Ignoring hateful extremists doesn’t make them go away

Ignoring hateful extremists doesn’t make them go away April 17, 2019

Will the Real Evangelical Please Stand Up?” Adam Laats is writing there about court evangelicals versus the slightly less-Trumpy old-guard of “mainstream” white evangelicalism, but his conclusion is pertinent to our discussion here of popular evangelical anti-Semite Rick Wiles.

Laats writes:

The Taylor/Pence story hits the same ugly notes. I sympathize entirely with Amy Peterson and her friends and allies at Taylor University. I wish evangelical institutions would embrace the best traditions of evangelical religion. I hope — though I don’t pray — that large numbers of white evangelicals reject Trump’s toxic Americanism at the polls in 2020.

In the end, however, we all need to face realities. The faculty and some students at Taylor might reel in dismay at the university’s decision to honor Mike Pence. But in the end, as Peterson recounts, lots of Taylor students and faculty loved it. And the school’s administrators, as always desperate to reassure students and families that they represent “real” evangelical values, decided that Pence embodied those values. When pollsters explore beyond the faculty lounge, they find that white evangelicals prefer Pence to Peterson.

And many of those same white evangelicals are also being taught — by Trump and Pence, and by their many court prophets in the so-called “Christian” media — to prefer the hateful propaganda of people like Rick Wiles.

One popular response to hateful demagogues like Trump or Wiles is not to respond at all. Ignore them and maybe they’ll just go away. Criticizing them or challenging their lies, this argument holds, just gives them more attention and more oxygen. Maybe if we never mention the growing influence of CBN and Trinity and EWTN and Charisma and TruNews et. al. then all of those fear- and hate-inducing outlets will stop having influence.

Maybe if we stop paying any attention to them, no one else will pay any attention to them either.

I suppose that it’s possible that such a response has sometimes succeeded in the past. Examples of such successes wouldn’t easily spring to mind because, after all, every such example would be someone who was first ignored and then went away.

But many, many counter-examples do spring to mind — examples that show this non-responsive response often fails catastrophically, essentially amounting to an unconditional surrender.

Risking such catastrophic failure does not seem prudent. Nor does it seem prudent to accept an argument that positions itself as prudence but that counsels the same timid course of inaction that would result from simple cowardice.

In its most extreme form, this idea of “ignore them and let’s hope they just go away” twists itself into a time-traveling logic that reverses cause and effect, blaming critics of hateful demagogues for those demagogues’ very existence. One of the weirdest and wildest examples of this argument for retroactive causation was something we discussed here several years ago — when now-CEO and president of Christianity Today Tim Dalrymple explained that the rise of the religious right and its influence was the product of, well, me.

Recalling that strange episode led me to revisit a couple of posts from early 2013. Seeing as they’ve aged pretty well, and they’re relevant to our conversation of What To Do About Rick Wiles, I’m reposting them here:

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‘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.

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.

Skye Jethani gets one thing partly right in his push-back against the push-back against the appalling public theology of the religious right.

In his Out of Ur essay “No, We’re Not a Hate Group,” Jethani discusses the way the “sensationalism” of the spotlight-grabbing media stars of the religious right can make them seem disproportionately influential:

In the free market of the media it is not fair and accurate reporting that gets rewarded, but page views, clicks, and [Nielsen] ratings. With online and cable news outlets struggling for viewers (and revenue), there is constant pressure for these organization to not just report news but make it. Therefore, when a Christian leader is needed to comment on an event, they are more likely to invite a Crazy Uncle Christian known for shooting his mouth off and insulting minorities than the thoughtful, reflective Christian offering wisdom.

… If you’re behind the editorial desk at CNN and desperate for page views, which story are you going to publish: “Christian Leader Fasts and Prays for Victims of School Shooting” or “Christian Leader Blames Shooting on School Prayer Ban”[?]

Sadly, when sensationalism sells it’s going to be the crazy uncles in Christendom that get media attention.

Yes, “sensationalism sells.” But Jethani apparently didn’t watch CNN in the days and weeks following the Newtown shooting. The former story — “[Christians] … Pray for Victims” — was reported dozens of times covering numerous events. They reported — positively — on sermons at several area churches. They quoted from clergy who spoke at funerals. It wasn’t just CNN, either — one prayer vigil was broadcast on all the major networks — with NBC interrupting Sunday Night Football to show it live. Look through CNN’s Belief Blog over the past month and you’ll find many, many thoughtful, reflective, restrained and respectful articles commending the responsible reactions from numerous Christian leaders following the tragedy.

Sure, CNN also covered the statements by Huckabee, Dobson, Fischer and Graham, but they didn’t interrupt Sunday Night Football to do so. And they had to cover those statements because they are news.

It’s the man-bites-dog principle. The old saying is that “Dog Bites Man” is not news — that’s what dogs sometimes do, and it’s just a routine occurrence. But “Man Bites Dog” is news — it’s something unusual, unexpected and noteworthy.

Similarly “Pastor Provides Pastoral Care” is not news. Nor is “Shock-jock Says Something Shocking” newsworthy. But if the “Morning Zoo Crew” on the local radio station dispenses with its usual crude antics in the wake of a tragedy, organizing a vigil and rallying community support for the victims, that would be news — a reversal of the usual roles, something surprising and unexpected.

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