‘Mainstream’ evangelicals criticize critics of the religious right (part 3)

If you’re on the pastoral staff of a medium-sized or larger evangelical church, then you’re familiar with what David Frum calls Fox Geezer Syndrome:

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been keeping track of a trend among friends around my age (late thirties to mid-forties). Eight of us (so far) share something in common besides our conservatism: a deep frustration over how our parents have become impossible to take on the subject of politics. Without fail, it turns out that our folks have all been sitting at home watching Fox News Channel all day – especially Glenn Beck’s program.

Used to be I would call my mom and get updated on news from the neighborhood, her garden, the grandchildren, hometown gossip, and so forth. I’ve always been interested in politics, but never had the occasion to talk about them with her. She just doesn’t care.

Or didn’t. I don’t know when it happened, exactly, but she began peppering our conversation with red-hot remarks about President Obama. I would try to engage her, but unless I shared her particular judgment, and her outrage, she apparently thought that I was a dupe or a RINO. Finally I asked my father privately why Mom, who as far as I know never before had a political thought, was so worked up about Obama all the time.

“She’s been like that ever since she started watching Glenn Beck,” Dad said.

A few months later, she roped him into watching Beck, which had the same effect. Even though we’re all conservatives, I found myself having to steer our phone conversations away from politics and current events. It wasn’t that I disagreed with their opinions – though I often did – but rather that I found the vehemence with which they expressed those opinions to be so off-putting.

Then I flew out for a visit, and observed that their television was on all day long, even if no one was watching it. What channel was playing? Fox. Spending a few days in the company of the channel – especially Glenn Beck — it all became clear to me. If Fox was the window through which I saw the wider world, for hours every day, I’d be perpetually pissed off too.

The same effect — perpetual indignation — occurs among those who spend their days listening to much of what is called “Christian radio.” And given the amount of overlap in a Venn diagram of white evangelical church-goers and Fox News viewers, or of white evangelical church-goers and Christian radio listeners, every evangelical congregation is bound to have at least a few members suffering from some form of Fox Geezer Syndrome.

In other words, for evangelical pastors, the “crazy uncles” they’re most concerned with aren’t the media mavens of the religious right, but the actual uncles — the members of their church family who are infected with the indignation the religious right nurtures and husbands and feeds off of.

Dealing with such church members is a pastoral challenge. Pastors are looking for some way of reaching these folks. People with FGS are unhappy, and they often seem to want to spread that unhappiness. They are suffering from a spiritual sickness, and they seem to want to spread that sickness too.

Pastors want to address that, because the spiritual health of their congregation is their job. And they want to address that because the presence of these spiritually sick people in their congregations makes it harder for them to do their job when it comes to everybody else.

A “crazy uncle” with FGS can be tolerated, ignored or endured when you only have to put up with him during one Thanksgiving dinner every year. But for pastors, every Sunday is Thanksgiving dinner and they can’t just sit at the far-end of the table. Uncle FGS is going to come through that line at the back of the church to shake the pastor’s hand and to try out some of the latest “red-hot remarks” from Fox News or American Family Radio or Facebook. They’ll say these things seeking the pastor’s affirmation or assent. Any response showing less than sufficient agreement and outrage is liable to diminish their affection for the pastor, coming to view them as “a dupe or a RINO.”

I’m sure there are many, many evangelical pastors now squirming their way through such encounters with pre-emptive comments on sports or the weather. They’ve had to wrestle with their own versions of John McCain’s “No, ma’am” moment many times over. And they’d eagerly welcome any advice for how to reach such parishioners.

And one place such pastors might turn for such advice would be Leadership Journal and its blog, Out of Ur.

Yet when they go there what do they find instead? They find Skye Jethani hand-waving away their problem. The religious right, he insists, is nothing more than a “media narrative” dreamed up by unscrupulous, ratings-driven networks and by nefarious progressive bloggers with an ax to grind. It’s not a real problem.

But dismissing this as not a real problem doesn’t help the pastors who are really trying to cope with it.

