Review of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians by Tom Krattenmaker (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013)
Thanks to the author and publisher for sending me a complementary/review copy of this book. Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland, Oregon based writer whose columns have appeared in USAToday and other periodicals. By his own confession he is not an evangelical and is “progressive” in his political and religious views. However, he is fascinated by American evangelicalism and evangelicals and delights in debunking familiar stereotypes promoted by the media and widely held by non-evangelicals.
The Evangelicals You Don’t Know attempts to introduce readers to a new type of evangelicals which Krattenmaker calls, among other things, “new evangelicals.” Here is one description of this “new” tribe of evangelicals:
“What makes the new evangelicals new? … They are Christians who are rooted in the orthodox beliefs of evangelical Christianity and who are fiercely devoted to Jesus—yet are largely free, or becoming free, of the cultural and political baggage that has made evangelicalism appear, often, to be just another voting bloc or culture war army.” (p. 11)
Krattenmaker’s book is a series of vignettes of these “new evangelicals” (most fairly young and ex-fundamentalists). Some of their influencers mentioned by him are Tim Keller and Shane Claibourne (a strange pair). Between the vignettes the author includes commentary of his own and quotations from others about this new tribe of evangelicals. Much of the commentary consists of bashing mainstream evangelicalism by which he and the people he quotes seem to mean fundamentalism.
Krattenmaker uses the book to promote his own preferences. For example: “If evangelical Christians were just like everyone else—that is, flawed—but strutted their stuff with an unwarranted air of superiority, what idea would that create about the something special that supposedly formed the core of their lives?” (p. 65)
It’s usually unclear (one has to guess) whom he is referring to with these snarky comments about “evangelical Christians.” He definitely is not referring to the few “new evangelicals” he features (for example Ken Weigel of Portland’s Imago Dei church), but he rarely mentions the “bad ones” by name. It seems at times that he is lumping all “non-new evangelicals” into one tribe and describing them as self-righteous crusaders to impose evangelical morality on non-evangelicals.
The problem is, as I see it, that’s a stereotype, too. Without doubt some of the “media darlings” of evangelicalism, the ones who usually are mentioned, lampooned, set up as bad representatives of “evangelicalism” (especially around election times), fit the description implied in Krattenmaker’s rhetorical question above. But what about the silent majority of evangelicals who never engaged in the so-called “culture wars?” And what about the evangelical leaders who spoke out for decades against the others who seemed to be trying to impose conservative evangelical morals on everyone?
In other words, is Krattenmaker himself seduced by the mass media’s fascination with and focus on fundamentalist evangelicals?
I have been trying to make the point for a long time that “evangelicals” are much more diverse than the media portrays us—politically, socially, ecclesiologically, and, yes, even theologically.
One of the benefits and curses of being old is remembering (up to a point, anyway). I’ve been studying American evangelicals and evangelicalism for a very long time and one of the things I’ve noticed is a pattern. Every few years there’s a spate of books and articles about some new, non-fundamentalist group of “left wing” evangelicals who supposedly represent a “minority report”—dissenting from the vast, unwashed riff raff of the mainstream of ultra-conservative, self-righteous, crusading evangelicals who are either 1) mainly interested in getting souls saved to the neglect of social transformation, or 2) mainly interested in imposing conservative evangelical values on everyone else by political means.
I’ll mention just one previous example of this pattern.
Does anyone else remember the phenomenon of “The Young Evangelicals?” The book of that title was written by Richard Quebedeaux and published in 1974. It created quite a stir. Carl Henry responded to the movement (if it could be called that) in Christianity Today and was mostly critical. The “young evangelicals” included most of the founders, editors and writers of The Post American—a magazine that evolved into Sojourners. (I read The Post American avidly during my seminary days in the 1970s.) These were evangelicals who embraced basic Christian orthodoxy and the “born again experience” but eschewed the trappings of traditional evangelicalism including an overly scholastic approach to theology, withdrawal from culture and social activism or attempts to force evangelical morality (especially sexual morality) on culture. Also among the young evangelicals were those affiliated with Reformed Journal which was dedicated to Kuyperian-type Calvinism.
I only mention the young evangelical phenomenon to say that every few years someone sits up and takes notice of something new and different stirring among evangelicals, especially young, somewhat disillusioned, disenchanted evangelicals, and says “Hey! Look, everybody! Guess what? Not all evangelicals are otherworldy, self-righteous snobs or culture warriors!” When will that message finally sink in? How many books does it take?
That was one of Randall Balmer’s messages in his PBS documentary series (based on his book of the same title) “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.” And it has been the message of many evangelical-watchers for decades. And yet, in spite of all that, when the mass media want to interview an “evangelical spokesman” they almost always turn to a neo-fundamentalist, culture-warring, self-appointed evangelical pontiff. Why do they rarely, if ever, call on… Rich Mouw, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Randall Balmer or even Tim Keller? The answer is simple: these people don’t provide the proof the media want that evangelicals are loud mouthed, obnoxious jerks and a danger to everyone’s freedom. (And don’t tell me it’s because they can’t speak in sound bytes; they all can and do when necessary.)
