Who’s calling who a “traditional evangelical”?

OK, I tried hard on my latest Pat Robertson post to keep things short, so I had better jump in here online (I am still in Chicago during some lectures) and address one or two concerns of readers who could see some of the holes created by my brevity.

How about Thomas Oden, Luke Timothy Johnson, Al Mohler, Mark D. Roberts, John Piper, Mark Noll, John Stott, R.C. Sproul, Paul Zahl, Alister Begg, John MacArthur, just for starters?
Posted by VaAnglican at 7:33 am on September 18, 2005pats

Fine list, with lots of good names. I was not trying, with my collection over at Poynter, to create any kind of definitive resource list. Instead, I was trying to suggest a range of options in terms of groups, gender, culture, skills, etc.

When reporters and broadcast producers research stories, one of the goals is supposed to be to find people who bring specific skills or fresh insights to the topic at hand. You see this a lot in niche-cable-news land on the left. You get serious or funny activists, you get young brilliant academics, you get behind-the-scenes powers who are not yet public names and so forth and so on. On the right you often get — Pat Robertson or another elderly white alpha male. I was trying to suggest that journalists could, with some digging, discover a range of traditional Christians of various pews who are experts on many different kinds of topics. Some are even pithy.

I also wonder if the other reason the Evangelical elite is afraid of criticizing Robertson is that it was Robertson who mobilized the first wave of religious conservatives to become involved in elective politics. The Robertson presidential campaign was a watershed among religiuos conservatives, and the elites owe his a debt.
Posted by Michael at 9:59 am on September 18, 2005

Yes, Robertson’s Don Quixote campaign was a major event for some evangelicals.

But even then, there was major opposition to Robertson among evangelicals, and some of the most telling criticism (even news coverage) of his campaign came from other evangelicals. I am thinking, in particular, of the trailblazing work by columnist Michael McManus digging into Robertson’s fundraising techniques. For a flashback on that issue, click here.

Why do VaAnglican and Terry’s lists of “representative Evangelicals” include non-Protestants, protestants who do and do not think “Fundamentalist” is a bad word, protestant mainliners, and reformed protestants who do not really regard themselves as evangelicals? . . .
Posted by +G.J. at 12:32 pm on September 18, 2005

I never said anything about “traditional evangelicals,” did I? Where did I use that phrase?

This is the essence of my complaint in the original piece. Robertson does represent a certain shrinking niche of the wider charismatic Protestant world. He has his niche. But year after year, he is held up as a major voice in the wider world of cultural conservatism and for Christians in general. He is propped up as a spokesman for many, many people who have never claimed him.

Thus, I said that my Poynter list offered a collection of interesting people who might serve as quotable sources for journalists looking for feedback from “traditional Christians” — not “evangelicals” or any narrower term. I also said that journalists needed fresh lists for the Christian left, Judaism and many other groups. It’s a tough and complex news beat, folks.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://japery.newpantagruel.com +G.J.

    I said “representative Evangelicals,” not “traditional Evangelicals” (I’m not even sure what that would mean), but it is true you did not specifically identify the people on your list as “evangelicals.” I thought it was being implied in the ECT and Time Magazine sense. Perhaps we are all slighlty confused by complex realities and the reductive nature of general labels.

    At Poynter, you mentioned “Christian conservatives” and “conservative Christians” (meaning theological or political conservatives or both or either?) as you described the group of people that in your view many journalists mistakenly link with Robertson, a man whom you say these journalists may see as “a powerful leader among American evangelicals.” You then mentioned “mainstream evangelicals and traditional Catholics” who appear uninterested in or unattached to Robertson. (I’m not sure why “traditional Catholics” are relevant here–or why “evangelicals” is not capitalized but Catholics” is!)

    The point was clear that you think Robertson should be rejected as a representative “evangelical leader”–by who else but other evangelicals? That is how the discussion proceeded here. It wasn’t clear that you think the whole concept of “evangelical leader” should be scrapped or transcended at appropriate times–which is what I think you mean now with your statement that journalists should seek “traditional Christians of various pews who are experts on many different kinds of topics.”

