Those Hyper-Politicized Evangelicals!

Believe it or not, the senior pastor at the conservative evangelical church I attend — Perimeter Church in Johns Creek, Georgia — does not (I repeat: does not) condemn homosexuals and abortionists from the pulpit every week.  In fact, in the 1.5 years in which I’ve attended Perimeter Church, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Randy Pope (or any of the other preachers) speak of homosexuality or gay marriage from the pulpit.  They’ve spoken of radical self-denial in pursuit of the kingdom of God.  They’ve spoken of employing your talents and your gifts in service to the mission of God.  They’ve spoken of the basics of the gospel and the process of spiritual maturation.  Although I don’t recall any specific occasions, they may have referenced the hot-button issues in brief from time to time.  But no sermon has been devoted in whole or in part to abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia or the like.  The preachers have never endorsed any candidates or political parties, or even (that i recall) mentioned any elected officials by name.  The only reference to Barack Obama has been to pray that God would guide “our President.”

This tends to shock my non-evangelical friends.

I don’t blame them.  They live in thought-worlds where evangelicals only rear their zealous heads when they support Prop 8 or vote pro-life or say something spectacularly offensive.  The media is little help.  Pathologically attracted to the extremes and the grotesques, mainstream media journalists leap with delight to stories like the Quran-burning Terry Jones, the apocalyptonaut Harold Camping, or the alternative-universe “dominionists” who want to cast the demons out of all the Masonic lodges throughout America.  Or when the mainstream media shows a positive portrayal of an evangelical, it’s an evangelical of the “progressive” persuasion who pours scorn on his conservative brethren and champions the media’s favored causes.  When they report on the conservative church in the suburbs that mobilized in support of Prop 8, do they mention the boatloads of canned goods the same church sent to Haiti after the earthquake?  Or when they recite the latest outrageous thing Pat Robertson said, do they mention that he founded a relief and development organization that’s delivered over $1.2 billion worth of goods to needy people around the world?  Of course not.

So it’s easy to get the impression that conservative evangelical churches are filled with fire-breathing hate-peddlers.  It’s easy to conclude that conservative evangelical churches are not centers for gospel proclamation, for healing the damaged and the wounded, and for expressing God’s grace through acts of love to the community — but are, instead, GOP recruitment centers and bristling outposts in the culture wars, training centers for a mindless conservative militia.

First of all, let’s admit: there are “evangelical” churches that have bring-your-gun-to-church Sundays.  There are “evangelical” churches where you can hear sermons like “Why I Hate President Obama.”  And there are people who do prayer walks outside mosques and Masonic lodges in order to win spiritual dominion over the land.  Evangelicals need to acknowledge that such churches and groups exist, in order to dispense with bad apples and bad theology.

Cyclops Kitten: the Harold Camping of the animal world.

Yet these are a vanishing minority.  Like “Cyclops Kitten,” they make the news because they’re bizarre and rare.  They also make the news because liberals tend to resent evangelicals for voting conservative, and stories like these give liberals a convenient way to dismiss, mock and marginalize the evangelicals who disagree with them.  And when conservative evangelicals do engage in the political process, or make a biblical case for a particular policy or politician, this occasions lamentations and accusations that evangelicals have forgotten the essence of true Christianity in favor of a “Constantinian” theocracy.

As it turns out, however, evangelical churches are arguably the least-politicized of all the major churches.  At a recent meeting of the excellent Faith Angle Forum, David Campbell, author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, presented his updated research.  When asked whether they heard sermons on political or social issues once a month or more, here is how America’s major religious groups responded:

  • Jewish: 41.4%
  • Non-affiliated: 30.5%
  • Black Protestant: 29.6%
  • Catholic: 20.7%
  • Mainline Protestant: 16%
  • Evangelical: 13.7%

I don’t have figures for Muslims, but the only religious group that definitely had a lower percentage of sermons on political/social issues was, interestingly, the Mormons.  Only 2% of Mormons said that they heard a sermon on social/political issues at least once a month.  (My thanks to Dr. Campbell for sharing the exact figures with me.)  But isn’t it interesting that liberal secularists rarely complain about the “politicization” of the Black Protestant or Mainline Protestant churches?

The findings for evangelicals match perfectly with my experience.  I’ve spent 35 years in evangelical churches, and I’ve attended and visited scores of congregations in California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Georgia.  I’ve never attended a church — I’ve never even visited one — that addressed social/political issues frequently.  Most evangelical churches believe that the sermon, the pulpit and the Sunday service are for growing in our understanding of God and what the revealed Word of God means for our lives and our mission in this world.  Issues like abortion are tremendously important; they’re not merely “cultural” issues but deeply moral and theological issues; yet they are rarely addressed before the whole congregation.

My current church has often refused candidates and politicians who wish to address the congregation.  To give you a flavor, here are the announcements in a recent Perimeter Church bulletin: An “Orphan Sunday” training class for foster parents and adoptive families, a “diaper drive” for the Salvation Army, disaster relief for Thailand, mentoring elementary school children, “how to be a certified safe family” for children of families in crisis situations, a ministry to the jobless, a “home repair ministry,” a medical missions trip to Guatemala, delivering furniture to families that have lost their homes, and a ministry to children with special needs.

