Do you think that traditionalist or orthodox Christian thinkers have a hard time accepting liberal Christians like Robinson as “serious,” or “real,” Christians? Or, as you implied, is that very much a two-way street?
It’s true, and it’s a complex point. I would say that there are many, many small-“o” orthodox Christians who’ve got no time for Marilynne Robinson, because she is a liberal Christian and does not seem to hew to the conservative party line. And then there’s another group of conservative Christians — the ones I know best — who are just so overwhelmingly grateful that there is any outstanding writer who is willing to associate herself with Christianity. And I sometimes find that, while one side is hyper-critical and unwilling to listen, the other side is just so grateful to be associated with Marilynne Robinson that they won’t criticize at all.
Yes, I’m really grateful that one of the best living American novelists is openly Christian. That’s wonderful. That’s great. But it doesn’t mean she’s right about everything. And I felt that Robinson was, in many cases, using her entry to the liberal intelligentsia — she can always be published in the NYRB or wherever else — to be very critical of her fellow Christians, and I just wished that went the other way around. I wished she would use her opening with the liberal intelligentsia to be more critical of them.
But, I’ve got to say, there’s been a bit of a change in my thinking that can be deeply identified with the 80 percent rate at which white evangelicals — or people who call themselves evangelicals — voted for Trump. When that happened, I thought, maybe Marilynne Robinson is more right about my fellow evangelicals than I was, you know? At that point, I thought maybe I should just drop my criticism of her, she may have been right after all.
That was a very distressing moment for me. I knew there would be a lot of support for Trump simply because he was the Republican candidate. I didn’t expect it to be that high. What I expected was more of a nose-holding posture — like, I don’t like this guy, I don’t approve of his personal life, I don’t approve of many things about him, but he’s the lesser of two evils. What we got instead was a great many Christians refusing to acknowledge that there’s anything evil here at all — he’s great, he’s wonderful, he speaks for us. And I will have to admit that I was taken aback, not so much by the willingness of evangelicals to vote for him, but by the enthusiasm with which they voted for him.
And then I started looking into things a little more, because I was curious about this phenomenon. And I came to realize that a lot of people who are willing to claim the name “evangelical” are actually people who don’t go to church and couldn’t sum up what evangelical belief is. They just don’t know.
And while some see that as good news, that the people who voted for Trump aren’t really evangelicals, that’s not the lesson I took from it. The lesson I took from it is: How many of us are there? We used to think there are a lot of evangelicals in America. Maybe there aren’t very many people who are sufficiently formed in the Christian faith to be able to say what it is.
So, what does “evangelical” mean?
Right now, I have no freaking idea. [Laughs.] I couldn’t begin to tell you. [HT: JS]
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