The push-back against the push-back begins: ‘Mainstream’ evangelicals criticize critics of the religious right

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.

Bryan Fischer speaks at the 2012 Values Voter summit in Washington. Organizers apparently asked Mitt Romney whom he would like to have speak just prior to his speech. Gov. Romney quickly consulted my blog, saw that I had written nearly a dozen posts criticizing Fischer, and requested Fischer precede him because, Romney said, “Fred and his ilk shape the public and media perception.”

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.


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  • histrogeek

    Use your power wisely Fred. With great power comes great responsibility. 

  • hidden_urchin

    Fred, your blog is pretty much the only thing that kept me from writing off Evangelical Christians as a group when I was on my way out of Christianity.  Every time I ran across yet another horrific statement made by an ingroup member I could remind myself that Fred Clark was also evangelical and he wasn’t like that at all.  It stopped me from falling into that over-generalization trap.

    Keep the light burning.  It’s important. 

  • It’s the retroactive part that really scares them, no doubt.

  • My influence is vast, unstoppable and retroactive.

    Me next.  Me next!  I want to come in second place in the Iowa caucuses more than a decade ago.  And the book deals wouldn’t hurt either.

  • And, more seriously, since you have actually helped me where your influence on the religious right is… questionable at best, thanks for the times you have linked to me, and thanks for putting me in your blogroll.

    Your influence might not be vast unstoppable and retroactive, but you do have an influence.  Just, you know, not on the people you’re being accused of having an influence on.

  • Ursula L

    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.

    I think that you are being factually incorrect to call it “inexplicable” that someone would consider Franklin Graham the legitimate heir to Billy Graham’s legacy.  

    Billy Graham, at some point, deliberately organized the institutions that he led so that Franklin Graham would take over when he could no longer manage the job of leadership.  

    This is not inexplicable. It is easily explained.  It is standard patriarchal inheritance rights.  The son inherits his father’s business and status.  And the father is expected to pass his legacy, business and status on to his son, rather than to a daughter or a third-party.  Billy Graham, as a person of his particular social position and situation, did what was expected and passed his legacy on to his son, rather than to a daughter or a third-party.   And he did so without considering the merits of the son, but only doing what he considered to be “right” and “Christian” because “right” and “Christian” have come to be equated with patriarchal authority.  

    Franklin Graham inheriting Billy Graham’s position is easily and obviously explained by the relationship between Franklin and Billy Graham.  

    The explanation is genuinely awful (the son has the right to the father’s legacy) but also easily understood in context.  Billy Graham cared about “saving” people by getting them to say the magic words of the sinners prayer, but his organization did a fairly bad job of following up to see that the people they “converted” actually treated other people decently.

  • Demonhype

    Isn’t that the funniest part, hidden_urchin?  Technically, blogs like Fred’s are the only thing keeping people from painting all evangelicals with the same brush and writing them all off as crazy, self-righteous theocrats.  I’ve always admired Fred’s honesty that he’s willing to call out bad behavior in his brethren in faith rather than get angry at anyone who notices said bad behavior.  That’s the civilized, decent thing that decent people do.  It’s like if you take your kid over someone’s house and they smash some things and take a dump on the rug.  Decent people will acknowledge that it happened and that it’s wrong.  Non-decent people will get angry at you for noticing the smashed plates and the steaming turd and will furiously claim that you’re as bad–no, WORSE!!–for noticing them.  No one has any respect or love for that second kind of person.  If someone in your group behaves badly, you don’t target the person who pointed it out, you target the person who is behaving badly.   It’s basic fairness and honesty and common decency, which Fred fully understands and these other guys just don’t seem to want to understand.

    Of course, that assumes that they don’t agree with the bad behavior and don’t just want they and their cohorts to be able to continue that bad behavior without restraint or apology.  Which is a big assumption.

  • DCFem

    Blame the media, it’s always the media. It’s never the ignorant words that they spout on camera/radio, it’s always the super powerful blogger blowing things out of proportion.

  • PurpleAardvaark

    At least you’re being noticed and not ignored.

  • …Romney said, “Fred and his ilk shape the public and media perception.”

    I’m jealous.  I’ve always wanted an ilk of my own!

    Also: Who makes the kingmakers?  It’s Fred, obviously.

  • AnonaMiss

    I cannot express all the “ughs”.

    Even in the absence of a centralized structure to discipline the hatemongers that say that kind of shit, there is always the libertarian “vote with your feet!” approach. If you really think someone is being monstrous, you won’t give money to their organization, you won’t invite them to speak at your conference, you won’t go to see their talks, you’ll complain to conference organizers that they’re there. This isn’t un-Christian casting sinners out of the community – they’re still in the community, you just won’t allow them leadership positions. When they try to lead, you point your feet elsewhere.

    Even if Dalrymple et al claim that they are refusing to give these voices leadership positions, the continued success of people making such offensive statements means that at the least they need to realize that they have parted ways with “the majority.” “Mainstream evangelicalism” cannot be flowing two ways; if you really are opposed to con men and hypocrites making monstrous statements, but no one else seems to be… perhaps you aren’t mainstream anymore, and perhaps you don’t want to be.