And yet, again, when I tell some of my skeptical friends that my theologically conservative evangelical church very rarely speaks of homosexuality or gay marriage, they find it almost impossible to compute.  Since the only thing they “know” about evangelicals is that they love guns and hate gay people, they assume that evangelicals gather together around their causes and prejudices.  The consequences are severe:

  • When evangelicals are depicted as obsessed with issues like homosexuality, they do not recognize themselves in this depiction.  They wonder what world their critics are describing.  Evangelicals feel marginalized, misunderstood, and savagely misrepresented by American media culture.  Unfortunately, this adds impetus to the movement to withdraw into the evangelical subculture and view themselves as a persecuted minority.
  • Secular liberals in particular get a distorted picture of who evangelicals are and what they care about, and the broader culture misses out on opportunities to engage and collaborate with evangelicals in areas where there is common cause.
  • Liberal Christians should not underestimate the damage this does on a spiritual level.  How many people might have gone to the local evangelical church, and how many might have started down the path toward faith — whether they go on to become evangelicals or Mainliners or Catholics or Orthodox, whether they’re politically conservative or liberal or nothing in particular — if they had not been handed a raving caricature of evangelical churches, if they had not believed that all they’d find in those churches was the mobilization of prejudice and political enmity?

This is why (and I’ll write more on this shortly) liberal Christians should fight against the caricature of evangelicals just as much as conservative Christians do.  Some have earnestly bought into the caricature, even though they should know better, or should at least take the effort to investigate whether it’s true.  Others propagate the caricature as a way of making themselves look better by comparison.  I’m not one of those evangelicals, they say.  Everything you say about them is right; in fact, I can condemn them with even greater gusto than you; but I’m the rational and progressive Christian who really gets what Jesus was all about.  But confirming the caricature for the secular world does a tremendous amount of damage — first of all to the truth, and second to the spiritual lives of those who might have benefited from an evangelical church if they had not been armed with misinformation against it.  The theological differences that distinguish us are important.  But Christians Right and Left should not caricature one another, and should dispute the caricature against “the other side” that prevails on their side.

So as stories multiply of evangelical churches engaging the election process for 2012, let’s remember this: evangelical churches are, among the larger religious groups, the least likely to reference political and social issues from the pulpit.  Many who condemn them for “hyper-politicization” are less concerned with the fact of political engagement than with the fact that evangelicals tend to support the causes they oppose.

 

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Benjamin

    I agree with you that most evangelical churches do not have political preaching from the pulpit. Also, it’s definitely true that they – along with other churches, and religious groups in general – don’t get enough credit for, like in the examples you mentioned, the relief efforts and other clearly good actions.

    And yet…and yes, this is coming from a Lutheran outsider… I still think that the evangelical community has a ways to go. I’m a little late to picking up what’s going on, so it was only recently how I read of how Joel Hunter was pressured to resign from the Christian Coalition because of the choice of issues he wanted to focus on. It disturbed me, to say the least.

    Still, point taken that it’s not good to caricature evangelical churches.

  • Benjamin

    Pardon my bad grammar: “a little late ON picking up what’s going on”

  • http://middletree.blogspot.com James Williams

    While it’s true that it’s a shame when people cast evangelicals as something they are not, aren’t you engaging in the same thing when you accuse mainstream media of never reporting the good things that evangelical churches are doing?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That’s a fair comment, James, so I should clarify: while there are important exceptions, I find as a general matter that mainstream media journalists, when discussing the latest public relations gaffe or the latest outright hypocrisy, rarely mention the positive things that conservative evangelical churches do. In fact, I think they rarely mention those things in general. That’s partly due to the dynamics of news reporting these days, and hard facts about what sells. I think it’s also due to the acceptance, across broad swaths of the mainstream media (though not all quarters), of a caricature that lends itself to further misrepresentations.

      What your comment reminds me of is that it rarely helps when Christians or evangelicals view mainstream media journalists with disdain or resentment. Much better to engage and educate, in the way (for instance) that Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has done with his Faith Angle Forum.

      Thanks for holding me accountable.

      -Tim

  • Loki

    If conservative Christians wish to stop being perceived as an evil “caricature” perhaps they should stop being that evil caricature in the first place. Although I find it doubtful that would ever happen, considering that allegiance to said evil caricature is the shibboleth of conservative Christianity.

    All one needs to prove it is to listen to the most influential Evangelical leader in America, James Dobson.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      That last sentence is sufficient indication of your ignorance of the subject matter that I think no further response is needed. But thanks! :-)

      -Tim

      • Charles Vannettw

        Quote, just before he left the ministry:

        “The heart, the core, the central focus of our ministry is the war on homosexuals”

      • ymoore

        Educate me, please. Is James Dobson NOT one of the most influential evangelical leaders? From the outside looking in, he appears to be a very influential conservative evangelical leader.

        I’m Christian and African American and find it very troubling that the white Evangelical conservative churches are routinely on the opposite side of the justice movements that the majority of black Christian churches embrace– from the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-apartheid movement in southern Africa to affirmative action to women’s rights to health care for all. How is that? Because my ancestors were owned by other people, I understand justice work as obedience Jesus’ commandment to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Justice work is not an appendage to the Gospel or something to neglect in silence and certainly not something to oppose; it’s at the core of the Gospel because it’s about love.

        I know none of us have it all right or all wrong all the time, but it’s troubling that if there’s a justice issue impacting my community, I can almost count on the white Evangelical church to be working against it.

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          White evangelicals were quite involved in the abolition movement, and were on both sides of the Civil RIghts issue. Southern white evangelicals were less likely than northern white intellectuals, of course, to support the Civil RIghts movement. Like everyone else, evangelicals are influenced by the culture around them.

          The majority of evangelicals simply have different views than you do on affirmative action and health care for all, and whether those are really what justice requires. I wish that the evangelical church had been more active in the early stages of the women’s rights movement, but today the great majority support basic women’s rights but have sincere questions on issues like abortion (which they do not view as a women’s rights issue) and the roles of women in ministry.

          In other words, it’s a more differentiated picture than you’re allowing.

          James Dobson no longer has a great deal of influence, no. More influential by far are figures like Tim Keller, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Francis Chan, etc. Pastors, mostly. The influence of John Stott is still profound, even though he’s dead, whereas the influence of Dobson is all but gone. The movement from Dobson to Jim Daly at Focus on the Family is indicative of broader trends in the evangelical world.

          Hope that helps!

