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The End of Evangelical-Bashing?

Kevin RooseSo what if I didn’t finish my first book before graduating from college? Today at Religion Dispatches I have an essay about someone who did—Kevin Roose, author of The Unlikely Disciple, an account of his semester “abroad” from Brown at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

Like me, Roose was happy at Brown. We each ventured into religious underworlds partly to see if the culture war between the O’Reillys and our liberal parents was really all they made it out to be. Reading Roose’s tender and endearing account of his time at Liberty, The Unlikely Disciple (published in March by Grand Central), I could feel the ground moving under me. It bespeaks a shift in the way the cultural Left is coming to deal with conservative evangelicalism. No longer is the other, it seems, such a mortal threat that we can’t all make friends and get along.

It is less a proper review (the book is great fun; read it) than an exploration of the way the era of Obama and the Millennial generation is changing how the cultural Left writes and thinks about religion. I follow the parallels of Roose’s story with my own. On the whole, I’m eager to know whether we’ve come to the end of evangelical-bashing. It’s not clear that we’re ready.

25 comments on “The End of Evangelical-Bashing?

  1. Yo, Nathan…have you read the (intensely critical) letters to the editor about Roose in the latest Brown Alumni Magazine? I’d be interested in your take on them……..

  2. Yeah, I mention them in the penultimate paragraph of the RD essay. Some of their complaints, while perhaps not in the BAM article, were addressed in the book as a whole.

  3. My own experience is that the warm feeling in these groups actually comes from tribalism in yet another form rather than from the Sermon on the Mount.

  4. Enjoyed reading this review.

    Re: “The more I saw to expose, the more of the other I could appreciate and make my own.” That’s how all conquering civilizations succeed.

  5. Your last few paragraphs are very interesting. Like you, I have mixed feelings. Are Northern Liberals able to be comfortable with Southern ‘Fundamentalists,’ simply because they aren’t perceived to matter politically any more — the new trend being closer to anthropological reporting on a foreign tribe — we immerse ourselves in strange rituals and emerge wiser because of our empathy? Or is this a phase after the anthropological — where neither missionary nor naturalistic motives are at play — and we emerge with a simple vision of harmony based on our common humanity, typified by usage of similar technologies (facebook) and human universals (sexual drive).

    I confess I’m somewhat disappointed that Kevin chose Liberty as his case study — not a flagship evangelical university in an intellectual sense. Even if Kevin is not Dawkins, who takes great delight in debunking the less intelligent, if he wanted to do intellectual sparring there are clearly better places to do so (i.e. not built around a personality cult). Also, it seems he naturally gravitated towards those in the student community the most like himself — the outsiders — who are interested mostly in human universals (sex) than whatever religious mission Falwell claimed to be interested in. I wish he had been able to get closer to the center, perhaps more like Sharlett (although Sharlett debased himself by repeating things for obvious and often pointless rhetorical effect, e.g. the lines about Hitler’s leadership model), but perhaps that would have required making a genuine religious commitment, something he was obviously unable to do.

    Anyways, disappointed to find that Liberty students are “much friendlier than the students [at Brown]” but relieved that at the end he realizes that “At the beginning of the semester, when all I saw in Dr. Falwell as hatred, I may have been saying more about my own heart than his.” Can’t say for certain, but seems like some positive first steps.

  6. I picked up the BAM article right after I’d seen a headline in the Huffington Post entitled “Kevin Roose Infiltrates Liberty University To Write Book” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/22/kevin-roose-infiltrates-l_n_190124.html), which I then read. The BAM article was a far more sedate and non-confrontational report than the HP one, which I thought was trying to make the news far more sensational than it reads as.

    Also, I was surprised to see some of the vitriolic comments aimed at the article & Roose by fellow BAM readers. It was a rather disproportionately angry response to a rather innocent article and made clear that evangelical bashing is far from over.

    At the same time, the article did seem a bit simplistic. Change cannot be achieved simply with “can’t we all just get along?”/”we’re not so different from each other” rhetoric. People have been saying that forever and in some ways its true but there are serious fundamental differences between the conservative movement and liberals. These differences do not, and perhaps, cannot find a middle ground.

  7. Joel, some great points. It is true that in many senses, Roose’s choice of Liberty on exacerbates evangelical stereotypes. Then again, one can hardly say that Liberty is totally on the fringe—Falwell is nothing if not a populist. It may be, in fact, that LIberty is less of a fringe, in some respects, than Brown.

    Your point about the nature of his “common ground” is something I experienced also—that he gravitated to the outsiders. The last pages of the book are about his fundamentalist friend trying to decide whether to lose his virginity. It’s a disappointing end, a moment of triumph of Brown values above Liberty ones. Much more valuable, I thought, were the moments when Roose came to appreciate the Liberty way of dating, which is more focused on conversation and propriety than getting into the sack.