    Still, what a horrible little ogre for dumping this on your lap, Fred. And it kind of underscores how laughable his argument is: if you’re the highest-profile “self-hating evangelical” he can find to point a finger at, then clearly self-hating evangelicals are having a huge effect on the wider culture’s view of evangelicalism.

  • AnonaMiss

     Er. Not that you’re insignificant or anything. You’re very significant to the commentariat and elsewhere. Just, you know, if you’re the top of the significance scale of evangelicals criticizing evangelicals, and you’re not a household name, yeah. What you said in this post.

    Have some tea.

  • Well, as an atheist progessive, I gotta say the opposite is true.  Slacktivist has made me aware that Christians that AREN’T hate-spewing, lying, anti-science bigots ACTUALLY EXIST. 

  • I’ve always wanted an ilk of my own!

    Oh, to have an ilk.  One can only drea,

  • My influence is vast, unstoppable and retroactive

    There was an accident with a WordPress account and a time machine, I can’t explain it now.

  • Madhabmatics

    The assertion that most evangelicals wouldn’t know who Barton was cracks me up. If people in your evangelical church engage with Christian culture at all, you know who he is, because everyone harps about how he will tell you the REAL TRUTH about history

    like is this guy living in canada or something, because “No one would hear about Barton if it wasn’t for criticism of him” is in no way the reality of the south. We literally had PBS employees fired just for criticizing him.

  • Madhabmatics
  • An ilk once bit my sister….

  • Dana

     This is a pretty standard move, I feel like. There’s a problem, but people don’t want the problem to be brought up. When someone does point it out, rather than blame the problem for existing, they blame the person who pointed it out…because they would’ve been much happier to pretend it wasn’t there.

    The part where you actually blame the person who pointed out the problem for CAUSING IT BY POINTING IT OUT is just the logical (?) conclusion of this common pattern of response.

  • 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.

    Holy crap, Fred.  Now you know what you have to do, right?  Go stop Obama from approving all that government spending and those two wars between 2001 and 2008!

  • A Viescas

    Ditto. Before finding this blog, I considered “evangelist” and “evangelical Christian” synonymous with “religious right” and “fundamentalist.” I didn’t know what “Baptist” meant or that the “silent majority” of evangelicals even existed, let alone progressives like Fred. What I understood about “evangelicals” traced back to what I saw of “televangelists” (which were also in my mind allied with evangelicals) and their own press releases.

    The idea that he’s somehow negatively influencing public opinion is so horrifyingly upside-down I wonder if whoever posted that is living in the same universe as the rest of us. =/

  • Jim Roberts

    And, conversely, it taught me that there are atheists who don’t think that I’m an abusive father because I teach my kids that faith isn’t a bad thing.

  • Madhabmatics

    Wait, I spoke too soon, the best part is in the comments section where this dude says that he doesn’t think Evangelicals have leaders, and then like three posts later say “evangelical groups in different regions pick leaders who may be anything, even secular.”

    I’ve had multiple churches tell my family that condemning or even disagreeing with Pat Robertson is enough to put you outside the fold of Christianity – I suppose to Dalrymple, even this cannot be counted as being a “standard bearer”

  • Vermic

    Fred, if you’d only kept quiet about the Left Behind series, LaHaye & Jenkins would have been left alone with their 65 million sales and nobody would have heard of it! Now the cat’s out of the bag.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Don’t let them get to you. 

    I’m yet another of the people that you made aware that “Christian” didn’t exactly mean “crazy theocrat.” And you’ve been a constant reminder of that for the past ~5 years, especially through the latest election. 

    What you’re doing is important. And it’s greatly appreciated.

    Further, it’s making the fundies mad. When you make the fundies mad, you’re doing the right thing. 

  • patter

    It’s the Slacktivist Bump!  Eat your heart out, Colbert!

  • Crazy, right? Almost like…some king of…good news. Huh.

  • Jim Roberts

    Preach it . . . err, I mean, say it with authority, brother.

  • A Viescas

     Yeah, sorry about that. We should really be doing that ourselves, rather than have poor Fred be the ambassador to everyone. =/

    (not that he does a bad job of course!)

  • Slow Learner

    I had exactly the same – knowing no Evangelical christians personally, to me they were the embodiment of scary would-be theocrats. They were at the back of every scare-story I heard of how damaging Christianity could be. Then there was this awesome guy who was showing us what was really wrong with Left Behind…and then I became aware, in reading his writings, that he was doing so from the perspective of an Evangelical Christian.

    Mind…blown. So yeah, thanks for that Fred.

  • Lunch Meat

    Fred, how many blog posts “angrily denouncing and spewing vicious lies” about me would it take to get the religious right to elect me president*? I’m willing to pay very, very well for relentless libel of sufficient quality from you and your ilk.

    *This doesn’t even have to be retroactive–I still have 10 years before
    I’m eligible.

    **Unless the quantity and meanness of your writing is enough
    for an amendment of the constitution to change the eligibility age.

  • Peaslepuff

    Oh my goodness…Fred, your blog is truly the salt of the earth. As an atheist, I get my dose of “Not all Christians are insane” from mainly two places: this blog and /r/Christianity. 

