L.B.: 60 Minutes falls asleep in church

"How many home runs did the quarterback shoot?"

That's the sort of question 60 Minutes might ask if they began covering sports with the same contextless, ignorant approach they sometimes take on matters of religion.

Amy Sullivan of Politicalaims has already commented on how 60 Minutes on Sunday confused evangelicals with fundamentalists, and thus totally distorted what Peter Gomes of Harvard had to say about the former by making it look like he was talking about the latter.

Morley Safer reported that evangelical Christians seem to have some kind of influence on the Republican Party. To anyone who's been alive and awake in America for the last three decades, this is old news. What was particularly strange about Safer's report was the way he seemed to think he had a hot scoop.

Poor Safer was out of his depth. He was not sure what an evangelical is, or who to ask about it, or how to evaluate what they told him. Safer came across as befuddled and asea — the second-most embarrassing appearance on a news show this Sunday.

Howard Dean was widely criticized for putting the book of Job in the New Testament and for generally having a tin ear for matters of faith. But compared to Safer, Dean comes across like Jesse Jackson.

Safer's reporting on religion has the treacherous naivete of a babe in the woods — or of a Paul Wolfowitz in Iraq. Like the Pentagon's Wolfowitz, Safer relies heavily on the distorted impression he gleans from unreliable fringe leaders. Safer's Chalabian native guides are none other than our old friends Timothy LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the co-authors of the heretical Left Behind series of apocalyptic fiction, which may well be the Worst Books Ever Written.

Reporting on evangelical Christians shouldn't be that hard. Others have done it well. A simple Google search would have turned up scores of articles that might have pointed Safer to reliable, knowledgeable, mainstream native guides to this strange world of evangelicaldom. Steven Waldman of Beliefnet; the editorial boards of Christianity Today and Books & Culture magazines; Mark Noll, George Marsden and Nathan Hatch — the prolific, go-to historians on the subject; Martin Marty — the prolific, go-to historian on any part of American religion; PBS-favorite Randall Balmer; Edith Blumhofer of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College; seminary president Richard Mouw or pretty much anyone at Fuller Theological Seminary; church historian and Calvin College provost Joel Carpenter; Luis Lugo, Carpenter's successor at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life; John Green et al — the premier number-crunchers of American Protestantism; George Barna; George Gallup

Any of these folks could have spared Morley Safer and 60 Minutes from the embarrassing, classic blunder of the clueless outsider — mistaking the charismatic fringe voice for a representative of the majority.

Instead — in a step that unwittingly parallels the market-driven ecclesiastical structure that afflicts too much of the evangelical church — Safer just assumes that the authors of some best-selling books must be representative, legitimate and authoritatively orthodox.

Tim LaHaye has a substantial following (as does his wife, Beverly) in the fundamentalist world, but he has never been considered a representative of mainstream evangelicalism. Even by the loopy standards of the apocalyptic, premillennial dispensationalist branch of the evangelical family, LaHaye is a fringe figure compared to, say, the folks at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Let's put this bluntly, in the terms of an SAT-style analogy.

Tim LaHaye:evangelicalism :: Lyndon LaRouche:Democratic Party

Imagine a network news report on the Democratic Party based entirely on the perspective of LaRouche and a handful of his adherents and you'll get an idea of why Safer's report is upsetting to us evangelical types.

Of course, a lot of evangelicals probably didn't see this on 60 Minutes. The show airs Sunday evenings — prayer meeting time.

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  • pablo

    If you’ve got a problem with the way evangelicals are portrayed your problem should be with the LaHayes for hijacking the term, and not with Safer for not knowing better. When I hear the term evangelical I think fundamentalist christofacist too.

  • Seeresvelvet

    Two things stike me as I read your words … and, no, one of them isn’t lightning … The first thing is that much of what you say is based on criticisms of what others are saying and /or doing. hmmm What are you say or doing that is constructive?
    Secondly, Your thoughts do not demonstrate much discriminatory thought. Most of your words are borrowed from others indirectly, if not directly … Old news.
    It is fine to anti this or that, but is it not more constructive in the long run to be FOR something? Spending time tearing down vs. time building … Seems you don’t mind taking advantage of the freedom others died to buy for you … =)
    Try presenting a fresh new perspective …yours? Just a thought …

  • Scott Cattanach

    “It is fine to anti this or that, but is it not more constructive in the long run to be FOR something? Spending time tearing down vs. time building … Seems you don’t mind taking advantage of the freedom others died to buy for you … =)”
    Um, the slackster isn’t exactly spitting on every grave in Arlington by critisizing a 60 minutes piece.

