‘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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  • fraser

    Of course, to be fair, these are the same evangelicals who always stick up for Muslims and mainstream Christian churches, reminding us how they’re good, decent people even if they—oh. Wait.

  • Magic_Cracker

     Our flaws are apparent whether or not we allow ourselves to speak of them.

    A rose by any other name…
    You can’t polish a turd…
    Opinions are likes assholes, everyone’s got one and most of’em stink…
    Existence precedes essence…

    i.e., I agree.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Meta-comment: Looks like Fred’s New Year’s resolution is to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and he’s all out of bubblegum.

  • That John McCain thing looks like a movie, not the real deal.

  • Cradicus

    It was an actual thing that happened, but the clip that’s linked is of Ed Harris playing McCaine in the movie Game Change. I found the actual clip here around 1:25 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fTMloaj6b68

  • Cradicus

    McCain, not McCaine! YOU FOOL! :D

  • I’ve spent way too much time in hospital waiting rooms over the past couple of years, on behalf of my aging parents. Said waiting rooms almost always seem to have FNC on the tube in order to frighten easily-confused old people. I had to invest in some defensive weaponry ( http://www.ladyada.net/make/tvbgone/ ) for the sake of my own sanity, but it’s been common enough to make me wonder if, once again, hospitals are a leading source of contagion.

  • AnonymousSam

    I’ve officially given up on my parents after talking to them about the shooting in Connecticut. They’ve drunk the Kool-aid. Fox News taught them how to react to the news: with horror and rage at the liberals who are going to send government troops to take all the guns.

    Fox News has claimed two more victims. I am now an orphan.

  • Gotchaye

    Reading Jethani’s post, it’s astounding that in making a claim about how influential particular strains of thought are within modern evangelicalism, he doesn’t once talk about statistics.  We don’t have to speculate about this kind of thing based on whether or not we know any crazy uncles*.  We don’t have to worry that our perceptions are biased by media sensationalism.  We have facts.  We have polls.  We have voting outcomes.

     At one point in the Republican presidential primaries, Rick Santorum was polling extremely well.  Glenn Beck was at one point reaching an audience of about 7 million (for one show, so not fully counting those who didn’t listen every day).  Gay marriage has been defeated at the ballot box in several states.  Sarah Palin.  I don’t understand how someone could even attempt to explain these things without reference to a very large number of crazy uncles.  I think you could mount a respectable argument from this and other data that at least half of self-identifying evangelicals are probably crazy uncles.

    *I’m using Cheshire’s term here.  I can use a different term or add scare quotes if necessary.

  • Madhabmatics

     My parents were the same until the Todd Akin comments. That shook up my mother – now we just have to deal with my father refusing to listen to anything but Glenn Beck.

  • KR

    You might want to clarify that the “Fox Geezer syndrome” post linked is written by a “Richmond Ramsey” on Frum Forum. David Frum’s mother died twenty years ago. 

  • Fusina

    You and me both. Lost my brother to the same disease. Good news is, once you set up some ground rules, it is possible to meet with them–although it is more as strangers with whom you happen to share genes than anything else.

  • I’d add the scare quotes.

    I don’t have it right on hand, and don’t have time to look it up at the moment, but given that the word “crazy” is very much associated with mental illness there are very real very negative effects of using it to describe the probably-not-mentally-ill people being described.  It’s something that you could probably guess on your own, but people finally got around to studying it and the research shows what you’d expect: equating mental illness with bigotry, irrationality, Fox News viewership and stuff like that is harmful to the mentally ill.  And if there’s one group that definitely doesn’t need further mental harm, it’s the mentally ill.

  • I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have a kooky uncle, and not just one, but several.  Also brothers and bosses and friends and coworkers, etc.  It’s not just about one kooky uncle anymore.

    And boy, but Fred’s final paragraphs make me thankful I don’t go to church.  Sounds so gorram tiring.  If there is a benevolent god, I can’t imagine that s/he wouldn’t want us to use Sunday mornings for the holy purposes of sleeping and bagel-eating. 

  • Ken

    Ach weel, dinnae ye knaow, Dobson and Huckabee and Franklin Graham – thay nae be true Scootsman – ah, Evangelicals.

  • Lliira

    “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.”

