Introducing the Next Generation of Christians, with Tom Krattenmaker

Today we have an interview with Tom Krattenmaker, author of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians. Though not an evangelical himself, Krattenmaker challenges stereotypes of evangelicals and introduces readers to “new evangelicals,” those not interested in perpetuating culture wars.

Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion and public life and an award-winning contributor to USA Today. His work can be found in numerous outlets including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his media appearances include NPR and  ESPN’s Outside the Lines. His previous book, Onward Christian Athletes: Turning Ballparks into Pulpits and Players into Preachers, was a Foreword Book of the Year for 2009.

Why did you feel motivated to write this book, and why that title “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know”?

I thought this movement or network of “new evangelicals” was a good and relatively untold story.

From a journalistic perspective, I sensed there was a lot of interesting material and uncovered ground. I was observing that most non-evangelicals—those who are part of more liberal Christian traditions, or non-Christian religions, or secular worldviews—have a set idea about evangelicals that’s mostly negative, and mostly based on impressions from politics and media. These are the evangelicals that we gotten to know—and, often, resent.

From my column writing for USA Today, I was encountering a lot of evangelical people and projects who did not fit these negative stereotypes. I thought it would be useful for people to meet these evangelicals.

Part of my mission as a commentator on religion in public life—and the many columns I’ve written on the subject bear this out—is to foster generous understanding and dialog across culture camps. And I want to right-size the conflict zone, which I think is smaller than we might think from decades of culture war.

I hope this book contributes to non-evangelicals developing a more nuanced and maybe even generous idea about their evangelical fellow citizens, and I hope it has the secondary effect of evangelicals getting a better idea about the people and ideas on my side of the tracks.

You make it very clear in your book and recent interviews that you’re not an evangelical. You’re not even religious in conventional ways. Why are you so interested in evangelicals and why would you want to share a good-news message about them?

Evangelicals are a large, visible, and influential segment of the population that has had a big impact on our culture and politics. So it’s important to know what’s going on with evangelical America.

But my interest goes deeper, to a more personal level. I’ve always been really curious about evangelicals and impressed by their commitment and idealism and faith. I have found many of these people and ideas fascinating and, at times, downright inspiring.

I want this story out there because it’s important for non-evangelicals to complicate their stereotypes and update their understanding of what’s going on in evangelical America. As I say to my fellow progressives in the book, some of these “new evangelical” types could be your next best friends for the fight—for the environment, or to address poverty or sex-trafficking or any number of other social problems. Not to say they’re all becoming liberal Democrats—they’re not—but there is a lot of common interest and common ground coming into view.

Paul Louis Metzger noted in his glowing review at Patheos that when you were setting out to write this book, your then-agent was so skeptical about the book finding an audience that he decided the two of you should go your separate ways. Why such pessimism about this book selling?

It doesn’t fit the tried-and-true formulas that generally prevail in publishing.

According to the conventional thinking, progressives aren’t interested in books and articles about evangelicals unless they’re negative. That’s an over-simplification, for sure, but if you look at the broad pattern, you see it over and over—progressive journalism that exposes and condemns creepy things that evangelicals are doing that pose a threat to progressive values.

Nothing against all those writers; these are often valid critiques. My gripe would be that there’s an apparent lack of curiosity about positive things evangelicals are doing. But at any rate, my then-agent was not confident that a book like this would sell. No money in it; no need for an agent.

So that’s my “scrappy underdog” speech. I want to prove ’em wrong!

So what kind of response have you been getting now that the book is out?

It’s been about four weeks now since the release. I’m not paying to attention to how it’s selling, but there’s has been a very enthusiastic response from the people who are part of this movement of new evangelicals.

I’m getting a lot of appreciation from evangelicals who resent being lumped in with the Christian Right and the usual anti-gay, anti-woman stereotypes. For them, reading the book gives them a sense of, “It’s about time that someone gets us!” They’re the ones who are, for the most part, buying the book and spreading the word, as far as I can tell.

So far, I don’t think it’s registered much with progressives. Although I’m speaking at the American Humanist Association Conference in just a few days, where Richard Dawkins is also speaking. We’ll see how that goes …

While I was working on the book, it occurred to me many times that the secondary audience—namely, the kinds of Christians who are the subject of the book—could be bigger than the ostensible primary audience of seculars and religious liberals. Let me emphasize that word “ostensible.” I knew all along that I was writing to evangelicals, too, and giving them feedback and encouragement.

