Covering the evangelical cat fight

cat fightEvangelicals are going at it again over the environment, and the media have hardly sparred us a detail in covering the blow-by-blow in this round. For starters, Stephanie Simon of the Los Angeles Times laid out the fight Saturday as an attack by “leaders” such as James Dobson of Focus on the Family on those who have “strayed too far from their signature battles against abortion and gay rights.”

The crux of the story involves a tough-sounding letter from Dobson and a handful of other leaders of the religious right calling for the resignation or silencing of the Rev. Richard Cizik, a lobbyist and National Association of Evangelicals vice president for governmental affairs.

Simon’s story is thorough but especially shines in pointing out that Dobson and friends are not exactly theologians, which exposes this fight for the political cat fight it really is:

The signatories — most of them activists, not theologians — expressed dismay that an evangelical emphasis on global warming was “contributing to growing confusion about the very term ‘evangelical.’”

In religious terms, an evangelical is a Christian who has been born again, seeks a personal relationship with Christ, and considers the Bible the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.

But Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality.”

In an odd follow-up that ran the day after Simon’s, The Washington Post‘s Alan Cooperman leads with the fact that the NAE’s board of directors is supporting Cizik and his stand on environmental issues. Simon’s much more in-depth piece, clearly backed up by more than a few days of reporting, has that detail down in her story, so it’s not like Cooperman has himself an exclusive.

Perhaps Post readers are more educated when it comes to things religious, but there is no definition of what makes an evangelical, or details explaining who the letter-signers are. There was this little detail that deserves a follow-up:

On Friday, the association’s board approved a 12-page statement on terrorism and torture.

Do tell us more sometime, just whenever you get around to it, because it’s only one of the most under-covered issues in the coverage of religion and politics these days. Please. Rachel Zoll of the Associated Press has more here, but more on that later.

Lisa Miller’s BeliefWatch column on the matter wasn’t exactly appreciated over at NewsBusters, a site that works at “documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias.”

Miller does a good job digging up some new details, such as the fact that some evangelicals (as defined by Simon) actually refused to join with Dobson and friends on the letter:

But Dobson’s Lear-like fury may have backfired. Some prominent religious leaders refused to sign the letter, saying they found it un-Christian. “I didn’t feel,” says Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, “that it was the most productive, most redemptive way to address the problem.” Leith Anderson, NAE president, says his mail last week was “overwhelmingly supportive of Rich.” Cizik himself is smart enough to seize the moment and position himself as a martyr. “It’s time we return to being people known for our love and care of the earth and our fellow human beings,” he wrote in remarks he planned to give at the NAE board meeting last week. Score one for the tree hugger.

This feeds into the storyline that the power of the “religious right” — as defined by the bloc of voters courted by President Bush’s political adviser Karl Rove — is waning, at least at the higher levels. What is interesting is that as President Bush moves to embrace the views of Cizik and company on climate change, Dobson and others remain convinced that they must continue to focus on the traditional rallying issues.

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  • BluesDaddy

    I always find it interesting, if not illuminating, when people place “love and care for the earth” ahead of “our fellow human beings”. ISTM that it is often easier to “love” an inanimate thing, an anthropomorphized animal or an abstract idea (“humanity”) rather than people. People are messy and troublesome and time consuming. They involve far more work than things, animals and ideas. But, again ISTM, that we are called to love our neighbor, but merely be good stewards of the creation. I think there’s a profound difference. But I may be wrong.

  • Jerry

    It’s interesting how diverse the evangelical community is, at least from the pundit point-of-view. Is it gays and abortion? Is it, as the beliefwatch article quoted: “Most evangelicals are concerned with the war on terror and with raising teenagers in an environment saturated with sex and drugs,”

    Or is a complex set of concerns, some which are shared by many people, such as raising children in a wholesome atmosphere, some shared with Catholics such as and some more unique to their beliefs?

    I suspect it’s the later, with evangelicals as a group with diverse views of what it really means to be a Christian and thus diverse views on various issues. The environment is a perfect example. If you’re “pro-life” and feel that environment degradation is a threat to life, it’s quite natural to take a stand to protect the environment and thus protect life.

  • Roberto Rivera

    I suspect it’s the later, with evangelicals as a group with diverse views of what it really means to be a Christian and thus diverse views on various issues. The environment is a perfect example. If you’re “pro-life” and feel that environment degradation is a threat to life, it’s quite natural to take a stand to protect the environment and thus protect life.

    I agree: I don’t see concern for the environment and belief in the sanctity of life as a zero-sum game.

    Re: the coverage of this story: It seems to me that the MSM can’t win for losing. If they ignore the diversity of opinion you wrote about, they’re accused of trafficking in stereotypes and depicting Evangelicals as a monolithic bloc. If they report on the differences, it’s as part of a larger story about the waning power of the religious right.

