An Earnest Question About Anti-science, Poor hating, Narrow-minded Republican evangelicals

Every time I hear someone pontificating about how evangelicals don’t care about science or the poor or don’t like “hard questions” or are way into being Republican, I always wonder the same thing: Who are these people they’re talking about?

I am an evangelical. I know a whole, whole lot of different sorts of evangelicals all over the world, and I’m increasingly  confused by the ever-recycled, echo chamber truisms about evangelicals.

I’m bewildered because many of the folks I know who are doing the most rigorous scientific research and working hardest to bring hope, help, and justice to the poor are evangelicals. Like these folks.
Or any number of the (literally) hundreds of evangelical students I could link to who I have personally met who are doing incredible work in science. Not to mention, this guy.

Or our dearest of friends who started this or this or this. Not to mention, these guys who were talking about social justice before it was cool (and before I was born). Or this dude. Or these guys, who just might be saving the world.

Some people like my friend Daniel so hate science and poor people that they become top of their field in medicine and then move with their families to developing nations where they give quality care to the sick.

And then folks are writing about a new sort of evangelicalism.
And stuff like this keeps happening. And this. And this.

And I hear about these stories of tremendous beauty in a dark world and talk to these kind of science loving, compassionate, justice seeking evangelical weirdos every single day.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that this litany makes the gospel evangelicals believe true or that you should be an evangelical or that we’re worthy of any kind of respect or that the evangelical church doesn’t deserve criticism or that we aren’t all completely nuts.

But here is my honest question: Am I just really lucky?

I’m asking this earnestly. Do I just happen to know the ‘right sort of’ evangelicals, a negligible, invisible sect within a sect? Granted, I work for these guys. And they’re always coming up with things like this. But is my sample that skewed? Have I just gone to above averagely awesome churches? Because none of these science-rejecting, poor ignoring, homophobes go to church with me.  So is my experience all that unique? Or is this stereotype based on partial truths or the Moral Majority of  twenty years ago? Or is this a strawman that is being trotted out and bashed again and again? And if so, why?

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10 responses

  1. My response here is that maybe there is a forest/tree issue here. For me, when I read about “evangelicals” in the media, I always think about *institutions* like First Baptist Dallas or Joel Osteen’s church (I know, two totally different flavors), neither of which I want to be associated with. But I’m sure there are lovely people that attend/are members of those institutions, and some of them are doing good Kingdom work. But we miss (some of) the trees for the forrest because those trees are such a rare bird.

    There may also be a definitional issue here – all the dear saints you wrote about, perhaps you consider them to be evangelicals, but I wonder if they would choose that term for themselves.

  2. I don’t think that covers it Jason. I don’t think it’s enough to say that evangelical individuals are good but the institutions are bad. Because a) it’s really hard to define what an evangelical institution even is out side of the individuals who begin them (since evangelicalism is more of a movement/tradition than a church itself) and b) there are some great institutions started by evangelicals (some listed in this post, some not).
    The definitional critique is legit (Is Joel Osteen an evangelical?). I tried to only use examples in the post of people who would be okay with calling themselves evangelicals or institutions started by people or with key leaders who call themselves evangelicals..

  3. Three semi-pertinent comments:

    In the last election, self-identified evangelicals voted Republican by better than 80 percent. As a result, evangelicals get tarred with Republican orthodoxy. The one exception has been the increasingly vocal stance on immigration.

    Second, the memory of when political evangelicalism was ascendent is still fresh: it’s not the Moral Majority, but the politics of 2000-2006. This time was known not only for its rejection of Democrats (see Amy Sullivan, circa 2004), but also for the passage of significant pro-marriage amendments as a wedge issue. it was indeed about the gays. I take much of the present reaction to be reaction against this particular period.

    (It should also be noted that at the time this was the same public face that supported the increasingly unpopular war including its use of torture).

    Third, on science. While there certainly are more evangelicals willing to address science than would vote Democratic, Biologos and company is by no means understood to be normative within evangelical precincts — see the controversies over creation that erupted at Calvin College just four years ago. Moreover, there is also a well-known skepticism towards climate science — so much of this is tied not to theological conviction as much as to a sort of tribal/cultural orientation.

    To sum: I believe you under-estimate how culturally captive current evangelicals are, and how resistant its present structures are to reformers (see the push-back that Rachel Hyde Evans has received, again and again). More likely venues will come from shift of worship (thus the mild move to more established forms of worship and particularly the liturgical), or the embrace of issues away from the cultural wars: water has been especially useful, as has the more recent approaches on immigration. For my part, I would worry less about the evangelical identity and more about being simply responsive as a Christian.

    • Thanks for commenting.
      About Republicanism and evangelicals:
      1. 80% of those who voted reported voting for Republicans but I wonder how many just didn’t vote? Again, this is speculation, but among youth movement in evangelicalism, there is a lot of cynicism toward the political process and the whole “Jesus for President” movement might actually have kept some more progressive evangelical types away from polls. I know many evangelicals who just stayed home because they didn’t like wither option.
      but 2. The real issue (this is more to the point than #1) is that the question isn’t if evangelicals vote Republican. They might very well vote Republican. That in and of itself is not terribly telling of who these people are and, hopefully, wouldn’t keep people away from evangelical churches. The question is do they feel a particular loyalty to the Republican party? Is there a continuation of the co-dependence between the GOP and the “religious right” that we’ve seen before? In other words, maybe evangelicals vote for Republicans, but is that a circumstance of the moment that can change easily? Is it a wedded identity or a fluid identity that is in flux? I know evangelicals that are Republicans (and I know some who are Libertarians and Democrats and Anarchists and none of the above.) But even the Republicans I know by and large are so pragmatically and don’t think it is THE PARTY OF GOD. They vote Republican because they are for small government or pro-life or what have you, but it isn’t that they think you must vote that way to be truly “Christian” as evangelicals have in the past.