I’m not trying to dismiss Krattenmaker’s book as irrelevant or unworthy of attention. I’m just saying that it puts an old spotlight on a new crop of “different evangelicals.” But, there have always been “different evangelicals.” And they’re different from the media stereotype, not all that different from a large cadre of evangelicals who have never been represented by the conservative evangelical culture warriors.
Another point I’d like to make is that Krattenmaker’s “next generation of Christians” (“new evangelicals”) are not homogeneous; they are not a single tribe. Some of them are simply packaging fundamentalism differently, giving it a new, less offensive face. Some of them reject everything about fundamentalism including “winning the world for Jesus”—whether through evangelism or social transformation. Some of them are inspired by the Yoder-Hauerwas Anabaptist vision of the church as witness by means of being an alternative social order within the world. Some of them are inspired by left wing evangelical social activism. The two don’t mesh very well. On the surface they may seem to have some things in common—mainly rejection of old style conservative evangelicalism (whatever that is)—but below the surface very real and serious disagreements simmer.
One of those is how best to respond to the call for gay rights including same-sex marriage. Chapter Seven of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know is devoted largely to that issue. Krattenmaker demonstrates that at least some of his “new generation evangelicals” are open to 1) listening to gays’ demands for equality more sympathetically, and 2) fully supporting gay marriage. Again, however, is this really new? This discussion has been going on among evangelicals for many years. Way back in the early 1980s The Other Side’s founding editor John Alexander publicly supported gay rights. The Other Side was widely recognized as an evangelical publication (even if a “radical” one). And what about Virginia Mollenkott’s and Letha Scanzoni’s book Is the Homosexual My Neighbor? A Positive Christian View (1978)? If I’m not mistaken, the book was first published by an evangelical publisher (it is now published by HarperCollins). In any case, it made a huge splash among evangelicals because the authors were widely considered evangelicals (Mollenkott studied at Bob Jones University in the 1950s). I remember the book well—and the controversy surrounding it. Many evangelical reviewers agreed that it was time for conservative Christians to be more compassionate toward gays and to distinguish between having a “homosexual orientation” (acceptable if not normal) and “homosexual lifestyle” (not acceptable among Christians). My point is only that the conversation has been going on among evangelicals for a long time and there have always been (at least since 1978) evangelicals advocating for greater openness toward gays among Christians and in society.
Okay, some might say, but what’s new now is that there are gay groups on evangelical campuses such as Wheaton College. Let me tell you something. There have been gay groups on evangelical campuses for many years. I’ve been teaching in evangelical Christian colleges, universities and seminaries for a long time (31 years) and virtually every one of any size has had gay groups. Sure, they were underground, but they have existed for a long time—while their members are students. (Krattenmaker makes much of Wheaton’s openly gay alumni group “OneWheaton” and the college’s gentle approach to them, but I’m not convinced this is some kind of giant leap forward among evangelicals or a harbinger of a paradigm shift coming among evangelicals.)
My point is that this conversation about gay rights among evangelicals has been going on for a very long time—at least as long as I’ve been teaching in evangelical higher education. When I was editor of Christian Scholar’s Review in the 1990s the conversation was lively on evangelical Christian college campuses. During that time, the well-known “mainstream” evangelical college where I taught held many structured conversations about issues related to homosexuality and they always included voices defending gay rights and greater openness to gays among us. Sure, the college’s administration did not openly affirm gay rights or the normalcy of homosexuality, but many on the faculty did. And we had openly gay students. Calls for greater compassion for and civil conversations with gays are nothing new among evangelicals—that’s my point.
The Evangelicals You Don’t Know is a good book—as journalistic treatments of religion go. But its main flaw is myopia about progressive evangelicals. The new crop may look and sound different (new style), but they stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of evangelicals with the same basic concerns and mentalities (old substance). In my opinion, it is also flawed by its barely disguised (if at all) advocacy of issues like gay rights under the guise of reporting on new evangelical openness. The author’s opinions are often promoted through the mouths of progressive evangelicals he favors. So anyone picking it up to read, thinking it’s just objective reporting, will soon discover (but perhaps only after buying it) that the book is an advocacy piece.
Just last year The University of Pennsylvania Press published Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism by David R. Swartz. It’s an in depth, well-researched history of progressive evangelicalism (including much about John Alexander of The Other Side). For me, it’s a walk down memory lane. I can’t say I was “in the thick of it,” but I was strongly influenced by the people Swartz reports on. I bristle when I read or hear people 1) talking about “evangelicals” as a monolithic conservative bloc defined largely by right wing politics, and 2) talking and writing about progressive evangelicals as something new.