Posts tagged with: evangelicals

in-the-land2In what is another book that points to America’s cultural divide, Gina Welch decides to go undercover at the late Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. An atheist, Yale and University of Virginia liberal graduate from Berkeley, California, Welch declares her undercover ruse was needed to better understand evangelicals.

In the Land of Believers, Welch decides to fake conversion, become baptized in the church, immerse herself in classes, and even goes to Alaska on a mission trip to evangelize the residents of Anchorage. But an exposé of apish Christian neanderthals never emerges. What does emerge is the authentic depth to the people she writes about deeply contrasted with her counterfeit self, and to a degree a larger secular culture that lacks authenticity. The relationships that emerge for her at Thomas Road are heartwarming and sincere. Her friends and acquaintances at Thomas Road even offer to get her a job teaching at Liberty University. They are sincerely concerned with her life and well being.

Evangelicalism is widely diverse, and members of Thomas Road represent a brand of Christian fundamentalism far different than that practiced by many evangelicals. Falwell of course was a favorite whipping boy not just among the secular left, but by many evangelicals as well. This point is often unknown by those unfamiliar with evangelicalism. In my evangelical seminary, Falwell bashing was standard fare. But the Southern Baptist Church, despite theological differences one may have with that denomination, has faithfully served as a giant thorn in the side of religious pluralism and moral decay. While some protestant denominations seek to better reflect a secular world in the name of relevancy, Southern Baptists stand against this dangerous stream.

One aspect Welch touched on nicely in her account was addressing the anti-intellectual streak of some believers at Thomas Road and also questioning the effectiveness of some of the ways the Gospel was presented to non-believers. But this was of course not a book about theological debates, but more about a church community. And the book slowly devolves more and more into an inner struggle, where the author feels guiltier about the illusion she has crafted. She doesn’t want to have to deal with the hurt she will dole out when her friends and fellow members find out she is a fraud and has been aping belief to write about their lives. Adding to the compassion and sincerity of her subjects, when after a year she finally tells two of her closest church member friends she is a fake, one who is a pastor, and she is going to write a book about them, they only offer forgiveness and grace.

Welch comes out of her undercover episode as she did when she came in, as an unbeliever. She of course has a more open mind now, and is able to have friendships with evangelicals. Bridging the cultural divide is one of the stated purposes of her account.

Welch also makes a lot of sweeping generalizations about evangelicals and pokes fun at their prayer language and beliefs. There was one statement she made though that caught my attention, although she meant it somewhat derisively. It was one of the few statements I highlighted in my reading of the book when she said “Evangelicals are a little obsessed with the crucifixion.” She offers up examples about their “obsession” with the cross which includes The Passion of the Christ film and animated preaching on the crucifixion. Last week I was talking to Jordan Ballor, a colleague here at Acton, about an individual who live tweeted their abortion, and we were discussing the sadness of the situation. After a long silence Ballor said, “but this is the world that God has seen fit to redeem.” Welch even provides a quote from a young preacher who says “We are never more like Jesus when we are forgiving the unforgivable.”

The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” If we ever wonder if God has abandoned us, if we wonder if God loves and adores us we only have to look to the cross of Christ. In our many dark nights of despair and anguish we are awakened with the truth that God has made us acceptable in Christ. The reconciliation of God and humanity is perhaps the most vivid and basic theme of Scripture.

While Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple is a much more entertaining account in the undercover evangelical sagas, Welch’s account has value as well. Welch befriends a little girl on her missionary trip to Alaska and even reads a salvation tract to her, albeit reluctantly. The girl professes faith and later comes up to Welch and says she is going to write about God and draw a picture of her new friend, who is Welch. This account is rife with contrast and the greatest contrast of all is Welch’s unbelief with a childlike faith that Jesus commands of us. This is well depicted when Welch writes about several children and their openness to the Gospel. While Welch’s judgment, skepticism, and unbelief is at the forefront of this account, perhaps she is unaware just how much she presents the Gospel through her many contrasts of faith and unbelief, and an emptiness that encompasses a life outside of the Triune God.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 to Augustine’s City of God, the civitas is an enormously pervasive and rich biblical and theological theme. On the contemporary scene there area number of indications that evangelicals are looking more deeply and critically at engagement with the “city” as a social, political, ethical, and theological reality. This is part of the explicit vision of The King’s College in New York City, for instance, where Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley is currently a visiting professor of theology. At Houston Baptist University, the publication aptly named The City, “featuring leading voices in Christian academia and elsewhere on the critical issues of the times.”

North of the border, the Canadian think-tank Cardus has long examined the issues surrounding Christian cultural engagement, particularly within the dynamic matrix of what we call “cities.” Recently Cardus published critical perspectives from Darryl Hart and Nelson Kloosterman, “The Gospel and the City: What’s a Believer To Do?”

For a number of years now the Acton Institute has produced specialized conferences focused on the more specialized call to move “Toward a Free and Virtuous City.” The most recent installment of the “City FAVS” took place last month in Weehawken, New Jersey, and featured Dr. Bradley, Rudy Carrasco, Acton president Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and Michael Lee of Georgetown University.

As the Lord said to Jonah of that ancient capital, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

I have a piece up today at the First Things website on conservative Protestants (like me) and their attitude toward corporate behavior.

Here’s a clip:

Experience and prudence have demonstrated that free markets are demonstrably better than other alternatives. But the problem is that we have tuned our antennae in such a way such that they pick up market problems like the promotion of hedonistic vice but do not take adequate notice of other wrongs. Thus, conservative evangelicals are quick to protest against 7-11 carrying Playboy magazine but are slow to call to account the corporation that deals with employees in bad faith.

Without Christ this is a world in which the strong will abuse the weak, the rich ignore or exploit the poor, and those with authority seek advantages for themselves as they exercise their power. We know these things both from the Scriptures and from examining our own hearts.

If our cultural critique is to have integrity, we must simultaneously respect the market and call the corporate sector to righteousness in its business dealings. As uncomfortable as Mike Huckabee’s concerns with executive compensation made many Republicans, his words suggested a healthy willingness critically to examine corporate behavior. If we question corporations when they produce bad products like pornography and gambling operations, then we necessarily accept the notion that the logic of free markets does not insulate them from critique when they commit other types of wrongs.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, December 18, 2008

The blogosphere is atwitter over the news that Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, will give the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration. The decision on Warren’s part to accept is getting criticism from the right, while Obama’s offer of the opportunity is getting criticized from the left.

At Redstate Erick Erickson views Warren’s participation as evidence of his desire to be the next “Protestant Pope” after the decline of Billy Graham. Erickson writes that Warren “wants to be the moral voice of the moral majority the way Graham used to be and he has a bigger ego to boot. So he’s happy to lay his hands on the new President and have the media give him the legitimacy the media once gave Billy Graham.”

And from the other side of the spectrum, Peter Daou’s entry at the Huffington Post does a good job summarizing the massive criticism Obama has gotten from the more radical strands of his party. In Daou’s words “the progressive community is outraged.”

Of course, they were also outraged when Obama participated in Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. And so too were many religious conservatives doubtful about Warren’s commitment to the two rails of the Religious Right, marriage and abortion. Many conservatives were pleasantly surprised when Warren (politely) pressed Obama on his views about abortion, which spawned the now-infamous “above my paygrade” response from the now President-elect. Quite frankly, Warren doesn’t need the media to “give” him legitimacy…his popularity, his pulpit, and his ability to bring together politicians in a public forum do that well enough.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Warren again surprises his conservative critics, even though an inauguration invocation is hardly the place for political grandstanding or pontificating. My opinion about Warren remains unchanged. At the time he organized the Saddleback forum, I thought it was a mark in his favor that he could act as a fair dealing arbiter and get the two major presidential candidates to appear. Only someone who had garnered a level of trust from both sides could achieve that kind of thing, and that’s where the comparisons to Billy Graham are most accurate and complimentary to Warren: “Perhaps Warren has had to upset the margins on both sides of the political aisle to get himself into a position that could command the kind of respect from both candidates that would get them to this platform.” He seems to be doing the same thing here.

