Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

06/24/2008 (3:42 pm)

Hating Evangelicals

One of my readers sent me a link to this article by Prof. Rick Hills about what Prof Hills called “Theophobia”. What he meant by it was that in his experience, a lot of college professors irrationally fear Christians. This discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy that followed Prof. Hills’ article (the link leads to a collection of six posts about the same subject) led to the assessment that this is somewhat inaccurate; this incisive bit of research from the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, published in 2007, demonstrates that it’s not Christians, per se, that academics dislike, it’s Mormons and Evangelicals, especially Evangelicals.

Thirty-three percent of academics surveyed view Mormons unfavorably. Evangelicals fared much worse: 53% of surveyed professors say they have unfavorable feelings toward Evangelicals, and only 30% expressed any sort of warm or positive feelings toward them. By contrast, more than 60% of academics said they viewed non-Evangelical Christians and/or Catholics warmly or favorably. Only 22% of faculty expressed cool feelings toward Muslims, 18% toward atheists, and 13% toward Catholics. Other sections of the study show that the dislike of Evangelicals correlates strongly with liberal politics and with atheism or disinterest in religion; most notably, more than 70% of academics (more than 90% of those who self-identify as liberal) say that Evangelical Christians should keep their opinions out of politics.

So… what’s with that?

The discussion among the academics and legal geeks at Volokh favored the view that the dislike of Evangelicals was mostly a statistical marker for the mostly liberal professors’ dislike of conservative politics. I think they’ve got it backwards; the primary hatred is more about religion than about politics, and it’s the hatred of political conservatism that’s a misleading marker for the hatred of Evangelical Christianity.

The relationship between Evangelicalism and modern, political conservatism is indirectly causal; the American libertarian experiment is actually the product of a brand of Christianity and a level of religious devotion that more resembles modern Evangelical Protestantism than any other modern religious group, although, clearly, there are stark differences between the beliefs of America’s founders and those of modern Evangelicals. It’s the presuppositions of this historical brand of Protestant Christianity, the social and political effects of their particular faith, that modern, social and political progressives want to overturn. At its core, social and political progressivism are about overthrowing the Christianity of the West and replacing it with a “progressive” ethic, and since it’s Evangelicals that most vividly retain the marks of that Christianity that they want to erase, they hate Evangelicals, and wish they would just shut up already.

Note the tone of that last phrase. Lots of people in America find Evangelicals to be pretty irritating. It’s important to understand, though, precisely why they’re so irritating. And before you Evangelicals get angry with me about saying that, please understand that I’m kinda one of you — I’m not an Evangelical, exactly, because my beliefs have evolved a little, but I met Jesus among Evangelicals, and still fellowship with them. I’m very definitely a Bible Guy. So let’s unpack this.

My older brother (one year ahead of me) returned from his freshman year at college with horror stories about his roommate. College freshmen don’t usually know anybody, so they take the luck of the draw for their first roommates; Bob’s luck (despite the name of the blog, it’s my brother who’s actually named “Bob;” I’m Phil) landed him with an immature Evangelical, and he griped about it long and loud. He recalled in particular one night when he’d brought his girlfriend back to the room and she’d stayed the night. The roommate spent the entire night sitting outside the room, wondering what he should do, and what he should say to my brother in the morning.

Bob was being an insensitive jerk, true (it’s characteristic of college freshmen, and unfortunately also characteristic of my family,) but if Roomie had been anything other than an Evangelical or a Mormon, chances are he’d have simply found some other place to sleep, and the next day’s conversation would have been in terms to which my brother could easily relate: “Hey, it’s my freakin’ bed, and I’d like to sleep in it, if you please. You should at least have given me some lead time, and if it starts happening every week, we’re going to have another talk.” This, however, was an Evangelical, and the discussion included three unpleasant additions: 1) the emotional angst this poor religious fellow experienced from sitting out there all night wondering what to do (which he blamed on my brother); 2) the grossly unwelcome addition of a moral factor: “What you’re doing is morally wrong, and I shouldn’t have to put up with it;” and 3) Roomie’s conscientious belief that he was morally and mortally obligated to emphasize the moral factor in order to rescue my brother from his self-destruction.

