The Sting: ‘Mainstream’ evangelicals and the religious right

The Sting: ‘Mainstream’ evangelicals and the religious right December 17, 2012

Dick Pierard is now a professor emeritus. That means he’s old and he’s allowed to say what he thinks without worrying about whether he sounds grumpy.

And he is grumpy. He’s also dead right.

In the 2012 election, Pierard writes, “Self-proclaimed and media-designated evangelicals” did “everything they could to defeat President Obama.” And not only did they lose their electoral battle, he says, but “in the process they discredited the evangelical message and reduced it to a mere political gospel.”

In the aftermath of that debacle, Pierard recommends “Four Changes Evangelicals Must Make“:

1) The Southern Baptists need to get rid of the discredited Dr. Richard Land immediately, not wait for his announced retirement as President of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which won’t be effective until October 2013. …

2) A change must take place in the Billy Graham organization. Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, has done much to sully the reputation of the eminent 94-year-old evangelist in the twilight years of his rich and full life. …

3) Next, evangelicals have to rein in the conservative editorial policies of their flagship magazine, Christianity Today. It really ought to have some staffers who are free not to parrot the old shibboleths of evangelical political and social ethics …

4) Finally, evangelicals have to get off the abortion issue. The electoral defeat of several hard-liners should be a wake-up call that people are getting weary of the increasingly extreme positions that the more vocally Christian politicians are taking on the issue.

The key phrase in all of that is the observation that the staff and editors of Christianity Today are not “free not to parrot the old shibboleths of evangelical political and social ethics.”

And the key words in that sentence are “not free.” One of the reasons Pierard is a valuable commentator on American evangelicalism is that he had the good fortune to work at Indiana State rather than at an evangelical institution, so he has long been free to speak out with a candor that most evangelicals are not free to express.

But, alas, just because he’s free to speak such truths doesn’t mean his fellow evangelicals are free to listen.

* * * * * * * * *

The relationship between “mainstream” evangelicals and the religious right was also the subject of a recent post by Tim Dalyrmple.

Here is Dalrymple, writing on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012:

Who’s Tony Perkins? … Who’s Bryan Fischer? … 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.

And here is Dalrymple, writing on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2012:

I asked Rob Schwarzwalder to lay out the argument on why so many evangelicals view some “emergency contraceptives” as abortifacient and why so many feel that the Affordable Care Act infringes upon their freedom of conscience.

That would be Rob Scharzwalder, “senior vice president,” of the Family Research Council.

So on one Thursday, Dalrymple defers to a vice president of the Family Research Council as an influential and authoritative spokesman for evangelicals.

And on the following Thursday, Dalrymple mocks the idea that the president of the Family Research Council is an influential or authoritative spokesman for evangelicals.

OK, then.

* * * * * * * * *

Christianity Today and my evangelical colleagues here at Patheos have an ambivalent relationship with the aggressively political operatives of the religious right.

Hucksters gotta huck. Grifters gotta grift.

Such mainstream evangelicals don’t want to get too cozy with such polarizing figures, yet they still consult them and trust them. CT will, like Dalrymple, cite the spinmeisters of the religious right as though they were objective experts who can be relied on to tell the truth about sexuality, science or current events. And by deferring to their “expert” authority, they provide the religious right with a platform that allows those hucksters to disseminate their ideology while also offering them the veneer of religious-seeming legitimacy they crave.

But even while helping to promote this right-wing political agenda disguised as a gospel, “mainstream” evangelicals insist on differentiating themselves from the religious right. They’re dimly aware that these political activists and operatives are running a political game of some kind, and that this should be kept distinct from the church.

So mainstream evangelicals are proud to call themselves social conservatives, but they reject being labeled as part of the religious right. All religious right activists may be social conservatives, they would say, but not all social conservatives are part of the religious right.

Their theory, then, is that mainstream evangelicals can enlist the support of the religious right as providers of expertise and analysis. They can be served by the religious right without having to be servants of the religious right.

That’s the theory.

But there’s an old saying about hanging around with grifters. If you don’t know who the mark is in their con, then the mark is probably you.

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  • PurpleGirl

    I like the saying: Lie down with dogs, wake up with fleas.

  • Carstonio

    While I share’s Fred’s revulsion at the religious right’s political games, slamming them as hucksters implies that they don’t really believe what they’re selling, like they’re Elmer Gantrys. One can deliberately con others while believing in the righteousness of one’s cause, and this wouldn’t necessarily require self-delusion. These folks were pushing theocracy before they could make money from it, and they’ll probably still be fighting for it from their nursing-home wheelchairs.

