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.