Well, I told you this was coming.
Last month I wrote about a modest bit of push-back from “mainstream” evangelicals against the appalling things said by several religious right leaders following the massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Mike Huckabee, James Dobson, Bryan Fischer and Franklin Graham disgraced themselves by blaming the shootings on the separation of church and state, same-sex marriage and legal abortion, prompting widespread criticism from a wide variety of Christian leaders and just about anyone else who heard what they said.
But, as usual, mainstream evangelical leaders, magazines, bloggers and spokespeople were hesitant to condemn those remarks. Their constituency, after all, is the same white evangelical populace that watches Huckabee on Fox News, listens to Dobson and Fischer on the radio (on 7,000 and 200 stations, respectively), and that inexplicably regards Franklin Graham as the legitimate heir to his father’s legacy. They are thus, understandably, rather timid about criticizing those folks.
Yet a handful of “mainstream” evangelical types did clear their throats and respond to Huckabee and Dobson, including Out of Ur, which is the blog of Leadership Journal, the magazine for pastors put out by the folks at Christianity Today.
Out of Ur published a guest post by Michael Cheshire, an evangelical pastor from Colorado, who wrote, “They Think We’re a Hate Group, and They Might Be Right.” Cheshire compared the vocal and visible leaders of the evangelical religious right with a “crazy uncle”:
I feel like I’m with a crazy uncle who makes ignorant comments while you’re helping him shop. You have to stand behind him and mouth, “I’m so sorry. He’s old and bit crazy. He means well.” So to my gay friends, scientists, iPhone users, and others he blamed for the horrendous killing spree by that mentally ill young man, I stand here mouthing a few words of apology to you.
The rest of Cheshire’s piece was pretty forceful, so much so that I worried “… it might get him banished into the limbo of ‘controversial’ evangelical voices — Cizik-ed away to a seat beside folks like Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis, whose continued membership in the tribe is permitted mainly as a way of marking its boundary.”
And that didn’t take long. Less than two weeks later, Skye Jethani posted Out of Ur’s backpedaling semi-retraction of Cheshire’s comments: “No, We’re Not a Hate Group.”
Jethani explains that the religious right is not representative of the silent majority of American evangelicals. That’s a false impression, he says, created by sensationalistic journalists and, Jethani says — citing Timothy Dalrymple — created by wily progressive Christians. He links to Dalrymple’s unique explanation for the rise of the religious right. It’s due, he says, to:
… people like Fred Clark. I think Fred dramatically underestimates the extent to which he and his ilk shape the public and media perception of evangelicals when they shine a relentless light on every ridiculous and offensive thing an evangelical pastor or radio host does, and completely ignore the good and important work that the vast majority of evangelicals do on a regular basis.
Yes, it’s all true. I started this blog in 2002. At the time, James Dobson was an inconsequential figure broadcasting his radio message daily on a mere 7,000 stations (mostly AM). He’d only written a couple dozen books at that point, and only half of those had become national best-sellers. And only 500 or so of the thousands of newspapers and evangelical publications in America bothered to carry his weekly column.
But once I started shining my “relentless light on every ridiculous and offensive thing an evangelical pastor or radio host does,” that criticism — cleverly disguised as posts about the Iraq War, eschatology, Buffy, Niebuhr, subsidiarity and manufactured housing — catapulted James Dobson to national fame, leading Time magazine to dub him “the nation’s most influential evangelical leader.”
I’ve done the same thing for countless others — Franklin Graham, Rick Warren, Bryan Fischer, Tony Perkins and dozens of other such figures who I’ve managed to elevate without ever even mentioning them here.
My very first substantial post, on my original blogspot site, criticized Pat Robertson for selling “sentergistic” anti-aging milkshakes. The effect of that post was so powerful that it lifted Robertson to a second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses 14 years earlier.
My influence is vast, unstoppable and retroactive. Or, alternatively, Dalrymple and Jethani might be talking out of their backsides. It’s one of those.
In any case, Jethani’s endorsement of Dalrymple’s weirdly anachronistic history of the religious right is not the biggest problem with his attempted rebuttal of Cheshire’s piece. The biggest problem with Jethani’s post is that it’s pastoral malpractice. We’ll get to that in part 2.