SSDD: If the evangelical mainstream wants me to view the religious right as marginal, then they should do more to marginalize the religious right

This is a repost from November of last year with only two minor changes: 1) the verbs referring to the late Chuck Colson are now past-tense; and 2) the link to Timothy Dalrymple’s complaint now refers to his most recent (and somewhat more constructive) iteration of that same complaint.

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Mainstream evangelicals generally do not identify with the tone and emphasis of the religious right. When people like me criticize the religious right, these mainstream evangelicals often complain that such criticisms overemphasize the influence of a vocal, but marginal, minority that does not represent the views of most evangelicals.

That’s the complaint voiced here by Timothy Dalrymple and repeated, ad nauseum, as a central organizing grievance of sites like Get Religion.

There are two very large problems with this complaint:

1) The religious right is not at all marginal — either within evangelicalism as a whole or within America as a whole; and

2) the religious right is, in fact, representative of mainstream evangelicalism.

Every year, the leadership of the Republican Party goes to speak at, to court, to be seen at and to appease the Values Voter Summit. This year, every GOP candidate for the party’s nomination for president spoke at the conference. They had no other option. To fail to show up and please that crowd would be to surrender any hope for securing the nomination.

And these candidates were not the ones calling the shots. The Values Voter Summit never features a so-called “Sister Souljah moment” in which a candidate distances himself or herself from the constituency represented there. The candidates and congressional leaders who speak there are enthusiastically obsequious. It is the religious right who defines the boundaries for what those candidates may say there — and for what they may say elsewhere on the campaign trail, or even in office — and not the other way around.

That doesn’t make the religious right an all-powerful cabal pulling the strings behind every move of the government or even behind every move of the Republican Party, but it’s absurd to speak of its influence as “marginal.” Specific groups or organizations that are part of the larger whole of the religious right may be more or less influential, but it’s just silly to try to hand-wave away the influence and importance of this group as inconsequential or as somehow less consequential than “mainstream evangelical” institutions like Christianity Today or Fuller Seminary.

The religious right is primarily a creature of media — radio, television, Internet, direct mail. It’s an incessant media machine that cranks out its message 24/7/365. That stuff reaches more people than anything coming out of the graying institutions of mainstream evangelicalism. And that stuff works — maybe not on everyone, but on a good-sized chunk of us. The religious right has a bigger budget, a higher platform, a louder megaphone than the evangelical mainstream. The “mainstream” pastor’s 40-minute weekly sermon is up against hours and hours of radio and cable TV programming, plus inboxes filled with daily email “alerts” and mailboxes filled with fundraising letters and emotional appeals. Those who would dismiss all of that as marginal or inconsequential are simply out of touch with the media world that evangelicals are swimming in during the hours they’re not in church.

One could make a good case that the religious right is far more influential within evangelicalism as a whole than any given set of more mainstream, “representative” institutions. I won’t try to make that case because I don’t think it matters which has the greater influence, given that both are influencing evangelicals in the same direction. The supposedly more typical and representative institutions of the evangelical mainstream do not disagree with the substance or content of the religious right’s agenda, only with its tone and its emphasis. Chuck Colson [was] both a leading figure of the religious right and a columnist for Christianity Today. His agenda [was] shared by both groups and so they share[d] his services as well.

The supposed distinction between the “not-hyper-politicized” mainstream evangelicals and the religious right parallels the supposed distinction between the mainstream “Republican establishment” and talk-radio bomb-throwers like Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh’s tone and his tendency toward outrageous statements may make the GOP establishment uncomfortable, but they don’t disagree with him in general. And if they ever do disagree with him on some particular detail, they’d never dare do so publicly. He exerts a pull and an influence on them, but they do not exert any such pull or influence on him.

And this is what ultimately makes the claim that the religious right is “marginal” such utter hogwash. The leaders of the religious right are not marginal in mainstream evangelicalism because they are never marginalized. The very occasional, timid clarification of “well, now, most of us wouldn’t put it quite that way …” is not the same as a denunciation. And mainstream evangelicalism will never denounce even the Liar Tony Perkins or any of the other egregious charlatans of the religious right. They will never denounce them because they are afraid of them. And they will never denounce them because, for the most part, they agree with them.