      Your points about 2000-2006, very helpful indeed. I’d love to read more about that time politically esp. in regards to evangelicals. That corresponds to my most progressive, green party campaigning days so I know I am out of touch with what was happening in the larger evangelicals world. Any book recommendations?
      And climate change, yeah, I’d just note that evangelicals are also doing a lot right now to address Creation Care. It’s not really a monolithic movement in that regard. I talked about A Rocha, but there’s this: http://www.creationcare.org/
      (Google evangelicals and creation care and you’ll get a lot.) Even Pat Robertson (who sadly is seen to represent evangelicalism at large) now believes in human caused climate change.
      About underestimating cultural captivity, you may be right. This post wasn’t to be cheeky. It was born of honestly questioning why the people I know in church are so little like who I read that they are. I may really be a part of a sub-culture in the sub-culture, which gets little press. Perhaps, it warrants little press. It’s tough to parcel out stereotype from reality when one is situated in one’s finite community and narrative, as we all are.
      Good discussion. Thanks.

  4. In the same way that it is difficult to create some universal picture of an “Evangelical” there is a difficulty in discerning exactly what the causes are for evangelicalism to receive such a reaction. It seems quite reasonable that it is related to the close ties of the Moral Majority to political power as it is for there to be an unhealthy alliance between the Republican party and some aspects of Christianity. (I would also argue that the alliance toward the other side of spectrum is equally as unhealthy)

    This dissatisfied sensibility could equally come from dysfunction, lack of health, abuse, and the like within local communities. Juxtapose this with the complexity of cultural tendencies encouraging fear, juvenility, narcissism, etc. and you have a cocktail ripe of all kinds of disgruntled, if not down right angry, urges amongst people. The goal then is to find something–anything–with which to focus that aggression. So the strawman is also the scapegoat. The strawman needs to remain intact because it provides something with which to use as a characterization of a whole group, but is really just people venting their frustrations from the dysfunctions, abuse, or the like. Moreover, little has been offered to help responding in a manner that is just, merciful, and restorative/transformative to individuals, communities and, equally as important, the systems. To do this would require the strawman/scapegoat to be removed, which in some sense is to relinquish a position of power. That the monochromatic imagery such mis-characterizations represent–like a brand of Evangelicalism–has to accept the other colors that make it what it is: a diversified whole with political liberals/conservatives,pacifists/just war theorists, socially conscious/culture haters, and the list goes on.

    But then again, this whole reality is a complex whole with no exact right answer and what I’ve presented above is just the jumbled thoughts of someone who needs another cup of coffee. Thank you for writing Tish. Cheers.

  5. I think there really is a media bias. No large grouping of people is monolithic; in portraying the group the media has the choice of focusing on the middle of the group or the fringes. In the case of Evangelicals, it is definitely the fringes that get all the press. Do you know what church gets the most media attention in the U.S.? Westboro Baptist Church, with its 40 members most of whom are members of one family. Conversely, World Vision is now the largest NGO involved in relief efforts in the world. By far the largest responder to the Haiti earthquake, in the heavy media coverage of that tragedy how many times did you see them mentioned? I heard a member of the USAF team that reopened the airport recount how half the planes that landed in the first 24 hours were from World Vision, with US government flights running 2nd.

    • Matt, What do you do with Anglican evangelicals (like me and Jonathan)? Or even Catholics who identify as evangicals? We’ve had several students on our intervarsity (clearly evangelical, para church) leadership team who are Catholic. I could name more (Andy crouch and the CT staff come to mind) but I have to seize this brief moment of both kids sleeping to read the letters of CS Lewis, pope of evangelicals and Anglicans alike.:)

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  7. Hey Tish,

    So I’ll hazard a step into this fray. Funny enough that I work at a place of science now.

    About seven years ago, I sat as a counselor at a mainstream Christian camp and watched — to my horror — a speaker get up and state, unequivocally, that “90% of respected scientists have now discounted evolution. It’s a pretty well known fact that evolution doesn’t add up.”

    Now, lemme just deal just with the first sentence: “90% of respected scientists have now discounted…” That was just a flat out lie. Whether or not that speaker believed in evolution was irrelevant, he was speaking on behalf of the science community… and just lying about their supposed consensus to kids who were at that moment learning about biology in school.

    I hated that dude. He could have said, “Evolution doesn’t add up for me. ” Then I would have just thought he was ignorant. But instead, in service of his personal belief, he was willing to lie about what others thought… from the first sentence. And if you accepted that one lie – then everything else that followed made sense.

    It comes down to this: two hot button debate issues – creationsim and climate change – have been pretty ginned up. (And honestly, I think they were elevated by folks playing a game a bit over our heads for things like drilling rights, etc.)

    But whatever the reason, there have been some galling attempts to alter the nature of our education landscape (attempts to ban books, change courses, dictate curriculum) that have been based on passionate belief, even if that belief goes against our accumulated knowledge.

    You’re right. There are terrific Christians who practice amazing science. Check out John Dabiri, here at Caltech.

    But – and now we come to your question – these awesome individuals have somehow let others consume the media space. So all we know are the wackos.

    Easy: “religious community” vs. “scientific community”
    Hard: “religious scientific community” vs. “religious non-scientific community”

    Personally I just prefer: “scientific community (religious and non-religious)” vs. “idiots”

    And trust me – now that I work with those in the scientific community. I say with pride: I’m an idiot.

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