  8. Nathan,

    Liberty is certainly not on the fringe, but that could be because there is no fringe — just as there is no core, except perhaps the nature of populist appeal (in this case also turned political).

    The end of the book was disappointing, as was another piece I read by Roose on Huffington Post dated some years after his experience — noting that even Liberty has gay activists. So what? Some folks at Liberty are closer to Brown norms than Liberty ones? If there is a basis for “common ground,” certainly that’s not it. His treatment of the final losing virginity episode , stating that he prayed for it, banalizes his entire discourse on related themes (dating, his personal experience with prayer), which, as you state, was valuable until that moment.

    His treatment of dating was also in some cases incorrect. He misrepresents Joshua Harris’s book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which advocates for courtship instead of dating, which is essentially involving the family early on, avoiding too much one-on-one time and relegating the physical aspects to the outside of the relationship (asking the father before you can start getting serious about his daughter, for example).

    It is sad to think that Roose may have had other motives for breaking off his relationship with the one girl he was interested in — that, like many of his Brown buddies, he couldn’t imagine a relationship without sex. Even his final encounter with “Anna” is characterized by his attempt to cross sexual boundaries — described as a great triumph. Would self-control have been greater?

    The constant evocation of ‘Homophobia’ is often unhelpful. His psychologically disturbed roommate comes up on many occasions, while the campus pastor, while treated relatively sympathetically, is given much less space. How even to evaluate such a thing? Do Brown students make more disparaging comments about “rednecks” per capita per day than Liberty students do about “faggots”?

    The topic of appropriate modes of discourse in different settings could be a very useful one, but we don’t hear much about that — almost nothing at all critical about the statements made by Northern Liberals in private. The stories I could tell…

  9. Joel, two things:

    1. Which more reputable evangelical college would you have had Roose pick if he were interested in “intellectual sparring” (which he was not)? Discounting small, specialized schools, the only other candidates I could think of would be Wheaton and Patrick Henry, and it’s not clear to me that those are any closer to the evangelical “mainstream.”

    2. I absolutely agree that Northern liberal “tolerance,” combined with evangelical-bashing, is dangerously hypocritical, and I have written as much. But I don’t think that “redneck”-bashing and gay-bashing are a great analogy. There are many crucial differences, including the most serious: liberals don’t get drunk and beat evangelicals to death.

  10. Andrew,

    I fail to see how the misguided and harmful efforts of a minority of members of any group justify “bashing” of that group, including the usage of pejorative language applied toward that group (i.e. “redneck” or “faggot”). Perhaps you could list the crucial differences you see.

    Re: (1). Wheaton and Grove City are the first two that come to mind. Whether or not there is a “mainstream” (I said “core”) was raised in my second post above.

  11. I did say, I thought pretty clearly, that the bashing is not justified, from either side. I’ll say it again: making disparaging remarks about any group of people is never helpful. And I only used the word “redneck” because you used it, and I declined to use the f-word. ANYway, my only point (which, again, I thought was clear) was that one of the crucial differences between this particular form of classism and this particular form of homophobia is that the latter kind of hate speech has been known to lead to concrete hate crimes, including lynchings. I think it’s pretty clear that that raises the stakes. Then there are other crucial differences that I did not enumerate; for starters, queers are one of the only minorities that still suffer de jure persecution, which makes hate speech against them particularly despicable, in my view.

  12. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that while no types of ‘bashing’ are justified, some may be worse or better than others — and that the primary criterion which we use to measure the degree of despicableness of any speech is whether or not may lead to concrete acts of violence against the objects of the speech. The key word here may be ‘may.’ I’m not sure to what extent you can make a causal link between hateful speech and action and in what contexts. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by ‘de jure persecution.’

  13. For instance, let us unpack ‘hate speech’ as opposed to ‘insult.’ Is hate speech simply an extension of hurtful speech, or is it hurtful speech with the attempt to instigate of a violent act? That persons who use hurtful speech more often are also more likely to engage in violent acts against the people whom they speak negatively does nothing to establish causality between speech and action. For instance, does the use of the aforementioned f-word quality as ‘hate speech’ in this sense? If not, in what sense does it qualify as ‘hate speech’ ?

    That violence has occurred indicates a tragedy, acknowledged or no — nonetheless ‘raising the stakes’ and ‘despicable’ strike me as poor word choices. What stakes are being raised when a “redneck” uses the f-word? Why is ‘despicable’ the word you use to describe this?

    Also, my use of the f-word is informed by KR’s usage of the same. My own preference is for very occasional use of profanity of any kind and absolute avoidance of terms primarily used in pejorative contexts.

  14. “What stakes are being raised when a “redneck” uses the f-word?”