  • mattepntr

    Ugh. That TIME cover photo of Ralph Reed has always freaked me out. Creepy as hell in a “Jim Jones” kind of way.

  • Michael Pullmann

    And if you do know who the mark is, it’s *definitely* you.

    And Ralph Reed looks exactly like I always thought: A prat.

  • AnonymousSam

    I woke up after only a couple of hours of sleep as the power went out this morning, and having my sleep disrupted thus made me quite ill — consequently, my attention to detail is absolutely shot at the moment.

    What this means is that I read Dick Pierard as Luc Picard and it made this article awesome.

  • I’ll note that Dalrymple’s little act there demonstrates another problem among many evangelicals:  they can be very selective about their “knowledge” concerning their bedfellows.  They can invoke the FRC and similar organizations where they happen to agree with said organizations, yet somehow remain “blissfully unaware” of the more problematic statements that come out of those organizations via their various spokesmen.  You see this all the time with the FRC, who many have tried to paint as victims of the SPLC while completely ignoring (or claiming ignorance of) the fact that the FRC has done things like try to paint all LGBT people as sexual predators and pedophiles in particular.

  • ReverendRef

    I know this is not necessarily the thread to put this up on, but I wanted to get it up on Fred’s most recent post.

    Many people have been asking, “What can we do?” or “How can we help?” following the shootings in Newtown.  Once suggestion was to send a donation to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund to help with all of the needs that will arise from this.

    One victim, Benjamin Wheeler, and his family, were parishioners at Trinity Episcopal Church.  If you are so inclined, I’m sure the rector of Trinity would appreciate a donation to help with needs such as funerals, counseling and many others that I can’t even think of at the moment.

    Their address is:

    Trinity Episcopal Church
    36 Main St.
    Newtown, CT  06470
    Thanks for considering this.

  • patter

    …it might not be a
    bad idea to put a really big lock on the gate to Graham’s mountain home
    just to keep Franklin away. 

    Well said, sir.

  • I wonder if Billy Graham actually died years ago, and Franklin is only keeping the illusion he is still alive for political reasons.  

  • EllieMurasaki

    No, no, that’d be absurd.

    Billy Graham’s spending some time dead for tax reasons.

  • Marta L.

    You know, I suspect that Franklin Graham really loves his father and is doing what he thinks is best for him by keeping him politically relevant. He’s certainly hurting dear old dad though, at least his father’s legacy. I’m not sure whether this helps his case or not.

  • esmerelda_ogg

     Thanks, RR.

  • BC

    You give Franklin a whole lot more credit than I do, Marta.  I figure Franklin Graham tried and failed outside the evangelical circuit, then realized what a sweet ride it was to take over his father’s organization.  I am so judgmental of that a**h*** (who was horrible at the Columbine memorial service in 1999) that I think he has no internal convictions but knows what sells to the fundagelicals.

  • Lliira

    If you’re a social conservative in the U.S., I don’t care whether you call yourself Evangelical Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, atheist, pagan, Zoroastrian, Jedi, or Scientologist. “Social conservative” = “bad person”. Period. 

  • Barry_D

    Fred:  “But there’s an old saying about hanging around with grifters. If you
    don’t know who the mark is in their con, then the mark is probably you.”

    The other term for somebody who hangs around with grifters (and frequently supports them) is ‘grifter’.

  • Y’know how I’d describe Reed in that Time cover? I’d say “He looks kind of like a young Robert Redford.”

  • “Social Conservative Jedi” made me laugh until I realized it described everyone on the Jedi Council in the KOTOR games and the prequels. 

  • LoneWolf343

     I liked KOTOR, but the Jedi philosophy made no sense. The Sith may have been evil, but there was at least method to their madness.

  • Carstonio

    Weekend at Bernie’s as scripted by Jerry Jenkins.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Really, there’s only one thing Evangelicals (no offense meant to our esteemed host) need to do: Learn to live their own lives, and get rid of the idea that their thoughts should matter to anyone at all except maybe their children. 

    Then they’re free to hold whatever views they want, believe whatever they want, act according to those beliefs…And the rest of us will be too. 

  • reynard61

    “While I share Fred’s revulsion at the religious right’s political games, slamming them as hucksters implies that they don’t believe what they’re selling, like they’re Elmer Gantrys. One can deliberately con others while believing in the righteousness of one’s cause, and this wouldn’t necessarily require self-delusion.”

