Evangelicals v. 'mainstream Christians'

Remember last month when the big statue of Jesus was struck by lightning and burned to the ground? Well, one reporter is trying to squeeze as much juice out of the story as possible.

Check out this Dayton Daily News headline that read like the sound of nails screeching against a chalkboard.

Response to statue reveals schism between evangelical and mainstream Christians

I'm sorry, what are mainstream Christians? Perhaps the copy editor who wrote that headline meant mainline Christians. Sift through the story a little bit and you'll find out where the headline probably originated.

The statue's unavoidable, unapologetic, in-your-face presence has made it symbolic, for some, of American evangelical Christianity. Many believe the caustic comments reveal a growing schism between evangelicals and mainstream Christians.

There it is. Again, who are mainstream Christians? Let's review: evangelicals make about 26 percent of the country while mainliners make up about 18 percent.

Here's the summary of the story:

Typically, a church fire draws out only sympathy and support, so why the mean-spirited, even gleeful response from some quarters? Solid Rock co-pastor Lawrence Bishop explains it simply: "Because that's the way people are." But theologians, political scientists and religious history scholars find far more complicated explanations, and they have followed the unfolding story with fascination.

If you read through the story, though, you'll find one political scientist, one Catholic theologian, and one religion professor who don't really have very complicated explanations.

The reporter uses the professors to take a starkly black and white approach where there are evangelicals on one side and then "mainstream" Christians on the other. What about those evangelicals that might have the same kind or even more discomfort with the statue for similar reasons? Trust me, they are out there. Is there really a "schism"?

Here are the three people she quotes: an associate professor religion from Wright State University, a Catholic theology professor at the University of Dayton (is she trying to group mainliners and Catholics to form "mainstream"?) and an associate professor of religion from WSU. The professors are very much entitled to their opinions, but on the surface, they don't really offer any data or support for their lengthy comments.

Take this quote, for example:

"If you take the statue as a symbol of American evangelism, and then the lightning bolt as a traditional way of talking about God's judgment, you can see how easy it is for people to read something into it," observed Ava Chamberlain, an associate professor of religion at Wright State University. "The statue displays how evangelical Christianity has become more and more powerful in American life and more and more powerful in American politics. It's not just atheists and people of other faiths who are uncomfortable with that, but non-evangelical Christians."

It's a fine opinion, but you could find many evangelicals who are just as uncomfortable with mixing faith and politics. And you could probably easily find another professor who says just the opposite, that evangelical Christianity has become less powerful in American life, which is why everyone's attention seems to be currently interested in the Tea Party or other groups.

Notice that she doesn't quote anyone who studies evangelicals. I know newspapers obsessed with the local, but is there really no one in Ohio who can speak authoritatively on their perspective? Otherwise, the schism angle just doesn't seem to work.

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