Review of The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians by Tom Krattenmaker

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.

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  • Jack Harper

    Roger, It’s hard to distinguish one group of Christians as Evangelical and who is not, because the line is faded so to speak. As I have read your blog, I noticed that explaining who is Evangelical is a not always as easy as we would like. To those who are more open to gay acceptance, we call progressive, to those who oppose the gay life style we call conservative. However, I have worked in San Fransisco witnessing to homosexuals about the love of Christ and it never occurred to me that I was progressive or conservative, but a believer in what Christ has done and to share that message with anyone who would listen. I wonder if we cloud the issues with the titles we put on our belief system. I know that Christians are not always viewed fairly and like you stated: some self-appoint representative usually gives the rest of us a black eye. Anyway what to do?

    • rogereolson

      Krattenmaker’s definition of “evangelical” is anyone who holds to basic Protestant orthodoxy (broadly defined) and believes in a born again experience. He’s also talking about people who function within the broad evangelical movement sociologically defined. Nowhere does he use the gay issue as a litmus test for whether someone is “new evangelical;” he seems to think someone is progressively evangelical if they aren’t out there denouncing gays or homosexuality as the worst of all sins.

    • rogereolson

      Krattenmaker’s definition of “evangelical” is anyone who holds to basic Protestant orthodoxy (broadly defined) and believes in a born again experience. He’s also talking about people who function within the broad evangelical movement sociologically defined. Nowhere does he use the gay issue as a litmus test for whether someone is “new evangelical;” he seems to think someone is progressively evangelical if they aren’t out there denouncing gays or homosexuality as the worst of all sins

  • Lois Tverberg

    You’ve put your finger on something that I’ve often noticed. Whenever secular writers write about religious cultures, they see it as a good thing to “compliment” positive figures by saying that they’ve rejected fundamental tenets of the group that the author finds noxious. Nowadays, I automatically assume this will be the case, and am surprised if it’s not. If I read an interview with a pastor by the secular press, I assume that if a reporter is trying to portray the pastor in what he or she sees as a positive light, they will tend to make the pastor sound as “progressive” as possible, and perhaps more so than they actually are.

  • Amen to the last paragraph. Sounds like you have a new book project to undertake this summer for a fall publication date! 🙂

    • rogereolson

      I don’t think so! I have to create the index of my forthcoming book The Journey of Modern Theology (IVP) and then I have two other book contracts. This one (that you suggest) will have to wait. Someone else should write it.

  • ps… when you do, don’t forget the process ppl

    • rogereolson

      What does “ppl” mean?

      • ppl = cell text & facebook terminology for “people.” sorry for the shorthand!

        • rogereolson

          I’m still learning technological shorthand! Thanks.

  • Steve Rogers

    I suspect there is a geographic component to this conversation. So called “new evangelicals” are much more visible, I think, in academic and metropolitan locales which tend to be less threatened by progressive thinkers. While we exist in unknown numbers elsewhere such as here in the agricultural heartland, there are strong cultural forces that keep many from distinguishing themselves from the fundamentalist milieu. The pressure to remain closeted in the the old excluding, dogmatic, politically conservative, militaristic, values warrior community is applied by dominant churches, talk radio and extended family structures. As you know, anyone who dares to dissent faces a coordinated strong rebuke from the conservative establishment.

    • rogereolson

      So true. I could write another blog post about the mix I see in Krattenmaker’s “new evangelicals” movement. Some of them are just fundamentalists (or neo-fundamentalists) with good manners and hip styles. They’ll be tolerated by the hard core neo-fundamentalist leaders who will look at what they believe about: homosexuality (even if they treat gays nicely so long as they don’t go any further), abortion, open theism, inclusivism, etc., etc.–the laundry list of current litmus tests for evangelical orthodoxy. Those who dare to question the party line on any of those and many more issues will be marginalized and then excluded and will eventually stop calling themselves “evangelicals.” They’ll call themselves “post-evangelicals” or something. I think Krattenmaker and many other outsiders have trouble seeing these dynamics within the evangelical subculture. They look mostly at style, not substance.

      • Jesse

        “homosexuality, abortion, open theism, inclusivism, etc., etc.–the laundry list of current litmus tests for evangelical orthodoxy.” It’s really sad that those are the issues that people use to define evangelical orthodoxy. I would probably include the hell debate.

        • Jesse

          *and creation vs evolution and biblical authority. I guess the list could go on and on

  • Thanks for the review Roger. I agree with you that there’s quite a bit of myopia with books like this. As you say, progressive evangelicals have been around for a long time, and the current crop (of which I am a part) do indeed stand on the shoulders of those who went before. In fact, that’s a large part of what my own doctoral dissertation about the roots of the emergent movement will be attempting to show.

    At the same time, I don’t think Krattenmaker is necessarily wrong to see something unique in what is going on these days – though I think the difference is probably in quantity rather than quality. As I will also be trying to show in my dissertation, there are MORE evangelicals now than there have been in previous decades that are moving in a “progressive” direction on various issues. Social justice issues in particular are far more visible and “mainstream” now than they have ever been. What was a marginalized, minority report in the 70s, 80s, and 90s has now been moved front and center in the evangelical movement. I won’t clutter up your blog with examples and statistics to prove my point… though I could. For instance, I recently did a survey of editorial articles in Christianity Today over the past 25 years, and calculated a statistically significant shift in the number of editorials devoted to social justice issues since 2004. But that’s just one example among many I could point to.

