And now, some wisdom from Mark Pinsky

Faithful GetReligion readers and others who walk the religion beat will know the byline of Mark I. Pinsky, who in news circles is best known for his work at the Los Angeles Times and then at the Orlando Sentinel. Then there is another circle — mainly people who consume and study popular culture — who know him as the author of “The Gospel According to the Simpsons” and several other volumes of pop-culture criticism, with a religious bent.

I’ve run into Pinsky in a number of different settings, which is not unusual since I am a journalist who has taught courses on faith and popular culture at the seminary and college level. We share many of the same obsessions, as you can see in the title of that book I cranked out a few years ago.

However, there’s another side of this scribe’s work that you may not know about.

As a reporter, Pinsky has a bit of a cult following among evangelical leaders because of his reputation as a guy who, as I like to put it in journalism lectures, strives to “report unto others as he would want them to report unto him (or words to that effect).” Through his years of research and his face-to-face reporting skills, he has learned the art of doing fair, accurate and even empathetic (which is not the same thing as sympathetic) coverage of people whose beliefs and traditions are radically different than his own. In other words, he’s a reporter’s reporter.

This skill led to the Pinsky book that should be sold in bookstores on every campus in America that offers journalism courses, especially those that offer courses linked to the Godbeat. I am referring, of course, to “A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.” In case your wondering, Pinsky has been invited to join your GetReligionistas more than once, but he’s basically too busy to blog on a regular basis. We can always hope.

Now, spinning off the recent wave of Dominionism coverage, Pinsky has raised his voice once again with a USA Today op-ed entitled “The Truth about evangelicals.” I do not (surprise) agree with every single detail of this, but I enthusiastically want to promote this piece (and Pinsky’s book) as must reading for mainstream journalists of good will.

In other words, I would like to say, “What he said.”

Here’s a crucial chunk or two, beginning with a reference to theocracy in the George W. Bush era:

… (B)eginning in 2006 and every two years since in the run-up to the presidential and off-year congressional elections, books and articles suddenly appear — often written by Jews — about the menace and weirdness of evangelical Christianity.

Though some of the writers hail from Brooklyn or Washington, D.C., the tone is what I’d call “Upper West Side hysteric,” a reference to the fabled New York City neighborhood. The thrust of the writing is that these exotic wackos — some escaped from a theological and ideological freak show — are coming to take our rights and freedom. …

I’m as left wing a Democrat as they come, and I have lived among and reported on evangelicals for nearly 20 years. Let me tell you, this sensational, misleading mishegas has got to stop.

The truth is, the political center of gravity of American evangelicals is in the Sun Belt suburbs, not in rural Iowa, much less Wasilla, Alaska. Think Central Florida’s vaunted ‘I-4 Corridor,’ critical to carrying this swing state, where the last GOP presidential debate was held in Tampa and the next one will take place this week here in Orlando. These evangelicals are, by and large, middle-class, college-educated and corporate or entrepreneurial.

At the end, Pinsky offers this provocative summary for his Jewish readers:

If, as Jews, we replace the old caricature of hayseed fundamentalist mobs carrying torches and pitchforks with one of dark conspirators trying to worm their way back into political power at the highest levels, we run the risk of accusing them of doing to others what we are doing to them: demonizing. We didn’t like it when people said we had horns and tails, ate the blood of Christian children and poisoned the wells of Europe with plague, much less conspired to rule the world through our Protocols.

By all means, read it all and pass it along. And while this call for informed, real tolerance is clearly aimed at Jewish readers, at the heart it is an appeal for accurate mainstream journalism in tense political times. Amen to that, too.

IMAGE: Mark I. Pinsky on the stump, preaching the old-time journalism virtues.

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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.

  • sari

    Overall, he’s right, but I suspect that he’s never lived as a Jew in the Florida boonies. I’m a native and can tell you things get pretty scary once you leave the southeastern portion of the state, just as they do in the rest of the south. I-4 once ran through wilderness; the folks he writes about–educated evangelicals–are mainly transplants from other places or first generation Floridians.

