As you would imagine, legions of readers from around the world saw fit to email us copies of David Brooks' op-ed page tribute to the great evangelical Anglican apologist John Stott. Nothing causes evangelicals to cut and paste and then click send (or forward) as much as a kind word for traditional faith in the pages of the Bible of the blue zip-code elites.
Perhaps they were surprised that Brooks, who leans left on the hot social issues, was so kind to an intellectual who has for decades defended the concept of eternal moral absolutes. I was not surprised, in part because I have interviewed Brooks and knew of his interest in the ideas and influence of C.S. Lewis. If someone starts reading Lewis and then follows that side of the traditional Christian thought into modern evangelicalism, he will bump into Stott sooner rather than later.
Once upon a time, the New York Times used to admire the writings of Lewis and his ilk. Perhaps Brooks is the rare person at the TImes who still read serious books by traditional Judeo-Christian thinkers.
This was, in a way, the point of the column by Brooks. He was steamed (amen, brother) by the astonishingly stupid sight of Jerry Falwell and Al Sharpton sitting on "Meet the Press" trying to discuss religion and public life with Tim Russert.
Earth to Russert: What were you thinking? I realize that there were other people on the show, including some fairly logical usual suspects on the left and right. But anyone who still thinks that Sharpton and Falwell have anything insightful to say about the views of the religious left and right should go see a journalism doctor, quick. As Brooks said:
Inviting these two bozos onto "Meet the Press" to discuss that issue is like inviting Britney Spears and Larry Flynt to discuss D. H. Lawrence. Naturally, they got into a demeaning food fight that would have lowered the intellectual discourse of your average nursery school.
Thus, Brooks asked: Why do so many media people quote Falwell and Pat Robertson, people whose influence is long gone, instead of interviewing people such as Stott? The sermons and books from the legendary voice of All Souls, Langham Place, in London (shown in the picture) have influenced evangelicals around the world for decades and will continue to do so for years to come.
Brooks is asking a question that is at the very heart of the mainstream media's problems with religion coverage -- when dealing with the religious left as well as the right. Why not turn to the bright lights on the left and right, instead of merely seeking the familiar red faces that provide emotional heat?
It isn't fair to have stupid conservatives paired off with smart liberals or, perhaps on Fox, the other way around. And it isn't fair to contrast, in the name of diversity, a few smart evangelicals on the left with the old voices of the simplistic right. The reason Brooks saluted Stott was because the low-church Anglican priest is nuanced, sympathetic, quotable AND a traditionalist.
Stott is so embracing it's always a bit of a shock -- especially if you're a Jew like me -- when you come across something on which he will not compromise. It's like being in "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among nonbelievers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.
Most important, he does not believe truth is plural. He does not believe in relativizing good and evil or that all faiths are independently valid, or that truth is something humans are working toward. Instead, Truth has been revealed.
As I said, this is a matter of how journalists do their homework and find sources. Another interesting article on this same subject -- entitled "Faculty Clubs and Church Pews" -- showed up at Tech Central Station, of all places. In it, Harvard Law School professor William J. Stuntz jumps behind the red and blue imagery to discuss what he has learned in the bluest of blue environments, the faculty club at Harvard, and what sounds like a pretty red environment, his own evangelical congregation.
Not surprisingly, each of these institutions is enemy territory to the other. But the enmity is needless. It may be a sign that I'm terminally weird, but I love them both, passionately. And I think that if my church friends and my university friends got to know each other, they'd find a lot to like and admire. More to the point, the representatives of each side would learn something important and useful from the other side. ... You wouldn't know it from talking to the people who populate universities or fill church pews.
Church people assume that universities are no longer interested in fair debates. You can see where I am going with this idea. Church people make precisely the same assumption about newsrooms. Thus, everything Stuntz writes about his university faculty club can also be applied to the need for newsrooms to be more open-minded in seeking diversity in sources about religion news. At one point in the article a professor friend turns to Stuntz and says: "You know, I think you're the first Christian I've ever met who isn't stupid." Traditional religious believers make the same kinds of snap judgments all the time about journalists and thinkers on the left.
The bottom line: Churches and faculty clubs are supposed to be places where people take ideas, doctrines, traditions and debates seriously. You could say the same thing about newsrooms.
In the end, America is failing to hear interesting and important viewpoints on a wide range of issues -- from failing schools to abortion. Other issues seem to have vanished altogether from national policy debates. Take the issue of poverty and economic justice, for example. Stuntz believes this is tragic.
I don't think my liberal Democratic professor friends like this state of affairs. And -- here's a news flash -- neither do most evangelicals, who regard helping the poor as both a passion and a spiritual obligation, not just a political preference. (This may be even more true of theologically conservative Catholics.) These men and women vote Republican not because they like the party's policy toward poverty -- cut taxes and hope for the best -- but because poverty isn't on the table anymore.
So what is on the table? Whatever the likes of Sharpton and Falwell want to yell about -- on cue. What journalists need is some new names and telephone numbers in their Rolodexes. They can start with the Rev. John Stott.