Evangelighouls

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Someone sent me a link to a piece by RJ Escrow called The Evangelighouls -- How The Christian Right Exploits War's Youngest Victims. He's crossposted it also at his personal blog Night Light. It's basically a hack smear of Campus Crusade for Christ, the second largest Christian missions organization in the world (after the Southern Baptist Convention's missions wing).

There are plenty of errors in Escrow's post. Some of these are purely factual. He consistently misspells the name of Steve Sellers (as Sellars). He says Sellers is president of Campus Crusade, a position currently held by Steve Douglass (and only ever held by one other person, founder Bill Bright). Sellers is a vice-president overseeing the ministries in North and South America, not president of the whole organization. In the earlier draft picked up by Yahoo, he uses a definite article before the name 'Campus Crusade for Christ', a common feature of those who speak derisively about the organization who don't really know anything about it. He seems to have removed all but three of those at this point. What disturbs me more are Escrow's false attributions, misrepresentations, and assumptions of motives well beyond the evidence.

From the first paragraph, Escrow acts as if Campus Crusade missionaries have some political agenda connected with the neo-conservative democratization of Muslim countries. Nothing could be further from the truth. Steve Douglass has consistently continued his predecessor Bill Bright's policy of having no political stance whatsoever. Bright would frequently speak of moral decline in the United States, and he would often call Christians to do their part in fulfilling the Great Commission of Matthew 28, which is Jesus' command to his disciples to make disciples of all nations. But none of that is remotely political. Campus Crusade is a politically neutral organization. They fund no party or candidate, and they have for decades refused to get involved even on political issues that evangelicals are largely in agreement on, such as abortion. Many religious right leaders were frustrated when they repeatedly refused to get in with them on the gay marriage issue. I've had personal contact with several hundred Campus Crusade students and probably over a hundred staff members. I know the workings of their campus ministry and many other similar ministries firsthand at the local level, both in this country and in several other parts of the world. I know people who work directly with the president of the organization and other leaders on the national and international level. In all my experience with this group, going back as early as 1992, I have only five times heard someone in a group meeting even say anything remotely connected to politics.

One political mention was in a small group Bible study, when someone was concerned about the high number of abortions in this country and was praying for divine intervention to save the lives of innocent children. This was a student, not the leader of that small group. The second was a staff couple in a small seminar at a large conference saying that they didn't have clear political views but tended to vote Democratic. The third occasion was a freshman student at a fall retreat blaming some problems on liberals, and the staff member who was present (who happens to be conservative) immediately redirected the conversation away from politics by saying that political discussions can happen on other occasions and that the purpose of this meeting and this group is not political. The fourth was a staff member saying that she was conservative but only to make the point that she'd love to meet George W. Bush but is much more excited to know God. In saying this, she insisted that all political views were welcome in the ministry and that she didn't connect her ministry with her political views. The fifth time was an m.c. at a meeting making a political joke that half the auditorium booed and half lightly cheered, indicating that politics wasn't a dividing matter among this group of close-knit friends who were fairly diverse politically.

These were the only five occasions out of almost 15 years of Bible studies, larger group meetings, conferences, Spring Break trips, and summer projects that I've been involved with. Campus Crusade has a ministry called Impact, which focuses on African American students. Most of the staff of Impact are Democrats who voted for John Kerry, which shouldn't be surprising given that most of the Impact staff are black, and most black evangelicals are Democrats. This group is not a political group by any stretch of the imagination, and anyone trying portray them as political is just spreading misinformation, whether intentional or not. Staff members and students surely have political views, but those views are fairly diverse. I had many conversations with Campus Crusade members outside meetings that dealt with politics, and the overwhelming sense I got is that most Crusade students were not political partisans but had carefully and critically arrived at views that were not typical of evangelicalism as a larger movement, never mind the extreme religious right fringe component of evangelicalism that Escrow is attributing to CCC.

Campus Crusade, along with virtually every evangelical and non-evangelical missions organization, is willing to use the opportunities given to them to fulfill their primary goal, which is to help fulfill the Great Commission. When opportunities arise to speak the good news of Jesus to those who have never heard it because it's been illegal, Campus Crusade, along with almost any other evangelical missions group, will take advantage of that opportunity and will use legal methods to further their mission. If that's all it means to be opportunistic, then they're opportunistic, but there's nothing wrong with that kind of opportunism. Of course, Escrow's accusations go much further than that. Consider how he twists the following Steve Sellers quote:

Evan as Iraq struggles to stabilize, you can touch the very heart of Iraq by reaching its children for Christ. This opportunity has been years in the making, and now is the time to act. ... Campus Crusade for Christ staff teams in Iraq have been working since the American-led liberation, reaching people there with the Gospel. They have seen a tremendous response to the Good News, but recognize the time to so boldly reach out may be short.