    You’re being coy, Dietz. Re-read the man’s post.

  15. If someone arrives at the funeral of a murdered gay man to heap insult upon injury, I would call this despicable. However, even in this egregious instance of hateful speech it is not clear to me that ‘stakes are being raised.’ The act has already been committed. The dead should lie in peace.

    As in the above scenario, I am not arguing that some negative speech is not worse than others — I believe that it is — but asking what precisely makes it worse. It seemed to me that Andrew made implicitly an argument from causality — hate speech causes violent acts; this is why speech directed against potential objects is worse than others.

    I don’t find this a cogent argument for reasons stated above.

  16. I’ll grant you that it’s an open question whether hate speech leads to hate crimes, and that no causal link between them can be established in most cases. This doesn’t change the fact that homophobic speech is despicable (I am astonished, frankly, that you object to that word), and that it is despicable partly because we live in a word where queer people are viciously oppressed. They are oppressed by a government that does not grant them equal rights (that’s what “de jure” means) and they are oppressed by groups and individuals who target them for violence. Yes, poor white evangelicals are oppressed in the quasi-Marxist sense that all poor people are oppressed; but not all oppression is equal. And yes, along those lines, I am suggesting that some kinds of “bashing” are worse than other kinds. Not on any causal or behavioral grounds, but on the grounds that there are power gradients everywhere you look, and your speech and behavior should be responsive to where you stand on those gradients. Let’s say we take a time machine to 1930s South Carolina. As we both know, in 1930s South Carolina, blacks are not treated as full citizens. (This is another instance of “de jure persecution.” Are you understanding what I mean by this term now?) Also, thanks to more informal forms of persecution, like lynching and show trials, black people live in a state of fear. Now, we’re sitting on my porch and one of us makes a disparaging joke about “those Yankees,” while the other makes a joke about “those n***ers.” Do you see why one is more offensive than the other? And do you see how that is a product of the society we live in, the displays of power and violence happening all around us, whether we participate in it directly or not?

  17. As I believe I clearly stated above, I don’t object to the word ‘despicable’ applied to forms of hateful speech towards homosexuals. My objection was limited to your remark which indicated that although all ‘bashing’ is unacceptable, some bashing is more acceptable than others — diminishing the effect of your first statement. My question was what criterion you use to judge how ‘despicable’ something is (despite my preference for less rhetorically loaded terms, like ‘bad’ ) ? You answered that instead of causality, you believe that speech should be limited based on ‘where you stand’ on ‘power gradients’ and that speech can be more ‘offensive’ when it is directed from someone with higher social status to someone lower.

    In the end, it is not clear if your criterion of ‘despicableness’ is based on ‘offensiveness’ or demeaning speech coming from one with superior social position. If the former, then it would be largely context specific and an anti-homosexual statement uttered by herdsmen the mountains of Afganistan, might be less ‘despicable’ than the f-word utterance of a student of Liberty University, who presumably should know better. However, if you mean the latter, has it ever occurred to you that in terms of social opportunity, pedigree, and access to capital resources, graduates of Brown University occupy a much higher position on the global totem pole than their ‘peers’ in the American South? In that case, the primary difference would be that graduates of Brown University advocate for the use of institutionalized action against evangelicals by means of “hate speech” laws (and other acts of State violence), whereas the aforementioned “rednecks” confine themselves to sporadic acts of impulsive, individual violence.

    Consequently, I find your argument, to the extent that you have one, flawed.

  18. Joel, you seem like a smart guy, so I think you might be being coy, as an earlier poster suggested. We’re taking up space on Nathan’s blog here, so I’ll try to wrap this up. Of course I have noticed that most Brown students are higher on many power gradients than most evangelicals. Of course I know that. It is one of our many common premises in this discussion. I think the main difference between us is that I see queers as the victims of both individual acts of violence and organized, institutional violence (the whole “de jure persecution” thing that you keep ignoring), whereas you somehow see evangelicals as the victims of state persecution. I didn’t know that was your position until now, and I still don’t really understand how you would justify it, but at least I understand your argument better now (I think). So, correct me if I’m wrong: you think that “hate speech” laws curtail the freedom of evangelicals, is that it? Because in a truly free society, they would be free to hate? Really, I’m asking. If that is the case, then I think we just have different definitions of state persecution and we’ll have to settle things there.

  19. For future reference: there’s never any need to feel bashful about an extended discussion here. That’s what The Row Boat is for!

  20. This discussion, as I understand it, was on the appropriateness of various speeches in different contexts and my primary and only significant argument is that if one is to judge various patterns of “bashing” as worse and better, one should provide a justification for why one views one type as better than another. This is especially important, I believe, when one advocates for State violence (in the form of legal action, or otherwise) against persons using forms of speech you find objectionable. Absent a such justification, one wonders if you are simply prosecuting the interests of a class to which you belong and from which you presumably receive special benefit — no different from person who argues passionately in favor of loose laws for cigarettes while drawing a salary from a Tobacco lobbying organization.