    Tampa once sported the country’s largest Klan membership, and it was in Brandon, forty years ago, that I was first asked about my horns and tail. Miami obviously did not prepare me for the rest of the state. Twenty years ago, two days after my wedding, vandals spray painted hateful graffiti on my and every other synagogue in three counties; law enforcement (Martin, St. Lucie, and Indian River) refused to treat it as a hate crime. More recently, despite living in a Texas neighborhood where the demographics trend towards educated (avg 17+ years), my children have been repeatedly singled out at school for ridicule and abuse by classmates who belong to evangelical churches. Interviews done with other parents demonstrated that every Jewish child, without exception and independent of denomination or popularity, had been targeted and subjected to what would conservatively be regarded as religious hate speech. These children’s parents are as educated as we are; they act not in ignorance but by choice. So, while one shouldn’t demonize evangelicals as a group, Jews and other non-Christians need to remain watchful. Most of us would feel better if Pinsky’s nice evangelicals spoke up against those who are hateful rather than complaining about media misrepresentation.

    For the record, excepting 18 months in Silicone Valley, my entire life has been spent in the South: Florida (southeast, central east and west, north), Georgia, Virginia, Texas. In addition to English, I am fluent in Southern and can pop out double modals with the best of them.

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    I don’t think Mark would deny much of what you say. He simply found that this was not normative among the evangelicals that he met and covered.

    Did you read his whole piece?

    Also, do you have any URLs to back up your “interviews with other parents” information? Who did this interviews with a representative sample of parents?

  • sari

    tmatt–

    Yes, I read the article.

    I interviewed the parents of *every* Jewish child in my children’s elementary school, took notes, and gave the principal a copy of the questionnaire and the responses (names edited out). This was in the pre-URL era, at least for me. The principal then interviewed several of the parents and children herself, got the same answers, and convened a religion committee to hammer out a new policy more representative of the student body. The PTA princesses were not amused and accused us of “taking away Christmas”, as if such a thing was possible. More than anything, I believe that the district’s lawyers were consulted and the principal discovered that the curriculum as it stood was a lawsuit waiting to happen (not from us, btw).

    When we moved here, Christmas began in the classroom at Thanksgiving and ended with Christmas break. PTA outfitted each classroom with a fully decorated 8′ tree. Curriculum revolved around the holiday with no regard to the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and atheists, who together comprised a significant minority. Jewish parents had asked for the Christmas and Easter units to be made educational, to emphasize practice rather than the religious elements and to include other faith traditions (e.g., Divali, Hanukkah, Eid, etc.).

    What amazed me was the similarity of the parents’ stories, that popular children were impacted in exactly the same way as those who were less so, and how certain teachers chose to ignore parents’ requests for relief. One woman had received a letter stating that she, as a Jew, was a guest in this, a Christian country, and that she should either shut up or get out–1996, well before 911. I still have a copy of it somewhere; she had committed the sin of questioning the need for Easter observance the year before we arrived. In fact, Jewish children were already clustered with one teacher at each grade level, so that most students would not be deprived of the Christmas/Easter experience. All we did, by virtue of our extreme observance (my husband became known as “the man who doesn’t shake hands with women”), was add an air of legitimacy to years of other people’s complaints.

    The teachers most protective of my and others’ children feelings were religious as well, so it definitely goes both ways.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Mark is absolutely one of the Pros from Dover on the religion beat. But I think he pushes a little too far in this case. Particularly from the POV of someone in Texas, where Rick Perry’s first, and yes unofficial, campaign rally was a prayer meeting in a football stadium. The guest list was enough to justify a pause for consideration.

    Mark’s dig against Jewish religion writers, I thought, was particularly misplaced. (Did he read, for instance, Christine Wicker’s “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation”? And where would he put Jeff Sharlet?) Either the material is good and the religion of the writer doesn’t matter. Or it’s wrong and, more or less, ditto.

