Journalistic Blind Spots and the “Centrist-to-Liberal” Christian

When it comes to discussions of religion in the contemporary media, we need to pay attention to the nuances of spin. Sometimes what is not said—what is left in the shadows—is as important as the case in the spotlight. For example, consider two ways of framing a question about which Christian voices are dominant in public discourse: on the one hand a journalist might claim that only one voice is currently being heard in the public square, and leave it at that; on the other hand, she might assert that key media channels tend to ignore every voice aside from that dominant one.

I don’t mean to quibble, but I think the difference is worth noting.

I want to explore, in particular, how this distinction functions in two current discussions of US religion. Let’s return to the first journalistic assertion, which claims that only one voice is currently being heard in the public arena. Note the passive voice. Exactly who is doing the hearing, in what contexts? This sentence is a simplified version of the actual first sentence of Frances FitzGerald’s recent New Yorker article, “The New Evangelicals.” Before proceeding, let me underline my high esteem for FitzGerald’s reporting and analysis; it has few equals and I have repeatedly learned from it over many years. Moreover, I am pleased that the New Yorker featured her, putting an exclamation point on an argument that has been gaining strength for several years: that the power, morale, and cultural weight of politically moderate evangelicals has reached a sort of tipping point— in terms of respect from politicians and attention in the media—that allows them to emerge as a stronger cultural force than at any time since the 1970s. This is not the place to develop a fully nuanced analysis of the change, which reflects generational turnover, shifting Democratic political strategies, and the evangelical part of a wider surge of disgust with Republican policies. FitzGerald’s article is an example of work that many scholars, including myself, have advocated for years. The fact that the news has arrived, front and center in the New Yorker, is overwhelmingly positive.

Nevertheless FitzGerald’s opening words, which match the spin of her larger article, provoke me to quibble: “Just four years ago,” she says, “leaders on the religious right were the only white evangelicals whose voices were heard in the public arena.” She goes on to say that this has changed—“based in large part on the fact that religious right activists are no longer the only evangelical leaders speaking out.” Is this really true?

Granted, FitzGerald marshals impressive evidence of rising momentum, notably the centrist tilt of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), authors like Rick Warren, and Christianity Today magazine. She profiles the Florida megachurch leader Joel Hunter, who comments that “you have to come to a certain stature…to even be on the same playing field with Jim Dobson or Pat Robertson” (32). Alongside FitzGerald’s core argument that centrists have bulked up enough to go toe-to-toe on this field, she notes the religious right’s disarray in the wake of Jerry Falwell’s death and their difficulties deciding which GOP presidential contender (including a Mormon, a pro-choice Catholic philanderer, a preacher considered unelectable, and one who earlier called them “agents of intolerance”) was the lesser evil. Her argument effectively dramatizes the shifting balance of power between the evangelical right and center.

Still, we might ask, how much of this shift results from people like FitzGerald paying attention to moderates who were there all along? Much of FitzGerald’s own evidence undermines her spin. She notes that a third of evangelicals voted for Bill Clinton; she might have added that nearly 30% supported Al Gore in 2000 and 60% voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. She is aware of people like Jim Wallis and Ron Sider, who in 1973 spearheaded a “Declaration on Evangelical Social Concern” somewhat akin to a recent NAE statement she underlines— described by Mark Noll as an “an effort to bring out of the background things that have always been there.” But she reasons that Wallis and his ilk “seemed permanently confined to a progressive minority.”

Although evangelicals participated in GOP landslides in the 1980s and tilted for Bush over Kerry in 2004, it remains debatable how much they changed on the ground. Around a third of them have been relatively centrist “Carter-types” all along. These numbers are neither static nor crystal clear—they probably inched upward along generational lines and shifted by a few percentage points from time to time, depending on how we measure evangelical status and centrism. (Many evangelicals take more progressive stances toward poverty, militarism, and the environment than feminist and LGBT issues.) Meanwhile, the media spotlight has swung more sharply. From this perspective the issue is not the ongoing existence of moderates, but when they have been treated with attention and respect.

At the end of the day, it makes limited difference whether we emphasize that evangelicals could have spoken more loudly or that journalists could have offered them more speaking invitations—and by extension whether scholars aware of the complexity of the Protestant world should have published more books or whether people should have paid more attention to our books all along. There is a mutually reinforcing dynamic that can spiral upward or downward, and the key thing to notice is its recent upward turn.

Nevertheless it is useful to note the shifting spotlight and recall the existence of groups outside its focus. Pundits and scholars too often paint evangelicals—and US Christians at large—in monolithic or oversimplified terms. It is worth pressing for greater nuance in general, and to move the spotlight in two directions in particular.

The first is to remember that the evangelical world will include a spectrum from far right to center-left for the foreseeable future. The right does not lose importance simply because the spotlight turns elsewhere. As FitzGerald notes, we have already witnessed several rounds of punditry exaggerating its decline, with limited change on the ground. Perhaps this time we will finally digest the thought that many kinds of born-again Christians exist at the same time.

