By Charles Redfern
Is it safe? Should I say it? Should I send my wife and child to that hidden cabin in the ravine while I brave the rotten cabbage and tomato barrage? But what is the price of silence? I’ll lay awake, deafened by the screams of a conscience on steroids. It’s my destiny. I must reveal the sordid truth and withstand the messenger’s doom.
Here goes: “Christians with traditional moralities and creeds can be nice people. They’re not narrow-minded hate mongers and they don’t resemble those radio curmudgeons hollering for money. The data show it.”
I’ve just thrown my life away.
It’s okay. I’m accustomed to the pariah’s path. I always empty parties when I answer the inevitable question: “What do you do for a living?” Crowds freeze when I say “pastor.” They remember their four letter words and dirty jokes. The stampede comes with my elaboration: I’m a wild Baptist, not a harmless Methodist. Suddenly, 8:30 p.m. is midnight and the baby sitter has diphtheria and the kids broke out in hives on a night exactly like this and they’ll die unless we rush home and we just remembered this is the anniversary of great-great grandma’s death and we’re wrapped in grief: “Sorry, Father – I mean, Reverend – but we can hear great-grandma’s bedtime stories and we’ll soon be sniveling like our hive-riddled five-year-old! Maybe we’ll come to mass someday – or whatever you call it …”
What’s a few smelly vegetables in this lonely life of mine (hear the violins)? I’ll stink and stink proudly while declaring the stark fact: Member charities of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability reported strong giving while donations dropped 11 percent at the nation’s 400 biggest nonprofits. What’s more, evangelicals give churches four percent of their income while other Christians donate only 2.43 percent, according to the Barna Group, which defines the movement narrowly. David Kinnaman, Barna’s president and co-author of the pull-no-punches unChristian, a book criticizing his own tribe, says they remain “among the most generous Americans,” despite the Great Recession’s trauma. “While not immune from the bad economy, evangelicals still consistently give more of their income to more places than virtually any other demographic or faith group. Evangelicals also easily qualify as the nation’s most consistent tithers. And those who tithe are simply much more resilient in their giving—and distinctly more generous—than others.”
So there. I can sit proudly, draped in foul leaves, and vouch that he’s right. I know salt-of-the-earth Bible thumpers who trundle off, every Saturday, to feed the poor in a nearby city. They’re veritable hoots. And there are those do-anything-for-you people who fix your car before they buy you breakfast. They insist. They scratch their heads over my “radical” political views (which are really moderate), but only a few doubt my orthodoxy. A shrill few.
Barna-Barna everywhere …
Which brings up more Barna statistics after some parsing: The research firm makes a distinction not found in other literature: Born-again Christians, composing 43 percent of America’s adult population, have “made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and think they’ll go to Heaven because they’ve confessed their sins and accepted Christ; evangelicals, a born-again subset, maintain their faith’s importance, agree they should share it with others, assert Satan’s personal existence and the possibility of salvation only through grace, and affirm Christ’s earthly sinlessness and the Bible’s accuracy. They describe God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Only one in 12 Americans fit this description (I’m one of them). A 2008 study found that 39% of born-again voters were Democrats, 41% were Republicans, and 16% were Independents – more conservative than the general populace, but hardly a GOP bastion. They favored George H.W. Bush over Clinton by 39 percent to 35 percent and Bob Dole by 49 percent to 43 percent. The smaller “evangelical” cluster favors the GOP by huge majorities, but keep in mind Barna’s parameters (I would put Christians on a continuum and blur the lines, but no one is asking me).
Toss the tomatoes while I shout out another fact: A survey three years ago showed only 19.6 percent of born-again Christians favor Pat Robertson. Pull the microphones. He’s doesn’t speak for us.
So why our snarling rap?
Let’s heap blame everywhere. First, lazy news reporters rush to Robertson’s breed. They would interview Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, and Bill Hybels if they really wanted an evangelical voice. Second, the so-called “cultural left” can be vicious and will lump all moral conservatives with the Westboro Baptist Church and all pro-lifers with physician killers: all preachers scam; all moral conservatives hate; all … every … completely … totally … no exceptions and verily verily Amen – and don’t try to change my mind because I’m relativistic, unprejudiced, and broad-minded. Watch me hurl rotten tomatoes. It’s my right.
And then there’s us: evangelicals and traditional Christians themselves. We almost beg for bad publicity. Pa-lease call us names. Open the barn door, take a pitch fork and sample the cabbage as you tune into our radio programs. Wince at the appeals for money. Squirm at the frog music. I’m writhing myself. I feel empathetic shimmies racing agnostic spines and I long to speed dial my pals: “Ever listen to 101.6 on the AM dial? You haven’t? Great … Oh, no reason … Thought I’d let you know that radio preachers get their slots because they can pay for them; it’s money, plain and simple. Charles Stanley is great; Chuck Swindoll’s a peach. Some of the others? Great spouses and parents, I’m sure, but their teaching is way off in Health-and-Wealth land … Wanted you to know … Gotta go …”
Another dilemma: We’re own worst critics. Ronald Sider, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, would be unimpressed with our four-percent giving. The biblical figure is ten percent, or a tithe. Jesus drops hints that we should give even more (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 18:18-23). “Over the last 40 years,” says Sider in reference to the 2.4 percent giving levels, “American Christians (as we have grown progressively richer) have given a smaller percent of our growing income to the ministries of our churches. Such behavior flatly contradicts what the Bible teaches about God, justice, and wealth. We should be giving … 15 percent, even 25 to 35 percent or more to kingdom work. Most of us could give 20 percent and not be close to poverty.”
That’s a fair in-house criticism, but Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, sees an irony: “Many people complain that Christians are lousy givers because as a group we don’t reach the 10 percent biblical injunction. But of course no one else is held to this standard and it is often, frankly, a disingenuous attack from secularist critics who are searching for evidence that Christians—especially evangelicals—are all-around hypocrites.”
In other words, the cynics are looking over our shoulders and reading our own self-reproaches. They thank us for cc-ing them on this issue as well as others, then forward them to the world. There’s no way to avoid it.
A Continual Review
I joined the in-house critics after witnessing the evangelical dark side. Don’t tell anyone, but the shrieks from “progressive Christians” and liberals are mellowing me (shh!). I’m now more nuanced. I see, once again, that hearts of gold beat within most theologically conservative Christians. The problem is that political manipulators have pulled those heart-strings and wooed them from a truly prophetic view of culture, politics, and society. Some have now signed on with libertarianism, which is philosophically inconsistent with an anti-abortion stance (we are, after all, calling for the government to protect the unborn life); many relegate scientific research on climate change to conspiracy theory, which neither jibes with the evidence nor is holistically pro-life. Still others almost mandate American Exceptionalism, for which there is no biblical support and can lead to nationalistic idolatry.
In other words, I want our heads lined up with our hearts. Let’s be more biblical, not less. Catholic social teaching can help lead the way.
But I think of a deservedly well-respected couple even amid my frustrations: The husband coaches several soccer teams and plays a leading community role; the wife heads-up an innovative family ministry and has organized state-wide prayer groups. Believers and unbelievers alike seek their advice. They’re good, and the evidence shows they’re far more typical of evangelicals than the Westboro cult. I’m glad to embrace them – as well as those slap-happy salt-of-the-Earthers and the people who fix your car and buy you breakfast. Most would of them would embrace me as well – after I wash away the aroma of smelly tomatoes and leaves.