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.
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.