Who Owns “Evangelicalism” in America?

Who Owns “Evangelicalism” in America? December 13, 2012

A little while ago, I had written two pieces (here and here) making the case for defining evangelicalism according to its theological distinctives and not its (pervasively but not exhaustively) shared convictions on social issues.  Evangelical positions on abortion and gay marriage, I said, are positions that most evangelicals deduce from our core principles.  But they are not the core principles themselves, and some evangelicals (who are genuinely evangelical theologically) do not arrive by deduction at the same positions.  That is, and I say this as a social conservative: you can be evangelical theologically and not conservative on social issues.

All well and good, says Fred Clark, proprietor of the popular “slacktivist” blog.  “I agree with Tim” that evangelical should be defined theologically, he wrote, “although I’m afraid that — in practice — most Americans evangelicals do not.”  Indeed, “culture-war definitions of ‘evangelical’ seem to be ascendant.”

For the general public, as well as for “media and academia,” evangelicalism is no longer primarily identified with people like Billy Graham, J.I. Packer, John Stott or N.T. Wright or with institutions like Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals. Those people and institutions were long ago eclipsed by people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, David Barton, Tim & Beverly LaHaye, Bryan Fischer and Cindy Jacobs.

Are those folks really “evangelicals”? Some would not be if we were to appeal to a primarily theological definition, but they all claim affinity with the term and because their culture-warrior bona fides are unquestionable, no one ever challenges their claim to it the way that such challenges are routinely directed toward people like Jay Bakker or Brian McLaren.

When people like Robertson, Perkins, Barton, Fischer, LaHaye and Jacobs become the most prominent standard-bearers of evangelicalism then we can’t complain that anyone is “exaggerating its vices.”

There’s one point here I want to affirm strongly.  Fred notes that American evangelicals tend to patrol their borders with liberalism much more fiercely than we patrol our borders with fundamentalism or hyper-conservatism.  We spend a lot more time criticizing a Brian McLaren on the Left, and charting the boundary markers there, than we do differentiating ourselves from a Bryan Fischer on the right.

On the one hand, there are reasons for this.  First, our progressive brethren do a fine job all by themselves criticizing those on the extreme right of evangelicalism.  But more seriously, I think if we’re honest with ourselves we evangelicals can confess that we believe moving Leftward is more dangerous (theologically and soteriologically) than moving Rightward.  Leftward leads to the abandonment of biblical authority and of the resurrection and divinity of Christ (which we regard as critical for salvation), while Rightward leads to a hardening anti-intellectualism, hyper-legalism and an increasingly militant opposition to all things human.  Move too far to the Left and you’re no longer really a Christian.  Move too far to the Right and you’re just a nut-job, but a saved nut-job.  That seems to be the assumption.

While there may be some truth to the assumption, criticizing those on our Left but not on our Right is a practice we should reject.  There are just as many theological problems on the extreme right as there are on the extreme left, and conservative evangelical extremists do damage to our cause just as much as Muslim extremists do damage to the cause of Islam.  It’s harder for us to see it from within our communities, but it’s true.  We hate to criticize the Bryan Fischers because it will call down the wrath of many who are “on our side” of the dividing line on social issues, but the importance of maintaining friendly relations amongst co-belligerents on the social issues cannot outweigh the importance of speaking the truth about theological error and social sin.

HOWEVER — and this is a big however — there are several things that need to be corrected, or at least said in rejoinder, to Fred’s post.