    Your citation of the persecution experienced by homosexuals has not yet taken the form of an argument, so I do not see how I can be faulted for not responding to it. A logical argument might be that persecuted peoples should be extended special legal protection for moral reasons, but then you would probably have to distinguish between various types of persecution — something you seem loath to do. As I’ve stated, by simple measurements regarding ‘power gradients,’ Southern evangelicals probably also qualify as persecuted people to some degree.

    Consequently, your statement about whether or not people are free to hate is somewhat of a non-sequitur. Certainly they are. This discussion is instead about appropriate responses to speech in which persons express their dislike, disapproval, or outright hatred of other people’s behavior.

  21. I really don’t think we’re understanding each other. Let’s go back to basics. I agree that this [should be] a discussion about the “appropriateness of various speeches in different contexts,” or, more specifically, a discussion about whether it is somehow “worse” or “more offensive” for Southern evangelicals to make disparaging remarks about gay people than it is for Northern liberals to make disparaging remarks about Southern evangelicals. While we’re here, I’ll just re-reiterate that BOTH ARE BAD. We’re trying to determine whether one is worse, and if so, on what grounds.

    I don’t know where you’re getting this thing about “advocating for State violence.” I assume by “one” you mean me? Joel, what makes you think that I would ever advocate for state violence, or, in this context at least, for state intervention of any kind? When did I imply that homophobic evangelicals should be jailed or beaten for their views? It’s strange that you are still throwing around red herrings this late in our discussion. As noted above, our original dispute was about which of these two kinds of speech should be considered “worse,” according to some (as-yet-not-fully-defined) abstract ethical rubric. That discussion is not at all the same as a discussion about how speech should be legislated. The whole discussion about legislation was just (I thought) a tangent in which I was trying to establish that homosexuals are persecuted not only informally, but also by the federal government. This does not imply anything about how homophobes are, or should be, treated.

    Speaking of which: Are you really putting the burden of proof on me to show that homosexuals are persecuted? Really? I’m sorry, I don’t think it’s my job to establish that. To return to my oversimplistic analogy: Would you agree that blacks were persecuted in 1930s South Carolina? Do you agree that that fact is pertty self-explanatory, and do you see how it would be a bit frustrating to have to prove it “in the form of an argument”? But just to throw you a bone: How about the fact that in our ostensibly secular country, Lawrence v. Texas was decided in 2003, and not, say, in 1803?

    Again, we’ve already both agreed, several times, to the proposition (first asserted by me) that Southern evangelicals are persecuted to some degree. The question is whether homosexuals are in a comparatively worse position and, if so, whether that matters. But honestly, I think we’re going in circles at this point.

  22. May I make a suggestion?

    “Hate speech”, speech spoken in anger and hatred, is not good because it a) leads only to more hatred, never to concord, and b) causes suffering.

    The origin of such speech is a mind and heart that hates.

    The best long-term solution is perhaps not definition or punishment but the cultivation of minds and hearts that do not hate, that love concord.

    Evangelicals have such a possibility in the injuctions to turn the cheek and love the enemy. I am not very familiar with homosexual culture but I trust they also have this sort of encouragement. It is this sort of common ground which, once sown with seeds of friendliness, might bear the richest crop.

  23. Andrew,

    I’ve never lived in the South for any extended period of time and have to admit that my personal inclination is to view utterances of the f-word as much more offensive than the use of the word “redneck.” Consequently, I’m not sure we have any substantial disagreement, although I might view “discrimination” as more appropriate than “persecution,” with respect to both evangelicals and gays. By ‘state violence’ I mean things including the ACLU’s persistent and often successful efforts to limit various practices, including school prayer.

    “The best long-term solution is perhaps not definition or punishment but the cultivation of minds and hearts that do not hate”


    Well said.


    However, to breaking out of circles and’concord’ and whether or not we may achieve it in our discussions of how we speak, and whether and how a focus on the current status of someone as ‘persecuted,’ ‘discriminated’ or otherwise ‘oppressed’ can influence evaluative methods for speech, perhaps it would help it we take a different conflict not quite as subject to the emotive reactions present here (and if you wish Nathan, please also chime in). Suppose, for instance, we consider the Israel-Palestine conflict. Is it worse to insult one side or the other? Is it worse to make critical comments about one side or the other? Does whether or not it is worse depend on who you are?

    In this case, both sides can claim to have a historical and/or current ‘persecuted’ status, but I am not sure to what extent that is helpful for the purposes of dialogue. Dialogue which, although it may not be able to end conflict, may be able to contain and or minimize destructive manifestations of it.


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