    I prefer Fox Geezers to people like this guy. People who want to protect their privilege at the cost of the rights, health, and welfare of billions, but want points for being “nice” about it, are the very worst. They’re smarmy gits who want points because, though they have the same vile opinions as Glenn Beck, they circle around what they actually believe in an attempt to fool themselves and anyone else into thinking oppression can be “civil”. Then they wag their fingers at us when we get angry at them for their despicable opinions. Dishonest cowards.

  • Michael Pullmann

    These Fox Geezers… they’re aging Baby Boomers, right? I know my folks are.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Oh, and to continue the Chris Rock parallels:

    “Ted Koppel ain’t never told me I’m going to Hell. Fundies have!”

  • P J Evans

    I had an uncle who was sort-of-crazy in religion and politics. He didn’t live anywhere close to us, but he had some great stories to tell, and was good at it.

  • Gillikin

    My parents’ pastor (who watches Sean Hannity, I know because one time we visited him at his home and Hannity was on in the family room) took five minutes out of his Christmas Eve sermon to discuss how saying Merry Christmas is now an act of political speech that The World hates.  

    The sermon on the previous Sunday included several minutes on “homosexual perversion,” abortion and the Grand Theft Auto games.   The text was, supposedly, 
    Zechariah’s Song from Luke 1.  He pretty much ignored the text to go off on random tangents.  

    The church is an American Baptist church, and it is the fastest-growing church in my parents’ small, rural community.  He has been the pastor there for five years or so.  The pastor doesn’t have to deal with the Crazy Uncle.  He is the Crazy Uncle.  And every time I go back to the church I grew up in, I become sadder that the place where I was taught, every week, about the love of God, has become the place where the Culture War is bravely fought.   And every time I try to talk about these things with my parents, I’m ignored or outright told to shut up.  

    Fred Clark, you are one of the few things in this world that is keeping me Christian (albeit a liberal ELCA Lutheran).  Bless you.  

  • Lori

    My folks are considerably older than Boomers and they have such a bad case of FGS that they supported the Tea Party.

  • Liralen

    My husband and I found out that we had invaded Iraq while listening to the radio on the way to visit his fundamentalist parents who live 400 miles away from us.  Major “WTF” moment for us.  When we arrived at his parents, they were watching the news on TV, which I rarely do.  I felt like I had walked into the Twilight Zone.  The reporters sounded like cheer leaders at a sporting event, which was a far cry from the somber tones I was used to when I used to watch TV news about grim events, in the distant past.

    It wasn’t until several years later that I realized we must have been watching Fox News.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Glenn Beck is apparently like crack. Disturbing.

  • Tapetum

     Nope. The aging Boomers in my family are my older brothers, who are both very progressive. Our parents, otoh, suffer from advanced FGS. Or rather we suffer from them having it.

    I knew the cause was completely lost when my father started reiterating Fox arguments about the “intellectual elite” in disparaging terms. My father, for the record, is a research physician. A world-regarded expert in his particular, extremely complicated, area of concentration. He has spent his entire career not only being among the most rarefied of intellectuals himself (and proud to be so), but training others to do so. He was recently invited to give a 50-year retrospective on advances in the understanding and treatment of his particular disease specialty to a major conference. He commented to me that he had not realized until he compiled all the most prominent research into one place just how much of it was from people he had trained. If a cure is found, it will be largely due to his intellect, effort and teaching skills.

    This man was arguing with me seriously about the intellectual elite being the ruination of the country. I was speechless.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Glenn Beck is apparently like crack. Disturbing.


    “Once again unrestrained political fanaticism is shown to have an effect not unlike that of bath salts. ” – Brandi@RPG.net

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     Wow, that’s just depressing.

    Some historian is going to have a very interesting book to write in about 50 years about how one man so completely bent the spine of America for two generations.

    I guess I’m lucky – my mother seems to be getting more radically liberal in her old age, and my dad doesn’t watch TV, so no Fox Geezerism there.  (I do occasionally get right-wing spam from my step-mother, though.  Then I send a rebuttal, and don’t get any more for a year or so.)

  • Simongren

     I went with my mother to her church once.  I was listening to the sermon, the message of which wasn’t too bad…  Just as I am thinking;  “Hey, this sermon is ok.”  – the guy preaching started spewing bile about homosexuals.