See if you can follow the contradictory twists and turns of Jethani’s conclusion:

Sadly, when sensationalism sells it’s going to be the crazy uncles in Christendom that get media attention. Over time this creates the popular perception that all Christians share the views of those spotlighted by the media, especially among those who have no un-mediated interaction with Christians themselves. But there is an even more dangerous side-effect of the media’s elevation of Crazy Uncle Christians. With access to the prestige and platform that comes with media attention, Crazy Uncles actually start to influence the views of more Christians. In other words, the tail starts wagging the dog. Christians too start believing the church is a hate-mongering, homophobic, and theocratic special interest group. This is the trap evident in Michael Cheshire’s post. He’s accepted the media’s narrative of American Christianity as reality.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no question that the Church in the United States has real problems as well as a severe PR issue. It is the child born from the union of partisan evangelical leaders and media sensationalism over 30 years ago, but we cannot allow the church’s media-created image to become its on-the-ground reality.

So at the same time he acknowledges that this horse left the barn “over 30 years ago,” he also warns us to shut the gate lest our long-established history might come to pass in the future? What?

The leaders of the religious right were not elevated by “the media,” they own their own media. They don’t enjoy prestige and a platform because of “media attention,” they enjoy prestige and a platform because they have direct-mail databases with the names of millions of devout, church-going white evangelicals who send them money because they agree with and support what they say.

No, the religious right is not synonymous with all of American evangelicalism. But it exists within American evangelicalism. It thrives there, popular, unperturbed and unchallenged.

Occasionally, someone like Michael Cheshire may summon the courage to speak up to criticize the presence of this toxic thing growing within our community, but the leaders of the religious right don’t need to worry about people like that. Every time such a critic arises, some earnest “mainstream” evangelical will argue, instead, that such critics have fallen prey to a sensationalistic media narrative.

As the decades passed and the religious right wormed its way ever closer to the center and the summit of evangelicalism, the “mainstream” evangelicals of what was once the “establishment” continue to claim that its size and influence are exaggerated, and that the religious right is wholly external to and distinct from real evangelicalism. You can read such claims on the blogs of Christianity Today, even as it struggles to keep pace with Charisma magazine — a hothouse of seething political nuttery that makes Dobson and Huckabee’s recent comments seem moderate by comparison.

This denial that the problem might be anything more than a media narrative or a progressive scheme is symptomatic of a larger, more pervasive tendency without our evangelical subculture — one that touches on aspects of our fellowship that have nothing to do with the Fox-addled uncles of the religious right.

It’s the idea that not talking about a problem is the same thing as not having a problem.

So we all go to church, and we smile and we mask our struggles and hide our sins. We’ve gotten so good at pretending that we’re all flawless that each of us has come to fear that everyone else really might be flawless — making us even less likely to admit our flaws to any of these perfect-seeming people. It’s kind of exhausting, maintaining that pretense week after week.

I’ve heard dozens of sermons and read scores of articles lamenting this pretense of perfection in our churches. Yet for all the hand-wringing we evangelicals do about it, just look what happens when someone like Michael Cheshire speaks up and dares to suggest that all is not perfect. He gets criticized for being a critic.

If we all just agree to ignore the religious right, maybe they’ll go away. If we all just agree not to criticize anything in our community, then the world will think it’s perfect and be drawn to our perfection.

But the world is not so blind. Our flaws are apparent whether or not we allow ourselves to speak of them.



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  • Cathy W

    It wasn’t just you – Hubby (a stay-at-home dad at the time) also characterized the Fox correspondent as a cheerleader. He half expected the guy to yell “Woo!” as he rode into Iraq on the back of a tank.

    Other networks were less cheerleadery, and seemed to have worse access in proportion to that. The grimmest, somberest coverage he saw was delivered by a reporter in Cairo, on the Canadian channel we can pick up.