    The thing is that, historically, that way tends to lie the Jim Joneses and Vernon Howells (a.k.a. David Koresh) of the world. They may start out as mere con-men, but as they thicken and reinforce the walls of their self-decreed echo chamber with the “Hallelujah”s and “Hosanna”s of the sheep that they’re shearing they soon start to believe their own press — *always* a mistake, as any savvy PR man will tell you. Soon they’re believing that *they’re* the “Holy One”, or “Messiah”, or “God’s Chosen” or whatever religiously-themed title they decide to bestow upon their “Godly” brow. Then they generally start racing to increase their membership and wealth — and the means to keep it — while trying to stay one step ahead of the press, concerned family members of those whom they are conning, and police or Federal investigators. Sometimes the con is exposed in time (i.e. the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), more often it does not end well. (Jones and Howell/Koresh.) Self-delusion dosen’t always limit itself to *self*-destruction.

    Frankly, the only difference that I see between Jim Jones and Vernon Howell and their ilk and Ralph Reed and Franklin Graham and theirs’ is that Reed and Graham & co. simply know that the supply of money that they can con out of their marks is far greater than the supply that Jones and Howell could milk from theirs and they don’t want to “drink the Kool-aid” or light up the compound *just* yet.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    The thing is, you seem to be assuming that we should all take a laissez-faire attitude to society, and that’s a premise that I and many, many others will vociferously disagree with.

    I think it’s wrong that some societies still execute their citizens–or, for that matter, allow their citizens to go without basic needs even though the society could easily afford to provide them. To say that what other people and societies do is none of my business so I should keep my opinion to myself…well, that’s pretty much advocating the death of any form of activism other than pure self-interest. No way am I willing to concede that.

  • Oust the wolves in sheepskins …

  • Admontefusco

    He is right on…they are hucksters….when they saw there was money to be made…..out the window went true theology.  The problem is that they view themselves as “righteous”  …perhaps God should decide that.  In actuality…if you read the Bible…the description of the behavior and the values of the Pharisees paralell todays “Christians”……..They certainly do not emulate Christ.

  • Stupid is as stupid does.

  • Con artists have a saying: you can’t con an honest man.

  • Plbowman

    Since when did evangelicalism embrace personal freedoms of choice to act outside the bounds set forth in the Bible (i.e. To be a good person without God)?
    As such, leaders that hew most closely to evangelical philosophies cannot abide straying from the Bible…much…can they? Moderates have no place, as they sully the purity of Gods word…with compromise.
    Poop or get off the pot, Christians!

  • Excellent article, save one caveat.  The more the religious right squeals about their politics, the more they lose.  A fact readily apparent in the recent election.  And I say good riddance to very bad rubbish!

  •  Mr. Pullmann, you’re too kind.


  • That wasn’t the take-away point I got from Raptor’s post. The point I got was that those among the Christian political right who inisst on taking viewpoints they want everybody else to obey in addition to them need to stop doing it, because secular law is not the same as adopting a religious text as the motivator for a legal code.

    I think this is a rather apt summation of the Bible’s place in legal codes:

    Baley stared at R Daneel and despaired at attempting to explain the unconscious mind. He said, instead, “Besides that, the Bible has a great influence on human thought and emotion.”

    “What is the Bible?”

    For a moment Baley was surprised, and then was surprised at himself for having felt surprised. The Spacers, he knew, lived under a thoroughly mechanistic personal philosophy, and R. Daneel could know only what the Spacers knew; no more.

    He said, curtly, “It is the sacred book of about half of Earth’s population.”

    “I do not grasp the meaning here of the adjective.”

    “I mean that it is highly regarded. Various portions of it, when properly interpreted, contain a code of behavior which many men consider best suited to the ultimate happiness of mankind.”

    R. Daneel seemed to consider that. “Is this code incorporated into your laws?”

    “I’m afraid not. The code doesn’t lend itself to legal enforcement. It must be obeyed spontaneously by each individual out of a longing to do so. It is in a sense higher than any law can be.”

    – The Caves of Steel (emphasis mine)

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Well, no, Baby Raptor didn’t say anything about basing secular law on religious texts.

    Baby Raptor said that evangelicals need to “learn to live their own lives, and get rid of the idea that their thoughts should matter to anyone at all except maybe their children.”

    Now, unless one argues that a different set of principles apply to people who we don’t like than to ourselves, this suggests to me a recommendation that we each effectively adopt a policy of isolationism. If someone else’s views should be kept to themselves then so should mine. As an activist, I reject that.

    I don’t think that there should be any expectation on society to make laws based merely on anyone’s say-so, but insisting that “because I said so” is an inadequate basis for laws is a long distance from insisting that it’s not OK to say what you believe.

