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Can't you just be a little nicer?
(to white evangelicals)
Fair enough. When you write a book subtitled “How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” it’s a legitimate question.
I was asked this a couple weeks back, and not for the first time. I imagine I’ve entertained some form of this question at least a couple dozen times since the book came out. The question comes in both good faith and bad faith formulations.
First, let me start with the good faith ones.
A couple weeks ago, this came as a friendly question. “Look, Kristin, I’m a fan of your book. But I have a hard time getting fellow evangelicals to read it. Do you think you could say some nice things about evangelicals from time to time, so I can point them to that?”
I get this. The subtitle is rather abrasive. (To be honest, the introduction isn’t much better.) As you might imagine, a fair amount of thought went into that subtitle. I’ll save the longer story for another time, but suffice it to say, wooing evangelical readers was not high on my list when my editor and I were going back and forth on the subtitle. I’d hoped some evangelicals would read the book, but they weren’t my primary audience. My goal wasn’t to win anyone over. It was to write the most accurate account that I could, telling a story that needed to be told, as powerfully as possible.
In the end, we’d narrowed it down to “corrupted a faith” or “transformed a faith.” I made the final call. Transformation was often a good thing, I reflected, and I felt truth in advertising was important—especially with both Jesus and John Wayne front and center. I knew I’d lose some potential readers, but nothing about the book was designed to cater to readers’ sensitivities.
In retrospect, I think that the book’s frankness is what drew many evangelicals and former evangelicals to it. Precisely because it wasn’t trying to win them over, it was unlike anything they’d read before. But to many, it rang true.
I think it’s worth noting, though, that I didn’t set out to write a book saying bad things about white evangelicals. I started the research more than 15 years ago, for the simple purpose of trying to understand what I was seeing in the proliferation of literature on Christian manhood that elevated aggression and a warrior ideal. I wanted to understand what that vision of masculinity had to do with evangelical views on foreign policy, and then I expanded that to domestic politics, and then I looked back across the decades to understand where this came from, and then I traced it up to the present to see what it had led to. When I started the research, I’d had no idea it would draw me into harrowing accounts of abuse in evangelical communities, and I had no idea it would bring us to Donald Trump. In the end, though, a book centering militant expressions of white evangelical masculinity is going to have a critical edge to it, particularly for anyone upset by rampant abuse and coverups, or concerned about the resiliency of American democracy and the rule of law.
But I pondered my friend’s question nonetheless. Could I say something nice about evangelicals? What might that look like?
And then it occurred to me: I have in fact said nice things about evangelicals.
My entire first book centers on a remarkable white evangelical woman, Katharine Bushnell, who worked with tens of thousands of other white evangelical women in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century social reform movements. They pressed for women’s rights, for prison reform, for an end to the sexual double standard, and for the rights of prostitutes and other “fallen women.” They didn’t do so perfectly and they certainly aren’t above critique, but if you read the book, you’ll find much to admire.
More recently, I wrote the foreword to Arlin Migliazzo’s biography of Henrietta Mears. If you know anything about twentieth-century evangelicalism, you know that Henrietta Mears offers a counter narrative to the Jesus and John Wayne motif. For the most part. And it was important to me that the book got as wide a hearing as possible, because there are lessons to be learned from a kinder, gentler evangelicalism too.
Of course, both of these books are about women. I’m not sure if that means they count for less in the eyes of my critics. In the case of my first book, it’s about a woman who advocated for women’s rights and against sexual abuse. To me, these are good things. It’s worth noting that she also came into conflict with early-twentieth-century feminists because of her resistance to sexual liberation—and for her rejection of birth control (not to mention abortion). And, she identified as a fundamentalist. So, plenty there for conservatives to like.
In the case of that book, as in the case of Jesus and John Wayne, I didn’t start off to say something nice, or to denigrate evangelicals. I wanted to get the story right, and present as clearly as possible why it mattered today. Whether it counts as nice or not will depend upon many things, not least of which, what readers themselves consider praiseworthy or lamentable.
This leads me to the not-so-good-faith critics.
