To be clear, I empathize with Nick Kristof’s column on evangelicals. Not the snideness about the snideness at New York cocktail parties (not that I go to them myself) about evangelicals. But the part about not all evangelicals being Falwell clones, and that many are motivated by a sincere, heart-felt conviction to reach out and help others around the world.
Kristof, to be sure, sees humanitarian efforts in action in a way that few other journalists have the resources or opportunity to. And I don’t doubt that he has seen the toil and sacrifice and risk of many an American evangelical abroad. His column, intended as a eulogy for John Stott (see Randy Balmar’s remembrance here), took aim at the “distaste in liberal circles” for evangelicals, because of “blowhards” like Falwell, and veered into a homage for the missionary work of evangelicals around the world.
It was a sort of pox on both their houses framing—shame on the Falwells for the blowhardedness, and shame on liberals for extrapolating a prejudice against evangelical Christians.
Like I said, I, too, meet many a kind-hearted evangelical. But, as Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote here last week, for example, the current evangelical craze over the abolitionist William Wilberforce isn’t necessarily straightforward, as Wilberforce was interested not just in abolition, but in “suppression of sin,” which included “excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s Day, and other dissolute, immoral, or disorderly practices.”
When contemporary evangelicals look to Wilberforce for inspiration on outlawing abortion (likening the medical procedure to slavery) or, less of a stretch, the commendable mission of combatting human trafficking around the world, the suppression of sin—particularly sexual sin—is never far from the surface. Fitzgerald documented how that underlying conflict poses intra-evangelical tension, highlighting how there is more heterogeneity than one might locate from a superficial look at the evangelical world.
But as the investigative journalist documented in the Nation in 2009, some missionary work intended to combat forced prostitution has seen mixed, and even troubling results. RD contributor Kathryn Joyce has also documented ethical issues in evangelical adoption. When I was reporting a piece on short-term missionary work, in the wake of American evangelicals’ kidnapping of children from Haiti following the earthquake there, I found that there were few or no mechanisms for monitoring or overseeing missionary work by sincerely motivated evangelicals who had little training for their forays overseas.
When the snooty liberals Kristof meets at New York cocktail parties disparage evangelicals, it’s because of the Falwells and their descendants (see, e.g., most of the GOP presidential field). It’s true, not all evangelicals are nasty blowhards, and they don’t deserve to be lumped together with the others. But Kristof blindly defends the “nice” evangelicals, quoting Jim Wallis, for example, who faces deep skepticism within his own cohort for his failure to defend LGBT rights. More imperfections, or possible sins: Some humanitarian-minded evangelicals defend the use of taxpayer money to discriminate based on religion. Others oppose the lifting of the global gag rule, known to conservatives as the Mexico City Policy. That policy, which every Republican since Reagan has upheld and every Democrat reversed, prohibits, by executive order, the use of U.S. family planning funds to NGOs abroad who use other funds to provide abortions or even referrals to abortion providers. It’s widely seen by reproductive health advocates, as Population Action International puts it, as “eroding family planning and reproductive health services in developing countries. There is no evidence that it has reduced the incidence of abortion globally. On the contrary, it impedes the very services that help women avoid unwanted pregnancy from the start.”
It’s true, many evangelicals performing humanitarian work around the world are well-intentioned. It’s also true that liberals who deride the religious right agenda, and even the less firebrand version of evangelical “suppression of sin,” have legitimate reasons for their criticisms that aren’t religious prejudice.