First of all, when he calls “Robertson, Perkins, Barton, Fischer, LaHaye and Jacobs become the most prominent standard-bearers of evangelicalism,” most evangelicals will find themselves scratching their heads.  For the purposes of this post, let’s not defend any of these individuals, and assume that they’re nefarious folks.  Still, evangelicals will ask: Who’s Tony Perkins?  Barton who?  Who’s Bryan Fischer?  Is Cindy Jacobs on Desperate Housewives?  They’ll know that LaHaye wrote those Left Behind novels but they won’t consider him an evangelical leader.  They may vaguely remember that their grandparents watched Pat Robertson sometimes, but mostly they’ll think of him as that guy on television who blames natural disasters on gay people.  I don’t mean this as a slam on those individuals.  More people know who Barton is than Dalrymple.  But my point is that you have to be in pretty small sub-niches of evangelicalism to even know those names.  And you *still* probably wouldn’t consider them standard-bearers of evangelicalism.

The only people who seem to consider them standard-bearers of evangelicalism are, well, people like Fred Clark.  Progressives talk about Bryan Fischer a lot more than mainstream evangelicals do, because they find that Fischer fits the caricature they want to believe in.  Jane Mayer writes a piece on Fischer for The New Yorker that vastly overstates his influence — and since Fischer is very useful for Fred, he accepts Mayer’s argument without question.  Just like he accepts obvious hoaxes if they make evangelicals look stupid.

But Fred’s not saying that evangelicals consider these people standard-bearers.  He’s saying “the general public,” as well as “media and academia,” see these people as the standard-bearers.  He seems to believe this is the fault of (1) the Bartons and the Fischers, who thrust themselves into the limelight, and (2) moderate evangelicals who do not properly criticize them.  I can agree, to an extent.  But Fred Clark leaves out a very important group of people — (3) 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.

In other words, the people who read Fred Clark associate “evangelical” with Fischer and Barton and Robertson because Fred Clark — and other writers like him, and the opportunists on MSNBC and etc — have told them to do so.  His blog is an almost constant barrage of criticism of conservative evangelicalism; it always focuses on the negatives and the extremes.  For his audience, it reinforces their scorn for evangelicals, it hardens their ignorance of the other side of the story, and frankly tickles their tendency to hatred of those knuckle-dragging evangelical Neanderthals who apparently hate gays and hate women and hate science.  To take one typical recent example: after a student associated with the International House of Prayer in Tulsa led a group of bizarre cultists to rape and murder a woman, Fred rather slanderously suggested that the leaders of IHOP would probably blame the rape/murder on the student’s homosexual desires (the student had apparently sought Christian therapy for homosexual inclinations), and then declares instead that it was probably evangelical teachings on sexuality that drove the student to rape and murder his own wife.

If people like Bryan Fischer represent evangelicalism in the popular imagination, it is due, at least in part, to people like Fred, who spend far more time thinking about Fischer than mainstream evangelicals do.  He may be right that people like myself will need to reclaim the “evangelical” title from these folks — but if we do, it’s partly Fred’s fault.

Allow me to finish by pointing to a fantastic piece at National Review Online from Lee Habeeb:

“What brought you to Christ?” my friends asked.

“Christians,” I replied.

“What took you so long?” was the usual follow-up.

“Christians,” I replied. The kind more focused on other people’s sins than their own.

I didn’t meet many of the latter. Much of what I thought I knew about Christians before I became one came through the lens of the media, which tend to ignore the contributions Christians make to American life. That is, when they aren’t actively denigrating Christians as mindless simpletons, or fundamentalists hell-bent on turning our country into a theocracy.

The only time I heard from Christians themselves was in the political realm. Two issues defined them — abortion and gay marriage — leading secular folks like me to believe that Christians wake up thinking only about babies in the womb and gay people at the altar.

That perception changed when I moved to a place filled with Christians — Oxford, Miss. Eventually I became one myself.

I joined a great church, one where the focus is on living good lives. We rarely talk politics, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve talked with anyone there about gay marriage or abortion.

I know that Fred is a good guy.  I think we can have a fruitful conversation.  I don’t want to view evangelicalism with rosy glasses.  But I fear that his glasses are so tinted by dark experiences that he cannot see the bright spots.  The bright spots are many.  And if he does see them, I wish he would share them with his audience a bit more often.

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