Evangelicals without placards — will miracles never cease?

AbortionPlacards.jpgHanna Rosin of The Washington Post wandered onto David Kirkpatrick’s turf during the weekend, attempting to explain those strange new creatures in town who are called evangelicals. Rosin interviews several people, but the anecdotes of one political consultant, Lyric Hassler, provide the central image of the piece.

Embarrassing memories from Hassler’s teenage years — “chastising her church youth group for wasting time on frivolous pizza parties, ignoring any TV that wasn’t ‘The 700 Club’ — become a symbol for what Rosin describes as evangelical political involvement in previous decades.

Hassler uses the word “Uchhhhhh” (or “Uccch” — your spelling, like Rosin’s, may vary) in recalling her teenager zeal, and Rosin projects it onto an entire adult subculture:

It’s the sound of a movement shoving aside its past like so many pairs of braces. The conservative Christian political movement that burst on Washington in the ’80s, the activists with their aborted-fetus placards and their heady plans to colonize school boards and their here-and-now visions of the Apocalypse, their early years are now a source of embarrassment to themselves.

Amen to them. No more thundering sermons on Wiccans and floods and child molesters, caught on tape and leaked by a political opponent. No more pronouncements about “signs” showing up in California. No more horrors from the Book of Revelation.

What, no reference to the Vanishing Hitchhiker or screams from Hell at a Siberian drilling site? Evangelicals who served in Congress during those years, such as Mark Hatfield and the late Rep. Paul B. Henry, don’t appear in Rosin’s story, perhaps because they weren’t waving “aborted-fetus placards.”

It’s not that evangelicals are any less unusual in what they believe, Rosin suggests, but that they’ve learned good PR skills: “They may believe everything they believed before, but they’ve learned to speak in ways that are more measured and cautious and designed not to attract attention.”

The tone continues as she describes newcomer John Thune:

Sen. John Thune is the movement’s new David, having overthrown former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle. When talking about abortion, the South Dakota Republican prefers abstractions: “I like to connect my principled view with my policy objectives,” he says. “Good principles can lead to good policy.”

“Principles.” “Policy.” This could be Hillary Clinton talking about health care, Ralph Nader discussing emission standards. He could be anyone in Washington, talking about anything.

To secular humanists or even your average Democrat, Thune Land is a scary, scary frontier. “He is this new kind of Republican creature who puts an innocuous face on the religious right,” says a Daschle aide who worked on the campaign. “Behind this cheerful frat-boy basketball-star persona is just the same old beast of the far right.”

What qualifies Thune for this description? That never becomes clear, unless holding conservative positions on abortion or gay rights now qualifies as far right: “But Thune has nothing to hide. Ask him about abortion or gay rights, and he will answer straightforwardly, nicely, sensibly. He’d rather be elected deputy majority whip (which he just was) than lead a fringe movement.”

Ah, but Rosin sees through the façade of civility. Evangelicals still believe that, whatever the question, Jesus is the answer:

Rick Warren heads the list, and he is the perfect embodiment of the new ethos. Warren, who is a pastor in California, wrote “The Purpose Driven Life,” the best-selling hardcover book in U.S. publishing history. There is only one way to find purpose: “placing our faith in Christ,” by being “born-again.” Period.

Is that not the most horrifying punctuating mark you’ve read in months?

On another cultural front, the Post‘s David Montgomery makes a lighthearted visit to Church of the Pilgrims Presbyterian, a gay-friendly congregation in the District, for a covert screening of the gay-friendly episode of Postcards from Buster.

Montgomery writes of the episode — TiVo’ed and burned onto a DVD by a church member’s sister — as if it’s video samizdat for the preschool set.

He quotes this dialogue from the show:

Buster: So Gillian’s your mom, too?
Emma [age 3]: She’s my stepmom.
Buster: Boy, that’s a lot of moms!
Emma: Yup. [Showing framed family photo.] This is mom and Gillian right here.
Buster: That’s a nice picture.
Emma: This is one of my favorite pictures.
Buster: How come?
Emma: Because it has my mom and Gillian, people I love a lot, and they read a lot to me.