          -Tim

          • ymoore

            Thanks for the update on Dobson and your thoughtful reply.

  • DougH

    While I find the 2% for Mormons completely believable (if anything, a little high), it isn’t because we are less political. The first Sunday each month is given over to Fast and Testimony meetings, extemporaneous expressions by on-the-spot volunteers from the congregation of their faith and the blessings they’ve received. Except for a few ward, stake and general conferences (and maybe a Christmas program), in the rest of the meetings the sermons are given by members of the congregation on assigned topics – and those topics are usually doctrinal, never political.

    The closest the Church comes to getting involved in electing candidates is encouraging its members to vote, without ever referencing any particular candidate.

  • Pat Griffin

    I found this article through a link from a response written by a politically liberal evangelical Christian who disagrees with your claim here, pointing out that the frequency with which an issue is mentioned in sermons is not a good measure of the importance of having the “right” political positions to be fully and warmly accepted by those who share his religious beliefs. He starts by saying:

    >>>
    It’s all in my head, I suppose. And if I could just get over my own prejudices, I’d realize that most evangelical churches would welcome me as a full and equal member, without suspicion or hostility or condemnation due to my belief in evolution and my support for legal abortion and equal rights for GLBT people.

    “You’re pro-choice? No problem,” they would say. “We’re not the hyper-politicized caricatures the media makes us out to be, you know! Would you like to lead one of our small-group Bible studies?”
    <<<

    The rest is at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2011/11/21/the-exceptional-majority-of-evangelicals/

  • John H

    As a denizen of that secular world, let me say that we conflate Conservative, Fundamentalists, and Evangelical Christianties as being the same thing. Whether it’s James Dobson, Timothy LeHaye, or Jerry Falwell verbally threatening us, it’s all one and the same.

    But maybe that’s not fair. If I should not call those Christians who fly the flag at church, are willing to toss Romney to the dogs for being an unChristian Mormon, and believe prosperity equals morality “Evangelicals”, what [i]should[/i] I call them?

  • Basil

    Tim,

    My old boss once told me “where you stand depends upon where you sit.” It applies here.

    You are being dishonest. I don’t think it is willful, I think it is born out of ignorance. You are not gay Tim, and therefore you are not on the receiving end of anti-gay animus from evangelical preachers, or from evangelical sponsored hate groups like the Family Research Council. You weren’t in Oklahoma City this week, where the city council passed an ordinance barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a local pastor strolled up to the mike at the council hearing and proclaimed that gays responsible for the majority of big city murders. You were not at my local city council hearing here in DC, during the debates over marriage equality, listening to pastors (many from Maryland) accuse gays of being pedophiles and perverts, out to corrupt the children. And how come every political candiidate who wants to woo evangelicals launches into a tirade about the gays, and waxes on about how they support all sorts of legal discrimination to force homos in the closet? Is that just some weird coinky-dink? Herman Cain was doing just that today, and just yesterday Rick Santorum was playing smear-the-queer, and….well pretty much every Republican candidate..,

    No one is going to gay-bash you Tim. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, just because you don’t see it. I think the representation that evangelicals have, of being pathologically homophobic, is well earned. The evidence is manifest, in our society, our politics, and from the mouths of evangelical religious leaders themselves. For you to deny that is incredibly insensitive, and factually implausible. We can’t move forward if we stick heads in the sand and pretend there is no problem.

    Ask yourself this question: how many young people in Perimeter Church would feel comfortable coming out? How about the church next door?

    • Dennis Sanders

      Basil,

      Like you, I’m gay and I’ve spent a number of years working in various gay rights groups both within and without the church. A few years ago, I probably would have had the same opinion that you do. However, a few years ago, I took a job for the local body of a mainline denomination. What I saw was that save the issue of same sex marriage, many of the conservative congregations were doing many of the same things liberal congregations were doing such as fixing up homes for low income people on the North Side of Minneapolis or trying to provide clean water in Africa.

      I don’t totally agree with Tim’s post, but a lot of what he says here makes sense. Yes, there are number of evangelicals that do seem to talk about nothing more than gays or abortion, but that’s not everyone and not all the time. I think part of the problem here is that we really don’t know evangelicals (or those of us that are former evangelicals have forgotten the complexity)and so we make them into caritachures instead of trying to see how they are real people.

      Evangelicalism in America is far more complex than we like to think. That doesn’t mean I agree with them on everything, but it makes less willing to generalize them and more willing to listen and learn.

      Only Tim can answer the question about Perimeter Church accepting gay youth who come out the closet, but the answer might not be what you or I are expecting.

  • Sri

    Very interesting read. To Basil’s comment. I suggest you’d be surprised by the number of people (especially the young ones) who will feel ok coming out and who will also be accepted and loved by folks. I don’t go to Perimeter but can speak in similar vein of my churche, Intown. The reality is there are always two sides to equations. Yes, there are enough extreme views (and the many degrees within) on all sides of all spectrums which make talking/discussing/debating issues like these hard to deal with objectively. The sad fact is all reasonable discussions are non-existant as almost all forms of communications (be it from the pulpit, the politicians, the press, the people) have been hijacked with vitriol, finger-pointing, misguided passion, and extreme no-surrender mindsets. Honestly, it is folks (like us hopefully) that can bring balance to this by speaking up, speaking out, and speaking to what we believe, however doing it respectfully. And it really starts in our homes. We are an example to our children, to our neighbors, to our friends, at work et al. Maybe I’ve rambled too long.

  • http://sotonohitoblogs.blogspot.com sotonohito

    A couple of questions if I may. I’m not sure that the frequency of discussing political issues is really a good metric for gauging the political focus of any organization. If a position or attitude is deeply embedded and regarded as virtually mandatory for membership in an organization why would it be discussed frequently? Fish wouldn’t discuss water after all.