  • Fred

    Gee, I kinda thought providing more than 15 sources for journalists to improve their religion coverage was being *for* something …

  • Silencia

    Um…pardon my naivete, but I have always believed that the reason people willingly sacrifice themselves in the name of freedom is precisely *so that* others can enjoy the freedom won through their sacrifice. Ideally, anyway.
    I can hardly imagine a Nathan Hale saying, “Give me liberty or give me death! …and by the way, after I’m dead, if anyone tries to take advantage of their liberty by saying things I wouldn’t like, give THEM death too!”

  • Chris

    Nathan Hale didn’t say that. Patrick Henry did. Hale said, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” The point remains the same.

  • zenjohn

    I have to admit that I, too, am ignorant of the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelist. All fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalist? Please advise.

  • Donald Johnson

    If an ordinary person doesn’t know the difference between an evangelical and a fundie, that’s no big deal. (There isn’t a sharp distinction–evangelicals gradually morph into fundies by adding increasing doses of obnoxiousness.)
    It’s a major problem if a prominent journalist does a story on them and hasn’t done enough research to know the difference. Because, you know, that’s his job.

  • charles

    60 Minutes has a long history of misunderstanding or distorting religious topics. I quit watching that program more than a decade ago when a story entirely misrepresented my denomination, the United Methodist church. i figured if the reporters and producers could so thoroughly distort, falsify, and misrepresent a religious story I knew something about, there was no telling the extent to which they would go to shade, stage, or outright fabricate any “news” story they purported to cover. It was no longer worth my precious time to watch–and I haven’t. Seems like they haven’t gotten better with age.

  • A Texan in Maryland

    Evangelicals are a large, varied group of Christians. It is possible to be a liberal, open-minded Evangelical Christian. There are Evangelicals participating harmoniously in just about every Christian denomination, but seem to be concentrated in the Southern Baptist churches and in the United Methodist Church. They tend to favor less-formal worship services.
    Fundamentalists are a smaller, mostly overlapping group. I have yet to meet a liberal, open-minded Christian who would be considered completely right in belief by very many Fundamentalists.
    “Fundamentalist” is actually a relatively-recent term, taken from the title of a series of books setting the doctrine to paper in the late 1800’s (I think), The Fundamentals. I’ll try to find you guys more info on this. The mechanics of salvation as proposed in The Fundamentals are also a relatively recent innovation, more on that later as well.

  • MJ

    Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I’ve known a few of both. :-) My understanding, which has developed mostly through geographical osmosis but also through attending several non-denominational charismatic churches for a couple of years (I like to refer to it as “my misspent youth”), is that evangelicals range across several Christian denominations and quite a few non-denominational churches. Fundamentalists can do that also, but most of them stick to a couple of the big ones or their own brand of non-denominationalism.
    Fundamentalists of whatever religion believe that the word of their particular god is literal–they’re the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” crowd. They also tend to believe that their particular interpretation of the word of their particular god is the only right one, and that all others are incorrect, probably to a sinful extent.
    The Christian evangelicals I’ve known are not necessarily fundamentalists; they might accept, and even relish, that much of religious teaching is symbolic, or open to interpretation. What makes them evangelical is that they believe in spreading the word–evangelizing–to other people. They don’t necessarily try to convert you, although in my experience they’re usually hoping that you’ll come around eventually.
    I’ve generally found that evangelicals are exceptionally positive people (if a little heavy on the Jesus-speak sometimes for my taste) and I usually like being around them as long as the conversation doesn’t turn to politics or reproductive rights, which I typically disagree with them on. Even there, most of them I’ve known have been at least open to the idea that others might have a different opinion than their own.
    Fundamentalists don’t get that at all. I try to avoid them, which is easier here in the north than it was in the south–except for the Catholic fundamentalists, of course. But that’s for another post. :-)

  • William Wilson

    To be fair, the problem may not be with Morley Safer. So many of these news “magazines” on television today are written by the producers you see identified at the beginning of a piece. The on-air talent (using that term loosely) has regularly been reduced to reading the lines written for him or her by someone else.

  • David

    This is pedantic, but it was Nathan Hale, not Patrick Hale, and the exact quote is: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

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  • ihavenomouth

    No one said it was Patrick Hale. But I’m glad you included the link to the Wiki– interesting information about the quote itself being merely a paraphrase…