Religion & Philosophy

Evangelicals are good for us, whether we like it or not

by John Harvin

Last night we had dinner with my daughter’s future in-laws. They are devout Christians, members of an ultra-conservative evangelical mega-church.

As we sat down to eat, they asked if anyone minded if they said grace. We smiled and went along with it, but the truth is I do mind. I think coming into someone’s home and imposing your belief system is unspeakably rude and completely unacceptable. What if I belonged to the Sacred Church of Zoophilia, and I came to dinner at your house and asked, “While you dish out the salad, do you mind if I have sex with your cat?” To me, talking aloud to Jesus and forcing me to listen in on the conversation is much the same thing. And after dinner, when the inevitable sales pitch came, we turned it away as gracefully as possible.

Marrying into an evangelical family is a very depressing prospect. We know they’re going to try again: They have to. It’s a central tenet of their religion. We can look forward to a semi-eternity of being cornered at joint family events and quizzed about our relationship with Christ.

But as I sat there, smiling outwardly while I inwardly thought dark thoughts about building a huge fence around Texas and herding all the evangelicals in the U.S. inside two by two, I had an epiphany. We “seculars” and evangelicals need each other. It’s pretty obvious why they need us (because someone needs to propose and implement rational social and economic policy,) but except for the comic opportunities provided by Sarah Palin, it may be less obvious why we need them.

Reason number 1: They keep us honest, more or less. Every group, political or social, goes too far if there’s not a countervailing force. And if you completely wipe out the opposition, the one that replaces it can be much nastier than the one it replaced, like substituting a muscular and energetic Islamic movement for a decrepit and doddering Communist one. Evangelicals (and the right wing they are joined with at the hip) provide about the right level of resistance to keep the current majority in the U.S.—progressives who are secular in practice if not in name—on the up and up. I mean, be realistic, are we that sure about all our ideas? Of course not, we understand the concept of unintended consequences and can cite any number of ideas (like housing projects) that seemed good at the time that turned out really bad. At least we can count on the Evangelicals to scream “No,” no matter what we propose. That forces us to pause for a minute and consider whether our ideas are really right. The Harlem Globetrotters used to travel with their own team, the Washington Generals. Every so often, the Generals would even win a game, but their real job wasn’t to compete, it was to allow the Globetrotters to show off their considerable skills. Think of the Evangelicals as our collection of slow, tubby white guys, just out there to make us look good.

Reason number 2: They do things the rest of us won’t do, like fight wars and run into burning buildings and play pro football. I have no way of proving this, but I’d wager that if you looked at who is in the military or works in our police stations and firehouses, that there is a disproportionate number of Evangelicals and devout Christians in the mix. Maybe the whole idea of the afterlife makes you inclined to do stuff that those of us with only one life are reluctant to do. But it’s a fact: It’s Evangelicals and devout Christians who put themselves into harm’s way for the rest us. And that’s true if the task is to defuse roadside bombs in Iraq or face down armed meth heads or collide full speed with three hundred pound men for our entertainment. You never see a prayer circle at a safe sporting event, like the PGA or ATP Tours, but there’s one midfield after most NFL games. Evangelicals seem far more willing to risk life and limb for the things they believe in passionately, and they tend to be passionate people. And very seriously, we should appreciate anyone who is willing to put his or her life on the line for the public good, whatever their motives.

Reason number 3: They do other things the rest of us won’t do, like live in Mississippi or Oklahoma or Nebraska. Now this one is a little less serious than the last two, but it’s still true. There’s a reason CNN’s map is all red in the south and western mid-west. It’s because that part of the country is full of Evangelicals who are happy to live in places the rest of us are reluctant to even fly over. These are places that are flat and ugly, lit by flares from oil wells and heavy with the stench of feed lots and pesticides. Most of us want to live near water or mountains, where the restaurants are good and the jobs are plentiful, not in some forgotten backwater where the best job going is principal of the local high school. But somebody has to live out there, or there would be no meat on the shelves at our local grocery, no gas stations between Chicago and Flagstaff and another 30 million people in San Bernadino County. Better them than us.

In other words, Evangelicals are like vultures – unsightly, but a necessary part of the ecosystem. So what if I don’t like them? They fill a role. And maybe instead of rolling my eyes at my future in-laws, I should appreciate them a little more.

Next: Why we need Jesse, Sean, Al and Rush. Really.


John Harvin is a writer, novelist and executive. He has traveled and worked in more than forty countries and lived in Chicago, New York, LA, Mexico City and Sydney. He has published five books and his work has appeared in Fortune, Wall Street Journal, LA Times and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, among others. He is particularly proud of the EQMM short story, because he thinks somehow this makes him a pulp author like Raymond Chandler. (Sadly, the book critics have not yet seen the connection.) He has way too much energy for his own good, and when not working or writing or spending time with his family, he rides ultra-marathon bicycle races, does triathlons, scuba dives, skis, works on his farm in Indiana and thinks.

17 replies »

  1. This is some serious yin and yang. However, according to an article on AlterNet today, the numbers and power of the evangelicals may be diminishing. . .

    We are on the verge — within 10 years — of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. …

    In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.

    . . . public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.

    Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. … the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.

    The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

    We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught.