The religious right is not representative of the broader mainstream of evangelicalism, we are told, but this claim is almost never backed up with an explanation of how it is they differ in substance rather than just in style. The religious right, meanwhile, is constantly using its massive media megaphone to assert that it does represent all evangelicals everywhere. And that assertion stands unchallenged by any full-throated, substantial denial.

The longer mainstream evangelicals wait to make such a denial, the more aggressive and vehement it will need to be. After decades of mealy-mouthed complacency, it will take something dramatic to provide the requisite shock to the system. Maybe a CT cover, all black, with white block letters reading, “STFU Tony Perkins, You Do Not Speak For Us.”

If I see a cover like that, then I will believe that Perkins is a marginal figure because I will have seen him marginalized.

That, of course, will never happen. But barring such a bold stroke, the only other hope would be the sort of incremental marginalization that Conor Friedersdorf argues that the conservative establishment ought to be applying to Rush Limbaugh.

Again, that relationship is precisely parallel to the one between the religious right and the evangelical mainstream. The conservative establishment complains when it is caricatured as nothing more than the obnoxious attitudes and wisecracks of Rush Limbaugh, but as Friedersdorf notes, this complaint rings hollow when they have allowed — and enjoyed — his ascendancy as their primary spokesperson. The conservative complaints Friedersdorf summarizes precisely parallel the “mainstream evangelical” complaints voiced by Dalrymple and by Get Religion.

The solution to their complaint is not to get everyone else to pretend that the religious right is of no consequence. The solution to their complaint is to speak up for themselves in the way that Friedersdorf prescribes:

There is a larger point to be made than the old news that [Rush Limbaugh] says indefensible things. In that spirit, I’d like to conclude this post by remarking on Limbaugh’s corrupting influence. We’ve witnessed more than enough controversies like this, where no one is willing to defend the talk radio host’s words, to know his public character and effect on political discourse. We’re not talking about a couple slip ups for which he’s apologized and should be forgiven. The man willfully traffics in odious commentary and has for years and years.

Shame on him, but that isn’t where it ends. George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush ought to be embarrassed that they invited Limbaugh to the White House.  The Claremont Institute, whose work I often respect, ought to be mortified that they sullied their Statesmanship Award by bestowing it upon Limbaugh. Shame on National Review for celebrating one of conservatism’s most controversial figures in a symposium. … Shame on The Heritage Foundation for sponsoring Limbaugh’s radio show, and on the Media Research Center and Human Events for honoring Limbaugh’s excellence … and the list goes on, including the millions of people who support his radio show because they agree with Limbaugh’s ideology, even though they’d be outraged if a liberal trafficked in similarly poisonous rhetoric.

Many conservatives complain, with good reason, when they’re caricatured as racially insensitive purveyors of white anxiety politics who traffic in absurd, paranoid attacks on their political opponents. Yet many of the most prominent brands in the conservative movement elevate a man guilty of those exact things as a “statesman” whose civility and humility ought to inspire us! In doing so, they’ve created a monster, one who knows that so long as his ratings stay high, he can say literally anything and be feted as an intellectual and moral role model. So the outrages arrive at predictable intervals. And Americans hear about them and think badly of the right.

Movement conservatives, if you seek integrity in American life, if you seek civility, if you seek converts, tear down this man’s lies! He hasn’t any integrity or self respect left to lose. But you do.

If you want to be seen as separate and distinct from the religious right, then separate and distinguish yourself from the religious right. If you want the religious right to be regarded as marginal, then marginalize them. Tear down their lies.

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  • JustoneK


  • Todd Sweeney


    I just heard another of those “discussions” where every complaint about biblical literalism or fundie frothing was met by “But, hey, not only are many Christians reasonable people, that stuff you point at isn’t even in the Bible.”