It’s those three factors, buttressed by a fourth, that make Evangelicals stick out so badly. They seem unable to absorb social rules that make life run smoothly for everybody else, rules about what topics may be raised and with whom; some of them actively look for ways to bring these topics up, and with perfect strangers. They dig in their heels against social changes, refusing to drift with the rest of the culture. And then, they have the bad manners to make a fuss about it repeatedly, because they feel responsible to reverse your social drift for your own good. The fourth element lies at the root of the other three: they’re basing their behavior and moral choices on their interpretation of a Book (capitalized because we’re talking about THE Book,) and their reliance on the Book makes them unapproachable. They won’t be dissuaded by reasonable argument if they’ve decided that The Book has a firm position on the subject. No number of surveys, no amount of research, no appeal to reason or good sense will move them from their stance. When Evangelicals — and, to a lesser extent, Mormons — decide they’re against something that other citizens are for, they become a Permanent Stone In Their Shoe.

That is irritating.

Now, let’s be fair. Social progressives do precisely the same thing, and worse. They believe they have the Special Knowledge to Save The Planet from war, poverty, pollution, and Evil Capitalists. They won’t ever stop telling you about it, and they’ll shamelessly resort to maudlin emotional appeals in order to trump whatever objection you might raise. They genuinely feel responsible for making you stop destroying yourself. They won’t be dissuaded; they’re impervious to fact or reason. And worse than Evangelicals, they resort to all sorts of illegal, immoral, and tyrannical power plays to force their Special Knowledge down the culture’s collective throat. The only real difference is, they’re not basing their stances on a Book. However, this post is not about them, so social progressives are off the hot seat for the moment. (Besides, social progressives rule the universities; the vast majority of professors are social progressives, so they get to answer surveys about how warm or cold they feel about Evangelicals. We should perhaps ask Evangelicals how warm they feel about their socially progressive professors.)

Actually, there’s one other difference. Social progressives are nearly always wrong; what they propose is usually disastrous. What Evangelicals propose, by contrast, makes them “The Very Worst Sort of Pain In the Ass:” they’re frequently right. They’re right often enough that they’re actually vindicated, at least partly, for relying on the Book instead of reacting to whatever catchphrase the latest research has made trendy.

I mean, it’s bad when somebody gets in your face over some moral issue about which they have not the slightest clue, either making irrational moral judgments or demonstrating sheer ignorance about what you’re doing. It’s orders of magnitude worse, though, when someone gets in your face over a moral issue about which you know, at some level you’d rather not examine, that you’re actually doing wrong.

This affects the issue in a way that I can’t prove, and which even if I’m right, no research will ever uncover because most people have deceived themselves about it. It’s this: I believe a huge proportion of most peoples’ irritation with Evangelicals is really about sex.

It’s one of those things that pops up only occasionally, when some college atheist is being unusually candid. The truth is, most of what Evangelicals believe is relatively easy to live with. We all agree that cheating on our taxes is wrong. We all agree that it’s better to honor your parents than not. But, doggone it, when the culture tells you that it’s perfectly natural for you to enjoy sex with your date long before you’re ready to make any sort of permanent commitment, it’s just horribly inconvenient to have people around actively trying to remind you that you’re really being a selfish jerk (which you already know perfectly well), and that if you had the self-control God gave an amoeba, you’d say goodnight and go sleep alone. I actually think this is such an issue for so many people that a large number of atheists, are atheists specifically because it excuses their sexual incontinence. It’s not that they don’t believe in God, it’s that they don’t want to, so they can do as they please and still consider themselves good people. But, they’ll seldom admit this, even to themselves. And don’t get me started on homosexuality…