  • Jenny E

    I have had similar weird moments. My dad works for Thermo Electric in mass spectrometry and has his masters in chemistry.  While not quite in the same bracket as your father, intelligence has always been one of his chief values, so the anti-science, anti-intellectual ranting is particularly disturbing coming from him.

  • fredgiblet

    My grandpa was in his church choir for decades, a few years back he quit the choir, his only stated reason was that the choir leader wasn’t conservative enough.

    Prior to last year my grandma had NEVER mentioned politics except in the context of explaining or apologizing for my grandpa.  Last year when we went out for lunch for my birthday she tried to make me promise not to vote for Obama.

    FGS took my grandpa a decade ago and has infected my grandma.  Hopefully a cure will be found someday.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I thought old people were supposed to complain that kids these days watch too much tv.

  • reynard61

    “In other words, for evangelical pastors, the ‘crazy uncles’ they’re most concerned with aren’t the media mavens of the religious right, but the actual uncles — the members of their church family who are infected with the indignation the religious right nurtures and husbands and feeds off of.

    “Dealing with such church members is a pastoral challenge. Pastors are looking for some way of reaching these folks. People with FGS are unhappy, and they often seem to want to spread that unhappiness. They are suffering from a spiritual sickness, and they seem to want to spread that sickness too.”

    Sorry, Fred; but I’d be willing to bet real money that a not-very-small number of Pastors actually *encourage* their flocks to watch FauxNoise and listen to Right-wing radio, and then stand at the pulpit and encourage them to “convert” the anger that they’ve built up over the past week into donations to the church using strategic phrases like “Sharia law” and “gay marriage” and such to imply that said donations will be used to “fight the good fight” against such “abominations”…but, oh wait! The head pastor needs that shiny new Cadillac that he saw in the local dealership the other day so that he can better (and, of course, more comfortably) minister to everyone! (And of course everyone *knows* that Sharia law and gay marriage can never withstand the onslaught from a Righteous Sword made of Good Ol’ Detroit Iron!)

    As I’ve said before in previous comments: Politics + Religion = Politics. Politics *taints* Religion, and if not somehow moderated it eventually *pollutes* Religion. FauxNoise and it’s radio analogs are *polluting* Evangelicalism, and — other than you and a few others — they either cannot bring themselves to recognize this fact or they just don’t give a damn. And it may well doom them to an obscurity that they, IMNSHO, richly deserve.

  • Mike Helbert

    Ok. So, I’m 57 years old. And, I can’t stand Fox. I have, however, watched as many of my friends from youth have become more and more, let’s say, ‘overtly conservative.’ One recently remarked on Facebook how he had a great day…he renewed his NRA membership and un-friended 2 liberals. One thing that wasn’t addressed in Fred’s blog was what happens when the pastor has FGS. This seems to be a growing issue in which the person entrusted with feeding the flock continually adds arsenic to the mix.

  • Steve Olson (Lefty Lutheran)

    If thoughtful and open minded evangelicals are the ones standing behind “crazy uncle” mouthing I’m sorry to the clerk, then many of those in more traditional Protestant circles could be that clerk. For a long time we have been polite and listened to your crazy uncle rant, watched you MOUTH your I’m sorries and then walk away with crazy uncle in tow. One of the virtues (maybe) of more mainstream and even liberal Christians is our desire to turn the other cheek and just get on with the work Christ asks us to do. In a sense we’ve wiped the dust off our feet when it comes to your crazy uncle and ultimately to you. At some point though even Jesus confronted those who were vocal about opposing His message. I guess in a lot of ways we individually are starting to push back….. to counter a hate filled message with the one of love we have all been taught. We waited for you to correct your uncle and spare us both some embarrasment. I think in terms of mainstream media, well they are merely reflecting what they see more and more reasonable people doing. I think mostly we agree that the fault lies not with the media and it’s time for everyone to speak up. What’s happening in terms of your illustration is that it’s our store and we are exercising our right not to serve your crazy uncle anymore. It’s bad for business.

  • stardreamer42

    I can’t bring myself to click “Like” on this, because it’s a horrible thing. You have my sympathy.