  • RPierard

    Thanks to Fred Clark for saying some nice things about this old fart.  I will certainly buy you a beer the next time I see you, unless you are a teetotaler, or I forgot I just said that.  (I have a good Carl Henry story on the latter point but I will spare readers the details.)  I was told recently that I am over the hill and we now have to listen to what the young people have to say about the religious right.  Maybe so, but a lot of them frighten me.  And the hatred of President Obama by the evangelical right is truly unnerving.   What is discouraging is that the religious right is just as dangerous as it was when I started writing about it years ago.

  • Is it not true that the folks on the Christian right who call themselves evangelical usually (a) insist that their point of view on how we shall organize our affairs be taken more seriously than other equally valid points of view from non-members of their group, and (b) insist that their point of view on how we shall organize our affairs be written into law?

    If so, then Raptor’s point is clear: Those who call themselves “evangelicals” need to understand that they cannot put their thumbs on the scales of public discourse and demand that those of us who are not part of their group be effectively silenced.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Is it not true that the folks on the Christian right who call themselves evangelical usually (a) insist that their point of view on how we shall organize our affairs be taken more seriously than other equally valid points of view from non-members of their group, and (b) insist that their point of view on how we shall organize our affairs be written into law?

    Depends on how you interpret “usually”. But in general terms, sure, of course that happens. They’re far from a unique group in that sense, though.

    If so, then Raptor’s point is clear: Those who call themselves “evangelicals” need to understand that they cannot put their thumbs on the scales of public discourse and demand that those of us who are not part of their group be effectively silenced.

    That’s pretty far removed from get rid of the idea that your thoughts should matter to anyone except yourself and maybe your children.

    That’s the comment that my protest is about. Trying to redact in something about demanding that unincluded groups be silenced is pretty mischevious.

  • It’s a legitimate difference in interpretation. I don’t see Raptor’s statement as being categorically silencing the way you do.

  • I thought Raptor was saying that no one has the right to expect that their thoughts should matter to society as a whole. 

    I sometimes get the feeling from some evangelicals (mostly Land and his likeminded associates) that their opinion is so righteous that it should be accepted without question by everyone — they don’t have to make the same arguments that the rest of us do because they are derived from God or the Bible.

    You can also see this by witnessing the current legal battles over same-sex marriage (the Prop 8 defenders’ arguments were appallingly weak, almost like they were constructed by someone who is used to just putting his foot down and getting his way through sheer force of personality rather than reason or persuasion), or by the way that some evangelicals reacted after they lost this last election — everyone knew they should have voted for Romney but they were being willfully defiant by voting for Obama instead, all because Obama promised them free stuff.

    1Even their conception of religion is treated like this; everyone secretly knows that Christianity is the only true religion — atheists and non-Christians just pretend not to believe in Christianity out of spite or childish disobedience. 

    The reality is, though, even if you’re right you can’t just demand that everyone fall in line. The only people who have to listen to you and care what you think are the people who know and love you — but if you want to influence society as a whole, you have to convince society that your ideas are good. You can’t just expect the whole, “Because I said so!!” to work on millions of strangers the way it might work on your 2-year old.

    (I could be wrong in this interpretation though.)

  •  I’m inclined to agree with you, though I don’t think it’s unique to evangelicals.

    If I live in a culture where something is taken for granted, especially if challenging it is considered offensive, it’s hard for me to get into the right mindset to defend it against skepticism.

    For example, I would probably find it easier to explain why I think marriage equality should be the law of the land to a person of good will who genuinely didn’t understand why that should be, than I would to explain why I think murder should be against the law of the land to such a person. Not because the case for murder is so much weaker, but because I’ve never really had to argue it before… everybody I’ve ever met has agreed that yes, murder should be illegal. So if I were somehow put on the spot and forced to provide arguments for it, I can easily imagine myself saying stuff like “But… but… well, murder is by definition killing someone in violation of the law!”, or equally silly arguments, out of sheer astonishment that I’m even being challenged on this point.

    But in most real-world contexts I don’t have to provide arguments for something like this at all. If someone even comes close to challenging something that fundamental, all I usually have to do is say “Suggesting that we should legalize murder is absurd and offensive. Don’t ever suggest that again,” and the topic closes.

    I suspect that in most evangelical subcultures, “Same-sex marriage should be illegal” is an unchallengeable more, just as “Murder should be illegal” is in my own culture.

  • I wouldn’t expect an ordinary person, on the spot, to be able to build that compelling case — even on the immorality of murder without resorting to fallacies or making mistakes; after all, even someone whose conclusion is correct can make mistakes while trying to explain it. 