Gina Dalfonzo over at the Point says that “a Christian leader given the opportunity to stand up and pray for the nation in public on an important occasion should generally take it, I think, no matter who’s doing the asking.” I do think pastors should avoid partisanship, as best they can, and I think Warren has done so rather admirably.

On this point there’s an interesting comparison to be made between Warren’s appearance at a presidential inauguration and the offer to Joel Hunter and Cameron Strang to pray at the Democratic National Convention. Strang, who is the founder and CEO of Relevant magazine, initially accepted the invitation, and then declined under criticism that his appearance would lend partisan credibility to Obama. Strang explained his choice to withdraw, saying, “If my praying at the DNC was perceived as showing favoritism and incorrectly labeling me as endorsing one candidate over the other, then I needed to have pause.”

So here’s the question: is praying at an inauguration more or less partisan than praying at a party’s convention? Or are the two equally partisan? I’m inclined to think that praying at the inauguration isn’t nearly so easily identifiable with “endorsing one candidate over the other” or “showing favoritism.” Once the election is over, the President is everybody’s President. Before the election, that’s a different story.

The keynote speaker for the Right Online conference tonight was conservative columnist and political commentator Robert Novak. Talking about his latest book Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, Novak declared that if you want to know why they call him the Prince of Darkness in Washington it’s because he supports limited government, low taxes, and freedom in the economic sphere, and that’s “enough to make you the Prince of Darkness in Washington.”

Novak called Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama a “true and smart politician” for pivoting to the center in the general election campaign. Novak said that chief executive officers of leading industries come away from private meetings with Obama saying they “can live with an Obama presidency.” Novak said recent Democratic presidential candidates couldn’t count on such passive support in previous elections.

Novak also called Ronald Reagan “the only successful president in his lifetime,” and he criticized the Republican minority leadership in Congress. Novak also lavished praise on the fair tax. Novak ended his engaging speech on politics by declaring Calvin Coolidge the other successful 20th century president.

Novak also answered a large number of questions at the end of his address, much more than the usual you may find at a keynote address at a major venue like the one we had here in Austin. Novak is a Roman Catholic convert and called himself “a great believer in prayer.”

One question we didn’t get to ask Novak was how much the support of the religious left, consisting of organizational leaders like Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, and Brian McLaren, will be a strength to Obama’s campaign. We can get a sense of how Novak might have answered from a recent column, “McCain’s Evangelical Problem.” McCain is much more reticent to talk about faith while stumping on the campaign trail, and that certainly seems to open additional opportunities for Obama to pick up votes from young, impressionable, and starry-eyed evangelicals. Look for that demographic to be an important swing vote in November.

Update: See also, “McCain’s Lead Among Evangelicals Smaller than Bush’s in ’04.”

It’s fun to watch as layers are gradually peeled away from the conventional wisdom to reveal that the CW is, well, wrong. Old CW: Evangelicals are marching in lockstep behind Mike Huckabee; Emerging CW: Evangelicals are just as fragmented in their opinions at this point in the nominating process as anyone else.

Mr. Huckabee did well with churchgoers [in Michigan], but the bigger story is so did other Republicans. According to exit polls, of the 39% of Michigan voters in the GOP primary who described themselves as born-again or evangelical, Mr. Huckabee won 29%. A full 57% instead voted for either Mr. Romney (34%) or Mr. McCain (23%). Of those who said a candidate’s “religious beliefs matter a great deal or somewhat,” Mr. Romney won 36%, Mr. McCain 26% and Mr. Huckabee 25%…

…The conventional story line has also ignored the problem of Mr. Huckabee as a candidate. The former governor did well in Iowa in part because he surged late and stayed a few steps ahead of a critical examination of his positions and record. The evidence in South Carolina suggests that as religious voters have learned more about him — and as they’ve started to meditate on the economic and national-security stakes in this race — they’re taking a good, hard look around.

