Don’t Be Fooled About the 99% … of Evangelicals   3 comments

Recent studies have demonstrated again that our brains tend to filter out what doesn’t fit with our mental map of the world. It’s called “confirmation bias.” I suppose otherwise we would spend all our time hesitating between two (or more) opinions: “Is Breyers the best, or Ben & Jerry’s?”, “Should I do crunches or the ‘plank’ for my core?”, “Who really points to the way forward for America, Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party?”, etc.

The downside of this of course is that sometimes, since it doesn’t agree with the story in our head, we unwittingly filter out the truth. And when we do this, to make ourselves feel better or more confident in our positions, we generalize about those who are filtering the opposite way – those who dare to disagree with us. We stereotype them, paint with a broad brush, and we fail to even to give them the benefit 0f the doubt. Sometimes we impugn their motives, “They’re not even trying to see the truth!” Now this is still an improvement over times in the past. In our land these days, nobody is being burned at the stake or made to seek sanctuary in another country, or locked up in prison because of their unacceptable views. It’s hardly the case though, that we’ve reached a truly civilized place where we can talk with (not “at”) each other, and even learn from each other. What ever happened to “walking a mile” in the other guys shoes? Remember that old Elvis song?

If you’re a member of the Tea Party or a supporter of Occupy Wall Street, I think you know what I’m talking about. Generalizations abound, and stereotypes shape or control the thinking of many. And it’s just not accurate or fair, and you know it. Probably you wish that journalists and others would give a more objective and accurate depiction of your group – of people like you. Well, that’s how I feel about Evangelicals – people like me. The same thing happens for all the same reasons, and we would like to be understood better too.

In his article, The Evangelical 99%, Richard Flory tells about a recent visit to the meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society – a group which he refers to as the “brain trust of conservative American evangelicalism.” He begins with the usual amount of suspicion about the group, but his training and journalistic integrity keep him from prejudging what he sees based on what he may have expected. This is his exhortation to his fellow journalists:

“Of course due suspicion is warranted; these were events open to the public, after all. But journalists should nonetheless try to look for greater depth and complexity in their stories about conservative evangelicals and religion more generally. A conference that arguably constituted a sampling of Republican primary voters attracted people who are not only ardent in their beliefs but thoughtfully committed to civil discourse, per Chuck Colson. This suggests that there are more interesting stories to be told about religious conservatives than those that simply focus on titillating personalities like Sarah Palin, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. These politicos, along with Rick Warren, currently serve as stand-ins for tens of millions of conservative American evangelicals in most news media narratives, but they’re essential spiritual versions of the infamous 1 percent decried by Occupy Wall Street. In other words, they don’t live in the day-to-day world that 99 percent of the evangelicals in the U.S. actually inhabit. Like the ranks of religious progressives and centrists, on whom the gaze of the news media also seldom turns, most evangelical conservatives are just trying to make ends meet, raise their children as best they can and follow their religious beliefs as they encounter the good, the bad and the puzzling in everyday life.

“It is thus crucial for the news media to provide a more nuanced and accurate view of the roughly 80 million people in the U.S. who identify as evangelicals. They exert enormous influence in every national election, in various legal fights and in the communities in which they live. As such, they should neither be ignored nor characterized by the actions and proclamations of their most publicity-hungry members. By focusing narrowly on the famous (or infamous), whether political or pastoral, journalists skew the public perception of all forms of religion in the public sphere. This tight frame presents evangelicals as unworldly and easily befuddled (a la Palin, Perry and Bachmann) or not particularly deep theologically (a la Warren) rather than complex in their range of everyday needs, desires, fears and dreams. Apart from distorting reality, these media narratives don’t simply record the skirmishes in the culture wars–they also serve to stoke the conflict.”

I have to say, I appreciate these words. I’ve known lots of Evangelicals in my lifetime, and there are many that I respect for their intelligence, passion to know the truth, commitment to sacrificially serving others, and willingness to admit they could be wrong, or that they’ve grown, or changed a long-held position. Many of the ones I know have a great respect for women, would fight to the death for religious freedom for those in other religions, and attempt to marshal the church’s sometimes meager resources to help the poor. (The church of about 500 where I attend just fed over 350 people for Thanksgiving – with members serving needy people with love and respect. The church’s food pantry gives out bags of groceries to many hurting families every week. When I was a pastor, one Thanksgiving we invited a homeless family to share our holiday dinner with us in our home.) I’m just saying that this picture may be different from the one in your head – and you might not be seeing what is really there. It might be “confirmation bias.” I’m glad that Richard Flory said it, because I’m sure it means more coming from him.

I like to suggest that we start anew. We can agree to practice respect towards those who differ from us. We can work hard to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Let’s try to see beyond the ideological walls we have constructed – or even worse – that others have constructed for us. After all, we all breathe the same air, walk the same earth, and we all “… encounter the good, the bad and the puzzling in everyday life.”

In a day when everything is “spun” and where disinformation is perhaps the most common form of information, skepticism and cynicism can be appropriate responses – but they’re hardly appropriate starting points. On my way to Zuccotti Park once, I took the long, often slow bus ride into Manhattan. I was almost the only white person, and I have to admit, it’s not my usual element. But on that bus, as I looked around, I realized in a very powerful way, “I don’t know these people or their struggles, but I know this – they are part of the 99%. They are the reason that I’m going into the city to protest today.” Perhaps the next time you encounter an Evangelical, you can do something similar (self-talk). You can say to yourself, “I don’t know or understand this person, but she is part of the 99%. Maybe I’ll try to show respect. Maybe we’ll learn we share some important beliefs. Maybe where we differ, we can do so with insight and more respect than previously.” You might even say, “Maybe I can learn something from this fellow creature.” In the words of Richard Flory, “You might be surprised to discover that they’re not so different from you ….”