I’m going to leave the evidence that Evangelicals are right for other posts. Admitting that Evangelicals may have a point about sex (and pornography, and abortion, and divorce, and homosexuality, and whatever else,) however, doesn’t really let them off the hook. The fact is, Evangelicals can be pretty rude about being right, and there’s no good excuse for that. When I was in the middle of my marital troubles, I got lectured by complete strangers who knew nothing other than some phrase they’d overheard me utter at that moment, and who claimed full authority to intrude based on some passage of scripture that commanded them to confront sin — ignoring the intense, personal relationships that such passages take for granted, and that are a prerequisite for even the gentlest rebuke having its intended effect.

On the other hand, the culture has been absurdly rude to them, marginalizing their books, sneering at their stances, mocking their ministers, and generally treating them like they’re just small-town hicks who have grown bitter, who “…cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations…” (Sound familiar?) Evangelical authors are among the best sellers in the world, but you’d never know it because the New York Times separates them into a completely separate category, for no good reason except the editors don’t consider their work serious. Evangelical speakers routinely fill the largest auditoriums in major cities, but except for Billy Graham, nobody knows their names because news reports simply black them out. It’s as though the culture at large decided that Evangelicals have no right to exist. And as Harry Stein observed in his entertaining rant, How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace), Evangelicals mostly kept to themselves and didn’t really bother anybody until the social progressives started jamming their religion down their throats — and then, they started getting politically active.

Most of us have had bad experiences with an Evangelical at some point or other, like my brother had. He had some bad experiences with me, too; I was irritating when I first became Christian. What those of us who have never been the irritant don’t realize is that most of those bad experiences occur at the hands of immature Evangelicals. The ones who have been around a bit longer and grown up a bit more, have learned how to carry their beliefs in ways that don’t chafe as much. They’re far less likely to make an issue out of something until you’ve actually expressed a need to change something in your own life, and then, they’re the best friends anybody could ever want: patient, helpful, sensitive, and usually not intrusive at all. The years I’ve spent worshiping in Evangelical churches have been good years, mostly, and the people I’ve known there are the finest people on the planet. You just have to be willing to overlook the ones who are still irritating.

“Theophobia” is a rotten term for something that’s real — a deep-seated hatred among some atheists and non-Evangelicals against Evangelicals, a hatred that is partly about irritating habits, and partly about antipathetic social or political views. Along with hatred of white men of European descent, it’s the one, remaining bigotry that’s permitted in American culture. It appears as an expectation of intolerance, ignorance, and venom, expectations that are mostly unfair, but that have their roots in reactions against genuinely rude conduct. It’s real, and if you’re an Evangelical attending an American university, you’re going to face it.

There, galynn — does that help you?

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5 Comments »

June 24, 2008 @ 6:41 pm #

Yes. You know, I’m always so impressed with the direction you take things. On this one, I read you explaining it as primarily a communication problem due to immaturity. As someone who spent WAY too much time in academia, my experience was that anyone who was Christian (no discrimination among types of Christians at all) was seen as “less than” intellectually. I mean afterall, they’d infer, how can you call yourself an intellect, and still believe something that cannot be scientifically proven?

These are the same people who now argue that we must be tolerant with Muslims, and somehow they ignore how incredibly oppressive is the Muslim religion. I do not make this extrapolation without personal experience. I call some of these academicians friends, and they tolerate my “conservative” beliefs because they know me. But I AM a contradiction to them — for which I am proud! I am smart AND Christian — something they find hard to fathom.

You said, “I believe a huge proportion of most peoples’ irritation with Evangelicals is really about sex…” I agree with this, AND I would add that they have a tremendous fear that Evangelicals will FORCE them to behave. This puzzles me so, when they fail to see that FORCING them to behave is precisely what a Muslim-state would do.

Thanks, Phil. I feel honored that you took my suggestion so seriously.

