Understanding Evangelicals: Tips from the Son of a Preacher Man (and Woman)
I can't confess to Roy Peter Clark's ignorance about evangelicals or born again Christians, or church suppers. But I share much of his confusion about the American electorate and his concern about journalism's failure to understand evangelical voters.
I am the son of two Baptist ministers, the brother of two more, and the brother-in-law of a fifth. We could go further if we counted uncles, but let's not. One of those ministering brothers and his wife (mostly his wife) home school their children. I grew up going to church suppers. Chapel suppers, actually. My father was an Air Force chaplain for my first 16 years, so my youth was spent in two worlds that most journalists don't understand: the military and born-again Christianity.
I covered religion for The Des Moines Register for two years and have covered the abortion issue for the Omaha World-Herald for several years. I traveled to Venezuela with a mission team from an Assembly of God church whose pastor and congregation are prominent in Iowa politics.
I have covered gay rights issues for both newspapers and covered some gambling, too. In the process I have grown to understand (at least in part), admire, and like a lot of people whose faith is the guiding force in their lives.
I'll tell you something I've learned about conservatives: They are as likely to be hypocrites as liberals are.
Many of the same conservative voters who chose George W. Bush on Nov. 2 because of his faith and "family values" chose Ronald Reagan 24 years ago over Jimmy Carter. That was a decision of pure politics. Ronald Reagan was a divorcee who impregnated Nancy Davis before they married, was largely alienated from his children, and seldom went to church when he was governor, a presidential candidate, or president. Jimmy Carter was a born-again Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher who lived his faith more consistently than any public figure of our time, stayed married to the same woman for 58 years, and was as attentive a father as any president we've had.
The fact is that conservative voters favor conservative politicians. Conservatives embrace the conservative politicians who reflect their values. But if conservative politicians don't reflect conservative moral values (Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and William Bennett come to mind), that's Archetypes are great storytelling tools. But they are close cousins to stereotypes, which result in shallow stories.when conservative voters remember their Biblical lessons about forgiveness.
That doesn't make conservatives more hypocritical than liberal voters (including lots of journalists). The same liberals who were outraged by the behavior of Clarence Thomas suddenly found the exploitation of women in the workplace more forgivable when the offender was Bill Clinton.
Without question, most journalists who cover politics do not fully understand the importance of faith to conservative Americans -- not just evangelicals, but lots of Catholics and Mormons, too. (That's a good cue for some more personal disclosure: After that Baptist upbringing, I became Catholic as an adult, though I'm not really comfortable in that church these days. And I spent grades one through five in public schools in Utah, where one learned quite a bit about the Mormon faith, too. I was one of two "Gentiles" at my grade level in our school.)
Part of the excitement of journalism is the challenge of learning about new topics quickly as we cover new stories each day. Part of the weakness of journalism is the shallow reporting that such learning on the fly produces. Archetypes are great storytelling tools. But they are close cousins to stereotypes, which result in shallow stories.
This might be the place to mention that my family of origin wasn't completely conservative, though that might be what you thought when I identified them as Baptist ministers. Some (but not all) of those Baptist ministers I referred to above are pretty liberal. They were as mystified and disappointed with the recent election results as Roy was. Two of the ministers mentioned above are women, another fact that doesn't fit the stereotype of "Baptist minister."
The nation was just starting to get to know Bush in 1999 when the governor of Texas was seeking votes in the Iowa caucuses. I was sitting in the audience in Des Moines when he gave his famous answer that Jesus was the political philosopher who most influenced his life. That answer got a lot more attention, but was less revealing, than his answer to a follow-up question, asking him to explain.
Bush stammered, much like he did several times in the first debate this fall, and said if you didn't understand, he couldn't explain.
Here's something I learned from years of listening to hundreds, if not thousands, of evangelical Christians: They all have a personal testimony about how and why Jesus changed their lives. They can explain, even if you can't understand.
To a liberal listening to him, Bush was revealing that his faith was as shallow as his politics. But conservatives weary of sharing political control after seven years of Clinton were listening for what they wanted to hear, and Bush dropped the all-important name.
Growing up, I went to Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, Wednesday evening service, and youth group meetings. We read the Bible in my home and memorized great parts of it. While I never thought of Jesus as a political philosopher, I do recall his teachings on some important issues of our time and even of this year's presidential race:
- On tax cuts: "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."
- On war: "Blessed are the peacemakers."
- On the death penalty: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone."
You're right, Roy. Mainstream journalists need to do a better job of understanding and covering evangelical Americans.
That won't necessarily help us understand elections.