    Understand that homosexuality had absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the sermon at all.  It was a completely different tangent, like if you were watching a gardening show about planting tulip bulbs and they said;  “You want to make sure the bulb is at a depth of 6 inches and that when you change your car’s oil you follow manufacturer’s instructions…” and now suddenly the show is about changing car oil, except they are still planting bulbs.

    He continued on about homosexuals for a while and then they all prayed over a prayer jar.  Then he read testimonials about how the people had put the prayers in the prayer jar and gotten their prayer answered.  My favorite was the person that was so happy they had sold their lemon of a car to an unsuspecting buyer.

    I did not go back.

  • AnonaMiss

    Prophesy! Prophesy!

  • Jeff Weskamp

    My mom was always liberal, and if anything became more liberal over the years.  Some of her relatives, however, were definitely infected with Rush Limbaugh Syndrome.  We just never discussed certain issues with them (such as abortion, school prayer, and gay rights) and we got along pretty well with them.

  • Carstonio

    While I don’t know anything about your father’s prejudices, “intellectual elite” has been anti-Semitic code for decades, referring to Protocols myths about liberal Jewish cabals in academia and the media. That might explain why he doesn’t see himself as part of an elite group of intellectuals.

  • Carstonio

    I suspect Beck will be remembered like Father Coughlin, as a footnote in a period of social turmoil. He and the former Jeff Christie began in Top 40 radio and updated their schtick with demagoguery. They didn’t create the mindset we’re talking about, they exacerbated it. Fox Geezer Syndrome, like the religious right, is a lingering backlash against the civil rights and women’s rights movements and the more recent demographic trends undermining majority status for whites. Both groups are more or less the same people. I’ll be an old white man myself someday, and I hope to use their example as a lesson in how not to age, where I would embrace social changes that reduce privilege like Jeff Weskamp’s mother instead of yelling at everyone to get off my metaphorical lawn.

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

    Love this series of posts.

    So how does anyone move towards recognition of this problem in evangelical circles? Are there sympathetic pastors who would do something about this if they could, or is the risk of rejection by their congregation too great?

  • Joykins

    Brief side note: that article wasn’t by David Frum; it’s by Richmond Ramsey on Frum Forum.  David Frum’s mother was  well-known award-winning Canadian journalist Barbara Frum, who sadly died well before the advent of Fox News.

  • This is so funny: http://antichristaliens.com/wordpress/?p=124
    Liberty Advertising on Fred’s blog.

  • LorenHaas

         I had to leave a church in part becasue the staff and congregation was infected with FGS. Moved to an American Baptist Church with a progressive pastor and mostly moderate congregation, but with some holdout FGS members. More than once I have been in conversation with the pastor when an older member approaches him wanting him to sign a petition or speak out about this or that cherished FGS cause. He is so skillful at redirecting them, God Bless him.
         I am afraid my father has FGS. He came from a Annabaptist background and was even a conscientious objector in WWII, but now he spouts off the latest Fox drivel. Just do my best to avoid anything to set him off. He & my mon spent three days at our home recently. I kept the tv OFF!

  •  I might assert that my mom FGS, given the conversations I’ve had with her lately about politics (I think my “favorite” was the one where she explained to me that when she’d said that Arabs don’t have families, she didn’t really mean that, she just meant that they don’t love their families the way we do).

    But the truth is she was always a tribalist; moving to Florida and becoming part of the Fox nation hasn’t changed that, merely directed it.

  • Carstonio

    Does living in the Sunshine State make one more reactionary over time? Maybe I should rethink my retirement plans. :)

  • rrhersh

    The sad part of this story is that it is an American Baptist–the anti-slavery version of Baptist–church you are talking about.   With a Southern Baptist–the pro-slavery version–we expect this sort of thing, but American Baptists have traditionally been sane and sensible.

  • In general, I doubt it. In this particular instance, yes, but primarily because she treats political beliefs as a mechanism for fitting into her surroundings better.

  • rrhersh

    My family seems to have gone in reverse.  I grew up as a Republican.  My first vote when I came of age was to reelect Reagan.  I couldn’t bring myself to vote for either candidate in 1988, and have voted mostly Democrat since.  During this transition I never discussed politics with my family, simply because the subject didn’t come up.  When the topic finally did arise, I found that nearly the entire family, including my parents, had made the same transition for pretty much the same reasons.  The main reason to vote Republican back in the day was the belief (right or wrong) that they handled the Cold War better.  Once that was over, we found that the remaining issues balanced Democrat, even before the outright crazies took over the Republican Party.