    So what?  I don’t care about the hypothetical oh-so-careful-and-nice Bible interpretation done in the privacy of some home.  I’m asking about why I can’t marry, hold office, why the local school science program is in trouble, why medical research is being squashed…

  • If you want to be seen as separate and distinct from the religious right, then separate and distinguish yourself from the religious right.

    Yup, precisely this.
    And sometimes this can be done simply by clearly articulating one’s beliefs.

  • LL

    Hmm, wonder what inspired this post (Fred’s). 

    I work in advertising. And one thing we tell clients that sounds like bullshit but is absolutely true is that if you don’t define yourself (market your message, in other words), someone else will do it for you. And you probably won’t like how they do it. 

    I admire truth and accuracy. Every time bullshit gets disseminated and passed along as if it’s valuable information, it makes me  mad (I have to avoid a lot of news to not be mad every second of every day). But when it comes to PR, it unfortunately often doesn’t matter what the truth is. 

    Decent Christians and conservatives can bitch all the livelong day about how unfair it is that they are lumped in with the likes of Limbaugh and Pat Robertson, but that’s the perception by everybody who isn’t Christian and/or conservative. Because you people have let the assholes take over and define all of you. When you let them flood the school boards and city councils and state legislatures with assholes like Inhofe and that Akin idiot because you can’t be bothered to vote in all those unimportant elections that happen more than once every 4 years, you’re letting them do it. 

    And also: join the club. Women, gay people, black people, Latino people, atheists all know what it’s like to have inaccurate, hurtful stereotypes presented as if they are the truth. 

    But if you’re waiting for the assholish elements of Christianity and conservatives to a) admit that they’re terrible people and b) stop saying/doing assholish things, you’re gonna wait a long damn time. THEY don’t think there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing. 

    If you want to show that most conservatives or Christians aren’t terrible people, prove it. Start voting the assholes out of office. Inhofe has been winning elections in Oklahoma since 1978, for fuck’s sake, so he can’t really be blamed for concluding that he must be doing something right. 

    Stop going to churches led by people who say terrible things about other people that aren’t true. Stop watching Fox News. You don’t even have to replace it with other TV news, almost all TV news is shit. Fox is just a little worse than most. 

  • LL

    RE  The “mainstream” pastor’s 40-minute weekly sermon is up against hours and hours of radio and cable TV programming, plus inboxes filled with daily email “alerts” and mailboxes filled with fundraising letters and emotional appeals. Those who would dismiss all of that as marginal or inconsequential are simply out of touch with the media world that evangelicals are swimming in during the hours they’re not in church.

    Holy crap, this. Just today, I’ve seen 4 email “blasts” (they’re those fancy-looking email messages that go to lists of recipients every month) that one of our clients sends all the time (not a religious institution, but a recognizable one, I can’t name them for obvious reasons). They do tons of direct mail, too. It is an everyday thing, not just every four years. And of course they have numerous websites, updated daily. It is a constant effort on our part to make sure people can’t overlook the message or forget it. Much more effective than online petitions.

  • What you seem to be saying is: if you don’t want to be associated with these people, then feel free to disassociate yourself.

  • otming

    I got the Wheaton (Illinois, of course) Alumni Magazine a couple of days ago.
    You can look at it here:

    On p. 5 there is a photo of the Board of Trustees. Of the 15 people in it, exactly 3 are women. And look where they are positioned in the photo, on the bottom and at the edges.

    Even the most intellectually ambitious school in the Evangelical mainstream is, as far as women are concerned, far, far to the right.

    It’s hard to find the following statistic. I had to do math based on the numbers Wheaton does reveal (not on its webpage, of course). The number of African-American students at Wheaton seems to be about 2.7%. I have no idea where African and black West Indian students are counted. I got what facts I could here: (way at the bottom) and here:

    So, as far as African Americans are concerned, the Evangelical mainstream school so  proud of its abolitionist roots is far, far to the right.

    On both these counts, nothing has changed since I was a student 40 years ago. I remember coming back from Washington, D.C., for my little sister’s Wheaton graduation and crying because it was still an all-white sea of faces.

