Matthew Yglesias and Andrew Sullivan are up in arms over David Brooks's selection of John Stott as more representative of evangelicalism than people like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whom most evangelicals consider to be of the quality most conservatives would assign to Al Sharpton or Michael Moore. They consider them court jesters and opportunistic hustlers. Stott, on the other hand, is a calm, reasonable fellow who holds to solidly evangelical views (on occasion bucking the trend, but he has biblical arguments for his unusual views such as annihilationism rather than lame philosophical ones that contradict scripture that you get from people like Clark Pinnock). He is no political activist in the way Falwell and Robertson are. He spent most of his life pastoring a flock rather than being in the public light in any way besides his books and speaking ministry, which are pretty much exclusively related to simply teaching the word. So there's a huge difference between them that anyone should immediately recognize.
So why is it that people like Yglesias are foaming at the mouth about Stott as if he's no different? It's because they don't recognize his right to hold certain views and still be considered a decent man. Matt's post shows that he considers Stott just as dangerous as Falwell and Robertson merely because Stott believes homosexuality is not a legitimate lifestyle. In other words, anyone who takes the Bible seriously in what it says about the context of sex is for that reason and that reason alone incredibly dangerous, regardless of how their political views influence whether they think that should affect laws, regardless of how their moral views affect how they interact with people whose sexual views or practices are different. I have friends who have been part of Stott's church, and I know for a fact that the church is open and accepting of those who are not viewed by Christians as living a lifestyle that's pleasing to God. Stott did say that he would leave the Church of England if they ever contradicted the Bible's teaching by saying that homosexuality is not a sin (yes, I know that's actually not what the Bible says, but people speak uncarefully when they speak succinctly, and even really smart people like Stott have to do that to avoid ridiculously long sentences). That's not a political issue, though. It's an issue of governing the church of Jesus Christ in a way that holds the Bible's authority as more important than the prevailing political wind.
Yglesias's reasoning is just ridiculous. Having the view that being in a gay relationship and/or having gay sex is wrong does not necessitate doing anything that Yglesias should consider politically dangerous. It's just intellectual dishonesty not to see the difference in views and policies between people like Stott and people like Falwell and Robertson. That purely anti-Bible bias is even more obvious in Noam Scheiber's post at TNR.
Andrew Sullivan chimes in that Stott isn't all that influential on the political agenda of evangelical Americans. I agree. Wasn't that the point? Brooks was not saying that Stott is more influential than Falwell or Robertson on political issues. He was saying that Stott has been more influential on evangelicals and their thinking in general than Falwell or Robertson could even hope to be, and he is indisputably right. He was saying that he's more representative of evangelicals, and that's undoubtedly true. The fact that politics isn't even part of that is telling. It's even what Brooks is trying to say. The heart and soul of evangelical identity lies in the sort of thing Stott does. The political stuff is a side-effect at most. Evangelicals go to church and Bible study not as a means to talk about what other people do that's wrong or for the sake of figuring out how to vote to change society. The point is to develop a relationship with God, to see how one's life does not match up to the standards of God's word, to allow God to transform one's life so that it is then better representing the light to the nations that scriptures declare it to be, not through political action but through everyday caring for people and seeking to value those whom God places in one's life. That includes people who are gay, people who have had abortions, and prostitutes addicted to heroin. Sullivan is right that Stott influence politics less, but that's because he's changed the subject.
Falwell and Robertson have in fact been more influential on political issues, not because most evangelicals consider them real leaders. They don't. They shake their heads in embarassment whenever they hear their names mentioned. They're been more influential than Stott because Stott doesn't talk about politics. Sullivan is right to mention James Dobson. Dobson really does seem to me to be a respected voice among evangelicals in political matters. I should note that Dobson is more like Stott in his tone, even though he's much more politically active in support of conservative social views. He thinks there are dangerous views on the social left. He thinks legalizing gay marriage is a bad idea. I've never heard him say anything against people who are gay. I have heard Falwell and Robertson say things that paint gay people as the scourge of society, blaming 9-11 on them, for instance. Dobson won't do that. He sees homosexual relationships, gay sex, and finding one's identity in a same-sex orientation as morally wrong. He doesn't see that as making the person any different (morally speaking) than any other sinner. The only real difference in moral attitude about sinners that Dobson would advocate for Christians to hold is that they should accept Christians who are forgiven as forgiven Christian brothers and sisters and pursue befriending non-believing sinners as recipients of the message of good news and objects of Christian love. Sometimes his statements might be offensive to people who are gay, but that's not his intent. He means no ill will. His statements are about what he sees as complete redefinition of what he sees as a good social institution, one that will be less good if redefined. That's not hate. It just isn't. It's not a political view I've endorsed (see Jollyblogger's latest post on it for succint summary of why politically conservatives evangelicals shouldn't take such approaches), but calling it hate requires being blinded by one's own hate.
Sullivan points out that key political leaders in the United States won't denounce people like Falwell even though they privately don't like him much. This is supposed to show that the average evangelical would be so offended that they would disown those political leaders. The problem with this is that evangelicals don't so much find their entire identity in politicians, and only hyper-fundamentalists and extreme charismatic/pentecostals seem to like Falwell as a person and as a minister of the gospel (not that he focuses on that much at all anymore). The average person sitting in a pew in an evangelical church has been so little influenced by Falwell or Robertson that they merely consider them to be Christians who shouldn't be smeared in the public light on the simply grounds that they're Christian brothers. They want to be nice to them, in other words. If Bush, Hastert, or Frist denounced them as people, it would anger me. That shows lack of character and lack of respect for my Christian brothers, and yes I do consider them Christian brothers, just sadly misguided ones. Their main justification for political activism is unbiblical, and their attitude toward those whose sins they're not tempted toward seems to me to border on contempt. I know that's not what they intend, but that's how it seems, and many people who do follow them (which is sad in itself) really do have a serious contempt for real people that these guys feed.
I should note that Sullivan posts an email from a reader, one I agree with in its entirety. I read this after writing most of this post, but it's saying things along the same lines. It reminded me that John Piper may be an even better choice than Stott (and he
s American, which these guys all seem to think is important for some reason, as if a Brit could have no influence on American evangelicals). When I teach on homosexuality in ethics courses, I sometimes use Piper's sermons on Romans 1 as the best online example of someone defending the traditional Christian view on those issues. It notably says nothing about political issues, and its main thrust is to argue that Paul genuinely did condemn homosexual orientation as a negative consequence of the fall that someone finding themselves in is not morally responsible for, yet there are moral actions that are wrong if one acts on that found identity. At the same time, he assumes people in his congregation are gay and speaks directly to them many times in the sermons, not with a hostile tone but honestly and lovingly insistent that those in the congregation who are not gay should welcome those who are gay and should seek to understand them rather than pointing the finger or socially ostracizing them. This, I believe, is the standard evangelical view. The evangelical ministries I've been involved with (Campus Crusade for Christ and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship) on two very different campuses (Brown University and Syracuse University) and in three different summer missions projects, one of which involved people from all over the country, all seemed to emphasize something almost like that when dealing with issues of homosexuality. Many speakers at conferences for college students have said similar things. Piper's view seems to me to be only a little more accepting and tolerant than the standard evangelical view.