    • rogereolson

      So you’re the one who should write the book (recommended by another commenter)! But, Mike…do you call yourself and evangelical or a post-evangelical? 🙂 I just don’t know how to quantify these things. I just remember the heady days of the 1970s when there were many outspoken young evangelicals making a lot of noise about evangelicals being more progressive–especially in social issues. Remember (from your research) Ron Sider and the ESA? The Post American? The Other Side? Books like Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger? I could go on. My interpretation is that what happened is this: progressive evangelical voices (like Tony Campolo) got swamped and harder to hear in all the noise about the “religious right” throughout the 1980s and 1990s (and beyond). But we’ve been there all along–primarily, perhaps, on evangelical campuses. I agree that Christianity Today has become more progressive on social issues–especially with regard to poverty and human trafficking and such. But not, I think, on abortion or homosexuality. I’ve often mentioned Eternity magazine. When I look back into my bound volumes (early to mid 1970s) I see a lot of chatter in its pages about peace, poverty, women’s equality, etc. I also wonder if Krattenmaker isn’t overlooking (I hope you’re not) a divide among his “new evangelicals” when it comes to substance. It’s easy to look at hair styles, clothes, drinking beer, talking nice to atheists and gays, etc., and overlook deeper attitudes and commitments. I wonder how many of those he labels “new evangelicals” (and other things) are really progressives in terms of beliefs? It’s one thing to be nice to people you think are going to hell and its another thing to revise your beliefs about who is going to hell and why.

      • I want to sit down and talk with you about this sometime Roger. I agree with what you said about the progressive evangelicals of the 1970s getting drowned out by the Religious Right in the 80s and 90s. And I think you are right on to point out that most of them ended up settling in Christian higher education where they were able to wield a significant influence on my generation, planting the seeds that would flower in the current revival of interest in progressive issues. But yes, without having read Krattenmaker’s book yet, I also agree that much of what folks like him end up calling “progressive” often turns out to be mere style rather than substance. And where actual substantial change does exist among evangelicals, those very folks are often the ones who get pushed out of the evangelical movement anyway. Emergents like myself are case in point.

        So to answer your question, yes, these days I tend to call myself a post-evangelical, though that’s usually just because I feel like I’ve been pushed out by the evangelical gatekeepers and I don’t want to fight about it. I still have many evangelical sensibilities, and could probably still pass for one on a more generous definition. (Most of my mainline liberal friends, for instance, still think of me as an evangelical; and the mainline liberal seminary that hired me to teach next spring did so in part because they wanted an “evangelical” perspective in the position.) But on the other hand, if the less generous evangelical gatekeepers would prefer that I not associate with them any more I’m happy to let them have the word and call myself something else. It’s not that important to me. Not interested in staying where I’m not wanted.

        • rogereolson

          By all means, let me know when you come here and let’s do lunch or something. I don’t recognize anyone has having the authority or power to push someone out of evangelicalism. After all, it’s not a movement anymore. And even when it was, there was no magisterium. If you have “evangelical sensibilities” you have a right to call yourself evangelical regardless of what any self-appointed gatekeepers say about you. I’m in the same situation, of course, with Al Mohler and some other self-appointed evangelical pontiffs declaring me not evangelical. They don’t get to decide that.

      • J.E. Edwards

        I do understand and agree with you comment,
        “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).”
        However, we must also distinguish between foolish experimental acts and homosexuality becoming a lifestyle. I’m sure I’m on the more “fundamentalistic” side of this argument. It is a terrible thing when a church leader, pastor, et al blesses this lifestyle when all of the evidence in Scripture points the other direction. I would definitely say blessing homosexuality as a lifestyle distinctly disqualifies a person from being an evangelical. It’s not a matter of being a litmus test. Scripture is the litmus test, modern culture isn’t.

  • Queebedeaux’s Young Evangelicals was enormously influential on me. When I first became an evangelical Christian in the late seventies this book functioned as a travel guide helping me find other young evangelicals that in a pre-internet age would have otherwise been impossible for me to locate. I took a Greyhoud bus to California and travelled from Fuller Theological Seminary up the coast to San Francisco and the people at New College discovering one branch of a network that continued to nurture my spiritual life for the next forty years. I travelled to DC to visit Sojourners and evnetually wound up in Chicago at Reba Place where I’ve been for the past 25 years. Queebedeaux’s categories weren’t important to me, the accuracy of any distinctions he made was insignificant, I had no concern for any hidden agenda he might be concealing. All that mattered to me was that his book could be used to help me find an alternative evangelical community that kept me connected, rooted, and growing in the faith.

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t travel as much, but the book also energized me in a similar way–to believe I could remain evangelical at a crucial time when I was wondering if that would be possible. Thank God I landed at Bethel College in Minnesota where progressive evangelicalism (much to some pastors’ and seminary professors’ chagrin) was flourishing. Then came the hammer down and I had to leave. But I’m convinced that progressive evangelicals have been around for a long time (e.g., Jack Rogers and his book Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical which was supposed to be titled Confessions of a Postconservative Evangelical) and still are. And some of us are old and not “hip” by today’s evangelical youth culture standards.

  • Rene

    I’m always curious about statements like the following:

    “They are Christians who are rooted in the orthodox beliefs of evangelical Christianity and who are fiercely devoted to Jesus…”

    In my experience, most evangelicals have no idea what those beliefs consist of. While they can converse at the level of talking points, they really have no idea where to find corroborating evidence from God’s word.

    So, what does being “rooted” actually mean? Are they really “fiercely” devoted to Jesus because their sins are forgiven, or is He just another cause celeb? I’m not sure I understand who these people really are. Are they disciples or part of he crowd that will eventually filter away?

    • Roger Olson

      I think Krattenmaker was referring to disciples. The ones he mentions are all knowledgeable about the faith.