Monday, June 30, 2008

How dishonest use of the term "evangelical" weakens Christian influence in our society

By now we've all seen the headlines about James Dobson's "accusing" Barack Obama of distorting the Bible. The story being several days old, we are now on round two or three, with the most recent articles describing counter-responses to responses to the original story. So we know Obama thinks Dobson was wrong. But where do evangelicals themselves stand?

According to an entry on the Dallas Morning News religion blog, Jim Wallis, noted liberal evangelical, has "ripped" Dobson for his criticism of Obama. This is not surprising, since Wallis is a known left-winger, and has become something of a darling of the left for allegedly squaring evangelicalism with leftism and proving that not all evangelicals are rabid right-wing troglodytes. Thus he has become useful in the left-wing quest to weaken the influence of Christianity in our society. But wait, isn't he an evangelical? And isn't the very definition of an evangelical to be a patriotic, pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage, pro-prayer in schools, etc., etc., conservative American?

Not when the meaning of the term "evangelical" is shifting. The word comes from the Greek "evangelion," meaning good news. In the strictest, perhaps original sense, it simply means one who is concerned with spreading the good news of the Christian gospel, namely that Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to earth to pay with his life the debt we could not pay for our own sin, purchasing for us eternal life. Now, in theory, this is something a Jim Wallis, a mainline protestant, or a Roman Catholic could sign on to just as well as James Dobson. So how did "evangelical" come to mean conservative, generic, non-denominational (or not particularly denominationally oriented) low-church Protestant? I speak only from my own memory here, but I believe that the term was not in common use in this sense until the 1990s. When I was a child in the 1980s, the term the media used for such people was "fundamentalists." That word had a negative connotation, and was not entirely accurate because only a small subset of conservative Protestants are true fundamentalists, so, by my understanding, this group of which we speak mounted a large PR campaign to replace the f-word with "evangelical," a more positive word that emphasized the seemingly benign mission to spread the gospel.

This campaign was largely successful; the media, and those outside the conservative Protestant world, actually began using this word instead of "fundamentalist." But a funny thing happened on the way to the church: instead of swapping meanings, liberals, secularists, and the mainstream media swapped only symbols, leaving the underlying meaning intact. "Evangelical" simply came to mean exactly what "fundamentalist" used to mean, negative connotations and all. (I had a coworker, a secular Russian Jew about my age, who like many in my generation got all his information about the world from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, who used to say the word "evangelicals" with a sneer in his voice, just the way an older leftist would speak the word "fundamentalist.")

It was inevitable that this would happen. Since conservative Christianity is defined as bad in the worldview of liberalism, any word which conservative Christians adopt to describe themselves must take on negative connotations. This makes it extremely dishonest of the media to describe Jim Wallis and other liberals as "evangelicals," since for them the word implies holding to a level of religious "fanaticism" that goes beyond what is legitimate. I'm not exactly sure why they would use a word that has negative connotations to describe someone they view as good, but I think what they are trying to do is discredit conservative Christians' claim to be true Christians; by co-opting the word commonly used to describe conservative Christians and applying it to liberals like Wallis, they're trying to say that he is the one really spreading the good news, and the Dobsons of the world are spreading hate, intolerance, judgmentalism, etc. (Note: I know that Wallis himself embraces the label "evangelical," but since he is on the same side as the left and the mainstream media, I'm including him under the pronoun "they.")

The other major point of dishonesty in the entry is the following:

Older Religious Right leaders are now being passed by a new generation of young evangelicals who believe that poverty, "creation care" of the environment, human trafficking, human rights, pandemic diseases like HIV/AIDS, and the fundamental issues of war and peace are also "religious" and "moral" issues and now a part of a much wider and deeper agenda.
For the past several years, news stories on religion have been peppered with statements like the above, saying that the younger, rising generation of evangelicals believes that typical left-wing concerns are "also" religious and moral issues, that they take the liberal line on poverty and environmentalism "in addition to" opposing abortion and same-sex marriage. The effect is to make it sound as though these young liberal evangelicals are, to invert a common libertarian catch-phrase, socially conservative and fiscally liberal; that they are in fact conservative on cultural issues but merely add income redistribution and environmentalism to those issues; that their concerns form a superset of the older evangelicals' concerns (i.e., "part of a much wider and deeper agenda.") What they want us to believe is that older evangelicals care only about abortion and same-sex marriage, while the new generation, in addition to caring about these things, also cares about human rights and AIDS.