    Do you suppose that a person who, for example, was pro-choice, or openly homosexual, would be welcomed into a typical Evangelical church? That they wouldn’t be ostracized? That they’d be treated as full members and not told that they must or should change their positions in order to be Real True Christians?

    I’m also curious as to your annoyance that charitable works are not mentioned in a political context. Why should anyone care that a church which mobilized in support of Prop 8, displaying an ugly hatred and loathing of homosexuals, also happened to give canned goods to Haiti? To me that seems like two completely separate issues. What does the one have to do with the other?

    • Jay

      It seems the recurring argument against what Tim is saying is that homosexuals or pro choice folks wouldn’t be welcome in a conservative church. My question for you is “why do you care?” Why would you want to be accepted at my church?

      • http://sotonohitoblogs.blogspot.com sotonohito

        As an atheist I’m not likely to ever try and attend your church. I prefer sleeping in on Sundays.

        But the point about gay/pro-choice/whatevers being welcome is to illustrate that, contrary to Tim’s comments, Evangelical Churches are very much politicized and very much politicized against those groups.

  • apeercy9@gmail.com

    Wow, I must be the luckiest person alive, as I’ve had a 20 year streak of nothing but the “minority” of evangelical churches. Now to be fair, yes, evangelical sermons are not commonly about social issues, evangelicalism tends to focus on personal faith. That also means that evangelical churches are very unlikely to address social justice. Yes, there is a lot of charity work done by evangelicals, but if you don’t balance that with social justice its pointless. Now, I could go over scores of events in my life where evangelicals have used political beliefs as a limitus test for being a true believer, show you have out of all my evangelical friends on Facebook only one is a democrat and how not only are they all Republican a lot are very belligerent and tea partih

  • Abomb

    - accidentally pressed send.

    I could tell you how my pastor warned me not to go to a certain college because “they accept homosexuals”, how my youth pastor warned me about churches that allow “homosexuals and women” to lead, etc etc etc, but I don’t think I need to. One of the boundaries of the evangelical “in” group is politics. It’s not in sermons, but it is strictly in force after and before the sermon. In larger mega churches, you can be liberal or gay, as long as you keep it to yourself (don’t ask don’t tell). But again, I should go buy a lotto ticket- cuz apparrently I’m the luckiest man alive.

  • http://www.missiontoisrael.org Ted R. Weiland

    These are tlhe thoughts of the typical saltless Christianity that’s lost its savor, good for nothing but to be trampled under the foot of man (Matthew 5:13.)Regrettably, this is where the vast majority of Christianity is today. However, all is not lost, a good ol’ foot stomping tends to eventually bring back the saltiness.

  • Richard Hershberger

    The local wanna-be megachurch has many “sermons” available online. (I use the scare quotes because the ones I actually listened to seemed to actually be mid-week Bible studies, albeit of the sort where the attendees sit and listen to a lecture.) There was a series of three on the topic of divorce. I listened to the first two (then gave it up as hopeless) because it is interesting to see how Evangelical churches approach it: On the one hand, if you imagine you read the Bible “literally” it is hard to condone divorce. On the other hand, our society, including the Evangelical segment, generally accepts divorce. So there is lots of potential for cognitive dissonance here.

    The “sermons” turned out to be a bust, in that this guy clearly had nothing to say. He spent one entire session discussing the passage where Jesus condemns divorce except in cases of adultery. After circling around this at great length, he concluded that what Jesus meant by this was to condemn divorce except in cases of adultery. In another segment he argued at great length the conclusion that divorce is not mandatory, even in cases of adultery. I never found the internal fortitude to listen to the third one.

    The point of bringing this up was that the entire topic was clearly a delicate one. It is dead certain that a significant percentage of the people in the audience were divorced, including some major donors who couldn’t be offended. So there was an air of nervousness to the whole enterprise. At one point the pastor broke the tension by recycling the antique joke about “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. This, of course, was completely irrelevant to the topic, but it was something that everyone there agreed on, and there was laughter all around with a palpable sense of relief.

    So my response to this post is that fish don’t notice the water they swim in.

  • Kubrick’s Rube

    (re-de-lurking for a moment)

    “Many who condemn them for “hyper-politicization” are less concerned with the fact of political engagement than with the fact that evangelicals tend to support the causes they oppose.”

    Well, yeah. Evangelicals disproportionately support a political worldview I strongly oppose and oppose the political worldview I strongly support. Whether or not this differnce comes from the pulpit (since when is that the end-all of evangelical life?), it’s real. As David Foster Wallce famously put it:

    There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

    This piece feels to me like you’re asking what water is.

  • Guillermo

    Basil,
    You have misunderstood Timothy. He is saying that most evangelical churches are primarily focusing on ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of their communities. They are not focusing on electing the “right” candidate or taking a certain political position on a particular issue.

    However, he is NOT saying that evangelical churches condone behavior which is clearly against God’s design for His creation as spelled out in His word. But rather than talking about “don’t”, these churches attempt to point the way to God as revealed in the scriptures. In so doing, individuals will begin to understand the full counsel of God, including his design for our lives and behavior.

    Homosexuals are always welcome at my evangelical church, and we have some that attend. But homosexuality, like many other behaviors contrary to God’s word and plan, are not condoned or approved.

  • Bificommander

    Hello. Just a visitor from the slacktivist blog, which has picked up this article and posted some replies. The first is a response from the slacktivist host himself:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2011/11/21/the-exceptional-majority-of-evangelicals/
    Short version, he disagrees, based on his experience, that it there’s only a small minority of evangelical churches that denounce people with opposing viewpoints.

    The second post is a call to the readers, asking about their experiences and if they feel that their churches came with a package deal of political and moral points everyone was expected to adhere to or not. Here the comment section is the relevant part:
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2011/11/21/evangelical-identity-whats-your-story/
    Summary: A lot of people have experienced intolerance in their churches, resulting in several of them leaving Christianity alltogether. And a recurring message in the comments is that just because there weren’t many explicit anti-gay/abortion/evolution/enviromentalism seremons comming from behind the pupil, it didn’t mean that any deviation from the norm on those topics was accepted, either by the church leaders or the body.

