Evangelicals: For Once, Not Lost in Translation

Evangelicals, Foreign Affairs, Global War on Terrorism, Other Religions, Politics, Religion — By on August 10, 2011 at 2:22 pm

If you haven’t already read Molly Worthen’s illuminating piece on Evangelical ambivalence to the Arab Spring, you’re missing out. Evangelicals, it turns out, are a lot more like other people than the world tends to expect–and Worthen seeks to explain Evangelical motivations in a way that makes sense to everyone else.

For example, contrary to common stereotypes, (some of them perhaps deserved!) Evangelicals are usually more interested in living in the here and now than in  hastening a coming apocalypse. Worthen rightly points out that, for one thing, Evangelicals’ interest in the Middle East is not always well understood:

Given many evangelicals’ commitment to baptizing the Founding Fathers and praising the cross as a “statue of liberty,” it may seem strange that they have greeted the pro-democracy movements agitating the Middle East and North Africa with distinct ambivalence. But if it’s surprising, that’s only because so many observers of American politics are out of touch with the evangelical worldview, particularly evangelicals’ understanding of themselves as embattled outsiders who have much to lose when democracy doesn’t go their way.

Evangelical interest in world events tends to revolve around concerns about ongoing persecution:

Whenever evangelicals show heightened interest in the Middle East, pundits tend to suspect two motives: evangelicals’ supposedly blind loyalty to Israel, and their view of the region’s population as pawns in God’s great apocalyptic endgame. But grasping for reasons that free elections might delay Armageddon brings us no closer to understanding evangelicals’ true concerns. Their uncertainty over whose side to take in the Arab Spring has little to do with whether Hosni Mubarak should count as one of the heads of the scarlet beast in the Book of Revelation, and a lot to do with the hardships facing their fellow Christians — as well as that malleable ideal and political tool, religious freedom.

Evangelicals spend far more time worrying over the persecution of Christians here and now than they do parsing the Bible’s predictions about the end of the world. And it’s no secret that the Arab Spring revolutions have not done any favors for the roughly 25 million embattled Christians in the region (a precise head count is hard to come by). In the wake of Mubarak’s fall, hard-line Islamists in Egypt rioted against Christians and vandalized churches. In Syria, Bashar al-Assad has hardly been a poster child for religious freedom, but approximately 2.3 million Christians there view him as a protector whose wobbling regime is the only thing standing between them and hordes of Salafists who aren’t so interested in keeping up the appearance of a modern, secular state. And a half-million of those Christians are Iraqi refugees who fled the bloody fight between contending Muslim factions in their homeland and have no desire to relive that experience. “Pray for the believers in Syria …[who] are there trying to bring Jesus into this very dangerous and chaotic place,” one missionarytold Mission Network News, an evangelical missionary news service.

Worthen also takes on some of Evangelicalism’s weaknesses and explains them to the uninitiated in a way that both secular and (most) Christian readers will understand:

…American evangelicals have taken spiritual and ideological empathy with the persecuted to new heights. Despite centuries in the American mainstream — and the fact that there are about 100 million of them today — many conservative evangelicals in the United States think of themselves as a persecuted minority. They are the few faithful who refuse to bow down before Obamicus Maximus (or Sultan Barack the Magnificent, as a disturbing number of crazies believe). The war on Christmas is old news; now half of Americans also believe that Christians are “being persecuted” at the hands of advocates of same-sex marriage. It’s little wonder they are reaching out to Christians thousands of miles away (the ones who are actually being tortured — in places where torture means more than being forced to watch a gay pride parade).

This is not to say that American evangelicals publicize the persecution of Christians abroad and work to advance their rights only to bolster their own self-image. Evangelical concern for persecution overseas is completely genuine — though too often lumped together with more dubious causes. “Religious freedom” has become a kind of shorthand in American political rhetoric, useful for prescribing some domestic policies (prayer meetings in public schools, intelligent design in the curriculum), decrying others (same-sex marriage, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), and contributing to an ambivalent view of democracy — whether in the United States, or in the Muslim world — if the principle of “one voice, one vote” happens to threaten evangelical priorities. Every time evangelicals indulge in hysterics about the persecution of American evangelicals and “how liberals are waging war against Christians,” they weaken their own case against the tyranny of the majority in the Middle East and insult those congregations huddling behind drawn curtains in Egypt and Libya.

Read the rest of Molly Worthen’s piece here, and tell us what you think.


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