They’ve got plenty of choices. Mr. Thompson has been successfully pounding Mr. Huckabee in debates and ads as a “liberal” on economic and immigration. Mr. Romney, at a rally in Columbia on Wednesday, ran hard on his promise to “strengthen families.”

Even Mr. McCain — who is benefiting from this social-conservative dogfight (leaving him with much of the independent and moderate vote that went for him in 2000) — rolled into South Carolina with a belated pitch for the core Republican base. At an event in Greenville, the Arizonan unveiled an endorsement from conservative Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, and highlighted his pro-life record and his promises to appoint strictly conservative judges.

I suppose you could call me one of those evangelical voters, and I’ve never been sold on Huckabee – primarily because of economics and foreign policy. With all the media hype over Huckabee’s “evangelical-powered” Iowa win, I was beginning to feel a bit lonely. It’s nice to be able to look at the real numbers and find out that I was never really alone. But even beyond that, it’s nice to know that evangelical voters are not necessarily going to give a candidate a pass on taxes, big government and wartime policy simply because he or she is a Christian.

RELEVANT magazine has conducted a reader survey and has a special section on young religious voter attitudes towards politics. A summary bite from RELEVANT founder and publisher Cameron Strang:

Young Christians simply don’t seem to feel a connection to the traditional religious right. Many differ strongly on domestic policy issues, namely issues that affect the poor, and are dissatisfied with America’s foreign policy and war.

In general, we’re seeing that twentysomething Christians hold strongly to conservative moral values, but at the same time don’t feel that their personal moral beliefs need to be legislated to people who don’t agree with them. It’s an interesting paradox, and is creating clear division between this generation and the religious right.

I think RELEVANT has some interest in spinning just how these “new” evangelicals line out on the left/right paradigm (they have Jim Wallis write a feature in this same special section).

Just ‘cuz you’re not down with the religious right it doesn’t follow that Jim Wallis is your homeboy. There’s a big squishy middle among evangelicals (new and not-so-new) that is conservative on life issues but has a range of opinion on other issues of public policy.

And this comes from someone with some “RELEVANT” cred. I’ll have a post up in the next week or so on Huckabee and the concept of “vertical” politics that has got so many pundits and commentators flummoxed.

See also: “A plea to evangelicals — from an evangelical,” David Gushee, USAToday.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Why listen to the new Radio Free Acton podcast? Because you’ll have the opportunity to hear news analysis before old media gets around to reporting it.

Here’s a case in point. In the inaugural January 11 edition of Radio Free Acton, I say the following:

I think what’s resonating with people in Michigan is Mike Huckabee as an example of what’s being called the “new evangelicals.” The mainstream media has really missed this, I think, because they’re associating “new” evangelicals, young evangelicals, with the so-called evangelical “left,” like Jim Wallis. What they’re missing there is Huckabee’s stalwart stance on traditional social conservative issues like abortion and gay marriage. And what differentiates Huckabee and new evangelicals from the so-called Religious Right traditionally is focus on other moral issues such as stewardship of the environment and international development and these sorts of things. So it’s really an evangelical “moderate” [category], which covers a lot of young people who are just as conservative on life issues as their forebears, but have a lot of concerns across the board in terms of public policy.

It’s two whole days later that the New York Times reports, “Huckabee Splits Young Evangelicals and Old Guard.”

