldn’t be much to say – although there would be a lot of knowing nods.

              • Davood

                Oh brother. What a conversation-stopper. “You don’t know other’s experiences, but I know you’re making assumptions based on preconceptions and stereotypes”. Do you see anything wrong with these statements spoken by the same person in the same argument?

  • http://twitter.com/meyekael Meyekael

    I don’t see any reason why the Rev. John Stott’s version of Evangelical Christianity is any more legitimate than Pat Robertson’s. It’s all made up after all.

  • http://www.nowhere-fast.net Tom

    “I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way – and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.”

    Indeed, and it sickens me to see my compatriots, who risk their lives on a daily basis, have their worldview mocked at pulpits around the nation.  Oh, and also during parades that are ostensibly celebrating their sacrifices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Benjamin-Machanik/1351030143 Benjamin Machanik

    As pointed out in the actual post, the problem is that evangelicals ultimately oppose a lot of rights like the rights of gays and woman, and ultimately in these positions they are very wrong. I believe that the Nazi’s invented some really useful technologies, but that doesn’t excuse the genocidal acts they did. An extreme comparison, perhaps, but it shouldn’t be glossed over that evangelicals believe and spread the belief that certain people (gays, woman, atheists) are essentially inferior and don’t deserve the same rights as the evangelists do, no matter how many other charitable causes they may contribute to.

  • Karen

    Kristof has always been a major apologist for religion. He even gives cover to Islam in his otherwise-excellent book, “Half the Sky.”

    He admits upfront that women are treated far worse in Islamic countries than anywhere else in the world, but after detailing all the horrors, he lets Islam off the hook by saying that the religion itself is not responsible for their treatment!

    Well, what the hell is then!? Makes no sense except that he can’t stand to criticize religion in any form.

    I realize and appreciate that his aim is to improve the lot of the world’s poor and disenfranchised and I highly applaud him for that, but he has to be more honest about religion’s role in the bad.

    • dauntless

      Have you never taken a cultural anthropology course? Religion may be used to justify the behavior, but it is not the root of mistreatment of women (and most of the other common mores in agricultural societies). I would suggest that women in agricultural China have it worse than women in Islamic countries such as Egypt or the United Arab Emirates.

  • cipher

    Meh. “Progressive”, conservative – I don’t care. All but a handful think I’m going to hell. That tells me all I need to know about them.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so
    many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10
    percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related.
    “Right. That’s how the Pat Robertsons, the Falwells, etc. got stinking rich. Giving money to bad causes is not an admirable trait.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so
    many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10
    percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related.
    “Right. That’s how the Pat Robertsons, the Falwells, etc. got stinking rich. Giving money to bad causes is not an admirable trait.

  • Anthrosciguy

    Every time someone gives to Rick Warren’s church, it’s “charity”, and helps pay to dehumanize and demonize gay people in Uganda and help impose draconian laws there.  And this is far from the only odious thing these people give money for and call “charity”.  To me, anyone who gives absolutely nothing ever has done more and better for humanity than people who give for causes like that.

  • http://flatustheelder.com/wordpress/ Clifton Kerr

    IMHO there are two people who absolutely cannot be trusted……..evilgenitals and strict constructionists.

  • http://flatustheelder.com/wordpress/ Clifton Kerr

    IMHO there are two people who absolutely cannot be trusted……..evilgenitals and strict constructionists.

  • TychaBrahe

    Perhaps Kristoff would care to comment on the other works of evangelicals in Africa. 

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/world/africa/04uganda.html

    You know, the thing where they were pushing a bill to criminalize homosexuality, perhaps even make it a capital crime.

    Was Jeffrey Dahmer kind to his dogs?  Who the hell cares!

  • Jack-O

    People who think Christians ‘evangelize’ for ‘their own self benefit’, and the like, I don’t think clearly understand the Christian doctrine. I thought Christians don’t believe in ‘earning points’ with God…that’s one of the whole points of Christianity, is that you can not get ‘into’ Heaven by good works…is that not one of the things they preach? That’s what I hear all the time, personally….

    Then again, there was the whole case with Martin Luther and the Catholic church (and many more, I’m sure)…which involved this very problem…so I’m sure there are plenty of Christians who are more into the ritual part of it, rather than the spiritual part…but I’d be willing to say that isn’t the case with the vast majority of evangelicals.


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