    Well, Evangelicals aren’t monolithic and we are in the midst of a major generational shift in the Evangelical world which is resulting in such a waning. The problem is that those who understand this shift can’t (or won’t) write about for fear of . . . well, lots of things. And those who can and are disposed to write about it don’t have the requisite knowledge to do the story justice.

  • Dale

    Simon’s reporting assumes a lot of facts “that aren’t in evidence”, as we lawyers say.

    . . . abortion and gay rights.

    Those issues defined the evangelical movement for more than two decades — and cemented ties with the Republican Party.

    Umm, I wouldn’t suppose that Simon can refer to any Evangelical organization that defines “Evangelical” in terms of abortion and gay rights?

    Perhaps it would be more correct to say that abortion and gay rights are the issues with which others have defined Evangelicals. That’s not the way we define ourselves, and never has been. That brings up the question, where would someone get that idea, let alone report it as fact?

    “Cemented ties with the Republican party”? Who did that? Is there some phantom organization of Evangelicals that is authorized to endorse a political party?

    But in a caustic letter, leaders of the religious right

    These people have names, and they have positions in real organizations. To describe them as “leaders of the religious right” attributes to them a broader representational status than they actually possess; though they may pretend to possess something greater, that does not make it fact.

    A new generation of pastors has expanded the definition of moral issues to include not only global warming, but an array of causes.

    A “new generation of pastors”? Does the fact that the media ignored these people (like Jim Wallis, who’s been active in Washington since the early 70s) make them new? Or have those who work in the media, realizing that they can’t effectively marginalize Evangelicals by defining them as extremists, suddenly discovered that Evangelicalism contains a heterogeneous group of people?

    I volunteered in soup kitchens and homeless shelters run by Wallis and Sojourners when I was 14. Jim Wallis wasn’t shy about attracting publicity to his political causes then, and I have no reason to believe he abruptly changed in the last two years. I’m now 43. What happened in the last 29 years? It’s not as if Evangelicals didn’t know that Wallis existed; typically he’s been included in broad-based discussions among Evangelicals as representative of politically left-leaning Evangelicalism. So. . . how is this new?

    Dobson himself, Minnery said, is busy writing a book on child rearing.

    That’s appropriate, considering that he has a Ph.D. in child psychology. Perhaps Simon could have included that information, which might explain why Evangelicals may be more inclined to listen to Dobson regarding family dynamics than, say, atmospheric science.

    In religious terms, an evangelical is a Christian who has been born again, seeks a personal relationship with Christ, and considers the Bible the word of God, to be faithfully obeyed.

    Now that’s a statement most Evangelicals would consider uncontroversial, as opposed to defining Evangelicalism in terms of abortion and gay rights. Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestants may argue, though, that this definition also describes them.

    But Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality.”

    Simon doesn’t note any scriptural basis for this argument, at least with regard to politics and economics. Considering that the argument is among Evangelicals, that’s important.

    “This is, in some ways, a defining moment,” said Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Columbia University in New York. “It’s the old guard trying to hold on.”

    Hold on to what? Dobson et al. has never had control over the National Association of Evangelicals, which has always been a broad umbrella organization. The argument is whether the NAE is abandoning a broadbased approach by employing a lobbyist who’s concerned about environmental causes.

    The board declined to censure or silence Cizik. Moreover, it appeared to embrace a broad view of the evangelical agenda, endorsing a sweeping human rights declaration.

    Shocking. Could it be that the “religious right” (whoever that is) doesn’t control the NAE? Perhaps those who have created the presumption that it would have that control have been misleading the public?

    “James Dobson and the religious right are outside the evangelical mainstream. That’s just a fact,” Wallis said. “That doesn’t mean they have no power…. But their monologue is over. Their control of the agenda is over.”

    A more appropriate question, Mr. Wallis, is why there was a monologue in the first place. Why did the media ignore you for the last 20+ years? Why have you suddenly gotten access to a mass audience? Why have the publishing houses decided to reprint and promote your books like they never did before?

    Balmer, the religion professor, says he senses an unstoppable momentum for the new generation of social-justice evangelicals. But though he criticizes the traditionalists for “moral myopia,” he’s not willing to write them off yet.

    Mr. Ballmer sounds more like a politician on a soap-box than a dispassionate scholar. Why is he described as a religion professor? Is there a scholarly basis for sensing unstoppable momentum and describing traditionalists as morally myopic, or is his status as a scholar being used to legitimate his prejudices and political opinions?

    Hopefully, despite this kind of press coverage, Evangelicals will be more aware of political manipulations of both the right — and the left.

  • http://www.truetruths.com Bryan Jensen

    True Truths really is “true truths”. This book, and the website http://www.truetruths.com gives the clear, concise truth about religion, not some fairy tales made up by religious leaders with selfish, ulterior motives. Check out True Truths.

  • Harris

    While Dale presents an able defense of Dr. Dobson, had he read the article he would have found many of his concerns addressed.

    Leaders are named (and yes these are names associated with the rise of the Christian right):

    The public dispute began with the release of a letter signed by several men who helped transform the religious right into a political force, including Dobson, Don Wildmon of the American Family Assn. and Paul Weyrich of American Values.

