Essay / Culture

Another Facile Story on Evangelicals

Evangelicals rethink their public face – U.S. News – MSNBC.comHere is one of those wishful thinking articles that you get from the Main Stream Media every so often. Anyone who lived during the eighties can easily recall the exact same articles being written at the time. As I argued during the election, Evangelicals, like all traditional Christians, cannot accept the institutionalization of what they view as murder or the state sanction of unnatural relationships. There is a place for an Evangelical “left” and a natural voting block of voters for it. However, it is severely hampered by being forced to associate with a secularist minority that controls the Democrat Party and extreme social engineering from that group. Until the Democrats give control to their religious majority, they will not win national elections except in fluke situations (paging Perot). My comments in italics below:Evangelical leaders are re-examining whether American evangelicalism has suffered from its portrayal as a conservative political movement rather than as a broad religious philosophy rooted in a literal reading of the Bible.This is a factually true description of the Evangelical movement, but written in a way that is calculated to be misunderstood by most American readers. What is meant by “literal?” Do we mean the complex theology found in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrency? I think most people think “wooden” or “anti-intellectual” when they hear “literal.” In fact, my experience with students says that most evangelicals would reject what most people think is the “literal” reading of Scriptures. In short, this is the least sympathetic way of saying what is true about Evangelicals. A better way of wording this statement would be:

. . . rather than as a broad religious philosophy rooted in a traditional Protestant reading of the Bible.”