In a chapter titled “From Behind Church Walls,” you devote a lot of space to evangelicals and their relationship with science. What’s happening there?

It’s been interesting to me, and troubling, to see the ways in which evangelical America has essentially disqualified itself from participating in science. Not to idealize it, but science does a lot of good, and it’s an exciting sphere. I was struck by the testimonials of younger evangelicals, and ex-evangelicals, who want to get in on the action.

As you know better than just about anyone, Peter, it’s not necessary to reject science if you’re a Christian—or to jettison your Christian convictions if you decide you’re going to pursue science or tech, either as a career or as an engaged citizen who respects the findings of science. Books like yours are helping theologically conservative Christians understand that they don’t have to throw out the Bible to become participants in, and respecters of, science.

One of the welcome changes happening with the “new evangelicals” is their engagement with science and their working out the theological challenges. And, no, they’re not going into science to convince everyone in the field that evolution and climate change are a fraud.

What stereotypes about seculars and progressives do you think traditional evangelicals harbor? To play with that title of your book, who are the secular progressives who evangelicals don’t know—but might want to know?

When I was recording a podcast with The Storymen a couple days ago, I was struck by something one of them said. The idea was that new evangelical types have been extending olive branch after olive branch to seculars but not getting much acknowledgment or reciprocity. So from this perspective it’s heartening to encounter a guy like me who is engaging in a positive way. But I think you’ll see more and more reciprocity as people on my side gradually encounter these stereotype-busting evangelicals and realize how much we all have in common.

In my book I urge non-evangelicals to engage in an act of “disaggregation” and stop behaving as though evangelicals are all the same. I would urge evangelicals to do the same with respect to liberals and seculars. Only a very small number of us have a deep-seated hostility to evangelical Christianity. We’re not all anti-religion flame-throwers in the Christopher Hitchens mode. We have values; we want to do good.

I’m convinced most secular-progressive types will receive evangelicals in a more open-minded way as they get to know them better and begin to understand there’s a new thing happening at the intersection of politics, culture, and evangelical Christianity.

  • rvs

    Thanks for this; I especially appreciated the “disaggregation” point.

  • MVH

    I think some of the challenge here is that the definition of “evangelical” seems pretty squishy. While I would not take the label “evangelical” for myself, were a top-notch sociologist of American Christianity (like Christian Smith) to ask me a bunch of questions, he or she very well might categorize me as one. However, I am part of a mainline church and consider myself “a progressive/mainline/liberal-ish/ex-evangelical” and some of the things I believe would likely place me outside the walls of
    evangelical Christianity, as constructed by more outspoken
    “evangelical” leader-types. Might the same be true for these socially-conscious, “stereotype-busting evangelicals”?

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/ Chris

    I wonder how he is categorizing “evangelicals.” I have disavowed the term for myself simply for the fact that it is either nebulous or extremely negative, depending on how you look at it. In my opinion, once you start accepting gays in the church and promoting equality for women, you aren’t an evangelical anymore.

    So again, I am puzzled. Is this an issue of self-identification? Is it a matter of people in otherwise-evangelical churches not adopting all of the same views? I’m just not sure. Of course, I suppose I should read the book.

    We define words by how we use them, I’ll grant, so if a large number of “evangelicals” are breaking the mold, so to speak, then “evangelical” now means something new; however, in the primary usage, it seems to mean a variety of things which people are now abandoning.

    • AHH

      I have not read this book, but most scholarly looks at “evangelicals” talk about it in terms similar to the famous “Bebbington quadrilateral”:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Bebbington

      A person (me, for example) can certainly fit Bebbington’s 4 characteristics and believe that God can and does call women to ordained ministry. Or that the Bible, while inspired and authoritative, is not “inerrant”. Or that following Jesus does not equate to right-wing Republicanism.

      Admittedly, in popular culture the word does tend to denote a narrower slice; it sounds like one purpose of the book is to dispel that stereotype. And there are some within evangelicalism who seek to restrict it further than this historic definition, such as those who would say you can’t really be an evangelical unless you affirm inerrancy.

  • James

    I happened upon George Weigel’s book Evangelical Catholicism. The title caught my attention because of the E word. The book is said to envision a “new era of vibrant, mission focused Catholicism.” I think vibrancy (lively and free) is a unifying theme across confessions. We sense Veracity and Vibrancy can go together.