The second is more of an uphill battle. It is to remember that evangelicals are not the only Christian game in town; they share the field with Catholics and mainline Protestants who have rough parity and power—although mainline Protestants, in particular, are often left for dead in the shadows. At this juncture it is useful to consider a second journalistic contribution, Amy Sullivan’s The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap. Here again, let me pause to stress my great esteem for Sullivan’s work and the importance of her book; perhaps this would also be the place to disclose that she cites me. However, the point at hand is how she argues in the same general vein as FitzGerald, except on a larger canvas. She gives more attention to the interplay between Democrats and religious people, with special attention to how Bill Clinton gained political strength from his fluency within and personal commitment to evangelicalism. She contrasts this with John Kerry’s lack of interest in reaching out to religious people, and relates Kerry’s “religion disaster” to Michael Dukakis, John Dean, and other Democrats whom she sees dominating the party until recently.

Sullivan pulls back her spotlight to give equal attention to Catholics. Parallel to her account of Republicans capturing evangelical votes (especially when running people like Kerry) she gives sustained attention to the erosion of Catholic support for Democrats, from 75% in the early 1960s to 40% in the landslides of 1972 and the early 1980s. In this context she mounts a sustained argument for a middle ground in the abortion debate, building on Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” formula and a “seamless garment” approach to abortion, war, and capital punishment in parallel terms.

Although Sullivan does not convince me on every point—she sometimes overdraws the lines between her good and bad guys, for example in her glowing report on Clinton and her harsh and sweeping portrayal of pro- choice activists—the point to accent is that her book is very valuable. The issue at hand for current quibbling purposes, however, is how non-evangelical Protestants drop out of her analysis. FitzGerald’s silence about them in a short article is understandable, but Sullivan has written an entire book about Democrats and religion. Can she really ignore the mainline on the grounds that “they have not altered the outcomes of presidential elections”?

One might respond that they “have not been heard in public.” FitzGerald implies as much when she says that centrist evangelicals are “posing the first major challenge to the religious right in a quarter of a century.” Rubbing salt in the wound, she writes that the centrists are doing so despite having “no charismatic leader, no institutional center, and no specific goals”—all standard attributes used to explain why mainline churches are irrelevant. Meanwhile, for all these years the mainline has been a standing challenge to the right, and at least to some degree has been trying to gain a hearing. This is not the place to mount this argument systematically, but anyone who cares can easily track their ongoing efforts by reviewing past installments of Christian Century magazine or Bill Moyer’s television reporting. Consider, for example, how the Iraq war was opposed by most sectors of world Christianity, including most US mainline Protestant leaders. This was less a failure to speak than a resistance to listening. Although George Bush claims to be Methodist, he refused to meet with Methodist bishops to discuss the war. In 2006, the United Church of Christ tried to buy television ads promoting religious diversity under the rubric “God is Still Speaking”; NBC and CBS refused to accept them.

No doubt mainline leaders are less organized and more demoralized than one might wish; they play their role in a downward spiral involving power, morale, and cultural salience. Sullivan has a good eye for anecdotes that dramatize these problems (and deepen the ruts in the journalistic common sense about them). Nevertheless we must dispute the common wisdom that writes off liberal Protestants—both the moderates that Nancy Ammerman calls “Golden Rule Christians” and the activist types sometimes called liberation theologies—as either having declined to irrelevance, or representing a position halfway down a slippery slope to secularism, so that it need not be considered as a religious position in its own right.

Despite having attended Harvard Divinity School—a sort of ground zero of liberal religion—Sullivan shares this perception. One of the few times that she discusses liberal Protestants, she writes that they capitulated (supposedly unlike Reinhold Niebuhr at mid-century) to an approach informed by John Rawls in which “setting aside one’s religious views was the price of admission to the public sphere.” Thus, an agency of the National Council of Churches “embrac[ed] ‘liberation and justice’—rather than the biblical mandate to help the poor and hungry—as its guiding mission.” I would need much more space to unpack all the ways this is misleading, but we can catch the flavor by noting that Sullivan’s source is a 1983 Reader’s Digest article. At this time the Digest was cooperating with a neo- conservative smear campaign—one somewhat like David Horowitz’s current efforts to demonize liberals in academia—against ecumenical activists working to change US nuclear and Central America policies. From the perspective of such activists—as well as people championed by Sullivan such as Wallis—it was fundamentally wrongheaded to assume that working for justice and liberation was any less a Christian mission than helping the poor. Moreover, most liberation theologies represent greater, not lesser, tension with Rawls compared to mid-century Niebuhrians.

Books can’t do everything; Sullivan’s focus on Catholics and evangelicals is defensible. But we should not forget that, just as pundits lost perspective by spotlighting the Christian right, they often continue to discount Golden Rule Christians and the religious left. When their reports overstress these groups’ weakness—even when they point to real problems—they play their part in creating the weakness. We also need books and articles that showcase the left’s contributions.

In conclusion, let us recall the two ways to frame public religious voices that I contrasted at the beginning. If we are not careful, the first claim—the one focusing passively on “who is being heard”—risks being captured by the following logic: First, only conservatives have been heard because pundits narrow religion to evangelical and evangelical to right-wing fundamentalist. Second, since the right is fading, the emergent meaning of “Christians who are heard” is centrist evangelical. If so, only one voice is heard. Although FitzGerald and Sullivan certainly would not endorse this train of thought, I worry that their reporting may be captured in its orbit.

I hope my alternative—the one foregrounding who pays attention to whom—will lead toward a different logic: First, pundits oversimplify the range of Christian voices, from the religious left, through evangelical and Golden Rule centrists, to a right that has garnered disproportionate attention. Second, we do not simply need to move our spotlight from the right to the center of the evangelical world, but pay attention to the entire religious spectrum. We can pull our focus back to the whole, or zero in on any part. Which voices have the most valuable things to say?