Although evangelical leaders have been among the most prominent spokesmen for conservative causes, “evangelical” and “religious right” are not the same thing. Studies indicate that as many as 40 percent of Americans who call themselves evangelicals are politically moderate or identify with the Democratic Party.The double-talk begins here. Most of the article is centered on the white Evangelical community. This statistic seems (one cannot be sure) to measure the entire population of Evangelicals which would include a large plurality of African-Americans.African-Americans number millions of Evangelical voters who for historical reasons over-whelmingly vote Democrat. This voting pattern by African-Americans is not new, may be declining, and is not a valid statistic to generate a story on white Evangelicals and traditional Catholics (the historic religious right) moving away from their traditional voting patterns.In fact, the best poll, an actual election, conducted in November of last year showed white and Hispanic Evangelicals going overwhelmingly for President Bush.It appears that this story assumes that in the last six months something new has happened to change this. However, it cites not a SINGLE post-election fact that would change the solid support Bush received.In fact, his pro-life stands for Schaivo and for judges that value life may have cemented support for the President.But two recent declarations by evangelical and conservative religious thinkers suggest that evangelicals have become too closely identified with conservative political activism, at the expense of attracting new followers. The declarations are likely to be hot topics of conversation when the Southern Baptist Convention holds its annual meeting next month in Nashville, Tenn.Notice that one of these was done before (or in the context) of the election. The other has nothing to do with politics. “Because evangelicals have been portrayed as being very, very limited in their range of societal concerns, there is an element of challenge in the evangelical community to say, ‘LetÂ’s not get caught up in narrow partisan concerns,’” said Mark L. Sargent, provost of Gordon College, a nondenominational Christian institution in Wenham, Mass. “Many evangelicals say they feel very alienated with the partisan rhetoric in the nation.”I have written about the academic divide between many Evangelical academics and Evangelicals. Safe to say Mark L. Sargent was no fan of the religious right before the last election and is not one now. Gordon College does not represent the “right” of Evangelical colleges.Evangelicals seek broader focusThe declarations — a statement of principles by the National Association of Evangelicals and a study of growth in Southern Baptist congregations — serve to crystallize discontent among many evangelical and conservative Christians with their public perception in recent years.Notice that the statement by the NAE came just before George W. Bush got an overwhelming number of white Evangelical votes. The other study being cited describes the results of conservative/liberal theological struggle for the soul of the Southern Baptist denomination . It is just wrong to confuse this with concerns about conservative/liberal politics.The NAE document, “For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,” was the product of three years of work. It was created by two dozen scholars who bridged the spectrum of conservative to liberal evangelical thought encompassed by the organizationÂ’s 45,000 churches, which represent 52 U.S. denominations. It was released in March for general distribution with a book of essays that expanded on its seven main points.It may have represented a spectrum of “Evangelical thought” but did the group represent the consensus of Evangelicals. In other words, if liberals and conservatives were equally represented on the group, then liberals (one quarter of white Evangelicals) were grossly over-represented.The statement is a diplomatically worded synthesis that reaffirms evangelicalsÂ’ traditional opposition to abortion, embryonic stem cell research, pornography and “sexual libertinism.” And it urges evangelicals to remain deeply engaged on those issues.But “evangelicals have failed to engage with the breadth, depth, and consistency to which we are called,” says the statement. It was signed by nearly 100 of the nationÂ’s most prominent evangelical leaders, among them James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family; Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; Charles Colson, president of the Prison Fellowship ministry; and the Rev. Rick Warren, author of the best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”In other words, it is only “news” if one had assumed that Evangelicals were in lock step on every issue. This story also hides the fact that this statement (see my earlier blog comments on it at the time) was first released before the election. It had no impact if it was intended to lesson the President’s vote.Also note that older leaders of the religious right signed it. This suggests it is simply a restatement of traditional Evangelical concerns pressed into service by this writer to make a point the statement must not make. Otherwise we have to assume Dobson and Colson (to cite two examples) did not know what they were signing.Are millions of white Evangelicals political liberals
? Of course.The Evangelical movement is so big that the quarter of the population that Bush lost still amounts to millions of citizens. There is a left-right spectrum in the Evangelical church, but as the last election proves almost all the flock is on the right end of the bell curve. The discovery of the Evangelical left by the press only shows how out of touch they are with one quarter of the American population.
Southern Baptists examine evangelismThe NAE statement is being debated simultaneously with a study published this month by theologian Thom S. Rainer, which concluded that the Southern Baptist Convention, the nationÂ’s largest Protestant denomination, has fallen into an “evangelistic crisis.”Who is debating both? Nobody is cited. Or is it that both are coming out at the same time and the reporter is linking them? If so, what justifies the linkage?Evangelism is the heart of the traditional Baptist message. That has never changed. A cvil war over doctrine may have harmed evangelism, but that has nothing to do with Baptist political opinions.The Southern Baptist Convention is not a member of the NAE, but it has become predominantly evangelical since 1979.Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., argues that while the “conservative resurgence” of the last quarter-century has effectively transformed the convention into a theologically purer body, it has failed to attract new followers.