Fishing for an evangelical trend

<a href=fishing1It's odd to see some of your former classmates quoted in The New York Times as if they are newsworthy. Don't get me wrong--many of them are doing cool and interesting things. Samuel G. Freedman profiles one of these classmates in a nice, upbeat story to show how young evangelicals are taking up interests in climate change, AIDS and poverty in his On Religion column for the Times. However, I initially groaned when I started reading the piece. There were so many stories about "the broadening of the evangelical agenda" during the 2008 election that someone suggested we start a drinking game for the phrase. Thankfully, though, Freedman did not fall into the trap of implying that all older evangelicals care about is abortion and same-sex marriage. Also, unlike other reporters, he doesn't feel the need to suggest any political implications.

Freedman looks at this trend through the lens of Jenna Liao, a Wheaton graduate who now works at World Relief, an agency that helps refugees. He does do a nice job of helping us understand how Liao's faith informs her social justice work, citing the Beatitudes. The examples eventually apply to a larger story on younger evangelicals.

For in coming to the work of refugee resettlement, and more broadly of seeking social justice in a fallen world, Ms. Liao embodied a dramatic change among her generation of evangelical Christians.

Without disowning longstanding causes for evangelical activists like opposition to abortion or support for school vouchers, these young evangelicals have taken up issues previously abdicated to secular and religious liberals: climate change, AIDS prevention and treatment, Third World poverty.

The problem here is that Freedman makes these assertions with no data. For example, is this social justice trend just among Liao's generation of evangelicals? What about California megachurch pastor Rick Warren, who is perhaps one of the most recognizable faces for AIDS outreach and doesn't exactly represent recent college graduates?

Also, while climate change seems somewhat new for evangelicals (within the last five years or so), haven't they long been involved in AIDS prevention and fighting poverty (especially overseas) for a while now? Evangelicals have long been involved in social justice areas like starting soup kitchens, hospitals and charity groups. Globally focused and still popular organizations like World Vision and Heifer International have been around for more than 50 years. Even later in the article, Freedman writes that World Relief opened in 1984.

Evangelicals might be experiencing a trend of focusing on climate change, AIDS and poverty. When I was at Wheaton, there was a definite emphasis on these areas because Bono had just visited the campus and President Duane Litfin had just signed the Evangelical Climate Initiative. Those of us in the student newspaper office often joked about "chapeltisements," chapels that turned into an advertisement for whatever social justice group gave their spiel of the day. I also remember some students lamenting that there was just one limp week dedicated to raising money for pregnancy centers. Freedman just doesn't provide data or more examples of this surge we're supposed to be seeing that wasn't there before. Even speaking with a professor who has spent more than four years at Wheaton could strengthen his angle and provide examples of how students' emphasis has changed over the years.

Also, the story seems to completely ignore Wheaton's history. This is the same school that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and sent out Jim Elliot and friends (the missionaries who were killed by the natives in Ecuador in 1956). Freedman and several other writers during the 2008 election seemed surprised see evangelicals are more globally and social justice oriented. That just doesn't seem new to me, especially given Wheaton's and evangelicals' longstanding emphasis on missions.

I also have a few quibbles with Freedman's word choice in places. Back to Liao, the Wheaton graduate whom Freedman focuses on, he writes that she has a hand in resettling 400 or so families each year.

... [T]here was little in the upbringing of these young evangelicals that made social justice the obvious career choice or theological focus. Ms. Liao is the daughter of a career Army officer who served in both Iraq wars. She was home-schooled for several years, and she cried the night Bill Clinton defeated Senator Bob Dole, a World War II veteran, to win his second term as president.

I think we could use a little more background here. How would Liao's military child upbringing, homeschooling or reaction to Clinton's election play into her theological focus? Instead, I'm interested in what kind of church she grew up in. For example, if she grew up in an Anabaptist or Reformed tradition, that could theologically impact how she would see Christians' involvement in the world. In other words, Freedman's description of her upbringing tells us more about her politically conservative family than her religious upbringing.

Coming to the United States from a military base in Germany to start college, Ms. Liao enrolled at Wheaton College, the alma mater of the Rev. Billy Graham and the center of a region of suburban Chicago known as the "evangelical Vatican."

I don't know anybody who calls Wheaton the "evangelical Vatican." By its very fragmented nature, there is no evangelical Vatican comparison. No one solitary group is making statements on behalf of evangelicalism, which is why you see lots of different heads of groups signing statements like the Manhattan Declaration. You also probably won't see statements like that coming directly from a place like Wheaton, which is more academically inclined than activist inclined because it's a college. I have heard Wheaton described as the "evangelical Mecca"--where evangelicals might tend to flock, but I thought Colorado Springs stole that title.

Overall, Freedman does a nice job of humanizing a trend he sees, but hopefully the next story on evangelical activism will provide proof that there's something there that wasn't there before.

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