The evangelicals you don’t know

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA TODAY (June, 2008)

Out on the left-leaning coasts, notions about heartland evangelicals often veer in a most unflattering direction. They’re insular and arrogant, as the story goes. They’re the close-minded ones, condemning those who do not subscribe to their beliefs and world view. With them, it’s the Jesus way or the highway. These, like so many other prejudices collected like mud in the trenches of the culture war, fail to engage the complexity of the situation  — or the fast-changing truth.

If a larger pattern can be drawn from my recent perception-changing journey to one of the great bastions of conservative evangelicalism, the walls of division are not as formidable as culture warriors might like us to believe. They might even be shrinking.

Such were the hopeful observations I packed home with me after two days in Xenia, Ohio, on the campus of the evangelical sports ministry Athletes in Action. AIA is the athletics arm of the famed Campus Crusade for Christ International, which has championed Jesus on American college campuses and around the world since its creation by Bill Bright more than a half-century ago. Campus Crusade, like its founder before his death in 2003, has stood tall as an icon of conservative Christianity (and, sometimes, politics) in the fractious national debates of our times. So what would this non-evangelical progressive religion writer from the People’s Republic of Portland find during his two days at AIA’s small-town Ohio home?

Hospitality. Curiosity. Respect. And surprising amounts of incipient change in the air.

My own stereotypes had me in an apprehensive state as I checked into AIA’s dormitory-style retreat center on the eve of my visit. Were these dedicated sports-world missionaries going to scold me for critiquing aspects of their movement in my previous writings? Were they going to give me the hard sell for the rightness of their philosophy and cause? Were they going to question the validity of my beliefs?

No, no and no. But they did patiently explain their mission and operation, tell me their personal coming-to-faith stories, describe their hopes for organizational change (particularly in the area of race), ask about my views and listen while I answered with the candor they made possible. My host, Ed Uszynski, AIA’s director of resource development, welcomed me to his home for dinner with his family and invited me to sit in on a massive meeting and diversity workshop for all of AIA’s field staff based in the USA.

A ‘retreat’ from our culture
Several AIA staffers I met voiced a desire to change the way Christians are perceived. “Many Christians are uncomfortable with where our culture is going, so they retreat from it,” said Doug Pollock, AIA’s evangelism director. “Instead of being ‘in the world but not of it,’ as the Bible stresses, they lob truth grenades over the walls of the fortresses they’ve created.”

Some spoke of their hopes for broadening the mission of sports ministry such that it might bring a voice of Christian conscience to the moral issues in and around the game  — bring “salvation” to sports, as Pollock put it. The idea: Go beyond evangelistic outreach to athletes and those who watch them (the clear focus of sports ministry the past half-century), and help save the soul of sports itself, so to speak. What a constructive and astonishing development it would be if AIA and similar ministries took up this mantel and devoted themselves more seriously to such issues as doping, cheating and race issues in and around sports.

The change budding in Xenia mirrors the broader trend across the religious and political landscape. Common ground  — “common hope,” as Barack Obama is given to calling it  — usually lies between competing sides. The center is exactly where more evangelicals are migrating since the 2004 election, when they did so much to swing the election to George W. Bush.

Religion scholar, and Christian, David Gushee hails this emergence in his book The Future of Faith in American Politics: The Public Witness of the Evangelical Center. Joel Hunter, a megachurch pastor and author of the recently published A New Kind of Conservative, approvingly describes the growing evangelical embrace of issues outside the narrow band of Christian right concerns. This broadening agenda takes on projects that might sound “liberal” if you’re not paying close attention. As Hunter writes, “What if ‘conservative’  … meant doing the right thing in compassion issues like Jesus did: healing the sick, feeding the hungry, appreciating the ‘lilies’ (God’s creation), and freeing the oppressed?”

Like the people I interviewed at Athletes in Action, Hunter is intent on changing the way we work through our still-real differences. Will it be in the now-popular style of a shouting match, where we listen only so far as it helps us plot our next incendiary retort? Or will we have a civil and respectful dialogue, one that employs our ears as much as our mouths?

Changing seasons
Fitting for springtime, we seem to be in a season of change for evangelicalism and the way it shows up in our culture and politics. There’s the “emerging church,” with its evangelical zeal for Jesus but refusal to be bound by the old Christian right’s playing style. There’s the changing dialogue around abortion, with more conservatives realizing that their message does not resonate unless it addresses the well-being of life outside as well as inside the womb. And among all the other change that’s budding, more and more born-again believers are emphasizing their religious calling to care for the planet and the poor.

It’s enough to make the old-guard Christian right leadership worried  — which is exactly how Focus on the Family leader James Dobson was sounding in his address in March at the National Religious Broadcasters conference. With his generation of culture warriors moving on or dying off, he asked, who will continue the fight against abortion and protect the institution of marriage? “Who in the next generation will be willing to take the heat,” Dobson wondered, “when it’s so much safer and more comfortable to avoid controversial subjects?”

Maybe Dobson can take satisfaction in knowing that the forceful presence of religious conscience in today’s politics owes in part to efforts by him and his allies to re-assert the evangelical voice in our public affairs. It seems both inevitable and healthy that this religious energy would eventually branch off in ways more diverse, and “liberal,” than the James Dobsons and Jerry Falwells might have intended.

Many close observers of the religious/political landscape are declaring that the era of the religious right is over. Even if such pronouncements are premature, there is no denying how much has changed since the 2004 election, when faith, politics and power became conflated in disturbing ways. All of us who invested in the old story lines and battle lines will probably have to adjust our thinking accordingly.

For those of us in blue states or blue states of mind, it might be useful to journey to places such as Xenia, Ohio, if only metaphorically. We’ll probably return home with a less black-and-white idea about those crazy evangelicals.

Tom Krattenmaker, who lives in Portland, Ore., specializes in religion in public life and is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. He is working on a book about Christianity in professional sports.