    This is good, but now the word “traditional” becomes confusing, mainly to the average history-illiterate newsreader who is not sure what any large words mean, what “tradition” is in the Judaeo-Christian sense, etc. (This despite the fact that many such readers will certainly identify themselves as Christians!) Free-church Evangelicals, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists and Catholics are not equally “traditional” relative to each other and the larger history of the Christian church and churches in terms of belief and practice. This fact is historically and politically significant in many ways, as in the history of a dominant anglo-north european protestant culture that, as you recently noted regarding JFK and Judge Roberts, transmogrifies longstanding protestant anti-catholic sentiment where catholics are superstitious and spiritually legalistic into hostility toward faithful religious observance and orthodoxy in any trinitarian church.

    What I think you really mean by traditional is “faithful.” I.e., Christians of different traditions who are trying to be faithful (and largely succeeding at it) to whatever tradition they belong to. I agree wholeheartedly, but I have to say that this must exclude free-church, non-confessional, or post-confessional evangelicals and protestants by any other name because there is nothing so distinctive about them that they do not have a tradition unless it is a tradition of dispensing with tradition and making up new things.

    Of course you cannot use the modifier “faithful” in this way in newspapers without accusation of bias even though it is a point of fact whether or not a person is or is not faithful to the present doctrines and laws of her church. “Traditional” may be used as long as “traditionalists” do not mind and “non-traditionalists” can take it as a pejorative. I am skeptical that either will be motivated or helped to understand the other better, if that is the goal.

  • http://japery.newpantagruel.com +G.J.

    Sorry, one more. I hope this doesn’t come off as nit-picking, but I think “tradition,” “traditional” and other variants are really not clear or substantially unfreighted terms to the common reader. They may become a point of contention in the future if the behavioral and psychological aspects of “traditional” religious observance are noted for their similarity between Jews, Christians, Muslims and others as primary means of opposing and resisting assimilation to modern secular pluralistic liberal polities. While true, from the viewpoint of the non- and anti-religious, “traditional” joins hands with “fundamentalist” as a non-analytical term of abuse and dismissal.

    More immediately there is a problem with “traditional” since “traditionalist/s” and “traditionalism” have been used in the MSM after The Passion to describe various Catholics, often blurring the difference between traditional/faithful and the “traditionalism” of, for instance, Marcel Lefebvre and other schismatics.

    Adding to the complexity is that not all schismatics are equal in the eyes of the church, “traditional” catholics may or may not be “traditionalists,” and different catholics disagree about whether or not the present pope is a traditionalist in much the same way that different “conservatives” found John Paul II “liberal” and/or “conservative” while “liberals” generally saw him as “conservative.” Again the bottom line is how people define “tradition” and relate to it. Journalists and their readers are largely ignorant of this “how” in religious communities they have little or no experience with–which is usually many.

    On a philosophical note, it is shocking to realize how this central problem of religion and tradition vis a vis western political and cultural order was, for the first half of the twentieth century, a clear and common subject of intellectual and public discourse.

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  • http://onlinefaith.blogspot.com C. Wingate

    Several notes:

    First, I think Leblanc’s “spew factor” helps drive this, and also what I refer to as “usual suspects” reporting. These factors are surely part of the reason that John Shelby Spong keeps getting quoted in the papers even though he no longer leads a diocese in ECUSA.

    And second, the other part of the Robertson/Spong interest: it seems to me that the MSM is very prone, on any issue, to cast the matter in political terms, and therefore tends to seek out leaders (or at least, people that they can understand as leaders) rather than theoreticians. It’s all for the better to find leaders who are polarizing and who give good “soundbite”. Spong and Robertson fit all these criteria quite nicely, and they also love media attention. Luke Timothy Johnson is an academic; Philip Yancey isn’t polarizing; and no doubt many of the others, besides these handicaps, don’t give good soudbite. The problem is only more acute in the evangelical world because baptist polity equals a dearth of readily identified “leaders”, but it besets the mainline too. One is far more likely to hear, in the current Anglican debacle, from certain polarizing bishops than from any theologian. Presbyterian polity ensures that the struggles there remain obscure (at least until the session/presbytery/synod/convention puts the matter to a vote).

    The MSM paradigm for these disputes is a two-sided battle, with the generals clearly identified (and preferably quotable). Where the dispute doesn’t have this character, distortion is inevitable without powerful resistance on the part of reporters and editors.