Monday, May 23, 2011

No they don’t

Tim Stanley argues that American evangelicals deserve some respect.  Actually, no he doesn’t.  He just states it as a fact.  His article is rather confused.  For instance, he says

Evangelism is complex and nuanced.

I’m afraid I can’t quite see the nuance.  Stanley says there are lots of different types of evangelicals and seems to mistake this for nuance.  Everyone’s different, but what unites evangelicals as a group is that they all believe more-or-less the same core of silly things for no reason at all. That some believe slightly different silly things to others while having differently-coloured skins or different political opinions doesn’t seem like nuance to me, but rather the normal state of affairs with every group.

Evangelicalism cannot be summarised in one glib column, or damned by the actions of one misguided branch. And while the federal government continues to break down and capitalism only entrenches divides, evangelicalism is a motor of social change. To give one example, the church I went to runs an outreach program for prisoners. Sweet little old ladies give up their time to meet and pray with rapists and murders.

This anecdote is the one piece of evidence Stanley provides for evangelicalism being a ‘motor of social change’.  This is rather a grand claim, especially when based on such scant evidence, but that’s not the point I want to argue.

Of course some evangelicals – perhaps many – do charitable things.  So do lots of non-evangelicals.  It’s people who do good things that are worthy of respect, not people who happen to be members of a group which is associated with doing good things.  This is true even if the group really does more good things than other groups.  I’ve no idea whether this is true of American evangelicals or not.  Stanley wants it both ways.  He doesn’t want evangelicals to be damned by the likes of Phelps and his cohorts.  He doesn’t want them to be laughed at because of some idiot in California.  But he does want them to bask in adulation on the basis of some group members’ charity.

Across the United States, atheists are gathering at Rapture parties to celebrate another day of life on this corrupted Earth. Their joy as Camping’s error is plain mean. While they knock back cheap imported beer and make-out in hot-tubs, thousands of evangelicals will be providing care and love to prisoners, homeless people, drug addicts and the poor. It is a noble calling worthy of a little tolerance.

Curse those atheists with their IMPORTED BEER!  Stanley is painting a preposterous picture here.  He portrays atheists as shallow and insular pleasure-seekers while evangelists are of course pious and saintly.  And he calls this Guardian article glib!

Is our joy (I’m not sure ‘joy’ is the right word, although I don’t see anything wrong with having a little fun) mean or unjustified?  Camping has frightened a lot of people and tried to frighten a lot more.  Specifically, he tried to frighten the world into believing the same things he does.  And guess what?  It turns out that neither he nor anyone else has special insight into the mind of god.  Before you start frightening people, it’s a good idea to know what you’re talking about.  Breathtaking arrogance isn’t enough.  A little happiness at the downfall of this fool seems quite appropriate. 

I wouldn’t laugh in the faces of the people who believed him though.  I feel sorry for them.  They’re probably feeling either rather embarrassed or lost and confused.  Hopefully, it’s damaged some people’s faith sufficiently that they’ll abandon it.  For those people, I have admiration: they’ve changed their mind about the world based on evidence rather than clinging to a silly belief with trembling hands as the evidence for it is stripped away around them.  In the long run, I think they’ll be happier, but for many right now, it will doubtless be a terrible shock.

Stanley’s final sentence is revealing.  He doesn’t mean ‘tolerance’, he means ‘automatic, unjustified respect’.  Gentle mocking isn’t a sign of intolerance.  Refusing people goods or services on the basis of race, sex or sexual orientation is.  Evangelicals are more than tolerated, especially in America.  Their churches don’t pay tax, they get unjustified exposure in every medium, they are actively sought out to comment on practically every issue of the day.  It’s hard to view this as intolerance. 

Respect people who do charitable things for the fact of their charity, not because they believe some of the same things as charitable people. And if you insist that evangelicals deserve respect solely because they are evangelicals, then I’m afraid you have to lump in embarrassments like Phelps and Camping too.

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