From Father Richard to T.D. Jakes

Timecoverfeb7As “Meet the Evangelicals” pieces go, Time‘s cover package this week is high-quality work. It revisits familiar faces (Billy and Franklin Graham) but also introduces names that would be less familiar even in some evangelical circles (Luis Cortes, Douglas Coe). The photographs show these evangelicals in their natural elements, looking relaxed, friendly and smart.

One remark, which introduces theologian J.I. Packer, is telling:

When it comes to doctrine, Evangelicals practice the equivalent of states’ rights. Encompassing huge, philosophically distinct denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God and thousands of independent “Bible churches,” the movement has no formal arbiter.

Time‘s list reflects that states-rights assumption, including two Roman Catholics (Richard John Neuhaus — the president calls him “Father Richard” — and Sen. Rick Santorum), proponents of prosperity theology (T.D. Jakes, Joyce Meyer) and, in Jakes, a pastor who comes from a Oneness Pentecostal background and is affiliated with a Oneness network of churches.

The package claims that “except for his public disavowal of racial segregation, Billy Graham, 86, has stuck to soul saving and left the political proselytizing to others.” That would have been news to Richard M. Nixon, and Graham himself has said he regrets being drawn too deeply into politics by his friendship with Nixon.

Time echoes the doubts expressed in Slate about whether James Dobson is ready for political prime time:

It’s not certain, however, whether Dobson, 68, can translate his considerable influence into political muscle. White House officials consider his demands too absolutist and impractical. “We respect him greatly,” says a Bush aide, “but his political influence is not everything people might think.”

And it presents megachurch pastor Ted Haggard as having a vision beyond opposing abortion and gay marriage:

At a meeting with President Bush in November 2003, after nearly an hour of jovial Oval Office chat, the Rev. Ted Haggard, 48, got serious. He argued against Bush-imposed steel tariffs on the grounds that free markets foster economic growth, which helps the poor. A month later, the White House dropped the tariffs. Haggard wasn’t alone in faulting the policy, and he doesn’t claim to be the impetus, but as president of the National Association of Evangelicals, he gets listened to.

A companion article (“What Does Bush Owe the Religious Right?”) shows a similar nuanced understanding, closing with these observations:

Working with liberal groups, religious conservatives forced the Bush Administration to intercede in the Christian-Muslim civil war in Sudan. They also put political muscle behind global aids funding and legislation against international sex trafficking and lately are becoming increasingly worried about Third World debt.

That’s just the beginning. “You will continue to see this agenda of Christian conservatives broaden out,” says Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, and as it does, the results will sometimes be unexpected. At last week’s annual antiabortion march, activists from the National Association of Evangelicals drew quizzical looks as they paraded under a banner reading stop mercury poisoning of the unborn. It was a protest against water pollution by coal-burning utilities — a cause Ralph Nader or Al Gore would also support. “You can build from the left and build from the right and get something done,” Brownback says. Which, in the end, may be what having power is all about.

The editors of Time show this week that it’s possible to depict evangelicals’ political and theological diversity without staging another name-calling argument between Jerry Falwell and Jim Wallis. Good for them.

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  • Mark

    Would it even be correct to group the Oneness Pentecostals as Christians when they deny the Holy Trinity? As far as I’m concerned, that issue was settled by the seven Ecumenical Councils.

  • Stephen A.

    From a journalist’s point of view, it would be standard to apply “Christian” to them if they identify themselves as such.

    The AP style guide says to use “fundamentalist” or “liberal” only when the group uses such terms about themselves, so I’m assuming the rule is applied to religious self-identification, too.

    However, a good reporter would briefly make note of the abberant beliefs which set them apart from other Christians, as long as the reporter didn’t insert his/her own biases about who “really” is a Christian.

    Otherwise, a fundamentalist reporter may opt to say Catholics as not “real” Christians, for example, or vice-versa. A slippery journalistic slope.

    Interestingly, while they hold many views not held by Christendom in general, I’ve noticed that the Latter-day Saints/Mormons are more and more likely to NOT have descriptions placed in news stories noting their differences. This was once common, but no longer.

    Perhaps its due to reporters’ not knowing any better or maybe they have finally worked their way into the mainstream of religions to the point that it seems unnecessary.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Mark,

    I agree with you, but I’ve also given up on my hope of persuading people that T.D. Jakes is not — despite his personal charisma — correctly understood as an evangelical. So I leave it at pointing out his Oneness history and associations and leaving it to readers to connect the dots.

  • Coleman

    It is indeed an interesting article. The scary part is that Time’s choices are right on, and the people they chose tend to be both very greedy/wealthy and have very bad theology. Unfortunately, these are the people of influence in evangelical life.

  • Ted Olsen

    Well, before we go too far afield on T.D. Jakes’s Trinitarian credentials (I recommend Mr. LeBlanc’s Christianity Today article at ), let’s note that evangelical pastors consider him one of their own. Asked who most inflences American churches, senior pastors told pollster George Barna placed Jakes at #6, right between Bill Hybels and John Maxwell. On “most trusted spokesperson for Christianity,” Jakes came in at #4, after Billy Graham, Jim Dobson, and Rick Warren. ( )

    Hmmm. Does Bebbington’s four-fold description of an evangelical (conversionist, activist, biblicist, and crucicentrist) mandate that one must also be an orthodox Christian and subscribe to everything in, say, the Nicene Creed? There’s a fun debate. And then there’s the historical sense of the postwar “evangelical” term: Where do you think Jakes would fit in the fundamentalist (Bob Jones) / neo-evangelical (Billy Graham) / liberal-modernist continuum? Given the extent of his cultural engagement, he seems smack in the middle to me.

  • Tom Breen

    Maybe I’m just a poor, bewildered Catholic, but the Time article (while fascinating), makes me more confused about what constitutes an evangelical than ever before. Can someone be an evangelical and be Catholic? The article says so; I think this makes it impossible for “evangelical” to have any meaning outside a secular political context.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    There’s a precedent to use evangelical as an adjective before Catholic — see Keith Fournier’s book, Evangelical Catholics (Nelson, 1990):

    In that book, Fournier — a Catholic deacon — uses evangelical to refer to all Christians who love Scripture, have a personal faith in Jesus Christ and believe in evangelism.

    But when referring to a Catholic, applying evangelical as a noun does cause confusion.

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    Belated response to Ted: Thanks for the two interesting definitions. I would be inclined to say that any self-understood evangelicals who cannot affirm the Nicene Creed ought to ask — if only rhetorically — exactly what faith they are evangelical about.

  • EV

    I have a question for Doug. Is there an intended subtext to the photo of Ted Haggard (pursed lips) with Rabbi Marvin Hier (straight profile, not identified)?

  • EV

    I have a question for Doug. Is there an intended subtext to the photo of Ted Haggard (pursed lips) with Rabbi Marvin Hier (straight profile, not identified)?