    Yes, it is easy to find bad writing about evangelicals. I submit to you Sturgeon’s Law (which is almost as ironclad as Murphy’s better known dictum): 90% of everything is crud. And it is unquestionable that the ranks of self-understood evangelicals is as little a monolith as any other faith group you can name.

    But it is also true that there are politically conservative members within this particular group who have worked rather hard to influence US politics based on their understanding of God’s will. And whose theology is not so transparent or as open to other points of view as, say, the Unitarians. And who appear to have influence disproportionate to their numbers. Not, as Seinfeld might say, that there is necessarily anything wrong with that.

    And Mark’s placement of the center of gravity of US evangelicals just happens to be close enough for him to see from his window? I suspect he’d find plenty of other religion scribes of equal gravitas who think they live a bit closer to that mythical center.

  • Bob Smietana

    There’s no center of evangelical power.
    But there are seats of power and most, but not all, are in the south.
    One is in Orlando, home of Campus Crusade. Dallas, Nashville, Atlanta, San Antonio, South Barrington, Il (home of Willow Creek), Wheaton, Il, Colorado Springs, Lake Forest, CA – are among the others.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    For once, I’m the pearl-clutcher here: I’m actually a bit shocked by Pinsky’s concluding analogy, conflating disproportionate coverage of the evangelical movement’s political aspirations to something as evil as the Protocols of Zion. Certainly no one is accusing evangelicals of outlandish things like drinking children’s blood, and using such prejudices to justify genocide and other crimes against humanity! And from a practical standpoint, there’s a lot more evidence of evangelical influence in our political system — by sheer numbers alone, if not by policy shifts — than of Jews sporting horns and tails!

  • Dan

    “And from a practical standpoint, there’s a lot more evidence of evangelical influence in our political system — by sheer numbers alone, if not by policy shifts — than of Jews sporting horns and tails!”

    This statement puts “evangelical influence in our political system” on the same level as “sporting horns and tails.” Think of that: there is evidence — actual evidence! — that evangelicals participate in democracy!

    Jeffrey Weiss similarly mentions (unnamed) evangelicals who would influence U.S. policy based “on their understanding of God’s will.” I do not ever recall however the politically influential evangelicals I know of (such as Chuck Colson, Dr. Dobson and Tony Perkins) citing “God’s will” as the basis for their positions when engaged in political debate; they generally use reasoned argument in non-religious language that is accessible to all. You can confirm this by looking at the websites for Breakpoint, Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, etc. As for Catholics, it is well known that they argue from natural law and one reason for this is that they know that it is not persuasive to non-believers to argue from authority (St. Thomas teaches that argument from authority is the weakest form of argument). From what I have observed, politically powerful evangelicals (who typically work together with Catholics and Orthodox Jews in the political arena on cultural issues), although they may or may not accept St. Thomas and natural law theory, as a practical matter adopt the same approach.

    I found Mr. Pinsky’s article, although well-intended, a bit patronizing in a way. The overall gist was: evangelicals are not so weird — they dress normally and many more of their young support gay marriage than you might think. While this observation is not wrong, it misses the mark. The reality is that opposition to abortion and gay marriage and all the rest is a hallmark of evangelicalism. And this is the source of all the hysteria in the press.

  • Dan

    Separately, the most insightful writer I know of on evangelicals is Flannery O’Connor. Evangelicals of the religiously fervent variety are the subject of both her novels and nearly all her short stories. O’Connor admired the spiritual vitality of southern evangelicals (a vitality she contrasted with the spiritual state of “Yankee liberals”) yet also exploited the comedic value of their religious fanaticism. Although a Catholic, O’Connor understood and empathized with the religious zeal of evangelicals even as she saw how it got them into what she called “all kinds of trouble” (she noted that with Catholics you don’t see the religious nuts because they are tucked away in monasteries). Does this relate to press coverage? I think it does. Just as O’Connor empathized with evangelicals yet could see their (at times) “nuttiness,” so too should the journalist strive to see things from the evangelical standpoint without however omitting to call out the degree to which evangelicals may be out of step with their the other side of the cultural divide. The problem though is that it is essentially impossible for the non-religious to understand the religious. O’Connor could understand the evangelical because she herself was quite devout. The secular atheist journalist lacks the requisite scope of vision to do the same. O’Connor could understand both the fervor and the fanaticism. The secular atheist can only see, and does not understand, the fanaticism.

