Why Trying to “Engage” With Evangelicals is Futile -- At Least For Me
I offer the following "World" magazine article and the response of "World" readers (see below) as in interesting plunge into the world of evangelical weirdness. What do you think of these people? What's their problem? Has anyone actually read my books that they say are so negative "against" my parents? Most people who read my books these days – fiction and nonfiction – aren't evangelicals. So I don't hear from many evangelicals who have actually read my books. I mostly hear from evangelicals and the conservative Roman Catholics who make up what’s left of the religious right, who have read about my writing in articles by people writing for far right magazines or blogs like "World" magazine and/or heard right wing radio commentary by Limbaugh or others where I’m “mentioned.” Then they write to me third hand (or is that fourth hand?) reacting to the reaction and doing their Christian duty by either lying about me and/or saying they feel sorry for me and hope I’ll recover my faith.
I can always tell when I’ve been mentioned in “World” or on some conservative Roman Catholic blog by someone like Professor Robert George of Princeton (Glenn Beck’s intellectual mentor) because for a day or two I suddenly find a bunch of blog responses or emails like this (misspellings and typos in the original):
“Quit pedaling your tripe you snake oil salesman. What makes you think you're any better than your father. You're not even remotely perceptible in the shadow of his intellect. Oh, Portafino was the last decent thing your wrote a55hole. If there's a hell, maybe I'll come look for you and beat your a55 just because it might bring me some pleasure.”
“Look in the mirror Frank. Your anger is clouding your intellect and making some of your best work inaccessible to many people.”
“What if telling the truth, at least the truth as you see it, means dishonoring your father and mother? It has been sad to see the fine writer Frank Schaeffer—I called him once and told him how much I liked his 2005 book, Faith of Our Sons: A Father’s Wartime Diary—bashing in print his famous dad, Francis…”
You’d never know that the editor and founder of world Magazine was describing a book that I’ve received hundreds of emails about from secular readers who say that it is one of the warmest portraits of a flawed but clearly loved father they’ve ever read. Nor would you know that I’ve received even more such reaction – beginning with my secular editor and including almost every non-evangelical reviewer to my book “Sex, Mom and God” which has been described as the kindest and most compassionate portrait of a mother my correspondents have read.
So what’s going on here? Why do secular readers think I write warm fuzzy portraits of my parents but within the evangelical world my “anger” is denounced as evidence of insanity or worse?
In the first kinds of evangelical “response” the writer hurls barely coherent insults. In the second the tone is aggrieved about my angry tone. In the third it is taken as a given and proved fact that I've dishonored my parents by writing warmly about them but also honestly writing about the damage the religious right they and I helped lead has done not to mention their all-too-ordinary failings. None of these responses to what the writer has heard about me someplace (or taken from my work for the rare evangelical who actually reads the books) comes close to addressing any of my ideas, let alone what I actually write about.
And therein is the problem with engaging the American evangelical community and their conservative Roman Catholic fellow culture warriors. The problem is that they are no longer a religious body but a political one. I'd have no problem with that. I'm political too. My problem is with politics masquerading as religion.
The problem as I see it is one of their fear. That fear is well founded and can’t be answered. It is the fear emanating from people who know that they are on thin ice and who live in denial. It is the fear of a changing world in which their ideas – from global warming denial to the rejection of science leave them suspecting that they are wrong. In that context they pin their hopes on the few people in their ranks – CS Lewis, my late father, the late Chuck Colson etc., -- who have some real or imagined intellectual weight. The evangelicals look to them for some intellectual support. And since I’m the son of one of their few modern era heroes that I left the fold and critique it is particularly threatening.
It is the same fear that drives the Saudi imams to shut out the world rather than to engage it. People of the book cling to the book. That's the whole point. And the books -- all the “books” Bible, Koran etc., -- are constantly being trumped by reality. Gay rights, evolution, women's rights, science, can only find accommodation just so far until these "innovations" away from traditions rooted in the Bronze Age run into "but the books says" roadblocks. So evolution never happened, gays must “choose” their lifestyle and can’t have been born that “way” women who demand true sexual equality are dangerous and so forth.
Put it this way: how many fundamentalists really believe what they say they believe? Do the evangelical tourists visiting the creation museum really buy the “fact” that dinosaurs and men shared the planet? Do they really dismiss carbon dating, the fossil record and everything science has discovered and actually cling to a belief in the world being 6000 years old and that contraceptives are evil?
Perhaps not. If they felt secure in their faith they would merely shrug when one of their own like me fled the fold and critiqued it. Why waste so much ink (or these days internet bandwidth) on me?
A thinking evangelical will soon find their “thinking” must inhabit a box that precludes any other alternative than the "truth" they have founded their lives on (see the circular "logic" of the reader's responses below) and in the case of the myriad of “professional Christens” (from conservative Roman Catholic activists to your local preacher) are earning their living from.
It’s hard to argue truth let alone facts or even doubts and paradox with people who have a vested personal economic interest in the outcome. And when faith depends on the reinforcing of group think – how many people declaring their certainty can all be wrong? -- to describe oneself as an evangelical who earns his or her living by being one is to preclude other conclusions.
Unless one is willing to actually change one's mind and find a new job there is no point discussing anything since the conclusion is already decided. To actually engage with anyone both parties need to be able to change their minds. Since evangelicalism is not so much an idea but rather a going concern I don't see that happening. How else can a pastor, writer, activist, worker in some evangelical ministry earn their living other than -- literally -- “by faith?” Changing one’s mind means changing not just family and friends but how one earns one’s living.
The lack of openness to changing one’s mind is a fact of life for people with vested interests – money, pride, laziness – in plenty of places other than evangelical circles. Lefty commentators on MSNBC who earn their paycheck by being identified as “of the left” who might have private doubts about late term abortion will keep their paychecks and mouths shut.