This is a bald-faced lie. These liberal evangelicals don't care about left-wing causes in addition to the standard right-wing social and cultural concerns; they care about left-wing causes instead of right-wing social and cultural concerns. How often do Wallis or Tony Campolo or other liberal evangelical leaders call for abortion to be illegal, or same-sex marriage to be resisted? Answer: never. Instead, they say they are personally opposed to these things, but refuse to call for a public morality enshrined in law that opposes them. Here is an interview with Campolo where he says that abortion should remain legal and takes the pathetic "get the government out of the marriage business" line on same-sex marriage. And here is an article by Wallis in which he says that liberal Christians "find it painfully difficult to vote Democratic" given that party's stance on abortion, similar to Campolo's description of himself as a "reluctant Democrat." But notice what he's saying: it may be painfully difficult for them to vote Democratic, but they still do it. And why not? The Democratic party's stance on abortion is what allegedly troubles them so much--but their own stance is that abortion is regrettable but should remain legal, a stance indistinguishable from that of most Democratic politicians! How many times did Bill Clinton say that abortion should remain "safe, legal, and rare?"

So, we see that liberal evangelicals aren't some new amalgam of liberals and conservatives, independent thinkers offering a "third way," people who are suffering great personal anguish at being horribly torn between two sides, agreeing more with one on certain issues and with the other on other issues. Instead, they are garden variety left-wingers who completely sign on to the Democratic party platform and have nothing but scorn for conservative positions.

Left-wing dishonesty knows no bounds.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that it's as dishonest as all of that. I think people like Jim Wallis really do feel differently about abortion and homosexuality. Where the general, secualr left does not see these as moral issues at all, people like Jim Wallis do see them as moral issues, but are more torn about what the proper response to these issues should be. I was recently labeled "misogynistic" and "insufferably self-righteous" for suggesting that pregnancy is the result of (in most cases, excluding rape) two consenting people choosing to have sex, that people probably should not be having sex if they are not willing to deal with the potential consequences, and that pregnancy is not a disease for which abortion is the only cure. Before I became a Christian, I was ardently pro-choice, but now... well, I don't think either side has it right. For the lip service paid to "safe, legal, and rare," it may as well just say "safe and legal." While I view myself as generally more progressive (particularly in Biblically supported areas such as peace and poverty), I really am torn by the way that many other progressives view certain issues and I think this is where people such as Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo find themselves. And while their stance may weaken the mass partisan power of the "Religious Right," I think it has the potential to increase Christian influence in our society by making Christianity relevant not only to conservatives, but to liberals as well. Anyway, that is just my take, though I was impressed with most of your analysis.

Vanishing American said...

Hermes - good post.
A few years ago, there was a flurry of articles in religion sections of newspapers about how there were 'progressive' evangelicals uniting to 'take back' Christianity from the 'religious right' who had, in their words, 'hijacked' it. A quick google search turns up this Washington Post piece. The tone of it is very hostile, and it was typical of the pieces I remember reading back then. There was obviously a coordinated campaign.

''Americans of faith -- and those lacking one -- ought to vigorously resist attempts by power-hungry zealots to impose their religious views on the nation. That means standing up to them at every turn.

It means challenging them when they say of Americans who support a woman's right to choose; the right of two adults to enter into a loving, committed, state-sanctioned, monogamous relationship; the right to pursue science in support of life; the right of the aggrieved to launch aggressive assaults against racism, sexism and homophobia, that they are not legitimate members of the flock.''

To me it's obviously an attempt to slur and marginalize conservative Christians. I think the religious left are succeeding in turning many formerly traditional Christians away towards their version of Christianity which is liberalism in Christian garb.

Laurel1861 said...

Hi, Hermes...

Interesting post to me as well.

I often say "it's all in the way you phrase it."

Joseph Goebbels had a few things to say about phrasing things.

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."


"Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

I think both of these quotes are cogent to what's happening with the way the press presents the new evangelicals.

God bless,

Hermes said...

Anonymous, what good does it do to be "torn" about these issues when at the end of the day, you come down on the liberal side? They can be "torn" all they want, but in the end they're recommending keeping abortion legal and instituting same-sex marriage. I would say this phenomenon of being "torn" is a quintessential unprincipled exception. Jim Wallis believes in individual moral autonomy, the total equality of all persons, and absolute non-discrimination, principles which contradict being opposed to abortion and homosexuality. Yet he knows that abortion and homosexuality are wrong by biblical standards, and he can't shake this sense that they are wrong, so he says he personally opposes them, while continuing to support policies that enable and promote them.

VA, that article is amazing. It took every effort to get past the first sentence: "The American flag was appropriated by the political right wing years ago." Anyone who can say that with a straight face is, it is safe to say, not a member of the reality-based community. The author reminds me of a liberal Christian poster on a message board I used to browse, which was populated mainly by liberals: this guy used to like to imply that in the parable of the sheep and the goats, conservative Christians are the goats; that we're going to Hell for our judgmentalism and concern with private sexual behavior. This individual, however, was one of these liberal mainline types, who have totally abandoned Christian doctrine, not just Christian morality. In a way the liberal evangelicals are even worse, because they're claiming the mantle of the theologically orthodox; they're saying that for those who believe the Bible to be divinely inspired, believe Jesus to be the son of God, to have been born of a virgin and resurrected after death, believe in a real Heaven and Hell, the second coming and final judgment, and the exclusivity of Christian truth, there is (contrary to what we've thought all these centuries) a scriptural mandate to be politically and socially liberal.