Posted December 22, 2011 by occupyevangelicals in Uncategorized

3 responses to “Don’t Be Fooled About the 99% … of Evangelicals

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  1. Thanks for your thoughts. I am a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, and have presented papers at national meetings. I am not a leader in the group. If the Occupy folks have assumed that ETS specifically or evangelical Christians in general are part of the “1%,” then I appreciate your efforts to get a better understanding of the group. C.F. Henry’s short 1947 book, “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism,” was an vatgortant factor in the fomation of modern evangelicalism. The book (and the evangelical movement) was an attempt to provide a Biblically based interaction between theologically conservative Christians and the needy world around them.

    Douglas Groothius writes about the impetus for the book:

    Henry begins the book by lamenting the fact that Fundamentalists did not address significant social ills. Speaking to more than one hundred evangelical pastors, he asked, “How many of you, during the past six months, have preached a sermon devoted in large part to a condemnation of such social ills as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, exploitation of labor or management, or the like–a sermon containing not merely an incidental or illustrative reference, but directed mainly against such evils and proposing a framework in which you think [a] solution is possible” (p. 4). Not a hand went up, Henry reports.

    Henry was properly scandalized that a supernatural worldview rooted in an inspired and inerrant Bible and grounded in a crucified and resurrected Lord of the universe would withdraw from the great matters of social justice and limit itself to personal salvation and codes of personal conduct. He called for a wider and deeper vision of Christianity as a world-changing world-challenging force–a contender in both the world of ideas and the world of action. Despite its withdrawal from matters of public policy into a subjective pietism, historically “Christianity embraced a life view as well as a world view; it was socially as will as philosophically pertinent” (p. 18).

    It is unfortunate that so much of modern evangelicalism seems to reside only in the Republican Party. This is not inte ended as a criticism of the Elephant folks (with whom I vote most often vote), but my perception that while the Republican party is often correct in some areas of morality, it is not typically characterized by great compassion for the poor. The Tea Party movement seems to me to be even less concerned with compassion and mercy, which I view as Biblical values which are equally important as pro-life efforts.

    The Occupy movement should now that although the huge, rich churches are most well known, the vast majority of churches in the US are small – under 100 – and led and populated by a diverse group of Christians from many different levels of society. We don’t always get everything right, no question, but many of us are trying hard. I have grown spiritually by spending 5 years working with believers outside of the European/North American continents.

    Perhaps our perspectives can balance each other in constructive ways. I do think we as believers should be able to learn from each other, disagree with each other, and fellowship with each other.


    • Thank you for your comments. Now that some time has elapsed since I wrote this post, I can see that the title is unclear and probably misleading. (The idea is that, there may be 1% of Evangelicals that act like dopes, but the majority are honest, caring people who are struggling to know the truth and live it out, so “Don’t judge us by the 1%.” Occupy needs this same consideration, and so really does any group. There will always be a small minority – and they may be the most vocal – who don’t represent your group, and you can only hope that onlookers will realize this fact and give you the benefit of the doubt.) I’m always writing for my two audiences – Evangelicals and people in OWS, and that fact influences what I write and how I say it. (I’m an enthusiastic member of both groups.) In this post, my main purpose was to encourage Occupy people not to write off all Evangelicals as irrelevant or evil. I see an appalling amount of abuse towards Christians and Evangelicals on FB and Twitter, and obviously, I think it’s unfair and uninformed. The political debates now are only making things worse, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Unfortunately, those who seek and get attention with controversial soundbites that the media loves are not often the best ones to represent Evangelicals – to put it mildly. I appreciate the information you shared about Carl Henry, Fundamentalists and etc. I was a member of ETS for many years, and attended a Seminary that is definitely in the Evangelical tradition (Western CB Seminary in Portland). I’m definitely familiar with the history and the issues, but I’m glad to have someone else, and someone with better credentials than me, explain it on my site. I liked your story about Carl Henry’s question to pastors and how “not a hand went up.” It illustrates why the Evangelical Movement was needed. It was a sad situation though, and I’m afraid that if the same question were asked in an Evangelical convention today, the response would be pretty much the same – and that’s even sadder. I was a pastor for a long time (20 years), and I have a lot of sympathy for pastors and all that they have on their plate. It’s really out of control. Imagine the difference between what it meant to be a pastor in Jonathan Edward’s day and today! Even so, I think the church’s attention is focused almost entirely on itself (except for foreign missions, etc.), and to such a degree that when one speaks of social justice, it’s unintelligible or clearly unappreciated. I read somewhere lately that, as a big institution, the church is part of the establishment in this country. I think that’s pretty much the case. It’s not speaking “truth to power” (dangerous, corrupt, abusive power), but instead, busying itself within its own safe walls. (I only hope that someone will prove me wrong.) All of this is what motivates me with this blog. I know we can do better, and I believe that we will. I don’t know what I can do, or think that I’m the best person to do it, but I have to try. Thanks again for the note, and God bless.

  2. Thanks for your response. Just a quick note of interest – I am also a grad from Western CB Seminary (and 2 others). Maybe that common part of our backgrounds makes it easy for us to get along!

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