June 24, 2008 @ 6:41 pm #

Phil:

A very fair discussion of the type of things Evangelicals do that annoy the hades out of their fellow man (or woman, as the case may be).

Unfortunately, when you combine little or no instruction about how to evangelize, the typical immaturity in the faith of recent converts and you get the kind of witness which turns people off. Just my opinion, but I think the typical convert would be far better off simply focusing on walking out their faith and saving evangelism for the first time someone asks them “What’s changed in you?”

In my experience, the absolute best witness someone offers for Christ is a life which walks the walk in humility. The person who talks about why he’s doing what he’s doing (and has a history of doing it), and not about what “you” are doing, wins more people to Christ than the ‘finger – in – the – face – you’re – going – to – hell – if – you – don’t – repent – right – now – like – I – did – 30 – days – ago” type.

There’s still a place in the world for the person who proclaims the wages of sin – it’s just that it’s usually better to direct that message to mankind as a whole & let members of the audience convict themselves.

June 24, 2008 @ 8:27 pm #

Unfortunately, when you combine little or no instruction about how to evangelize, the typical immaturity in the faith of recent converts and you get the kind of witness which turns people off. Just my opinion, but I think the typical convert would be far better off simply focusing on walking out their faith and saving evangelism for the first time someone asks them “What’s changed in you?”

The only problem with this is that, according to the last survey I read on the topic (which was probably almost 20 years ago), something like 85% of converts are made by people who have been Christians less than a year. The rest of us get so insulated that we just don’t know anybody who needs to hear the gospel — or we’re so careful not to offend that we don’t tell them.

There’s a middle ground that we’re missing, and I think it has to do with willingness to appear idiotic while calling for the power of God to appear… like, praying for people to be healed where you meet them in the grocery store.

I agree about letting people convict themselves, though. Our job is to bear testimony of what God’s done for us. Conviction is the Holy Spirit’s job.

June 25, 2008 @ 10:20 am #

Interesting and fair post. When I read the paragraph about the Evangelicals’ annoying behavior and intransigence, I was saying, “Wait a minute,, that sounds just like most liberals.” But then you covered that.

I have always thought a prime difference between conservatives and leftists is that most conservatives simply practice conservatism as a part of their otherwise busy life and use its principles as guidelines on how to make some decisions. However, most leftists practice liberalism almost as a form of religion, brooking no dissent from its tenets and precepts.

While I am conservative, it’s not how I define myself, it’s just a part of my overall belief system, and I very often see two sides to issues. But to leftists, it seems that liberalism, in the end, trumps everything else. It’s tough to express this concept, but it’s there.

In the worst days of the Bill Clinton years, I never hated the man, just disagreed with his policies and didn’t like some of the things he did. I never knew anyone conservative who seethed with rage when his name was brought up. Absolutely NOTHING like the hatred and loathing of George Bush from the left.

Similarly, it would never even hit my (or that of anyone I am remotely acquainted with) radar screen to hit Keith Olbermann or some other liberal pundit in the face with a pie, or to vandalize Democrat workers’ cars. The religion angle is the only one that helps me understand the leftist fever swamps.

A bit off topic, but your post got me thinking.

June 25, 2008 @ 9:48 pm #

Very nice analysis, but I agree with the legal geeks at Volokh. I think most of the spite directed toward religious conservatives is due to their conservative politics and life-styles, rather than their religious convictions. However, I think there is also a healthy (or unhealthy) measure of the reasons you outlined, and for some persons, those reasons are the main ones.

No, you wouldn’t “hit Keith Olbermann or some other liberal pundit in the face with a pie, or … vandalize Democrat workers’ cars.” Yes, lots of leftists would do that to you, if you and your face, or car, came to their attention. The reason for the difference is not that they hate your religion, although they do hate it. The reason for the difference is that your relationship with God tempers your behavior. They have no such constraint. They have learned “if it feels good, do it,” and “the end justifies the means.”

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