  • My (very liberal) Mom had a bout of FGS-related MGS from late 2007 through Nov 2008. She watched MSN all frickin’ day long and would get really worked up about the election. I was seriously a little worried about her and her sanity this election, but she seems to have moderated her 24-hour news channel watching.

  •  My favorite was the person that was so happy they had sold their lemon of a car to an unsuspecting buyer.

    This is why I insist that such evangelicals have no business commenting on my “morality.”  When they see nothing wrong with doing something like this, they have lost any claim to moral superiority.

    And that’s putting my actual view on the topic rather mildly.

  • Tapetum

     I doubt my father is personally anti-Semitic. We’ve lived in heavily Jewish neighborhoods, he’s had Jewish colleagues, had no comment about me having Jewish friends and classmates, etc..

    However, he is sufficiently oblivious to larger social nuance that he would be very unlikely to notice that all “those” people that are being trashed by the people he listens to, have something in common.

  • LL

    To be fair, this “don’t mention the problem and poof! it disappears” and “don’t speak ill of the organization to outsiders” thing is something that I’ve found to be common in every sizable organization I’ve ever encountered (group, family, employer). 

    Usually it comes from the leadership (who, at the same time, will encourage people to come forward and voice any concerns or problems; to you youngsters out there who don’t know better, this is a trick; they almost never do this to solve problems, they do it to find out who the troublemakers are*) and the leadership’s lackeys. 

    Few organizations I’ve observed like to admit problems (which, in honor of Orwell, most of them rebrand as “challenges”). They will usually only do it if they absolutely have to (ie, they’re facing legal problems or the “challenge” threatens their long-term survival). 

    * Note that I’m not saying don’t identify problems. Just be aware that few people will thank you for it. At best, they’ll ignore you completely. At worst, they’ll treat you like the Catholic Church has treated victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by church employees. 

    I’m guessing this is how groups have always been. And they probably always will be. The younger, so-called “collaborative” generations are not much better, from my observation. They just think they’re better. The bottom line is, most people handle criticism (fair or unfair, constructive or not) very poorly. But then, most people dole out criticism very poorly, also. 

  • DCFem

     You can ask at the nurse’s desk to change the channel. You will receive the gratitude of other people shepherding parents to doctors appointments. Many nursing homes have child blocks on Fox for the exact reasons that Frum outlines in the excerpted piece — it keeps the residents calmer.

  •  It’s something that you could probably guess on your own, but people finally got around to studying it and the research shows what you’d expect: equating mental illness with bigotry, irrationality, Fox News viewership and stuff like that is harmful to the mentally ill.

    I get the feeling that equating Fox News viewership and other associated behaviors with mental illness would actually destigmatize Fox News viewership.  We could treat them with compassion and seek to heal them of their self-destructive condition.  

  • Gillikin

    Oh.  Oh, trust me.  I’ve tried bringing up the idea of Baptist church history before, and I’m usually greeted with confused, befuddled looks when I tell them the things that baptists (especially Northern Baptists, later American Baptists) used to do and be for.  

    It’s usually then waved away with “well, we don’t do that now.” 

    Whenever I go back to my parents’ church, I see a lot of Personal Relationship With Jesus and not a lot of anything else.  I’ve tried asking my seminary-trained relatives about Baptist church history before and they don’t know anything at all (“Who’s Roger Williams?”  “No, I don’t know how the American Baptist Church was founded.”  “There was a conservative takeover of the Southern Baptists in the 70s?” – all things I’ve heard in response).  And I’m left dumbstruck at how they got a degree from a baptist seminary without learning anything at all about the historical church at all.   And if my relatives who have gone to seminary don’t know a thing about the history of the baptist church, there’s basically no hope for the rest of the church congregants.  

  • Tricksterson

    “and then they all prayed over a prayer jar.  Then he read testimonials about how the people had put the payers in the prayer and gotten their prayer answered.”

    But Christians don’t believe in magic.  Riiiight.[/sarcasm]

  • EllieMurasaki

    It’s only magic if it’s results produced by humans or by false gods. Labeling the black box ‘[Christian] God’ self-evidently changes the mechanism within the box to something approved of.

  • Tricksterson

    Not only does my mother not have FGS, she managed to cure it (somewhat) in her best friend.  Maybe we should bottle her.