Subscribe now, friends. Subscribe now.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, December 20, 2007

One element that came out in the aftermath of “Romney’s religion speech,” an event highly touted in the run-up and in days following, was the charge that Mormonism is essentially a racist faith (or at least was until 1978), and that in unabashedly embracing the “faith of his fathers” so publicly (and uncritically), Mitt Romney did not distance himself from or express enough of a critical attitude toward the official LDS policy regarding membership by blacks before 1978.

One example of a person who raised this concern quite vociferously is political analyst Lawrence O’Donnell, who as a guest on the McLaughlin Group on the episode immediately following Romney’s speech, said this of Romney (among many other things):

Here’s the problem. He dare not discuss his religion. And he fools people like Pat Buchanan, who should know better. This was the worst speech, the worst political speech, of my lifetime, because this man stood there and said to you, “This is the faith of my fathers.” And you and none of these commentators who liked this speech realize that the faith of his father is a racist faith. As of 1978, it was an officially racist faith. And for political convenience, in 1978 it switched and it said, “Okay, black people can be in this church.”

Mitt Romney was 31 years-old in 1978 when the LDS church altered its policy toward “priesthood” membership for black males, citing a new revelation. You can check out the entire exchange between O’Donnell and the other members of the McLaughlin Group panel here:


It seems to me that Pat Buchanan misses O’Donnell’s point in the exchange. Buchanan cites scandalous examples from Christianity’s past, such as the condoning of slavery for 1,500 years, in effect to say that all religions have their problems, and that doesn’t mean that we associate every historical evil from a religion’s past with its contemporary adherents. But what O’Donnell’s charge is meant to show is that folks like Pat Buchanan and other Christians are inclined to judge their tradition’s own past, and pronounce that such and such a practice was an objective evil and upon reflection ex post facto, incompatible with the fundamental beliefs of their faith.

From O’Donnell’s perspective it’s precisely this criticism that is lacking in Romney. As Byron York puts it,

But now, Romney is faced with the simple question: Was the church policy before 1978 wrong? This morning, he wouldn’t say, and it might be difficult for him, as a former church leader, to get out in front of the LDS leadership on that. And he certainly can’t cite McConkie’s advice to forget everything that was said before 1978. Given all that, it’s an issue that’s likely to pop up over and over again.

It did pop up on Romney’s Meet the Press interview with Tim Russert the following Sunday morning:


Part of Romney’s defense is his claim that his family’s practices point to their beliefs about race in America: “My dad marched with MLK.” Now there’s controversy surrounding that claim. (more…)

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Drudge Report yesterday featured a screen shot of a new television ad that’s playing currently in Iowa for presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Next to the image was this quote from primary opponent Ron Paul: “When fascism comes it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.” Paul said the Huckabee ad reminded him of the quote, which he attributed to muckraking novelist Sinclair Lewis.

Huckabee’s television ad steps back from politics, reminding the voters that the birth of Christ is the meaning of Christmas. Some critics and talking heads have attacked Huckabee for pandering too much to evangelical voters. In addition, a mini controversy surrounding the ad has emerged over what some are calling a ‘subliminal cross’ that appears on a bookcase in the background. Huckabee has dismissed the controversy with humor saying, “I was also signaling evangelical voters with Morse code, with all the blinking I was doing.”

Paul addresses the controversy by saying he wasn’t quoted correctly, and linked the comment to the war issue, criticizing super patriotism. He criticized Christians for not following the Just War Theory. He did not seem to adequately address the implied link he made with Christianity and fascism, which of course are polar opposites.

To his credit, Paul did talk about the opposition to free markets in this country, and the danger it imposes. Paul spoke about a kind of economic fascism, which he called “corporatism to the extreme.”

“Also, economically speaking this country is moving rapidly towards fascism,” Paul said. “We’re not going to end up with socialism of the old fashioned type. Like in medicine today, we don’t have free market medicine. We don’t have government medicine, we have corporate medicine. That is fascism in the economic sense.”

Updated: Ron Paul Charges Huck Implies He’s The Only Christian

The two clips are provided below.