  • sari

    Dan,
    I loved Flannery O’Connor but wonder why you think it’s impossible for one group of people to understand a different group. Should a childless psychologist work only with childless clients? Or journalists who cover school issues be limited to those with school-age children? Should parenthood be a requisite for teachers? Can anyone understand children who doesn’t live with them?

    Aren’t journalists supposed to be good and dispassionate observers? It seems to me that much can be learned from someone who sees a situation with “fresh eyes”, provided that that person reports objectively -and- takes the time to acquire basic familiarity with the subject.

  • http://www.talk2action.org Rachel Tabachnick

    Pinsky came very close to defamation of character here. He provides no evidence for his claims and makes statements he should know are not true. He describes John Hagee and David Barton as splinter/marginal figures, although Pinsky has written about Hagee for years and David Barton is training national level politicians in his revisionist history. Pinsky was promoting Hagee’s embrace of Jews and his “pro-Israel” activism in his articles and his book A Jew Among Evangelicals in the months just before Hagee formed Christians United for Israel in 2006. Pinsky’s “ideological centrist” that he quoted in his article was Joel Hunter, named president-elect of the Pat Robertson-founded Christian Coalition in 2006 before resigning because the organization refused to expand their issue base.

    In my articles, speaking engagements, Fresh Air interview, and other radio programs, I have repeatedly and emphatically pointed out that the New Apostolic Reformation (self-described Dominionists) which I have spent years researching is not typical of evangelicalism and is, in fact, very controversial among evangelicals. NAR leadership teaches that the evangelical world must be reorganized under the authority of the movement’s apostles.

    Rick Perry’s event was led and orchestrated by apostles of the NAR and patterned after Lou Engle’s TheCall events. One of the major purposes of the militantly anti-abortion and anti-gay TheCall is to promote partnership with Messianic ministries and the proselytizing of Jews in order to hasten the end times and return of Jesus. (Messianics are Jews who have converted to Christianity but retain their Jewish identity.) The prayer for Israel was led at the event by Apostle Don Finto and Messianic Rabbi Marty Waldman, leaders in an international effort to support Messianic ministries in Israel and elsewhere. This movement is becoming increasingly hostile to Rabbinic Judaism and it literally demonizes all other faiths, including Roman Catholicism.

    So why is Mark Pinsky trying to discredit my years of work on this movement? I can’t know for sure, but Pinsky has worked to convince Jews that their Christian Zionist partners are not proselytizing and come with no strings attached.

    P.S. I grew up Southern Baptist in Georgia, so I don’t think I qualify as an “Upper West Side hysteric,” whatever that is supposed to be.

  • http://realclearreligion.org Jeffrey Weiss

    Um. Dan, the very claim that there is a “natural law” to appeal to is itself a theological claim based on one’s understanding of God’s will. And whether “Chuck Colson, Dr. Dobson and Tony Perkins” et all use “non-religious language,” if you spool their reasoning back you will generally find religious understandings and interpretations in their first principles. Again, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that.

  • Dan

    Jeffrey, I agree in part: natural law is a God-based concept and everyone has first principles. But the theory of natural law is that morality can be determined through reason without resort to revealed authority; as such, natural law theory is an appropriate basis for political discussion among citizens of varying religions. The Declaration of Independence is a strikingly clear and powerful example of natural law reasoning, and establishes that type of reasoning as the foundation for our entire democracy. If you spool back the reasoning of atheists you will necessarily find that their first principle is arbitrary power and self-interest. (This was Nietzsche’s central insight.) So, we have on one hand the religious, whose first principles posit that reason should be employed to discuss moral and political issues and who engage in politics in a tradition that descends directly from the Declaration of Independence; and, on the other hand, we have the non-religious, whose first principles posit that power and self-interest are all that count. Yet it is the religious who are viewed with suspicion. Apart from anti-religious animus, how can one account for that?