  • expendable adjunct

    Interesting piece and responses.

    I get the impression that evangelicalism in the southeast (Georgia) is different from that of the midwest (Illinois – Wisconsin) and west (Oregon – Washington). I lived in the midwest for well over 20 years and can’t think of a single time I’ve heard messages outright condemning Clinton, Obama, homosexuality, etc. More messages were on getting saved. Same thing for 10+ years in the Pacific Northwest, even when election time comes around.

    • Patriot Diva

      Expendable, for some reason people just seem to like dumping on the south. As a southerner, I find people make all sorts of idiotic comments that aren’t true. They think in stereotypes. Even some of my neighbors who moved here from the northeast 10 years ago still say things that make me want to scream. It’s like they see what they WANT to see, and ignore any of the good things about the south. Not all people act this way, but the ones that do are really annoying. I attended two different evangelical churches in the last 15 or so years, and my pastor does not preach about politics. Sometimes I wish he did.

  • Chris

    Much of what I was going to comment has been said by others but I need to ask; Doesn’t this axiom ring true regardless of your political/theological sphere? In other words doesn’t the media sensationalize every arena and not merely “Evangelicals”?

    Furthermore all the research that Barna has done in regards to the Church seems to indicate that these characterizations are not merely “selective viewing”.

  • Derrick

    Regarding the general trend of the comments, I think the heart of the matter is not so much what Evangelicals believe about political issues, but how they are defined by them. I most certainly believe that homosexuality and abortion are immoral, but I won’t make it to the news if I treat a homosexual kindly. We (Christians) have become defined by the news media and the culture based on the things we condemn and disagree with–instead of the things we affirm and preach in our churches.

    Everyone in my Church acknowledges the “Water” of our political opinions, but, like Tim, Our pastor hardly ever preaches about them. He preaches on Abortion every year on “Sanctity of Life Sunday,” and I don’t think he’s ever preached a whole sermon on Homosexuality, and he’s certainly never endorsed or condemned a particular candidate. Most Evangelical preachers are the same way.

    G. K. Chesterton once pointed out that nobody ever wrote a newspaper article about the man who didn’t fall off a ladder. Only the people who fall get the coverage.

    As Christians, we should portray ourselves and others accurately, and avoid the caricature that happens in the media–that’s Tim’s point.

  • RodeoBob

    It really seems like the author is trying to have it both ways.

    “liberals tend to resent evangelicals for voting conservative…”

    “Many who condemn them for “hyper-politicization” are less concerned with the fact of political engagement than with the fact that evangelicals tend to support the causes they oppose.”

    OK, so evangelicals tend to have fairly homogenius voting patterns, a voting “block”? That seems to be the message of those two quotes: evangelicals have a strong tendancy to vote in very predictable, specific ways, typically in opposition to certain liberal causes.

    “they (Liberals) assume that evangelicals gather together around their causes and prejudices.”

    Wait… I’m confused. If evangelicals vote consistently against reproductive rights, against homosexual rights, against environmental legislation… how is it wrong to assume that they “gather around their causes and prejudices”? Didn’t I just read that evangelicals vote in large enough numbers to be noticed by liberals, and consistently enough to be recognized as opposing many liberal positions?

    Which is it? Do evangelicals, as a group, tend to consistently support specific causes and oppose other specific causes? Do they vote consistently on certain issues, like gay rights, reproductive rights, and environmental issues? It sounds the author thinks they do, from the first set of quotes. But if that’s true, if that’s what the evidence shows, why is it wrong to conclude based on that evidence that evangelicals rally around their causes?

    The author says there’s more to evangelicals than just that. But if that’s true, shouldn’t we see that in the voting records? If it’s OK to use government for some moral causes (abortion, homosexuality) why wouldn’t we see evangelicals supporting efforts towards feeding the hungry and the poor at home (funding for social safety net programs) and abroad? (foreign aid) Where’s the evangelical support for health care reform, “comforting the afflicted”? Where’s the evangelical support for #OWS? I mean, if ever there was a clear-cut case for siding against the moneylenders…

    If the evangelical block votes consistently on certain issues, is it really unfair, inaccurate, or unrealistic to portray evangelicals as being united on those issues? If evangelicals are split along other issues, isn’t it fair to say those issues aren’t as important to mainstream evangelicals, since they haven’t reached a consensus?

    Talking about how many sermons are explicitly polticial is a red herring. Again, let’s go back to that first set of quotes. If evangelicals vote in large enough numbers, consistently, on certain issues, where are they getting that from, if not the church? If evangelicals, as a group, “tend to support” certain causes… it provokes the question of why or how each evangelical church has such homogeny of thought on those issues.

    Sorry, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If “liberals” resent evangelicals for consistently voting conservative, then evangelicals must be getting some pretty consistent conservative messaging. If people are upset that evangelicals support conservative causes, then there must be some source from which that support comes, and since the common factor is the church…

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Evangelicals do tend to vote in specific ways, but at a lesser rate than Black Protestants or Jews vote together as a bloc, and even (I believe) less than Mainliners vote together as a bloc. My point was that (1) what draw evangelicals together are not their political persuasions or prejudices but their theological beliefs and their life together in the church, and that (2) evangelical churches are not the politics-obsessed places they’re made out to be. Are political views communicated over time? Of course. In many cases, such as abortion and gay marriage, they’re not really viewed as *political* so much as fundamentally theological, spiritual and moral issues. But they’re political too. I did not argue that there were no political teachings, or no political implications of their teachings. I argued that evangelicals are, in fact, substantially less politicized than other major religious categories.

