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Poling: On weirdness and evangelicalism

UPDATE: NPR President and CEO Vivian (no relation) Schiller has resigned. And I've renewed my WYPR membership.

The Rev. Jason Poling is Pastor of New Hope Community Church in Pikesville.

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James O'Keefe has struck again. The guerrilla filmmaker, famous for posing as a pimp seeking tax advice from the Baltimore chapter of ACORN, managed to catch NPR's top fundraiser Ron Schiller on tape expressing his contempt for vast swaths of America. NPR is no doubt relieved that Schiller had already left NPR for the Aspen Institute when the story broke.

NPR claims to be "appalled" by Schiller's comments, describing them as "contrary to what NPR stands for." As a longtime NPR listener and sometime (I was about to renew when Juan Williams got fired) member of my local station, I think this statement is patently absurd. There's a reason you don't see a lot of NPR tote bags at Tea Party rallies, just like there's a reason you don't see a lot of Fox News bumper stickers on Priuses. I do believe that NPR strives to be accurate and evenhanded, and that for the most part it succeeds. But it is also the case that its business model depends on the voluntary financial support of a demographic that by and large sympathizes with the sentiments Schiller expressed on tape.

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What caught my attention about the story was Schiller's description of the Tea Party as "fanatically involved in people's personal lives and very fundamentalist Christian – I wouldn't even call it Christian, it's this weird evangelical kind of move." If Schiller had listened to his own network's coverage of the Tea Party, he'd have learned that the significant differences between its core libertarian impulses and the social conservatism of traditional Republican constituencies presented a tension that was more managed than resolved during the last election cycle. That such disparate factions are seen as similar by a person in such a senior position in such an influential media organ is troubling to me, but what is more troubling is the suggestion that evangelicalism is Christian fundamentalism gone wild.

If anything it's the opposite, and perhaps Schiller just had his labels mixed up. For those of you just tuning in, evangelicalism as we know it today started in the aftermath of World War II when fundamentalists decided they wanted to follow Jesus without being a jerk about it. They held onto their high view of Scripture, their orthodox Christian theology, their belief that Jesus is good news worth telling and their commitment to follow him in every aspect of their lives. But they left behind the anti-intellectualism, the closed-mindedness, the insularity, the paranoia, the parochialism and the overall backwardness that they believed would consign fundamentalist Christianity to the ash heap of religious history. It used to be you could tell the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical by asking what he thought of Billy Graham: The evangelical loved that he was bringing people to Jesus, and the fundamentalist thought he'd gone apostate because he'd welcome the local Methodist (or Catholic!) bishop on stage with him.

You wouldn't have expected it at the time, but Graham and his colleagues turned out to be right. Evangelicalism has become the largest strain of American Protestantism, and in many ways is its healthiest (its many faults notwithstanding). Fundamentalism is still strong in some circles, and it remains true that there are more fundamentalists than Episcopalians in our country — even if fundamentalists are some 10% of conservative Protestants, defined broadly, that's still a decent-sized slice of a pretty big pie. But fundamentalism continues its decline in numbers and influence.

You can find plenty of weirdness among evangelicals, but for the most part we're really not so nutty as all that. It's a pity that many of the people who ought to know better still don't. A few years ago I noted to the chair of the religion department at my alma mater that none of their course offerings dealt with the most important religious phenomenon of the latter 20th century (i.e., evangelicalism). Oh yes, she said, we have a professor who teaches a class about apocalyptic movements and the Left Behind books. That a Harvard Ph.D. teaching religion at one of the country's top liberal arts colleges couldn't tell the difference between John Hagee and Rick Warren is, again, troubling. Not a little offensive, really. But I suppose she's in some pretty good company.

It's ironic that this tape came out just after the wonderful interview NPR did with Eugene Peterson this weekend. Peterson is a leading evangelical pastoral theologian, now retired, who served for nearly 30 years as the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Bel Air. He will be back in Baltimore in May, in fact, to speak at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Roland Park. NPR's Guy Raz spoke with Peterson for nearly 10 minutes about his new memoir The Pastor, with the kind of gracious and appreciative tone that represents NPR's best interactions with its guests.

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