Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Defines American Evangelicals These Days?

Former president Jimmy Carter went on the record to point out that he believes that racism is at the heart of the great deal of the extreme animosity being leveled at President Obama (NBC News September 15). Carter identified himself as a Southerner with an insiders understanding. There's something he didn't mention however: the special culpability of his own religion -- Evangelical Christianity -- for the anti-Obama hyperventilating and furious reaction to our first black president. And that reaction has less to do with race and more to do with the ugliest side of religion.

The fact is that if you're going to blame one group above all others for the willful ignorance and continuing ugliness of the response to President Obama the best candidate would be the evangelical/fundamentalist community. The angry part of the South Carter spoke of is racist because it's dominated by a certain type of "Christian" culture.

Since Carter is also an evangelical Christian (as well as a Southerner) he would have done well to use his evangelical insider status to point to not just racism but to scream bloody murder about a bigger problem today: the hijacking of Christianity as the source of the hate and anger directed against all things "other" by a vocal (and health care lobby-organized and funded) angry minority of voters who are poisoning the American body.

American Christianity Is At The Heart Of Our Worst Problems

Are the New Atheists leading us to enlightenment? The problem with the recent New Atheist attacks on Christianity is that they mirror the hostility of the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture toward the secular society that it so disdains. The real answer to the question; "Can Christianity be saved from the Christians?" is not going to be found coming from people like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris et al. Instead that answer may be found in the life and work of Christians such as former president Jimmy Carter, President Obama, the late writer John Updike, and other public figures from Desmond Tutu to Nelson Mandela who's faith can be taken seriously because of the moral authority given them by their achievements outside the realm of theology.

The people running around calling Obama is "Hitler", the so-called "birthers" and all the rest can't be understood outside of the context of the hermetically sealed world-hating gated community known as Evangelical Christianity. As a former Evangelical and son of an Evangelical Religious Right leader, let me share a little of the insider perspective that I wish Carter had brought to the subject.

What Defines American Evangelicals These Days?

The key to understanding the Evangelicals is to understand the popularity of the Left Behind series of books about the "return of Christ" (and the whole host of other End Times "ministries" from the ever weirder Jack-the-Rapture-is-coming!-Van-Impe to the smoother but no less bizarre pages of Christianity Today magazine). This isn't some new or sudden interest in prophecy, but evidence of the deepening inferiority complex suffered by the evangelical/fundamentalist community.

Left Behind

The words "left behind" are ironically what the books are about, but not in the way their authors intended. The evangelical/fundamentalists, from their crudest egocentric celebrities to their "intellectuals" touring college campuses trying to make evangelicalism respectable, have indeed been left behind by modernity. They won't change their literalistic anti-science, anti-education, anti-everything superstitions, so now they nurse a deep grievance against "the world."

This has led to a profound fear of the "other." Jenkins and LaHaye (the Left Behind authors) provide the ultimate revenge fantasy for the culturally left behind against the "elite." The Left Behind franchise holds out hope for the self-disenfranchised that at last soon everyone will know "we" were right and "they" were wrong. They'll know because Spaceship Jesus will come back and whisk "us" away, leaving everyone else to ponder just how very lost they are because they refused to say the words, "I accept Jesus as my personal savior" and join our side while there was still time!

The bestselling status of the Left Behind novels proves that, not unlike Islamist terrorists who behead their enemies, many evangelical/ fundamentalist readers relish the prospect of God doing lots of messy killing for them as they watch in comfort from on high. They want revenge on all people not like them--forever.

Generations Of Indoctrination

We are several generations into the progeny of leaders such as James Dobson and his radio show Focus On The Family. These offspring extol the virtues of corporal punishment, patriarchy, applying biblical law to public governance and so forth. Millions of evangelicals have been raised in homes where they've been isolated from the wider culture, home schooled and/or sent to "Christian schools" where they have been indoctrinated to believe that the Federal Government is the enemy of all true believers, that the "End" is near, that secular society is their enemy as is art, learning and culture.

They now form a Fifth Column of the deliberately intellectually disenfranchised. They know they are out of the loop and hate the rest of us for their own self-imposed isolation. I'm afraid they will soon turn to violence.

Here Are The Alternatives To Change the Theologically-Induced Hate Landscape:

A) all sane Americans must become atheists or agnostics,


B) those of us who are Christians must rescue Christianity from the willfully ignorant evangelicals and fundamentalist.

I favor the second alternative. First, having been raised in an evangelical/fundamentalist home I've long since moved beyond my background when it comes to my politics and my theology. That proves something; people can change their minds! I did.

But I believe more strongly than ever that we human beings are spiritual beings with or without the permission of those who take a purely rationalist approach to human existence. The better -- and I think only realistic option -- is to regard religion as an evolving process of human consciousness and work to reform rather than eliminate it

In my soon-to-be published book Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism) I have very deliberately started a radical conversation through which I hope many of us can carve out a position that embraces religion while absolutely rejecting the type of insanity that has become synonymous with the word "Christian" in contemporary America.

Two "Threads" In Religion

As I argue in my new book the choice between the absolutist secular fundamentalism of the New Atheism and the authoritarianism of James Dobson's-type of "Christianity" is no choice at all. The better alternative is to understand that there are two main threads running all through almost all religions including Christianity:

1) an open, inclusive and questioning thread


2) a closed and exclusionary thread.