      I understand that this upsets one of your most cherished caricatures, but take a look at John Haas’ comment. Here’s a committed liberal and near-constant critic of evangelicals acknowledging that, yes, evangelicalism by and large focuses on non-political, “otherworldly” (spiritual) issues. If anything, he thinks, evangelicals need to spend more time discussing political issues. And he’s right, on both points. I really feel your enmity/dislike/resentment of evangelicals is getting the better of your reading comprehension here.

      -Tim

  • Citizen Alan

    This is hilarious! You dismiss the idea that anyone might ever think that the evangelical movement makes things like attitudes on abortion rights into a litmus test for “Real True Christianity,” and yet when I scroll down your front page, what do I see just two posts down? A post about “the poisonous climate of the pro-choice movement” which does everything but describe pro-choice individuals as baby-killing Nazis. I swear, the level of self-deception it takes to be a fundamentalist Christian never ceases to amaze me.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I actually made no comment on pro-life thought as a litmus test for “Real True Christianity” (your words, not mine). Obviously pro-lifers and pro-choicers can both be believers, and I made no comment suggesting that pro-choicers are everything but “baby-killing Nazis” (this kind of exaggeration really cheapens the conversation). I write on faith and politics, so of course I write on political matters. My point was that evangelical churches are not the politics-obsessed places they’re often portrayed to be.

      Neither is it true that I’m a fundamentalist. I really wish that people would learn a little more about the evangelical world before they decide to hate them (not too strong a word here, I think) in broad strokes.

      -Tim

  • Citizen Alan

    PS – I once sat through an hour-long anti-abortion sermon on Mother’s Day. Most be another exception to the rule.

  • Steve Lusk

    Perhaps the difference in the frequency of “political sermons” lies more in how the various congregations define “politics” than in the content of the sermons? If “politics” means “the stuff they do in Washington” or “how to vote in November,” a sermon on any of the topics listed in the Perimeter Church’s bulletin is not a “political” one. But your definition of “politics” is “the process by which a society’s goods are authoritatively allocated,” then you might well classify the exact same sermon as highly political. As Dom Hélder Câmara put it, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

  • JasonC

    This is just a bad argument. Assessing the type of sermons heard behind pulpits is only one measure of the politicization of a religious community, and an indirect one at that. A more direct measure is to poll actual evangelicals themselves on their beliefs, or to survey the ideology presented in mainstream evangelical magazines.

    For an example of the former, that solidly supports the idea that mainstream evangelicals are hyperpoliticized in the right-wing direction, see Georgetown U. Professor of Government Clyde Wilcox’s Onward Christian Soliders?

    Here a systematic survey of the “politicization of the population evangelical press”: http://etd.ohiolink.edu/view.cgi?acc_num=miami1152903812

    All your post shows is that evangelicals aren’t particularly mobilized toward partisan ends by the pulpit, which itself is not all that surprising given the “seeker friendly” ethos of most evangelical churches today that would not want to turn those with certain political beliefs away. To conclude from the fact that political sermons are not common in evangelical churches that evangelicals are not hyperpoliticized doesn’t follow. It is to ignore the fact that they ARE in fact mobilized toward partisan ends by mainstream evangelical periodicals, popular magazines, radiostations, book review sites, blogs, evangelical politicians, etc….

  • Basil

    This has been an interesting thread, so kudos to Tim for posting it, even if I disagree (clearly I do). I think there is an element of cognitive dissonance going on – Tim is a conservative leaning Evangelical Christian. On the the other hand, he is young and almost certainly has openly gay friends. Maybe it can be resolved, or maybe it cannot. However, we cannot resolve this dissonance by trying to deny the experience of being gay, particularly in more conservative communities, the social and political obstacles and burdens that are part of that, and the centrality of the Evangelical community’s support of social and political discrimination against the LGBT community. To deny that reality just does not pass the red face test. There are too many young people who have been shunned, castigated and stigmitized in their local churches (see links in the posts above or check out the “I am from Driftwood” series.) Denying that experience is just callous.

    As for the Perimeter church, I checked their website (briefly) and found only 1 quote on the web on homosexuality: they consider it a sin, but are against anti-gay “social action”. They claim to welcome homosexuals, but don’t seem to be aware of whether or not they actually have any. My guess is that the church probably does not have any, or has very few, because the church is in the Atlanta exurbs, and Atlanta’s gay community is quite large and surely offers better, more affirming options to the local LGBT community.

  • Jack

    Tim’s argument is a non sequitur. It doesn’t follow from the statistic that policized sermons are uncommon that therefore evangelicals aren’t politicized. That would only be true if sermons were the only influence on evangelical beliefs.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      It’s hardly a non-sequitur. It’s non-dispositive, because there are other venues in which people can mobilize politically. But what evangelicals do in their worship services — their most fundamental act, the organizing act of the community — is of course highly relevant.

      -Tim

  • A duhsciple

    Evangelical church,

    Do you love us?

    Even if we will not convert, will you love us?

    Even if we demonize you and say things that are not fair, will you love us?

    What if we never change from gay to straight, will you love us?

    What if we sound Marxist or Freudian?

    What if we read Borg or Crossan?

    Or, to ask another way, what do we have to do for you to love us?

    By the way, I will be asking similar questions of the “mainstream media” and the liberals and the “progressive Christians”.

    Duh

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The answers for all of those questions are: “Of course!” What would any of those things have to do with love?

      -Tim

  • Tim

    I love Pat Robertson, the mainstream media, Harold Camping, gay people, Republicans, Terry Jones, Barack Obama, marxists, Lady Gaga, Democrats, Muslims, Jews, atheists, evangelicals, mainliners, fundamentalists, dominion-ists, and many more. Jesus

    These might not always be fair, loving, or right.

    Love them anyway

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I can give that a hearty amen.

