Last week we gave this column to a long and very interesting letter from a new subscriber, William Mehr of Dumfries, Virginia, writing in response to our September/October issue. Mehr's letter covered a lot of territory, and space won't permit us to take up all the issues he raises. But the gist can be found in a number of comments on evangelicals. For example, Mehr writes: "It appears that the evangelicals of today are afraid of knowledge, regardless of its source."
That's a pretty serious charge, and the reader may expect some cases in point. No instances are cited. But on to other particulars of the indictment. You may recall Christian Smith's essay, "Force of Habit," in which Smith considered the routine hostility and condescension toward religion—and Christianity in particular—in the university. Smith, Mehr writes, "employs anecdotes as evidence, much as President Reagan did when he set out to create the myth of the welfare queen." Mehr is having none of it. If it's true, as Smith charges, that "champions of diversity and equality who would like nothing more than to see religion disempowered and marginalized from public life" are talking out of both sides their mouths, well, evangelicals are doing the same thing:
Liberal Christians sense … that those described as evangelicals today are unwilling to engage in discourse, and would rather move to suppress disagreeable media than to openly dispute opposing views, and further that the evangelicals of today disingenuously claim discrimination when their efforts to suppress materials are challenged and thwarted!
And there's not much hope of reform, because the core beliefs of evangelicals compel them to act in this way:
the evangelicals of today don't appear as if they'd be satisfied to merely exist within a greater civic sphere, but would only be satisfied if they were successful in imposing their creed on that public arena. The burden of proof falls on them to prove otherwise, and so far, they have not been able to do so in light of a higher obedience to accomplish the Great Commission, and out of a sincere and genuine love and motivation to save souls
In short, Mehr's account of evangelicals suggests that insofar as they are true to their principles, they have no place in the public square (an assessment remarkably similar to the Protestant attack on Catholics in 19th-century America).
It would be tempting to dismiss Mehr's indictment out of hand. After all, while he contemptuously brushes aside Christian Smith's "anecdotes," Mehr doesn't offer any evidence for his account of "the evangelicals of today." Lacking concrete examples, we don't have any reliable sense of what he regards as Bad Evangelical Behavior. No doubt some evangelicals, for instance, are "afraid of knowledge, regardless of its source," but is this characteristic of evangelicals? And what does Mehr mean when he says that evangelicals "don't appear as if they'd be satisfied to merely exist within a greater civic sphere, but would only be satisfied if they were successful in imposing their creed on that public arena"? Does that mean, for instance, that many evangelicals hope to overturn Roe v. Wade? (And that decision wasn't an "imposition" of a certain creed on "the public arena"?) Or is he suggesting that evangelicals are lusting for a theocracy?
Indeed, it seems that Mehr has responded to some discussion of stereotypical dismissals of evangelicals by piling on more stereotypes. How can that be? He's clearly a generous and thoughtful reader and in many ways a kindred spirit.
If this were an isolated instance, it would be of much less interest. But in fact the burgeoning literature about "civil society" abounds with characterizations of evangelicals very similar to Mehr's. One lesson I draw is that we as evangelicals should be doubly wary in our writing of such casual smears.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
The Great Inflatable Shark Hunt | A report from the Christian Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim. (July 22, 2002)
Why Evangelicals Can't Opt Out of Political Engagement | Remembering Jeremiah Evarts and Samuel Worcester. (July 19, 2002)
The Pledge Controversy | Asking the wrong questions? (July 8, 2002)
Reading Danny Pearl | How would the murdered journalist want to be remembered? (July 1, 2002)
A Cry for Help | Sudanese Christians gather in Houston and ask for U.S. support. (June 17, 2002)
Agrarians of the World, Unite! | Wendell Berry's vision, and how Christians should respond to it. (June 10, 2002)