Reverse Intolerance and the Redemption of Evangelical Blowhards

If we malign Evangelicalism a bit too often on this site it’s not because it’s […]

David Zahl / 8.1.11

If we malign Evangelicalism a bit too often on this site it’s not because it’s an easy target – which it is – no, as precious or naive as it might sound, we do it mainly because we care. Evangelicalism refers, of course, to a historical movement that has stressed the Good News of Salvation (the Evangel or Evangelium) – which is certainly something worth getting behind! Who doesn’t need some good news? Or some saving?! The problem, as we tirelessly point out, is how the movement has tragically come to stand for the opposite of “Good” or “News” (i.e., “Bad” “Advice”), with salvation becoming almost a footnote to an exhausting and counterproductive program of moral improvement, or worse, a vehicle of internal and external condemnation. We point this stuff out, not because we think people respond to criticism, but because those who have been burned by the movement/church (or simply find themselves outside of it) might need some, well, compassion. I know I certainly do!

The death of John Stott last week served as a timely reminder of what is so redeeming and sympathetic about Evangelical religion, classically understood. As my father’s obituary suggested, we would do well to study this great man’s life. As for the blowhards, I am reminded of how Mark Galli so memorably (and compassionately) put it at this year’s NYC conference: those people may be asses, but they’re our asses. That said, whether or not the label itself (“Evangelical”) is a lost cause, remains to be seen – this blogger suspects it is.

Needless to say, you were probably as surprised as I was to read Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed in The NY Times yesterday, “Evangelicals Without Blowhards,” where he not only articulated the “reverse intolerance” that is so rampant in regards to religious conservatives, but defended/highlighted some of the undeniably courageous (and Good!) work being done by them. It’s not only a perceptive piece, but a brave and important one as well. Bravo:

In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as “evangelical Christian.”…

Partly because of [Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson’s] self-righteousness, the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral.

Yet that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice.

This compassionate strain of evangelicalism was powerfully shaped by the Rev. John Stott, a gentle British scholar who had far more impact on Christianity than media stars like Mr. Robertson or Mr. Falwell.

[Some] self-appointed evangelical leaders come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him. Some seem homophobic, and many who claim to be “pro-life” seem little concerned with human life post-uterus. Those are the preachers who won headlines and disdain.But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

I’m not particularly religious myself, but I stand in awe of those I’ve seen risking their lives in this way — and it sickens me to see that faith mocked at New York cocktail parties.

Why does all this matter?

Because religious people and secular people alike do fantastic work on humanitarian issues — but they often don’t work together because of mutual suspicions. If we could bridge this “God gulf,” we would make far more progress on the world’s ills.

And that would be, well, a godsend.