Montgomery paraphrases Gillian Pieper, one of Emma’s two moms, as saying the producers “had been looking for two-mom families and settled on hers after another option fell through.”

It’s probably only a matter of time before pirated versions of the episode become available on eBay. If GetReligion readers know where to screen the episode via the Internet, give us a holler.

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  • Molly

    I read the WaPo piece before I read your comment and maybe I’m just having a midafternoon slump, but what exactly is your problem with it? I thought it was well written and I guess my sensibilites must be different than yours because I did not hear any mockery than necessitated a sarcastic response. What did I miss?

  • Molly

    After re-reading the above post, I felt compelled to post again, and just for the record, I am not being sarcastic in asking my question. It’s hard to tell with the written word, sometimes.

    I sense from what you wrote that you are not a fan of the piece but I am not clicking on exactly why. I got the impression, based on your final comment after the Warren quote, that you aren’t biting the author’s angle.


  • http://www.getreligion.org/archives/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Hanna Rosin is describing more than two decades worth of evangelical political engagement by referring to placard-wavers, End Times obsessives, and people who talk about unspecified “signs” in California. I am objecting to a cartoonish depiction of a movement I have known well since the early 1980s.

  • http://bubblesniffer@earthlink.net Molly

    Okay, gotcha.

    I don’t have that background and I thought she was giving the evangelical movement credit for maturing and taking its mission seriously by learning to speak a language that does not make non-evangelicals run for cover.

    Different perspectives, I guess.

  • Charlie

    Her piece seems to say that evangelicals used to be unsophisticated, in-your-face juveniles (Tammy Faye Bakker and Jesus Freaks), but we’ve “grown”, we’re more tolerant of other views and lifestyles. We’re still dangerous lunatics, but at least we’re keeping our crazy ideas to ourselves.

    It’s an interesting piece because it shows quite clearly that the perceptions of Christianity among intellectuals still comes mainly from stereotyping and misinformation.

  • Molly

    Charlie, where does she say evangelicals are lunatics?

    As to your skeevishness, Doug, I was expecting the ire to be more along the lines of “how dare she say that evangelicals have “arrived” in the halls of power?”

    Truly, think about it. Jesus said that his disciples are to be in this world and not of it. How less “of it” can you be than pre-fall Tammy Bakker? I would expect someone with a mission to be in the world but not of it to be more skeeved at the presumption that evangelicals are now indistinguishable from the power players in DC. Isn’t the wedding of power in the culture with the authority of the church (especially post ww2) what got us into this mess in the first place?

    “It’s what Ralph Reed dreamed of, and now it’s finally here. Christians in politics are ready to trade in their guerrilla fatigues for business suits and a day job. This year evangelicals in public office have finally become so numerous that they’ve blended in to the permanent Washington backdrop, a new establishment that has absorbed the local habits and mores. ”

    I think this is a much more – dare I say it? – damning paragraph than what you quoted above. As well as:

    “(Recently this reporter attended the Christian Inaugural Ball and spotted, there in the back of the VIP room, a vision of Tammy Faye Bakker but More! Longer eyelashes! Poufier hair! A flouncier dress! That’s TV evangelist Jan Crouch, one of the party’s organizers explained, then quickly steered the reporter to higher ground. Here, come meet this successful Christian lobbyist, this best-selling author, the beautiful young Thune daughters who look just like Barbara and Jenna!)” It’s almost as if evangelicals are ashamed of the louder elements of its identity.

    Aren’t Tammy Faye’s and now Jan Crouch’s eyelashes a more powerful witness to the power of the Gospel’s otherness than a starched shirt at a Washington tea?

  • http://www.getreligion.org/archives/2004/02/about_douglas_l.html Douglas LeBlanc

    Dear Molly,

    I don’t subscribe to the notion that being in the world but not of it means evangelicals (or any other Christians) need to forsake public service. What Christians do with such power, I think, is the real test of whether they are “of the world.”

    Much as I love Tammy Faye Bakker as a camp figure and for her tender heart, I consider neither Tammy Faye nor Jan Crouch icons of evangelicalism. That Hanna Rosin treated them as such weakens this article’s credibility still further, so far as I’m concerned.