  • I call running mate.

  • I think Fred dramatically underestimates the extent to which he …completely ignore[s] the good and important work that the vast majority of evangelicals do on a regular basis.

    1.) Note the sleight-of-hand between”evangelical leaders” and “the vast majority of evangelicals”. You can almost hear the harumphing: ‘Yes, our leaders may want gay people stoned to death and oppose universal health care, but what about all the good that the laypeople do, what with the soup cans and the Christmas presents to the poor and whatnot?”

    2.) Let’s talk about that “good and important work”… name three issues other than birth control, abortion, and gays that “the vast majority of evangelicals” work on. Death penalty? Increased access to health care? Lowering unemployment? Helping homelessness? Ending the War On (some classes of people who use) Drugs? Fighting economic inequity? Opposing human trafficking? Reforming immigration law?  

    The “good and important work” of most evangelicals is nothing more than the bare minimum we expect from any church: don’t hurt people unnecessarily, and offer kindness to others in exchange for an opportunity to proselytize. You met that low bar? What do you want, a cookie?  

  • Lunch Meat

     Meat/Cynic 2020: You Only Vote For Reprehensible People Because Liberal Bloggers Made You Do It.*

    *Just Keep Telling Yourself That.

  • LL

    I’m feeling kinda cruddy, so I wondered if anything could cheer me up on this first work day of 2013. 

    American evangelical Christianity to the rescue, telling me once again how a majority of them aren’t like “that.” 

    Despite all evidence to the contrary. 

    Good one, guys … I’m still LOLing …

    The one evangelical Christian I know well (my mother) said something ridiculous this past week. It’s not that interesting of a story, but still indicative of how self-deluded these people are. Or  Fox-deluded. Whatever. Most of them are grownups and live in a country with plenty of media outlets other than Fox News, so I’m not sure Fox Derangement Syndrome is a valid excuse anymore. 

  • Nequam

    They can have this one, Chris.

  • nakedanthropologist

    I second that.  Slactivist and Kimberly Knight.  Honestly, for several years there I equated all of you guys with gay-hating, anti-science, onward-Christian-soldiers.  Seriously Fred, for those of us who have had horrible experiences with believers (in my case, specifically Christians) and have access to any type of media…the hateful voices are often the loudest.  So thanks for doing your part Fred to contrast that portrayal.  As for Dalrympe -meh, I’ve read one or two of his blog posts and they were the typical “don’t call me a bigot even though I act like one because of my specific beliefs in the bible” – we were unamused.  You’re doing a good job here, Fred.  For what its worth from this agnostic-humanist-heathen, bravo mon ami. Bravo.

  • nakedanthropologist

    Exactly.  This. 

  • LL

    Also, amusingly (well, I think it’s amusing), these people think nobody outside Christianity  has internet access or TVs or goes to bookstores. I haven’t set foot in a church since the last funeral I attended (maybe 10 years ago?) and I’ve heard of some of these people (aside from Fred’s mentions of them). 

    Their books are for sale at  Walmart. They are (unfortunately) often asked to give the “Christian” point of view (or whatever you’d call it) on “mainstream” news shows (like the Today Show). Their ignorant public statements now get linked to by various websites, most of them not at all religious-affiliated. 

    Although I admire Fred very much, and he often fills in details I would have missed, I don’t need him to tell me when someone is an idiot. I can figure that out for myself, when I see the idiot on TV, yapping about gays or women while pimping his latest book. 

  • Tricksterson

    And chocolate chip cookies.

  • Tricksterson

    You didn’t know Fred was a Time Lord?

  • Well, besides Nequam’s pic above, you should be happy to see the picture Fred used for part 2 of this.

  • fraser

     Unsurprisingly it’s exactly what the Repubs keep insisting about why they lost–because the media made up the ridiculous idea their policies are anti-woman, anti-minority and anti-gay.

  • fraser

     I’m going to a con in a couple of weeks. Perhaps we can get together and sink ilk songs about Fred.

  • Thebewilderness

    It does make one wonder though. If the leadership is made up of men who cannot rise to the level of decent human being 101 then what must the followers be think. How do they excuse and justify their leaderships repudiation of the teachings of Christ? I do not think they can. There is going to be a reckoning. A long overdue reckoning.

  • P J Evans

    I haven’t set foot in a church since the last funeral I attended

    The last time I set foot in church was the memorial service for my father. In 1994. My parents hadn’t gone to church for years before that. (The three or four times before that that I’d been in church were either funerals or weddings.)

  • Lliira

     I remember turning on the TV a few years ago, and 700 Club was on. Pat Robertson was saying feminists wanted to turn all women into lesbian witches who sacrificed their children to Satan.

    Just HOW could anyone represent these people as worse than they really are?!

  • Lori

    Shit, he’s on to us.

  • MaryKaye

    Do bisexual witches count?  Also, I did ritually sacrifice my husband once (Oak King/Holly King stuff) but only in token, so he got better.

    (We eventually gave up on doing the Oak and Holly ritual at midsummer, because midsummer in Seattle is just not the right season–it’s barely the start of summer here.  Maybe it needs to be in August.)