This week brings two online discussions of the book God's Harvard by Washington Post Style reporter Hanna Rosin. One discussion, on the Post's website, features questions from readers, with fairly predictable results. It's a funny mix of Patrick Henry College alumni and people who are frightened by them. The other discussion, on the Post-owned Slate, pairs Rosin with David Kuo, author of Tempting Faith and a blogger at Beliefnet.
Rosin is thoughtful and measured in both settings, but especially in responding to a peevish question like this one:
Arlington, Va.: Frankly, these little conservobots scare the living daylights out of me. Because the majority of them are home-schooled, they have no experience in dealing with those of differing opinions or life experiences. I don't need to be "saved," and I resent their implication that because I believe in a truly loving God (which they claim they believe in but their actions show otherwise), I am doomed to burn in Hell because I believe that birth control should be freely available to all, and that homosexuals should be allowed equal marriage rights. Their focus on obtaining earthly power rather than helping the poor show what their true beliefs are.
Hanna Rosin: Again, a common view, and I have to confess I had my moments of annoyance. But you have to admit that as a system it works quite well -- if you do limit your children's exposure to outside influence, they tend to believe more strongly in the end. I myself am a consummate democrat, small d, so I couldn't do it. I place a high value on experience and exposure, even for kids (although watching those commercials that come on during "American Idol," I sometimes have my doubts).
Rosin also shows an informed, Associated Press-style understanding of the words evangelical and fundamentalist:
Alexandria, Va.: Somebody told me the other day "I'm an evangelical." What does that mean? How is it different from a fundamentalist?
Hanna Rosin: A very excellent question, as that term is much misunderstood. People used to define an evangelical as anyone who liked Billy Graham, but that's not so helpful anymore. Fundamentalist is a historical term from the beginning of the century that's come to be associated with very literal reading of the Bible and a restrictive lifestyle, and also has come to take on negative connotations. I rarely meet people who call themselves fundamentalists anymore.
Theologically speaking, an evangelical believes in the inerrancy of the Bible and has a living, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. But that term also has taken on political implications, so it has come to mean someone who advocates the "family values" agenda. Right now that term is so overused that anyone who goes to a megachurch can call themselves an evangelical, and it doesn't really tell you all that much about what the person believes or how they live. Complicated answer, but there it is.
Rosin's discussions also illustrate the value of what I will call embedded religion reporting. Notions about "little conservobots" are easy to maintain at a distance, whether geographical or emotional. But, as with believers across the religion spectrum, daily reality is far more complicated and funny than that -- and thus makes for better reporting.