  • Dan

    Sari, there are multiple things going on when it comes the the non-religious trying to understand the religious. Often the non-religious do not take the religious experience seriously — they (fatuously) believe that existence of God has been definitively dis-proven and that religious belief remains only among the unsophisticated (some even go so far as to compare belief in God with a belief in flying unicorns). Where there is that level of arrogance — and lack of empathy — there can be no understanding.

    But another part of it is that one who does not see the world through the eyes of faith cannot comprehend the vision of one who does. I know this from experience. I once was a secular agnostic who could not fathom why people on the “religious right” cared so much about abortion, etc. It was not until my own conversion that I came to understand.

  • http://www.markpinsky.com Mark I. Pinsky

    I appreciate everyone’s comments. Where to begin? Well, as they say, the best logic is chronologic, so:
    Terry, you make me blush. Thanks.
    Sari, your story is distressing — but familiar. I covered numerous, similar stories, some of which I included in my book.
    Yes, at the grass roots there are evangelicals who won’t take “no” for answer, and the proper response it to fight back under the law. My fallback response to proselytizers was: “When the Messiah arrives, one of us is going to be very surprised, and I’m willing to wait, even if it means a thousand years in the fiery lake.”
    Jeff, I’ve always considered you one of the hardest working, and most principled reporters on the religion beat. I meant no rap on beat reporters; it was the parachute, hit-and-run crowd I had in mind with the column.
    (more)

  • http://www.markpinsky.com Mark I. Pinsky

    (2) Bob, I was speaking generically, and not specifically about the “center of gravity.” There are lots of “New Jerusalems”: Orlando, Colorado Springs, Wheaton, etc. My emphasis was on the suburbs.
    Rachel, I hold no brief for Hagee, either in my reporting or my book. He has a checkered past, to put it kindly, both personally and theologically. I emphasized his connections to proselytizers, and wondered — in my reporting, book and the USA Today — why supporters of Israel continued to turn a blind eye (ear) to this issue. Demographic issues regarding evangelicals came from John Green, of Pew, and Peter Brown, of Quinnipiac — both of whom vetted the column and spoke with the USA Today fact-checker. (more)
    Nicole, I’m going to think hard about the argument you and others make about the analogy issue. You may be right. Live and learn.

  • http://www.markpinsky.com Mark I. Pinsky

    3) A larger and more troubling point, raised by some in comments above and another from a friend, who I won’t identify but beat reporters can easily guess, from Fuller Theological Seminary. An evangelical himself, he suggested that I may have gone too easy on the extremist, intolerant strain of evangelicals. He may be right. This is something I continue to struggle with. I’ve been out of the daily game for more than three years now. Anyway, thanks to all. Even well-meaning Jews sometimes fall short of the Kingdom. MP

  • http://www.markpinsky.com Mark I. Pinsky

    4) Almost forgot, re Perry’s rally. Numerous political, religion and Texas reporters have observed that it was far more likely that Perry was using some of these characters than the reverse. I’ll shut up now. MP

  • http://www.talk2action.org Rachel Tabachnick

    Mark, you compared me to people that promote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and that’s all you have to say? I’ve worked for years to expose the horrific anti-Semitism in Hagee’s media and I’ve been careful to point out that the John Birch-style narratives promoted by some Christian Zionists and throughout the NAR are not typical of American evangelicalism in general. Can you possibly imagine what it is like after years of intensive research and work on this issue to have friends and colleagues call me and tell me that me that I’ve just been attacked in USA Today by some guy who claims I’m demonizing evangelicals?

    We have apostles and prophets from the NAR calling for martyrs at stadium events and performing ceremonies outside freemasonry lodges and mosques. This is fact and not an attack on evangelicalism. By directing your attacks at me, you provided cover for these extremists.