  2. Russ,

    Our evangelicals might do exactly what that article predicted, in fact I’d bet money on that. Meanwhile, at the same time Radical Islam will extend it’s reach. It’s the 14th century all over:)


  3. I always get past the prayer thing by dropping to the floor and babbling in tongues, then I jump up and tell them God said they were evil and should leave my house.

    I know it’s a bit extreme, but it works every time.

  4. Living the the North East I’ve noticed a lot of Catholics starting to go to mega churches. Albeit a lot tamer than their southern counter parts. And I have to admit, being a former Catholic the production of the service is way more entertaining. It’s almost like a variety show. They go the extra length to make it “cool”. They have a freaking camera on the guy when he does a guitar solo! The pastor’s about 40, wears hipper cloths than me, and has a cool soul patch under his lip. There’s no hate or fear spewed at this church, and no talks of politics either. I’m not sure how much pull politically they could have (or want) being in a Democratic area, but time will tell. I’m not sure if this church could be compared to the evangelical churches in the rest of the US, but it was interesting for me to see so many Catholics leave their church. It’s also hard for me to stomach them building this huge mega church in the burbs, when there are so many abandoned churches in the city that are basically works of art.

    With regards to end of the evangelical movement: Wouldn’t a black man with a scary middle name be a cash cow for their movement? I can’t see it dying out any time soon.

    The way I get out of any church talk with the in-laws is by drinking at every family event no matter how small, and my bragging about my incompetence. This way they don’t think I’m an evil person, they just think I’m the drunk F’d up one of the family, and every family needs one of those.

  5. Hmmmm, well, I look at things differently, somewhat. I think these folk are the enemy of humanity, and unless they are duly marginalized and made irrelevant, our society is doomed. The main reason I would not be in any of those jobs you mentioned is not that I am scared for my one and only life, not at all, I would never go into those jobs because I would have to deal with those asshats every day. Truly a fate worse than death. Yeah, they are not brave, they are cowards who cannot face themselves without the protection of their magical master, and they are hogging lots of those well paying jobs for themselves and making it miserable for any reasonable folk to go into them.

  6. Wow–call me Pollyanna, but the combination of sweeping generalizations + vitriol here seems pretty toxic. I am not an evangelical Christian, and I abhor what the religious right has done to American politics. But not all evangelicals are part of the political religious right, and indeed some of them are quite active in trying to put their faith into action through very good work for social justice, peace, the environment, etc.

    But what’s really even more offensive is the smug elitism directed at the entire populations of several states where none of “us” would presumably ever live–FWIW, two of my best friends are very politically active progressive lesbians in Mississippi and Oklahoma respectively, not to mention scholars of considerable power in their own right.
    Not to mention the military and rescue services, which include an awful lot of non-evangelicals, people who do value their lives (including evangelicals), and people from lower-income backgrounds (including a lot of people of color, and a lot of evangelicals) for whom these jobs are a significant (albeit deeply problematic) option in a society where they don’t have a lot of opportunities. This is, of course, a very complex issue that deserves far better analysis than I can give it here, but it certainly deserves better than the sweeping assertions that these fields are dominated by evangelicals who don’t care about living.

    I’m not sure what’s “rogue” about this, but it sure as heck ain’t scholarly. Or even intelligent. And the comments are, if anything, even worse. Just trying to keep “ourselves” honest here.

    • Pollyanna – I can’t recall for sure, but isn’t this the second or third time you’ve chimed in to completely miss a point?

      Please, read deeply, broadly, and with at least a little presumption that we may be up to more than meets the eye. Ain’t nobody here seriously recommending that we eat Irish babies.

  7. Mmm, Irish babies. They’re delicious boiled up with some potatoes and cabbage. I might even have some leftover from St. Paddy’s day.

  8. Yeah, I get the intended satire–the writer expresses his contempt for a group of people by pretending to praise them. Then everybody else jumps on the bandwagon to embrace the contempt. My point is precisely that the supposed “humor” here is basically mean-spirited classism that attacks a whole lot of people not particularly deserving of the contempt, and that both the essay and the reaction to it do more to support the image of “liberals” as smug elitists that to contribute to rational discourse. Swift it ain’t.

    And yes, I have chimed in elsewhere to question whether indulging in racist and classist stereotyping in the guise of humor is a particularly effective way of conveying a progressive message. There’s a difference between effective, well-targeted satire directed at specific attitudes, statements, and behaviors (which is what makes Swift, and, incidentally, Stephen Colbert, so effective, and which, I hope, will make the forthcoming post on Jesse, Sean, Al, and Rush actually interesting) and mean-spirited caricaturing of large groups of people justified by “but we were only JOKING…”

  9. I would have said Grace for them. Though it would have been to my deities, if they want to silently pray to their own while I’m burning incense, that’s fine with me.

    Lara Amber

  10. So my question is simple, and I’d love an intelligent response… if someone comes into your home for dinner and asks permission to thank the deity of his choice for the meal, and you genuinely have a problem with that, why would you allow him to do so?

    Yes, I understand the “underlying” humor in the article. It just sticks in my craw that the author feels strongly enough about the subject to write an internet article bashing an entire group of people, but apparently doesn’t have the guts to speak up in his own home.