    To deny the equality and contributions of people based on their gender and skin color or culture is a terrible thing. To model for generations of impressionable young people that it’s o.k. to effectively silence women and deny opportunities to learn to people with darker skin is even more terrible. To do all that “For Christ and His Kingdom” is … I just don’t have the words for it.

    That is why my child attended a state university and why, when we do attend church, it is a plain-vanilla Episcopalian one. No way was he going to learn on my watch that God is in any way responsible for the diminishment of all kinds of people that is the hallmark of the religious right and the Evangelical/fundamentalist/Anabaptist/theologically orthodox American Protestants that consider them their brethren in Christ.

    And, yes, of course, people who are homosexual are diminished, too, but I don’t have ready stats on that.

  • LL

    If Christians want to know what they can do, here’s an idea (should be the very first picture):

  • Water_Bear

    Great post, very true, and not just applicable to Christians.

    I know 90% of you already know this, but this is a really really common issue when dealing with power imbalances between groups. Whenever an issue of comes up where people in [marginalized group] are being treated horrendously, liberal [dominant group] people jump up and down saying it has nothing to do with them, how they aren’t like those other people, and how most [dominant group] are really nice awesome tolerant people but those bad apples give the rest of them a bad name. Hell, I’ve done it myself quite frequently in the past.

    But the thing is, being a member of [dominant group] gives them a lot more power to change the dialog, and as a recipient of privilege it’s their responsibility to use that power responsibly and without expectation of cookies or NALT status. A [marginalized group] person who brings these issues up is ignored as an ungrateful radical, but as a fellow [dominant group] person has the ability to actual talk to their fellows and educate them. 

    So yeah, no cookies for not being Fundies. Not even for Fred, he’s still making up a cookie debt in my book.

  • jamesprobis

     Unfortunately, the Marin foundation has ties to the ex-gay movement:

    This is one reason it is so hard for us to take Christians at face value when they talk about how much they support equality…

  • So yeah, no cookies for not being Fundies. Not even for Fred, he’s still making up a cookie debt in my book.

    Well, I wouldn’t say cookie debt. The point is that cookies are neither carrot nor stick, that one doesn’t receive rewards for acting in a decent manner because a minimum standard of decency is automatically expected. Fred at least meets that standard, because he acts personally with decency and charity, and he acts politically (especially in his speech to address and deconstruct such matters) with decency and charity to the unfortunate as well, or at least without malice.

    Sure, no special rewards just for being not-horrible to others, but if Fred was around when I decided to make or buy cookies anyway, then I’d still offer them to him. (Metaphorical and literal cookies. I bake a lot these days, except in summer.) That’s the real carrot and stick here – whether people will like you enough to include you in the things they’re already doing.

  •  The Marin Foundation notwithstanding, I’ve been following the blog of one of the  guys involved in that incident since it happened, and generally am convinced of his personal sincerity when it comes to treating gay folk as people.

     Which might not matter at all to anyone else, but was worth something to me.

  • Water_Bear

    Fair enough. I’ll amend my comment.

    So what kinds of cookies do you make? My mom was a professional baker, but unfortunately all I can make with any skill are Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies.

  • Mostly just variations on chocolate chip (peanut butter chips, butterscotch chips, mixed, whatever), simply because of familiarity and general popularity, though oatmeal raisin are on the agenda for Christmas distribution this year. Occasionally I pick up something new to try, like recent forays into bread-making. Also going to make some of these Mr. Saturn cookies ( ) and want to, sometime soon, put together some unicorn poop ( ).

  • Münchner Kindl

    If you want to be seen as separate and distinct from the religious right, then separate and distinguish yourself from the religious right. If you want the religious right to be regarded as marginal, then marginalize them. Tear down their lies.

    Fred, it would help if  you would describe what methods a normal Christian can use to be heard as different voice. As you have described it, even the non-evangelical owned/influenced media are so conditioned to accept every extreme voice as representative (and not bother with real reporting).

    What is there besides writing letters to the editor (which might not be published), and maybe showing up with pro-gay signs at demos?

    A single Christian can’t even change his own congregation – they need to convince a majority, or leave for another church.

  •  > A single Christian can’t even change his own congregation – they need to convince a majority, or leave for another church.