  • http://www.markpinsky.com Mark I. Pinsky

    Rachel,
    I’m sorry you feel that way. You have had extensive forums to make your case, reaching a broad audience. I wrote one column. A single-sentence reference does not seem to me to constitute an attack.
    More broadly, I just don’t feel Hagee, Christian Zionists and NAR represent a significant strain of evangelicalism, or a threat to the nation. I guess we will just have to agree to disagree. And relax.
    MP

  • http://www.talk2action.org Bruce Wilson

    Here is my reply, to Mark Pinskys’ Orlando Sentinel op-ed:

    Dear Mr. Pinsky,
    Your characterization of John Hagee and David Barton, as “splinter, marginal figure[s]” seems strange given that Barton was featured in a NYT story this year and in 2005 was judged by Time Magazine to be one of the 25 most influential evangelists in America. Barton, who has influenced an entire generation of Christian homeschooled students via his revisionist history writing, was also Vice Chair of the Texas Republican Party and has close ties to Governor Rick Perry.

    As far as John Hagee goes, well… Your misspelling of his name, as “Haggee”, seems odd given that you mentioned pastor Hagee, and spelled his named correctly, in at least four different stories, three for the Orlando Sentinel and one for USA Today, which you wrote from 2003-2008. Further, Your 2006 book “A Jew Among Evangelicals: A Guide To The Perplexed”, pages 38-42, contains an extended discussion of the wisdom of Jews partnering with John Hagee–whose name (once again) you spelled correctly and who, it would seem, you did not consider to be a “marginal” or “splinter” evangelical figure.

    Is is very unlikely that 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain would have so assiduously courted the political endorsement of John Hagee had Senator McCain considered him a “splinter” or “marginal” figure. Indeed, Hagee’s Cornerstone Church magazine has featured pictures of an astounding number of leading Republican Senators and Congress members at Hagee’s events, and pastor Hagee gave the keynote address at AIPAC 2007.

    However, things seem to have taken a turn after, in May 2008, I posted a short video with an audio clip from a sermon Hagee gave in late 2005 (I originally mis-dated it but later obtained a video copy of the sermon, in which Hagee references hurricanes Katrina and Rita), in which John Hagee claimed God had sent Hitler, a “hunter”, to chase Europe’s Jews (with gruesome inefficiency, it would seem) toward Palestine.

    In short order, McCain had rejected Hagee’s endorsement. The “God sent Hitler” claim is arguably not the worst to have come out of pastor Hagee’s mouth or flowed from his pen. Hagee has claimed that the Antichrist figure he believes will slaughter 1/3 of the Earth’s population will be homosexual and “partially Jewish.”

    Hagee has also declared that European-based Rothschild bankers control the US economy, through the Federal Reserve. Now, as a Jew, I am sure you are aware that a major 20th Century political figure made similar sorts of claims, and his name was not Hagee.

    Speaking of which, are you aware that your “good friend” Rick Warren, whose glowing endorsement is on the front cover of your book, could be found in 2005 telling an assembled audience of over 20,000 people, at California’s Anaheim Angels stadium, that Christians should emulate the devotion of Hitler Youth? I thought this was notable, and made a video showcasing audio from Warren’s speech. It’s on Youtube. Warren also made the exhortation in video that was posted to his PEACE Plan web site. I’ve posted that clip to Youtube as well.

    If you are still in touch with Mr. Warren, you might want to ask him about this.

    As far as Peter Wagner and the New Apostolic Reformation goes, I’ll say only this (since I’ve written enough already)–Rick Perry has demonstrable, close ties to Wagner apostles going back almost a decade, and Peter Wagner’s apostles overwhelmingly dominated Rick Perry’s The Response prayer event. I’ve documented that here:
    http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/9/16/144354/102/

    Further, in their many in-print books, Wagner and his top colleagues in his New Apostolic Reformation advocate that believers should burn books, scripture, religious relics, and native art. Again, that’s in print, and you can access the relevant quotes (see my story, below) at Google Books and via Amazon.com’s “look inside this book” feature.

    I’ve documented that here:
    http://www.talk2action.org/story/2011/9/14/192516/418/

    Regards,
    Bruce Wilson


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