Tom Krattenmaker on the Evangelicals You Don’t Know
A fair amount of book projects come across my virtual desk. And I have to shy away from some of them just because I don’t have the time to really get inside them and understand what they offer to the world.
But I was easily drawn into this one.
Even though my blog is primarily about relationships, for me–as a person of faith–my interest in community is largely inspired by Jesus and the modern day peoples trying to trek after him.
Faith and community are intertwined for me then. So when Tom Krattenmaker dropped me an email about his new project earlier this week, I bit. I came upon Tom through a brief email exchange a while back but mostly know him through his work as a religion columnist and writer for USA Today, Salon, the Los Angeles Times, the Oregonian and Huffington Post.
His new book (which I haven’t read yet) is called The Evangelicals You Don’t Know. It opens (or maybe continues) a conversation about evangelical Christians in public life and explores their relationship with others who identify as people of faith. And it looks at how that relationship bleeds onto culture and politics.
Those of you who know me know I’m automatically interested when a pitch like this graces my inbox.
The Evangelicals You Don’t Know
Then add this review of Tom’s book from Paul Louis Metzger on Patheos:
Evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike struggle with totalitarian self-righteousness, believing everything about our particular selves and constituencies is good and ‘the other’ is all bad. We will never get anywhere as a society in affirming and cultivating the common good if we don’t seek to come together in search of shared values… We need to develop the kind of rhetorical sophistication and conflict resolution strategies that make it possible to build a common America.
Clearly I care about the subject of this book. So I sent Tom a note in reply. And it led to this interview which I provide so you can explore along with me.[line]
A Conversation With Tom Krattenmaker on Evangelicals and Religious “Others”
Sarah: You released a new book, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know. Are you implying popular characterizations of evangelicals miss something? And if so, what?
Tom: I am saying precisely that. With that title, “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know,” I’m implying that there are evangelicals who you *do* know. For the secular progressives and religious liberals who form the (ostensible) primary audience for this book, the evangelicals they do know are often media caricatures. You know the (stereo)type—right-wing political crazies who say and do things that set liberals’ teeth on edge. Anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, anti-science … I could go on and on. These are the characteristics of the evangelicals that my liberal side knows. And we tend to carry on as if this is all there is to know about our evangelical fellow citizens.
So in that sense, my book is an introduction to the “new evangelicals”—many of them younger, many of them less political, and in some cases downright progressive depending on the issue—who defy those stereotypes and who surprise in all sorts of positive ways.
Sarah: I saw this book is pitched to those who are interested in the relationship evangelicals have with “the rest of us”. I’m interested. Tell me about that phrase “the rest of us”.
Tom: By “the rest of us” I mean non-evangelicals. I make it clear in the opening of the book that I’m writing about evangelicals as someone who is not part of their faith movement. This broad “non evangelical” group includes all the secular categories you can think of—atheist, agnostic, indifferent, etc.—plus theologically liberal Christians and followers of other non-Christian faiths. I use this phrase “non-evangelical” because if you’re not looking closely you can get the impression that the main divide we have in this country—in faith matters as well as politics—is the divide between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. It’s certainly the divide that stood out for me when I started writing about religion, politics, and culture for USA Today.
While there is some validity to this, I see now that it’s a vast over-simplification. Depending on the issue—immigration or poverty-alleviation, for example, or how to evangelize and relate to non-Christians—you’ll see evangelicals on both sides, or several different sides. In my research I’ve encountered numerous evangelicals who want to have friends and allies outside their so-called camp. And if you’re a progressive you’ll find in these ranks some people who could be your next best friend for the fight, whether it’s stopping human trafficking or inhumane immigration policy or degradation of the environment, etc. My message to my fellow “non-evangelicals” is to engage in some overdue disaggregation. As in, you got a problem with evangelicals? Which ones?!
Sarah: Clearly, the Christian landscape has become increasingly fragmented and often divisive. But you believe there are mature, sophisticated ways of communicating that can close the gap enough to find shared values. What life experiences or observations have left you most hopeful of this?
Tom: There indeed are ways to communicate with one another, and with our cultural and political rivals, that shrink that area of enmity and conflict and help us cooperate and address the common good. A huge part of it is using our ears rather than flapping our mouths all the time—listening not just to find an argumentative advantage but to learn something from our conversation partners. In getting to know these “new evangelicals” who are the subject of this book, that’s one of the things I’ve found most appealing—a true willingness to listen, which, in turn, motivates me to listen to them.
When evangelicals ask me what advice I have for them so they can better connect with people outside their spheres and dispel stereotypes, I always say, “If you want to have influence, you have to be willing to be influenced.” Not about who Jesus is and what he means to them, but about myriad other things. I know Christians who proclaim that dealing with those outside their camp has helped them understand God better and become better Jesus followers!
Sarah: Was there an event or series of events that led you to feel like you had to write this book?
Tom: I have the privilege of living in Portland, which in addition to being something of an unchurched mecca is a great site of evangelical innovation and excellence. In pursuing different leads and angles for my USA Today columns, I kept encountering truly inspiring evangelical people and projects that defied stereotypes in the most uplifting ways.
Three of those stories stand out when I look back: The Christians who were gathering to serve the homeless under the Burnside Bridge every Friday night and actually washing the homeless people’s feet, which is radical in all the right ways; the Seasons of Service campaign launched by the Luis Palau Association, an international evangelism outfit based here in the Portland area; and the “confession booth” scenes in the Dan Merchant film “Lord Save Us From Your Followers,” which are so touching and counter-intuitive.
I sensed that something important was happening that constituted a relatively unexplored trend. And it was a story that had not been hold by any journalists to my knowledge. I sensed deeply that it was a story that deserved to be told and heard, and that I very much wanted to share.[line] I want to thank Tom for taking a few minutes to clue me in on what is stirring in his life. And also, if you are interested in this topic you might also be interested in one of Tom’s articles published in the Huffington Post last week. The article, Tom tells me, riffs on the key theme and story in his closing chapter.
So what do you think? Do you identify cleanly with evangelical or non-evangelical? Are you irritated by the characterizations and labels at work in the religious and social landscape?