I’ve lost track of the number of times (conservative white evangelical) critics have critiqued Jesus and John Wayne by saying that it makes evangelicals look bad, that I’m too critical, that I’m not kind enough, that I’m perhaps not even Christian because Christians are supposed to be nicer—especially to fellow Christians, by which they presumably mean the powerful white Christian men who have behaved badly, not the less powerful Christian men, women, and children who have borne the brunt of that bad behavior. (In case you missed it, here’s just one example of my alleged “failure to love.”)
As I pointed out then, part of the problem here is that white evangelicals have worked hard to control their own narrative, for a very long time.
The dominant narrative inside evangelicalism is a generous one: evangelicals, while they may have a few foibles, are the good guys. Challenging that narrative will inevitably provoke pushback, some thoughtful, some producing much more heat than light.
Which brings us to Kevin DeYoung.
DeYoung’s latest opinion piece at World was a beautiful representation of how an emphasis on tone and presumptions about attitudes and motivations can be used in an effort to discredit critics.
“In politics, as well as in life, there is a fine line between speaking with courage, hoping to lead the people you love, and speaking with contempt, holding in derision the people you now find exasperating,” DeYoung writes. Without offering any evidence of her contempt or derision, DeYoung suggests that Cheney crossed that line.
But this piece isn’t really about Cheney. It’s about the church. More specifically, about those who offer “the ‘prophetic voice’ of rebuke” in a way that devolves into “constant harping on the same thing and a not thinly veiled disgust for the people you are ostensibly trying to correct.” There’s plenty to unpack there, but the next section is particularly revealing. DeYoung explains:
There comes a point when the “family” or the “tribe” or the “team” (or whatever you want to call it) senses that you don’t actually like the family, that you are constantly embarrassed by the tribe, and that you seem much more at home among some other team. The “prophet” may still insist that he believes all the same things the family does, but when he can rarely see past the family’s faults, almost never celebrates the family’s gifts, and almost always talks negatively about his family to others—often to those who are eager to put the family in a bad light—then it is fair to wonder whether he really wants to be a part of the family any more.
It’s not automatically wrong to switch teams. Sometimes you change. Sometimes the team changes. Sometimes both. But then honesty demands that the change is acknowledged. I’m not thinking here so much about political parties as I am about voices in the church whose platform is predicated upon being an insider to something they are well on their way to stepping out of. There is nothing noteworthy about a PCUSA minister espousing progressive views on homosexuality or an ordained woman wailing against patriarchy, but swap PCUSA for PCA and the ordained woman for a self-described complementarian, and then the story has legs. That’s when the “prophets” need to decide if they want to influence their people or if those people are not really their people any longer.
If you end up choosing to critique “your tribe,” don’t be surprised if you find yourself outside that tribe, DeYoung warns. Which is fine, “Just don’t expect to lead people when you, and they, know you are no longer one of them.”
What is so striking in this piece is how the point isn’t about whether or not one’s critique is true and necessary, but about how one is perceived by the group under critique—as friend or foe.
This introduces some difficulties, since it’s not clear who gets to assess whether the critique is legitimate. Nobody likes to be critiqued, but who gets to be the arbiter of what counts as “loving” and what gets dismissed as derisive or condescending? Presumably, DeYoung does.
Even more striking is that the focus here appears to be less on truth than on power. If you want to lead people, think carefully about whose side you’re really on: “Who do I care to impress?” The thing about prophets, though, is that they don’t go into the business of prophetic critique with the goal to impress. They don’t expect to garner huge followings. They speak because they feel compelled to speak. They do so knowing full well that they may lose their place in “the tribe,” lose positions of power, alienate friends and family. I’m not one to throw around the term “prophet” casually, but DeYoung’s dismissive treatment of prophets/“prophets” is noteworthy.
Perhaps what’s really going on is that those who chide prophets/“prophets” for their incessant “harping,” their “failure to love,” for being too negative or just not nice enough, are taking issue not so much with the tone, but with the criticism itself. They’d rather defend the status quo and thereby maintain their own positions of power, and casting critics outside the boundaries of “the tribe” is a means to that end.
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