    But these people have had years to prepare (in the case of the Prop 8 case — these are trained attorneys who have known that they had this case coming up for months, and who presumably must have been thinking about this stuff when crafting the original law in the first place) and decades (in the case of the wider debate — 2012 wasn’t the first time anyone ever challenged anti-gay discrimination); they’re not just suddenly being confronted with opposition — they willfully sought out this opposition, got plenty of time and resources to prepare their best argument possible, had the opportunity to make their case and call whatever witnesses were necessary before the eyes of the court and the entire country, and all they could come up with is, “It’s wrong because I *said so*, dammit, now go to your room!!!”

    That goes beyond being caught off guard because your paradigm was challenged (a normal human reaction); this is them revealing that their only argument, the *best* one they could find, was appeal to (their own!) authority, and getting mad because millions of strangers don’t buy that. 

  •  Yes, agreed that the Prop8 case was absurd, and agreed that this wasn’t just cultural surprise on the prosecutors’ part but reflected the actual weakness of the case.

    One of the nice things about the legal process is that when it works, the prosecution actually has to make and defend an argument, and do so by reference to commonly agreed upon legal grounds. They can’t get by with just making vague implications or unsupported claims or bait-and-switching the ground rules.

    It’s nice to see that process working, from time to time.

    That said, this doesn’t generalize well to discussions outside of courtrooms.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    It’s a legitimate difference in interpretation. I don’t see Raptor’s statement as being categorically silencing the way you do.

    May I suggest that this might be because you’re thinking about it as it relates to a group you don’t like. I’m thinking about whether it’s supportable if it were to apply to people I do like, or myself.”Get rid of the idea that your thoughts should matter” is no categorical imperative.

  • That’s a good point. The structure of the courtroom is artificial, but again — this cultural debate over same-sex marriage and general LBGT rights isn’t particularly new. The people who fought for DOMA, the people who backed the same-sex constitutional marriage bans (both on the federal level and in the, what, 30 states that did the same thing?), the people who have been fighting against same-sex couples’ adoption rights, the people who fought against adding transgender protections to the National Defense Act of 2010, etc. have been fighting this battle in earnest for about two decades now. 

    They’ve faced their opposition time and again; they’ve won some of these clashes and lost others. They’ve been doing this for so long that they can’t legitimately claim to be surprised that not everyone in the country agrees with them. 

    They’ve had, if anything, even more time than the lawyers did — 20 years of practice beats a few months of trial preparation, and there are fewer strictures on them than in a court of law. The fact that they couldn’t come up with anything is even more damning outside of the courtroom context — they couldn’t even manage sophistry. 

  • Well, sure, it’s totally damning.

    But I mostly think it’s a damning condemnation of how little progress gets made in casual conversation.

    I mean, just look at the conversations that happen in the comments section here. For every time that one of us actually listens to another, learns something new, changes our view of the world… or even every time that one person comes up with a novel, more compelling argument to support our existing views…  there’s a hundred exchanges in which we just reiterate what we believed going in, in more or less the same way we said it the first way, except maybe a little angrier or a little snarkier or a little more outraged or a little more tired or a little more sure of ourselves’.

    And actually, by ordinary standards that’s a pretty damned good ratio.

    So, I dunno. Even three or four decades of that sort of conversation doesn’t seem to do much to improve the quality of discourse.

  • True, but that’s not really the problem I have. It’s not so much that the quality of public discourse is bad, but that they have yet to come up with new (or any) arguments. Even though the arguments that we might have are fruitless and unproductive, they at the very least prove that there is some disagreement in general — after all, it’s hard to even have a silly argument unless you’re saying something different from the other person, right? 

    So they can’t use the excuse, “Our views are so self-evident that we have no idea that anyone disagreed with us.” If that’s the case, and they know that there are people out there who disagree with them, and they’ve clashed with these people on TV, in courtrooms, during campaigns and ballot initiatives, and they still haven’t come up with arguments that aren’t appeals to authority. 

    At this point, I think the only reasonable conclusion is that they don’t have anything else. And if that’s really the case too, then I’d have to say that the original post is perfectly fair –> an appeal to personal authority only works for people who know you personally. You can’t expect someone you’ve never even met to just take your word for it that gays should burn in Hell, just because you said so. 

  • Agreed that there is disagreement, and that it ought to be obvious to everyone involved that there is disagreement. And agreed that appeals to personal authority only make sense where there’s a personal relationship to appeal to.