      -Tim

  • CJW

    I’m not convinced. First define the hyper-political evangelicals as not really evangelical, then shift the blame to the ‘liberals’ for pointing out our flaws rather than taking ownership of them. According to Dalrymple, there are no evangelical sell-outs to empire. Astounding.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      What’s astounding is the misreading of the post. I didn’t define hyper-political evangelicals as not-evangelicals. I said that we need to own up to the fact that there are hyper-politicized churches and we need to oppose them. And I said that the extent to which liberals focus on the extremes is misleading and destructive.

      And I’ve written quite critically of evangelicals — I see Rick Perry in this vein — who blur the distinction between church and state. So the notion that “there are no evangelicals sell-outs to empire” (if I’m interpreting you correctly), on my way of seeing this, is just absurd.

      -Tim

  • John Haas

    “evangelical churches are, among the larger religious groups, the least likely to reference political and social issues from the pulpit.”

    I think that’s right. What’s more, I think that does, in fact, reflect their deepest felt priorities. (Obviously, there are many variations on this and exceptions, but, on the whole and all that . . .)

    Evangelicals are genuinely religious, even otherworldly. Their religious activities are not a cloak for any political agenda (though there are highly politicized figures and institutions–left and right–who wish it was.)

    Historically, they’ve entered the political fray with some reluctance, usually when they perceive “the culture” as in some way posing a threat to their community (especially youth) by making immorality normative, and so threatening their salvation.

    That said, it may be fair to say there should be a little more politics from the pulpit (or, groundwork for political theology, perhaps?)

    Think of the American South before the Civil War. Your most typically evangelical group was perhaps the Southern Baptists, who drew a sharp line between gospel matters and worldly matters. The church attended to soul saving only. That, of course, left social arrangements entirely un-critiqued from a Biblical perspective.

    Is evangelicalism currently in a similar position? Not entirely. There are pockets within the movement that are very concerned and discuss political matters constantly. But they are a minority.

    The majority are focused on the private realm–which, it needs to be said, is itself a political position, which needs examination.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks, John. Excellent comment.

      -Tim

  • Barry
    • MatthewS

      If sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, I wonder if there are any groups that Mr. Clark feels that he should marginalize?

  • Harris

    I suspect the perception of Evangelicals has some specific historical antecedents, notably the behavior in the first-term of George W Bush. The linkage of a given political identity with the Evangelical was repeatedly testified to — a good place to look would be in the writings of Amy Sullivan (see The Party Faithful).

    And it was more than simple political branding. As the details of abuse of prisoners (and torture) came out, the Evangelical community stood by the administration — the last of the true believers.

    Moreover, it was out of this abusive behavior that led some Evangelicals to distance themselves from this very public political engagement, Rick Warren perhaps being the most evident. We can also see it in something as recent as Alisa Harris’ Raised Right published this fall.

    Thus, even if the politicized tide is ebbing (as I believe it to be), the Evangelical community today nonetheless lives within the social context shaped by that period. This is the house that Evangelical elders built, even as their children are leaving out the back door.

  • Jack

    Yes, Tim, your argument is a nonsequitur. You’ve concluded based on one (uncritically accepted) statistic about sermons that the evangelical community as a whole is not politicized. The definition of “nonsequitur” is reaching a conclusion that doesn’t follow from the evidence/ argument.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      One uses “non sequitur” particularly when there’s a disconnect between the premises and the conclusion. They’re clearly connected in this case. You can say that the conclusion is underdetermined from the evidence, and I would agree (this is why I said it’s “arguably” the least politicized). It’s just one indicator, but a very telling one.

      -Tim

  • Jack

    It’s not very telling because the way you reason from the one piece of evidence you present results in a conclusion that contradicts that supported by more relevant evidence, such as polls of evangelical beliefs or voting practices. So they’re not “clearly” connected at all. And the fact that evangelicals self-report the sermons they hear are not political could just as easily support the idea that evangelicals have less self awareness of their politicization than other groups.

    Your argument hinges on an equivocation between “evangelical sermons” and “evangelical culture.” I think a more plausible explanation of the reason why just about everyone views evangelical culture as politicized is that it’s true.

  • Jason

    What’s ironic is that Timothy stereotypes the mainstream media as only portraying one side of evangelicals (let’s forget NYTimes folks like Ross Douthat or David Brooks who routinely praise social conservative evangelicals) and progressive evangelicals as angry reactionaries who only want approval from secular America. The real problem for Tim is not stereotyping; it is stereotyping of evangelicals who hold his political views.

    And of course, while Tim conjures up wild caricatures of evangelicals which he then uses to stereotype how “outsiders” think of them, he fails to recognize that the community does in fact have certain characteristics, including overwhelming support for right-wing positions. According Gallup polls, 78% of white evangelicals who voted voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and 74% for McCain in 2008. Similar data shows support for right-wing positions. So it is an empirical fact that the evangelical community can be characterized as emphasizing certain political beliefs, even if, to state the obvious, not every evangelical holds them and they aren’t emphasized in every possible avenue of communication in the community.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jason, I was responding specifically to the notion that evangelical churches are centered on political issues. And of course there are exceptions even in the mainstream media.

      -Tim

  • Jason

    BTW: This is Tim’s best moment in the whole thread so far: “I am not merely a Patheos blogger. I am the Director of Content for the site.”

    Alas, I am “merely” a patheos blogger, or more accurately, commenter, which I suppose puts me at the lowest end of the totem pole. I suppose I could cheer myself up by coming up with a capitalized title for my position, like Multi-Blog Responder of Patheos. It’s not quite up there with Director of Content, but it will do for now.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jason, this is tiresome. Someone asked me why I was hesitant to criticize one of our Patheos bloggers. I explained that it’s because I’m Director of Content (yes, titles are often capitalized, like VP of Sales), which means that my job is to acquire bloggers and columnists and build areas of the site, not make them feel unwelcome. Is that really so hard to understand?