The more open thread is not some modern phenomenon developed by "liberal thinking." As I explain in Patience With God this "thread" can be found in the earliest Christianity and Judaism.

If you look around and see good results from Christianity, say from the invention of modern hospitals, which have their roots in religious groups or the music of JS Bach, you're looking at the fruits of the best of the open tradition and thread. When you see a group of scared racist white people like Joe Wilson in Washington DC screaming "liar" or "Obama is a socialist" or "Obama wasn't born in America" you're seeing the madness of the other thread: fundamentalism that wants absolute certainty about everything, and forces its followers to live in a narrower and narrower field of existence.


Christianity is worth saving from the Christians for two reasons. First, because as moral and spiritual beings religion should feed our souls rather then strip out our humanity. Second, because whether we like it or not, religion is here to stay. Better to shape it rather than to simply denounce it.

I may be an idealist but I believe that if others will step forward and add to what I have tried to begin with my new book together we can give good answers to both the extremes of the New Atheists and to the hate of the Evangelical fundamentalists. Join me to build a better vision. We might actually be able to change the conversation in America about religion.

Is that important? Yes, like it or not religion will not go away. It motivates the worst in the American psyche and some of the best too. It is Joe Wilson's religion of hate but it also motivated Martin Luther King Jr.

Perhaps a generation from now the image of a typical Christian won't be a hate-monger like James Dobson but rather a lover of peace such as Bishop Desmond Tutu, or a literary giant like John Updike, and yes, a President Obama.

Sure race is still an issue for too many of us. But hate-filled religion is the bigger problem. The only real answer to the hijacking of Christianity by the Religious Right, the longevity of religion-based racism, and the backward and inward looking movement we now call "American Christianity" is not to talk everyone out a having faith but rather to fight for the humane and ancient thread found within the Christian tradition. Blaming everything on race is too easy.

If you get the chance to read Patience With God please let me know what you think of it. I'm asking one big question in the book: Can Christianity be rescued from the Christians? You tell me.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God: Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism).


Beekeepers Apprentice said...

Frank, what you're doing is great. Keep up the good work!

Dee said...

I am so glad I found your blog! I have tried to keep up with all your interviews and writings, but you are not always easy to find.

I appreciate your clarity and willingness to speak directly to the situation.

Keep up the good work!


Books & Reading said...

Thanks for an insightful post.

Your analysis of the evangelical wordview is quite informative.

tarredondo said...

You make me believe that not everyone in our world is going crazy. Thank you. I look forward to reading your book, and hopefully, helping to spread the message.

BeamStalk said...

Frank, as an agnostic atheist (I don't know if there is a god or gods, but I don't believe in any god or gods) I see the term "New Atheists" bandied about a lot lately. It is always used in a negative fashion, in fact atheist is almost considered derogatory on its own (especially in the south and mid-west, where I live). You show examples of what you don't like about the authoritarian types like Dobson but I don't see any examples of "New Atheists" other than the names of a few.

This seems like a straw man to me. If you could please cite some specific examples of this "mirror" of the "hostility of the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture". The hostility seems to be manufactured and projected onto "New Atheists" from everything I have read.

Atheists are speaking up because we are tired of being dehumanized, lied about and attempts to deny the rights of all humans.

E. Steiner said...

I really enjoy all of your articles. You have given me a lot of insight into what it is that is threatening our way of life today. However, I am an atheist and do not agree with your belief that religion is here to stay. Voltaire said "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities". Religion will always be subject to interpretations that can lead to hatred and violence.

Deb Courtney said...

This seems a rational approach. I look forward to reading your book.

equestrian57 said...

Thank you, Mr. Schaeffer. I eagerly await your new book.

M said...

Thank you, I love this. But I hope you will see a place for people who cannot call themselves Christian, cannot believe the Bible, but see themselves as spiritual beings on a journey of discovery anyway.

Wesley, destroyer of worlds, Welch said...

Interesting thoughts. I especially liked, and agreed with, the comments on "Left Behind." I agree. I does embody the fantasy of Evangelical Christianity. We win the They lose. It's the story of the perfect moment for evangelical Christians to say "I told you so."

Sister A said...

Frank, your separation of ideologies into:

"1) an open, inclusive and questioning thread
2) a closed and exclusionary thread."

is very interesting to me - I see the same split in politics right now. Looking forward to the new book, but first I'll be reading Crazy for God (it's next on my memoir/autobiography reading list).

I've so enjoyed your interviews on Rachel Maddow and other shows. As an ex-fundamentalist, I've struggled for 30+ years sorting out what was I experienced. Your insights have been invaluable to me.

Looking From the Balcony said...

I appreciated the comment that becoming a "Christian" involves repeating a single sentence. I posted about that some time ago at:

Cal Williams said...

You paint with a very broad brush. You won't stop the "hate mongers" on the right by throwing your own hate bombs. You might sell a lot of books though. Hmmmmm.

George said...

Love your work Frank. It seems that common sense is not so common and I'm hopeful about what you are doing. I pray it leads to more reconciliation. I must say though, that in reading some of the comments already here on this blog, there are still people, atheist and Christian, who even though they've read your words, your message seems to go right by them. Best of luck and prayers to you.

Kathleen Valentine said...

Thank you for this. I blogged about you today (big deal, huh?) Your book Crazy for God was excellent and I look forward to reading this one.