Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lame defence of Evangelical Christianity by Nick Kristof

Nick Kristof, Op Ed columnist for the New York Times, has purveyed yet another exercise in utmost vapidity. In his recent column, which he ostensibly wrote to laud the late Reverend John Stott, a respected British Christian scholar and author, he endeavored to deliver - in what he no doubt thought a clever manner - a defence of evangelical Christianity.

Kristof starts with a statement fraught with polemical buzzwords (emphasis mine)

In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as “evangelical Christian.”

Erm, Mr. Kristof, there is no question of "conjuring" up distaste; it is the very actions and words of the highly vocal and visible of these evangelical Christians that has made them repugnant to the rational and sane amongst us. Criticizing them is not a sign of "polarization" or partisanship; it is a logical consequence of their deplorable behavior, some of which even you acknowledge and, appropriately, excoriate, when you say:

That’s partly because evangelicals came to be associated over the last 25 years with blowhard scolds

... such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

Kristoff laments that because of these evangelical leaders, and

Partly because of such self-righteousness, the entire evangelical movement often has been pilloried among progressives as reactionary, myopic, anti-intellectual and, if anything, immoral.

... and in the next breath, trots out a single example, that of the late Rev. Stott, as the paragon of evangelical virtues and the rescuer of the entire evangelical movement. Is the irony lost on anyone?

However much Kristoff may huff-and-puff about a "compassionate strain of evangelicalism" as in person of the Rev. Stott, who is to say - and who is he to determine - that Rev. Stott's evangelicalism is any better than, more preferable to, or most importantly, the correct form in comparison to, the evangelicalism so vocally espoused by the likes of Falwell and Robertson, the "self-appointed evangelical leaders" who...

come across as hypocrites, monetizing Jesus rather than emulating him. Some seem homophobic, and many who claim to be “pro-life” seem little concerned with human life post-uterus

...? Who gets to determine these distinctions? How is this any different from the eternal squabble of theists of various stripes who say, "My religion is better than yours"?

The late Rev. Stott may not have preached "fire and brimstone on a Christian television network", and may have been "a humble scholar whose 50-odd books counseled Christians to emulate the life of Jesus — especially his concern for the poor and oppressed — and confront social ills like racial oppression and environmental pollution." - but how is it established that his Christianity informed his concern and compassion, and not vice versa?

The New York Times Op Ed by Mr. Kristoff has engendered many fine and precise comments, some of which are even better than what I could write. Let me highlight a few of those in order to illustrate my points.

Comment #20 from reader Parker from OK:

Cherry picking one compassionate, not financially motivated, Christian intellectual out of the bunch to represent the masses does not pardon the rest from their rampant intolerance to sexual orientation, bigotry, and mass indoctrination of children across the world. If there are so many empathetic evangelicals who feel as if their religious ablutions have been hijacked, they certainly don’t seem to make much of a fuss about it. In fact, the sheer number of followers attracted to televangelists suggests the exact opposite.

Comment #2 from Steve Zippin of CA:

I would be more impressed if these compassionate evangelicals if they were more active and public in refuting the hate filled pronouncements of the likes of Jerry Falwell.

And this Comment #8 from Len Charlap of NJ:

... It is clear that it (the evangelical movement) contains many fine charitable folk, but it would be foolish to deny that intolerance for the beliefs of others, anti-intellectualism (faith over fact) and a desire to force their beliefs on others are at the heart of this movement as in many other religious ones. It takes but a moment to see te adverse effects it has had on our society, e.g. its opposition to choice, to not only evolution, but to science in general, to not only gays but to all non-believers... Rev Stott and his followers have done good works, but it is hard for me to believe that was not in spite of his beliefs rather than because of them.

C'est brilliant!

Readers of Mr. Kristoff aren't unfamiliar with his viewpoints - the fact that in any dismissal of a religious or faith-based consideration, he always seems to seek and find "a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry", but he is loath to analyze the reasons behind such dismissal. In defence of evangelical Christianity, he claims that it is unfair that progressive ire is "directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice"; additionally, he claims:

But in reporting on poverty, disease and oppression, I’ve seen so many others. Evangelicals are disproportionately likely to donate 10 percent of their incomes to charities, mostly church-related. More important, go to the front lines, at home or abroad, in the battles against hunger, malaria, prison rape, obstetric fistula, human trafficking or genocide, and some of the bravest people you meet are evangelical Christians (or conservative Catholics, similar in many ways) who truly live their faith.

Most conservative Catholics and other Christians of various stripes (Mormons come to mind) in today's United States are far too invested in their opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and the Christian Churches are too busy trying to sweep priestly scandals of sexual abuse of children under the rug, to bother about the rest of the world and its ills. Evangelicals donating to Church-related charities are not necessarily epitomes of virtue, but are more likely stricken with the sheep mentality (I hope you are not kidding yourself about the wealth of the Catholic Church). I submit to you that those that you find are at the front lines of laudable altruistic efforts would have done so, evangelical Christians or not. In fact, many atheists ('secular folks' in your strange terminology) do as much good work on humanitarian issues, as you seem to grudgingly acknowledge.

Once again, I take recourse to a brilliant Comment #20 from reader Parker from OK:

You can certainly equate charitable acts done by evangelicals and atheists, but unlike evangelicals, and in general religious folk, atheists partake in charity for different reasons. To be fair, both most probably do so because they generally care for others and want to help. But there is a big difference in building a school in Africa for the sole purpose of teaching the children to read, and building a school not because you want to teach the kids to read, but rather spread the word of God while teaching the kids to read the bible. This is charity under a false pretence. The underlying motive for charity done by an individual should not be motivated by a religious institution. This is because there will always be an underlying political/theological message associated with the act. Evangelicals are after one thing, followers. By doing charity they promote their name in an attempt to spread their doctrine to as many as possible. “Look, we just gave this African boy a bottle of water. Come see what else we can do following in the footsteps of Jesus. Here’s a free bible!” I cannot in good conscience equate the two charitable acts because you cannot ignore the underlying motive for religious institutions. We should promote charitable acts done without these door to door charlatan tactics. Only then, in the freest and least doctrinaire way, can I equate charity done by religious institutions with those that aren’t.

There. I couldn't have said it any better: charity under a false pretence by religious folks. But is Mr. Kristof ready to take off his faith-tinted glasses and listen? I doubt.

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