  • Jason

    Yes, peddling backward can be tiresome. First, I’m pointing out pretentiousness that I think most of us mere bloggers would recognize. Second, the entire thrust of your post, starting with the title, is that evangelicals are not in fact hyperpoliticized, which you conclude based on one possible interpretation (of several) of one statistic (which you never critically examine or seek to corroborate) pertaining to one aspect of the evangelical community. Now you are emphasizing the fine print by saying that, well, they may be hyperpoliticized but their sermons aren’t.

    Even if I grant the suggestion that evangelicals rarely talk about abortion or gay marriage from the pulpit, it only reveals the hypocrisy of the community. For a community that thinks abortion is mass murder, or that those who unrepentantly practice gay relations will spend eternity in conscious torment, how odd it is indeed that they never feel compelled to discuss it from the pulpit. That would be akin to a church in Nazi Germany failing to mention the Holocaust or a church in the South failing to discuss the issue of slavery. It reveals not that “hey ,evangelicals aren’t so bad after all” but that evangelicals have let their churches’s desire to be seeker-friendly override their own moral convictions.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jason, your determination to assume the worst of those who differ from you is what is tiresome here. My point was clearly that I have a professional role here and I want all of our bloggers to feel welcome, even those with whom I disagree. To see it as anything different is projection. Most people who read this blog don’t know my role at Patheos, so they would not understand why I’d be reticent to criticize a Patheos blogger. I was explaining it. But don’t worry; it’s okay that you were wrong.

      I say that evangelicals are “arguably” the least politicized because I realize that I’m only citing one statistic. It’s a single blog post, and like most blog posts you have to focus; you cannot write a treatise. But it’s a very sound statistic, and a very telling one — and if I, in advance, had asked any of you commenters who are so offended by the notion that evangelicals are not the uber-political hobgoblins you’ve imagined in your minds to rank the churches where political matters are most frequently mentioned from the pulpit, you would have put evangelicalism right up top. This does indeed run contrary to your precious caricature, and that’s what has you so upset.

      The statistic *does* indicate that social/political issues *are* mentioned sometimes from the pulpit; so it’s not as though the issue is completely absent, contra your second paragraph. I happen to have attended churches where these issues are discussed with special rarity, in part because the congregational leadership wants to leave space for disagreement and resists weighing in with an authoritative opinion. I happen to agree that there should be more talk of abortion in particular. When it comes to homosexuality, the churches I’ve attended would not say that gays are going to hell *because* they’re gay; they would say that gays are going to hell (like everyone else goes to hell) when or if they have not placed their faith in Christ. There would be no special need to encourage the evangelization of gays; there’s a constant emphasis on sharing your faith, and that would apply for non-Christian gays just as it would apply for non-Christian straights.

  • Jason

    Tim, please. I offered a substantive critique of your blog post. You can’t escape it by criticizing my manners.
     
    You scolding others for assuming the worst of those they disagree with is about as disingenuous as Newt Gingrich portraying himself as the ideal defender of marriage. You assume that I only critiqued your posting because it “does indeed run contrary to your precious caricature, and that’s what has you so upset.” Well, as someone who grew up in the evangelical community, studied at an evangelical college, and wrote a dissertation on evangelical politics, I find it quite surprising indeed to hear that I am woefully ignorant of what evangelicals are really like.
     
    What I find distasteful about your post is not that it shatters a precious caricature (and here again, we see you assuming the worst of those who disagree with you; they can all be dismissed in your mind, apparently, as angry bigots) but your sloppy and misleading use of statistics to imply a conclusion that is patently false–namely, that the evangelical community is not politicized. If you were concerned about the data, you would have titled your post “Those hyperpoliticized evangelical sermons!”–but of course, that wouldn’t be as provocative.

    And I never said evangelicals believe gays go to hell simply for being gay, but that unrepentant practicing gays do, which is based on widespread evangelical readings of the relevant verses in 1 Cor. and 1 Tim.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Jason, you may not be ignorant, but you do operate on the basis of a caricature. What was your thesis or dissertation (doctoral?) entitled?

      I’ve known many people who grew up in evangelical circles, and even went to evangelical colleges, and then went on to make their names by trashing evangelicals. And typically they do so by claiming that evangelicals are all right-wing nutjobs.

      And again you mischaracterize my claim. I did not say evangelicals are not politicized. I said they’re not hyper-politicized.

      As for what you wrote on gays, either you edited the comment after I wrote my response or else I misread it. I don’t really know the answer, and frankly it doesn’t matter to me. You’re clearly not an open-minded conversation partner, so I don’t see the point.

      Best of luck.

      -Tim

  • Jason

    Tim, do you think there are any serious cases to be made against the evangelical community’s ideology and political activism or are all such criticisms reducible to angrily calling evangelicals right-wing nutjobs? You give the impression of a person who believes that all criticisms of his childhood community can be summarily dismissed and attributed to bad motives.

    Whether you’re saying evangelicals are not politicized or not hyperpoliticized is trivial; the distinction is entirely subjective and neither conclusion would follow from the evidence you’ve presented.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’ve written quite a few criticisms of evangelicalism, Jason, and I certainly think there is a need for that.

      It’s true I haven’t found the time to respond to Fred. I’ve been traveling too much over the past two weeks. I do hope to get to it soon.

      -Tim

  • Jason

    And I noticed you decided not to respond to Fred Clark’s criticism as you promised to do several days ago.

  • Jason

    True, but I’m talking about more fundamental criticisms than the sort you’ve made, involving the rejection of core elements of the community’s political activism (ex. on abortion, gay marriage, etc….) or theology (ex biblicism) which you basically accept. Has it occurred to you that someone may operate with an understanding of evangelicalism that is just as nuanced as yours and nevertheless hold honest, thoughtful, yet harshly critical views of the community (such as the sort, for example, prevalent at most major universities)?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X