Born-again Christians surge in influence

God, Satan and the media
The International Herald Tribune, Mar. 5, 2003 (Opinion)
http://www.iht.com/
Nicholas D. Kristof

NEW YORK – Claims that the American news media form a vast liberal conspiracy strike me as utterly unconvincing, but there is one area where accusations of institutional bias have merit: Nearly all of us in the news business are completely out of touch with a group that includes 46 percent of Americans.

That is the proportion who described themselves in a Gallup poll in December as evangelical or born-again Christians. Evangelicals have moved from the fringe into the mainstream, and that is particularly evident in the current administration. It is impossible to understand President George W. Bush without acknowledging the centrality of his faith. Indeed, there may be an element of messianic vision in the plan to invade Iraq and “remake” the Middle East.

Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago argues that America is now experiencing a fourth Great Awakening, like the religious revivals that have periodically swept America in the last 300 years. Yet offhand, I cannot think of a single evangelical working for a major news organization.

Evangelicals are increasingly important in every aspect of American culture. Among the best-selling books in America are Tim LaHaye’s Christian “Left Behind” series about the apocalypse; some 50 million copies have been sold. One of America’s most prominent television personalities is Benny Hinn, watched in 190 countries, but few of us have heard of him because he is an evangelist.

Bush has said that he does not believe in evolution (he thinks the jury is still out). President Ronald Reagan felt the same way, and such views are typically American. A new Gallup poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe in creationism, and only 28 percent in evolution (most of the rest are not sure or lean toward creationism). According to recent Gallup briefings, Americans are more than twice as likely to believe in the devil (68 percent) as in evolution.

In its approach to evangelicals, the national news media are generally reflective of the educated elite, particularly in the Northeast. It’s expected at New York dinner parties to link crime to deprived childhoods – conversation would stop abruptly if someone mentioned Satan.

I tend to disagree with evangelicals on almost everything, and I see no problem with aggressively pointing out the dismal consequences of this increasing religious influence. For example, evangelicals’ discomfort with condoms and sex education has led the administration to policies that are likely to lead to more people dying of AIDS at home and abroad, not to mention more pregnancies and abortions.

But liberal critiques sometimes seem not just filled with outrage at evangelical-backed policies, which is fair, but also to have a sneering tone about conservative Christianity itself. Such mockery of religious faith is inexcusable. And liberals sometimes show more intellectual curiosity about the religion of Afghanistan than that of Alabama, and more interest in reading the Upanishads than in reading the Book of Revelation.

I care about this issue partly because I grew up near Yamhill, Oregon, which has 790 people and five churches. My science teacher at Yamhill Grade School taught that evolution was false, and a high school girlfriend attended a church where people spoke in tongues (she was an ace student, smarter than many people fluent in more conventional tongues like French or Spanish). In the evangelical tinge to its faith, Yamhill is emblematic of a huge chunk of Middle America that we in the Northeast are out of tune with.

Moreover, increasingly it is not just Middle America, but Middle World. As Professor Philip Jenkins notes in a new book, fundamentalist Christianity is racing through the developing world. The number of African Christians has soared over the last century, to 360 million from 10 million, and the boom is not among tweedy Presbyterians but among charismatic Pentecostalists.

One of the deepest divides in America today is already the gulf of mutual suspicion that separates evangelicals from secular society, and policy battles over abortion and judicial appointments will aggravate these tensions further in coming months. Both sides need to reach out, drop the contempt and display some of the inclusive wisdom of Einstein, who wrote in his memoir: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

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