But there is a difference, my friend Rachel Maddow might lose some viewers if she changed her mind on legal abortion or said she’d become a born again Christian but few of them would say she was going to hell as a result or had dishonored her parents!
The problem with engaging evangelicals (and all religious fundamentalists) is that they raise the stakes to absurd and hysterical heights that just make me too tired to bother trying to talk to them. They attack the person as “lost” not just his or her ideas as mistaken.
It’s like a marital dispute where the wife and husband are doing fine arguing over this or that until one of them drags a mother in law and the other partner’s whole family into the “discussion.”
The fear I sense in the lashing out at those like me who “stray” or “betray” in other words question, conclude we were mistaken and leave, is so palpable that when I try to talk to most evangelicals they are just too threatened by where someone like me has “gone” to and came “from” to get past their fear. And since most fear is expressed as hatred of the other – check out the responses on my blog after “World” magazine mentions my latest sin or the responses below -- what happens is that the “discussion” is really an attempt to neutralize the perceived threat as evil or insane, or "angry" so he or she can be dismissed without ever addressing what the person actually said, thought or wrote.
I’d love to repent of my sins and doubts and collect the royalties again that I used to earn with my evangelical best sellers like “A Time For Anger” that James Dobson once gave away 150,000 copies of (rather boosting sales) and the big speaking fees I earned in the 1970s and early 80s at the largest of evangelical institutions. Right wing (mostly convert) Eastern Orthodox also ask me to “return to the fold” by which they mean that I should start voting for Republicans again, as they understand that fold, which is more about correct politics than faith. You'll find me in my local Orthodox church on any given Sunday but apparently you can't be a good Orthodox if you don't like Fox News according to a (blessedly small) minority of right wing Orthodox aping their evangelical counterparts.
If only I would just stop spoiling everything by for instance writing about my ambivalence about abortion and angering pro--choice purists while also angering anti-abortion purists by holding out for legalized abortion rights.
I’ve been accused of cowardice because I still “cling” to God by both dogmatic atheists who I “disappoint” and evangelicals who I “betray” because the God I cling to is the wrong God and He like me won’t conform to the book. Like I said, life is too short to spend too much times answering people who want to feel safe.
Life is just too short to engage these fears. I’d rather spend time writing novels, painting pictures, playing with my grandchildren and talking to people who have even slightly open minds and aren’t earning their living from sticking to any one party line or another, religious or otherwise. And strangely I do hear from such people often. One recently wrote:
“It was your book, Patience with God, my transformation was finalized from a militant and uneducated overzealous atheism to a Christian, albeit with other traditions from philosophy and art, worldview. Your criticisms of the New Atheists and the Christian Right were sobering and woke me up to how evangelical the New Atheist community truly is.”
My life would be much easier in a mundane way if I’d just work harder at fitting in to one group or another. There is plenty of money to be made on the atheist speaking/writing circuit and even more on the evangelical big time American religious circuit. Hitchens emailed me twice after he read my memoir “Crazy For God” asking me why I didn’t go the “next logical step” and become an atheist. He faulted me for my "irrational" faith. And from time to time I get a plea from a well meaning evangelical to “get back on board and dialogue.” But that dialogue is necessarily one way, more like an affair with a married person who plans to stay married and regards the affair as a mere fling. Could I change their minds?
Okay so what do my actual readers make of this? And what of the off the wall theological discussion in the "World" comment section?
The Frank Schaeffer mystery
What if telling the truth, at least the truth as you see it, means dishonoring your father and mother? It has been sad to see the fine writer Frank Schaeffer—I called him once and told him how much I liked his 2005 book, Faith of Our Sons: A Father’s Wartime Diary—bashing in print his famous dad, Francis. But maybe Frank thought his iconoclastic message was important, and he was the only one in position to give it, because of his firsthand view.
The Chuck Colson obituary that Schaefferposted on his blog Sunday, though, is truly extraordinary, and I don’t see what purpose his fulmination-from-afar serves. The obit memorably begins, “Evangelical Christianity lost one of its most beloved and bigoted homophobic and misogynistic voices with the death of Charles W. ‘Chuck’ Colson, a Watergate felon who converted to ‘evangelicalism’ but never lost his taste for dirty political tricks against opponents.”
Schaeffer’s evidence for that charge: “Colson teamed up with far right Roman Catholic activist Professor Robert George of Princeton to launch the dirty tricks campaign to brand President Obama as ‘anti-religious’ with Colson’s and George’s ‘Manhattan Declaration.’”
How is stating a position a dirty trick? Schaeffer attacks Colson for “helping to craft the mirror image of the racist policy Nixon used to turn Southern Democrats into Republican voters, only this time the tactic was to use ‘family values’ to get white members of the underclass to vote for corporate America.” Why see political disagreement as conspiracy?
After numerous paragraphs of Colson-bashing, Schaeffer turns his ire on another departed leader, “the reactionary’s reactionary, Richard John Neuhaus.” He argues that Colson and Neuhaus fronted for “oppressive ideas rooted in an anti-constitutional theocratic far right wish list for changes that were supposed to roll back the parts of the democratic processes—say Roe v. Wade, women’s rights and gay rights—that far right Catholics and Protestants didn’t approve of.”
I’m not sure how opposition to Roe v. Wade (by which the Supreme Court removed abortion from democratic consideration) and gay rights (note that voters in state after state have voted against referenda establishing same-sex marriage) equals opposition to democratic processes, but even if that charge made sense I’d still be puzzled: What drives Frank Schaeffer to strike out not only against his dad but against every father figure in the Christian conservative movement?