“The Southern Baptist Convention is less evangelistic today than it was in the years preceding the conservative resurgence,” writes Rainer, who found that the denominationÂ’s number of annual baptisms has remained virtually unchanged since the 1950s. “We must conclude that the evangelistic growth of the denomination is stagnant, and that the onset of the conservative resurgence has done nothing to improve this trend.”Of course unlike liberal groups, the Baptists have not been shrinking. This also fails to take into account that the Baptists fought a major theological civil war and did not lose numbers. That is amazing good news! There is a more pure Baptist church which can now start to build numbers! Of course, none of this has much of anything to do with American politics. RainerÂ’s article supports the campaign for a renewal of broad evangelistic fervor in the denomination by the Rev. Bobby Welch, who was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention last year partly on the strength of his promise to baptize 1 million new Southern Baptists.What is the world does this have to do with the rest of the story? Only by confusing two uses of conservative can this be done. Evangelical environmentalismThe NAE document, meanwhile, calls for social action on issues that, while of great concern to many evangelicals, have been overshadowed in the public arena by hot-button topics like abortion and same-sex marriage. More attention must be paid to employment, labor, housing, health care, education, human rights, racial equality and the environment, it says.Sargent, of Gordon College, said in an interview that while the NAE statement “brings no surprises,” some of its principles could be difficult to accept for some “on the conservative side of the spectrum.”“Some of this statement is to challenge the larger evangelical community to have a broader perspective,” he said, and leaders of conservative congregations, especially, “might have to give reasons for why they chose to sign it.”Of course, that they did sign it may mean that it does not mean what an out of touch aging Evangelical academic hopefully tries to twist it into saying. Sargent and his ilk represent about one quarter of Evangelicals. The rest of us are still for ending racism, being good stewards of creation, but like conservative solutions to those problems. Hating racism is not a liberal monopoly and to imply that it is simply demonstrates the bias of the writer. Most controversially, the NAE statement explicitly throws its weight behind the growing “creation care” environmental movement, which asserts that Christians are stewards of GodÂ’s creation. It is led by the Evangelical Environmental Network, best known for its “What Would Jesus Drive?” campaign.“As evangelical leaders, we need to step up to our responsibilities to be leaders in the fight for clean air and water, to stop the burning of rain forests, cruelty to animals, overuse of pesticides, and the countless other issues that result from our consumer-oriented lifestyles,” R. Scott Rodin, former president of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote in the book of essays that accompanied the report.More Evangelical leaders nobody has heard of who publish books nobody reads. Rodin will not determine how Evangelicals vote since almost nobody has heard of Rodin. The quarter of Evangelicals that voted for Kerry will go on yelling that Evangelicals are not all Republicans which everyone admits.Meanwhile groups like the Evangelical Environment Network, which I had never heard of until today (I work at one of the world’s largest Evangelical colleges), will go on getting noticed only by the Mainstream Media in man-bites-dog stories like this one. They often appear content to be useful idiots for the dominant secular leadership of the left. I trust this is not so, but it is sometimes hard to see.Conservative Evangelicals are players in the Republican Party. The President is one of our own. Denny Hastert, the Speaker of the House, is a conservative who is a graduate of Wheaton College. John Thune, an up and coming Senator, is a card carrying member of the traditional right and a Biola graduate. What white, liberal Evangelical sits in any real power position in the Democrat party? Conservative resistanceMany conservative evangelicals have traditionally rejected the environmental movement, both because of its liberal heritage and because of the biblical injunction that Christians should worship the creator, not his creation. Already, the statement has put the NAE at odds with allies of conservative evangelicals in Congress and the Bush administration.This is just a lie. The late Francis Schaeffer, the intellectual architect of much of the religious right, was a strong supporter of the environment. All conservative Christians (basically) are.Stewardship of creation is a subject I remember learning in my very conservative Christian school. The main stream media confuses resistance to statist solutions to these problems with indifference to the problems.“We want to have a spiritual country, and I would hate to think that we give in, and particularly organizations like the NAE, to a bunch of far-left-wing environmentalists,” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said last month in an interview on “The 700 Club,” which airs on the Rev. Pat RobertsonÂ’s Christian Broadcasting Network.That is a worry, but only if we let the Main Stream Media and the minority of Evangelicals define what “concern for the environment” is. Socialism is bad for nature. Opposition to socialism is good for creation.The trade journals Inside Fuels & Vehicles and Energy Washington Week, meanwhile, reported that NAE leaders were coming under pressure from the White House, which has pursued increasing drilling for oil and natural gas in previously protected areas.But Sargent said conservative evangelicals were likely to lose ground in that battle.What is Sargent’
s track record as a political pundit? How does being provost of Gordon qualify him to opine on this topic? Of course, I am just a philosopher, but then I am not predicting that Evangelicals are about to do the opposite of what they did six months ago. “Part of the resistance to creation care has been because of the strong support for capitalism in the Cold War era,” he said.Sargent is historically ignorant if he believes this. The brilliant co-founder of Biola Lyman Stewart was an oil man and capitalist. He paired up with R.A. Torrey to develop the school. As D.L. Moody also demonstrates a linkage between free markets and Evangelicals decades before communism took power in Russia. “I think, in an era where the Cold War has faded and capitalism is not pitted so strongly against social issues, there is much less of a desire to embrace capitalism with all of its imperfections and more of a desire to have a responsible capitalism much more alert to the ways in which it can damage things that are important.”Sargent presents no data supporting this thesis. What is “responsible capitalism?” What are the imperfections of capitalism? Is Sargent confusing the imperfections of men with the imperfections of free markets? Perhaps responsible capitalism is compassionate conservatism?Of course, we saw last week that many Christian academics at schools like Calvin hate capitalism. Sargent hangs out with those folk and may be influenced to view the movement as larger than it is.The good news is the average pew sitter is not an academic. He or she works out in the real world and is not likely to start thinking that his or her job is less important than socialistic schemes to “save nature” that do nothing but enrich government workers. We all want to conserve the beauty of God’s creation for our children. Most of us just don’t trust the government to do it.

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