  • stardreamer42

    Many of them are; however, not all aging Baby Boomers are Fox Geezers. It’s another version of Mill’s observation: “While it is not true that all conservatives are stupid, it is true that many stupid people are conservative.” One needs to be careful to point the implication in the right direction. 

  • rupaul

    Businesses also push Fox: many McD’s franchises, plus the Hilton hotels (like
    Hampton Inn) make sure Fox is always on. I was told by a desk clerk that they are
    instructed to tune in back to Fox if no one is watching it, so that is the “default” setting
    when people come into the lobby.

  • David H

    Can I suggest to the author of this article that the next time he visits his parents he might try placing his hands on their heads and in a loud voice and hysterical state prayer in the name of Jesus that the FGS demon leaves them never to return and that his parents will once again be in a right mind. It may not work directly but they then may be able to discuss the issue.

  • nakedanthropologist

    You and me both. I’ll be in my bunk.

  • nakedanthropologist

    Dalrymple is a good example of this. If you read his post on gay marriage, he wrings his hands over people regarding him as a bigot (which he is) because re really really “loves” his gay friends. It didn’t occur to him that not partaking in SSM oneself because of one’s religious beliefs and voting to strip others of their rights to live according to their own views and morals didn’t occur to him. But hey, people shouldn’t blame him because it’s in the bible and therefore he has no choice. On that, I definitely call bullshit. It would be like saying that you support segregation due to skin color because your religion says so, but since you’re nice about making black people sit at the back of the bus, it’s okay. Like I said, total bullshit.

  • My parents just turned 64 and 65. My dad periodically watches Fox News and reads similar material.

    Mostly so that he can tell me about the ridiculous tripe he saw or read and we can both shake our heads in disgust.

    My mom lives with the perpetual notion that people cannot really be as bad as Huckabee, etc. I’ve spent years trying to prove it to her. I keep trying to explain that “why do you focus on one sin?” implies to them that she agrees that homosexuality is a sin (she doesn’t). I was pretty proud of her for “standing up” (so to speak) around the insistent gun-grabbing fear last year, though.
    Still, maybe I shouldn’t destroy her faith in humanity.

    However, her congregations had a tendency to be filled with these folks before she retired. Their attending churh seems to be less so (but not devoid). Some of them they both still interact with. I told the lot of them I was an atheist when I was still in high school. Her former parishioners don’t speak to me nearly as much. I occasionally felt/feel guilty for the probable assumptions those people made about my mother’s parenting skills in light of that, but there seems to be no end to their stupidity, so their opinions won’t count for much anyway.

    Well, barring voting her out as pastor a few times (if you aren’t aware, yes, this can be done in some denominations)

  • This is spot on. I’m trying to deal with this problem on a much, much smaller scale in the Christian Union at my University. I am on good terms with the honest, respectable, respectful, considerate Christians who run the Theological discussion groups (in which we discuss fundamental philosophy and theology in really brillant depth, and aren’t afraid to disagree and discuss,) to which about 10 people come every week – but have massive problems with many of the disgusting, corrupt, evil, vile, homophobic, sexist, racist bastards who attend the hugely more popular regular meetings in order to sing and to agree about the most basic generic aspects of Christianity.

    The problem is that I can’t get the reasonable, decent people to deal with the maniacs. Some of them even have positions on the committee. The reasonable people seem content to turn a blind eye to the evil. They are often genuinely surprised when I recount verbatim what the evil have said in my conversations with them. The decent people seem simply content to avoid having any serious discussions with the evil people, in a kind of “I’ll ask no questions so I won’t hear what I don’t want to hear and have to do something about it” way. The image and cohesion of the greater body seems to be so important that nobody will rock the boat by actually finding out what some of the members, often prominent members, are doing and saying, for fear of rocking the boat. It’s a horrible “all on the same side at the final trumpet” kind of mentatlity, and all through my experience of the church I’ve watched otherwise decent Christians turn a blind eye to pure evil on the inside in an attempt not to disturb the system.