As simple as a cartoon: At the New Yorker, white evangelicalism = Ku Klux Klan + patriarchy


I know reporters do not control the headlines assigned to their piece, so I am hoping Eliza Griswold was chagrined at the click-bait headline give to her recent New Yorker piece: “Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right.

Where is this happening, I wondered. And what. precisely, is the “religious right” these days?

Answer: White evangelicals. Period.

You know: The evangelical Deep State that’s part Ku Klux Klan and part white patriarchy.

In recent years, I’ve noticed how Eliza Griswold is the major go-to writer who gets to explain the religious world to New Yorker readers. The daughter of former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and more of a Christianity-and-Islam specialist, she didn’t exactly grow up in an evangelical context. I’m curious as to why she gets to define this group.

On a recent Sunday before dawn, Lisa Sharon Harper, a prominent evangelical activist, boarded a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City. Harper is forty-nine, and African-American, with a serene and self-assured manner. Although she had moved to D.C. seven and a half years ago, to work as the director of mobilizing for a Christian social-justice organization called Sojourners, she still considered New York her home. She missed its edgy energy, and was worn down by the political battles in Washington, which pitted her more and more aggressively against her fellow-evangelicals. On this frigid morning, she was on her way to Metro Hope, her old church in East Harlem. She couldn’t find anything like it in Washington, D.C. “It’s the South,” she told me. Black and Latinx-run evangelical churches committed to justice were scarce, she noted. …

With that, she dismisses a truckload of evangelical megachurch congregations in Prince George’s County in Maryland one of the richest majority black counties in the country. It wraps around the District’s eastern edge. You can’t live in Beltway land for a year or more — if you are a person who cares about church life — without hearing about the many huge, active churches in that area that attract a variety of worshippers.

This is the first clue that this article is going to be as simplistic as a cartoon.

Harper is now the president of Freedom Road, a consulting group that she founded last year to train religious leaders on participating in social action. In August, 2014, eleven days after a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Harper travelled to Ferguson, Missouri, on behalf of Sojourners, to help evangelical leaders mobilize their followers to support protests against police brutality. Last month, she travelled to Brazil to consult with fellow evangelicals of color, working against President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who is often compared to Donald Trump for his authoritarianism and misogynistic comments. (In an interview in 2014, Bolsonaro said that a fellow-legislator “doesn’t deserve to be raped” because “she’s very ugly.” This year, in the Brazilian election, he won an estimated seventy per cent of the evangelical vote.)

In the United States, evangelicalism has long been allied with political conservatism. But under Trump’s Presidency right-wing political rhetoric has become more openly racist and xenophobic. …

Well, that’s quite the opening.

In a few paragraphs, evangelicalism is aligned with racism, xenophobia, the far right, authoritarianism, misogyny, etc. What’s not to like?

In evangelical circles, hostility toward people of color is often couched in nostalgia for the simpler days of nineteen-fifties America. “Sociologically, the principal difference between white and black evangelicals is that we believe that oppression exists,” Harper said, citing a nationwide study of Christians from 2000 called Divided by Faith. “A lot of white evangelicals don’t believe in systemic oppression, except lately, under Trump, when they’ve cast themselves as its victim.” To Harper, the 2016 election revealed the degree to which white evangelicals were “captive” to white supremacy. “They’re more white than Christian,” Harper said, echoing the words of her former boss at Sojourners, Jim Wallis, a white evangelical leader and part of a progressive push against racism within the church. At the same time, people of color are the fastest-growing demographic within evangelicalism. “Two things are contributing to this,” Robert Jones, the head of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of “The End of White Christian America,” told me. “The first is demographic: the absolute number of whites in America is declining. But the decline is really turbocharged by young white evangelicals leaving the church.”

So young, white evangelicals are fleeing but black/Hispanic/Asian evangelicals are joining?

It looks like Griswold only had limited space for her piece, but that’s a lot of data we are asked to swallow with little explanation. The aforementioned survey was 2000+ interviews with white evangelicals that showed how people form their views of American society based on their experiences in it. A black man has a far different view of the local police than does, say, a white woman. This is not a radical concept. The #MeToo movement shows that men have a different concept about what goes on in the workplace than women do.

I’m guessing Griswold met Harper as she stepped off the train at Penn Station after a quickie ride from DC on the Acela Express. The piece follows Harper as she attends church and eats lunch with its progressive pastor. Trashing evangelicals has become quite the cottage industry these days, but couldn’t we have had at least one contrasting viewpoint to balance these stereotypes?

How about some debate on this topic? How about some basic journalism?

Try seeing the mirror image of this piece. Would the magazine have hired a conservative writer to follow a conservative evangelical around New York as they attended, say, Times Square Church, founded by the late David Wilkerson of “The Cross and the Switchblade” fame? And listened to that person fume about clueless believers of color who can’t move on from #BlackLivesMatter or are silent about the sky-high abortion rates of black children? Or consider this: Would New Yorker editors have hired Marvin Olasky to write a feature about trends in today’s Episcopal Church and white liberals in general?

Of course they wouldn’t.

There’s a ton of magazines and web sites out there these days that weren’t interested in evangelicals until the 2016 election but are now pumping out one-sided pieces by writers who should know better.

Although, more recently, the evangelical push for conservatives to dominate secular politics has been cast as a fight over abortion, Harper sees this as a form of whitewashing. Earlier battles over segregation, she explained, had been more important in motivating conservative Christianity’s bid for political power. “The religious right was motivated far, far before Roe v. Wade,” she told me. “The evangelical culture wars began with Brown v. Board of Education.”

So, the political issue evangelicals organized around in the 1970s was school desegregation? Had she been an adult during that time, the 45-year-old Griswold might have realized the uniting issue back then was abortion and that it was theologian Francis Schaeffer, not political operative Paul Weyrich who was the inspiration behind it all. Culture wars were more centered on Engel v. Vitale (1962 case on school prayer) and Roe v. Wade (1973 case on abortion), both of which were before Moral Majority was founded in 1979. The 1983 Bob Jones University v. United States case was a latecomer.

Further on in the piece, we meet the pastor at this lunch table who is frustrated by the lack of attention among white evangelicals toward black mass incarceration.

Wait. Haven’t these folks ever heard of Prison Fellowship, which was founded by a white evangelical and probably does more work among American prisons than any other ministry? They know nothing about this organization’s work — for multiple decades — for prison reform?

The bottom line: This story leaves out a lot of data that does not fit the stereotype of the mindless white evangelical hordes attending Trump rallies. Once again: This story resembles a cartoon, not journalism.

Earth to New Yorker: There’s a ton of good religion reporters out there who know the evangelical world and have been covering it for decades. I haven’t seen any of their bylines in your magazine. Seek these folks out, especially those who live outside the Washington-DC axis. Or contact Adelle Banks of Religion News Service, who has been covering black evangelicals a lot longer than most people have.

Give it a shot. You might learn something from writers who’ve been on the beat for awhile.

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