    The thing is, a single Christian can change their congregation: from one where bigoted things get said and done without any challenge, to one where bigoted things are sometimes challenged when they get said and done.

    Sometimes that makes a difference. Certainly, I know my reaction to a congregation where the officiant gives a sermon about how evil queers are and everyone sort of sits there is different from my reaction to a congregation where even one person gets up and pointedly walks out during that sermon.

    The difference between zero visibly safe people in a room and one visibly safe person is sometimes life-changing.

    And sometimes it makes a much bigger difference than that. It’s not uncommon for 10% of the group to be uncomfortable with what’s going on, but saying/doing nothing about it because it’s equally uncomfortable to call attention to ourselves, but where if someone did something they would be far more comfortable doing something themselves. And my reaction to a congregation where 10% of the group gets up and walks out during that sermon is very different to one where nobody does.

  • Münchner Kindl

     I wasn’t thinking of a congregation where it’s so bad that a decent person has to walk out; I was thinking of the normal, average church where the NALT Christian goes. The one Fred described as having a pastor normal enough that his 40 minute sermon is different from the hate-spew from the evangelical/fundie/right-wing media.

    But how do you get an average NALT congregation to move far enough to hang up a rainbow flag and actually, activly accept people (as one church did, Fred linked to it last week or so)? How does the average NALT get the whole group to attend a demo with pro-gay signs?

    Theoretically, a lot of protestant churches are democratic, that is, power is with the congregation, not the authoritarian hierarchy like in RCC. Practically, it’s not a normal democracy because there are no different parties with positions they advocate, and besides voting every couple of years for the church council, a single NALT christian can’t move the agenda or change the church laws directly. (I don’t even know about petitions, though in the political world these are useless and brushed aside, too).


    But how do you get an average NALT congregation to move far enough to
    hang up a rainbow flag and actually, activly accept people (as one
    church did, Fred linked to it last week or so)?

    I should think the first step is to attend the meetings where decisions about what to hang get made, and establish myself as a legitimate contributor to that group who is interested in being part of the life of the congregation (I presume here that I actually am interested).

    A next step might be to stand up and say “Hey, I think we should hang up a rainbow flag, and here’s why.”

    As I implied earlier, the group will probably say “no,” but much like the guy walking out of a hateful sermon, the fact that someone stood up for inclusiveness is in and of itself a step in the direction of inclusiveness.

    How does the average
    NALT get the whole group to attend a demo with pro-gay signs? 

    One way might be to announce at a group meeting that I’m planning to attend that demo wearing my Member of Group T-shirt and waving a pro-gay sign, and that if anyone else wants to join me they should contact me after the meeting. If there are enough of us we can maybe have breakfast together first, it’ll be fun.

    As above, I should expect to attend the first few demos alone.

    More generally, the first step is to model the behavior I deem desirable.

    In some circles this is known as being the change we want to see in the world.

  • Beverly Kurtin

    Oh, how grateful that I am not a Christian of any stripe. It is my opinion that Christianity  was built and spread by Paul, a man who never saw Jesus face-to-face who based the mythology of various human beings who were supposedly born of a virgin, made unpopular remarks and eventually was murdered but rose from the dead and was declared as god.  There is NOTHING in Christianity that jibes with the scriptures of the Jews. NOTHING!  God said that no man can die for another, Christianity blithely ignores that part of God’s words.  In fact, Christianity ignores EVERYTHING about sin and salvation.  Christianity preaches about a HELL that a person must be saved from. The only problem is that there is no hell…it was a Greek invention.
    Yes, I am thankful that I am not a Christian, like Jesus I worship the ONE God he spoke of when he said, in response to the question, “What is the most important command” said, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is ONE.” He continued “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

    In other words, Jesus never claimed to BE God. Yet, being an Essene, he referred to the “Sefrot” or lines of contact with God at all times.  So when he said, “The father and I are one,” he was talking that ALL believers are connected to God.

    I love all people as commanded.  But I am certainly grateful that I am not a Christian because that means that I don’t have to judge anyone.