    The rationale for the assertion about the role of gays and abortion is also supported. (Evangelicals, report Simon, have the strongest anti-abortion stand of any group, including Catholics).

    This missing elephant in the room, the one that Dale perhaps wishes was mentioned, is that of the Rev. Rick Warren. And his stances both on global warming and poverty pretty much describe the new generation of Evangelicals, far more than the article’s turn to Wallis.

    The article does make some leaps to the liberal Wallis, when the story really is what’s happening in the NAE — that’s a confusion brought about by both the advocacy of Sojourners (the easiest source), and perhaps by the reporter’s distance from Evangelicals.

    The real, empirical test of the story is whether the trend that it claims to find (rift on politics, defined by generation) is something one sees elsewhere. Does it happen on the ground, as it were? There is abundant evidence that the coming generation of Evangelical leaders does not share the same political militancy of those shaped in 80s, or even those who fought so hard in 2000. Until now, this backing away from the political has been reported as a political event (per Simon), but the articles to come may be those that see it culturally, or generationally.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Chris Bolinger

    I was all set to praise Stephanie Simon for a good, balanced article. After all, she gives a solid definition of “evangelical”, something you rarely see in the press.

    Then I actually read the letter that spurred the article:
    http://www.citizenlink.org/pdfs/NAELetterFinal.pdf

    Read it and see if it doesn’t change your opinion of her article. Here is the paragraph that she uses as evidence that “Dobson and his fellow letter-writers suggested that evangelical should also signify ‘conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality.’”:

    Finally, Cizik’s disturbing views seem to be contributing to growing confusion about the very term, “evangelical.” As a recent USA Today article notes: “Evangelical was the label of choice of Christians with conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality. Now the word may be losing its moorings, sliding toward the same linguistic demise that ‘fundamentalist’ met decades ago because it has been misunderstood, misappropriated and maligned.” We believe some of that misunderstanding about evangelicalism and its “conservative views on politics, economics and biblical morality” can be laid at Richard Cizik’s door.

    There’s enough ambiguity about what the paragraph means that Simon should have gotten clarification. Instead, she draws her own conclusion and then spins everything as, what else? a political catfight. It’s a “struggle for control of the evangelical agenda” (first sentence). It’s all about the close ties between the “evangelical movement” and the Republican Party. *yawn* Tiresome.

    The mainstream press loves political catfights. There appears to be a formula for these articles:
    * Oversimplify the reasons for the debate — boil it down, baby, or the idiots who read this won’t get it
    * Make people on both sides of the debate caricatures
    * Get quotes from your favorites, such as Wallis and Dobson
    * Focus on the quotes and not the issues
    * Focus, of course, on the politics — Politics, politics, politics

    This is about the NAE, not the “evangelical movement” or the Republican Party. Simon fails to mention that NAE members already wrote a softer letter asking NAE leadership to stop speaking for the membership on certain issues:
    http://www.interfaithstewardship.org/pdf/NAE-appeal%20letter.pdf

    That’s because it’s much more fun to focus on the “caustic letter”. Bravo, Stephanie.

    Christianity Today does a much better job on this one:
    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/marchweb-only/109-53.0.html

  • Dale

    While Dale presents an able defense of Dr. Dobson, had he read the article he would have found many of his concerns addressed.

    Can you reference exactly where I was “defending” Dobson? Or perhaps explain how I managed to extensively quote the article when I didn’t read it?

    The point is that press sloppily refers to the “religious right” when, in fact they are referring to multiple organizations who don’t all share the same agenda. If you actually look at the letter to the NAE (I did), most of the signatories are people from the American Family Association and Focus on the Family. Those groups have never controlled the agenda of the NAE, although some would like to pretend they have.

    The rationale for the assertion about the role of gays and abortion is also supported.

    The facts show that Evangelicals as a whole are opposed to abortion and gay marriage. Those facts do not define the “Evangelical movement”, except perhaps among those people who are ignorant about Evangelicals. Gay people overwhelming vote for Democratic Party candidates. It does not follow that voting Democratic defines the gay movement. The suggestion that it does is frankly stupid.

    This missing elephant in the room, the one that Dale perhaps wishes was mentioned, is that of the Rev. Rick Warren. And his stances both on global warming and poverty pretty much describe the new generation of Evangelicals, far more than the article’s turn to Wallis.

    If Rick Warren is “new” or controversial among Evangelicals, it’s not because of his stand on environmental issues and poverty, but because of his “seeker friendly” model of the church. Let me make this clear: there have always been Evangelical leaders who have been concerned with the environment and poverty. The fact that the mainstream media has noticed them now does not make them “new”; it raises the question as to why they were ignored in the first place.

  • Irenaeus

    What great photo. I love cats. More cats!

  • Scott Allen

    If the NAE doesn’t focus on evangelism, it is a misnomer and if your church is affiliated with it, get out.


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