Here's the "translation" by Escrow:

We can benefit from their misery, which has been "years in the making," but only while we're the undisputed rulers there. An autonomous Iraqi nation wouldn't let us proselytize the way its current American overlords are doing.

Sellers is talking about making Bibles and evangelical teachings available to the people of Iraq for their spiritual benefit in the short window while this will be allowed before the religiously oppressive sects that will be controlling policy on these matters will take over and make Iraq once again a closed country to those who want open dialogue on religion. Escrow pretends this is about Campus Crusade somehow benefiting from this. Tell me how it's personally beneficial to risk your life to go to a dangerous country as a Christian missionary, where Christian missionaries are regularly targeted by terrorists. Tell me how it's personally beneficial to want to see people become Christians at your own cost. He also seems to be confusing a missionary organization's willingness to see an opportunity to carry out its task with the motivations of those who happened to create that opportunity. Campus Crusade did the same thing after the Iron Curtain fell, but that doesn't mean their willingness to walk through an open door means they get the credit for the fall of the Soviet Union. It also doesn't mean that they thought the U.S. ought to be in control of the former Soviet Republics. Why assume so in this case, then?

This is just sloppy misrepresentation of well-meaning people. Regardless of whether you agree with the Christian call to evangelize, you have to be able to distinguish between (1) the motivation of wanting to see people have the opportunity to understand and respond to the gospel and (2) political reasons to seek to gain or retain control of some other country for the sake of benefiting personally from it (even if that were an accurate portrayal of the Bush and Blair Administrations' motives, which I think the evidence is against).

He claims that Campus Crusade's language owes its origin to Newt Gingrich. Campus Crusade has been using the language of taking advantage of opportunities since the 1950s. Bill Bright did take it from someone else, but it wasn't Newt Gingrich. It was the apostle Paul, who says to take advantage of every opportunity for the sake of the gospel. Similar language appeared in Crusade's letters at the fall of the U.S.S.R., even before the Gingrich revolution came about. It's common stock among those with causes who have a limited chance to achieve something before an opportunity slips through the fingers. You could see it in crusades against cancer, environmentalist causes, or fundraising for a university. Steve Sellers is not trying to convince people of anything about whether invading Iraq was the right moral decision. He's trying to convince people that there's a good opportunity here that Christians should avail themselves of.

Escrow thinks pointing out a way to meet a need must mean that the people seeking to meet this need like the fact that the need exists. Do we equate the desire to engage in Katrina relief with enjoying the suffering that you're relieving? Campus Crusade had well over 10,000 volunteers come in, mostly college students who gave up their spring breaks to work hard at reclaiming homes and cleanup work. I doubt any of the people helped thought these volunteers were delighting in their suffering. How could anyone possibly think that wanting to meet a need counts as endorsing the killing of those whose death created that need? If anything here is ghoulish, it's that.

Escrow acts as if CCC is supporting the U.S. government's policies in Iraq, which is simply false. The organization takes no views on any political policy, never mind on whether a war was just. You don't have to think the war was just to call it a liberation from Saddam Hussein. Many who consider it a liberation might just as easily consider it an exchange of enslavement, not to him any longer but now to the U.S. So how the use of that phrase constitutes supporting U.S. policy on this matter is just beyond me. It's one thing to happen to agree with U.S. policy on Iraq. I'm sure quite a few Campus Crusade staff members do, and I'm just as sure that a fairly large number of them do not. But mistaking the organization for agreeing with that policy would be one thing. Escrow has gone the next step to treating this apolitical and politically diverse organization out to be not just Republicans but Republican marketers. He outright accuses them of lying about the purpose of their organization by calling them not just Republican marketers but saying they're Republican marketers first and evangelicals second. Escrow's radical reimagination of Campus Crusade as political operatives of the Republican party is pretty creative. The truth isn't anywhere near what he's saying, but it's certainly creative. I'll give him that.

It gets worse. Some CCC missionaries helped out a kid who had lost his father. He was going to join a gang, and they showed him a better way. Escrow's response? He treats this as an opportunity to make the missionaries' motives out to be attempts to justify the killing of the boy's father. How cruel and nasty can you be to read this unfortunate situation that some well-meaning people stepped into for good and to make it be about political opportunism? If there's anything ghoulish here, it's not the missionaries. It's the attempt to call good evil.

Further on in the article is a quote from an agenda-driven book against evangelical leaders. I did a quick search to see what this quote could possibly be getting at, and there seems to be a highly vocal smear campaign against what seems to me to be something very different from what it's being portrayed as. Bill Bright, Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, and several other religiously and not politically driven evangelical leaders have organized movements to raise money to promote evangelism of the U.S., a country that is becoming increasingly pagan. Escrow and the author he is quoting are trying to make this out to be some hidden agenda to promote religious right political views. Promoting evangelism because this country has largely rejected God does not amount to promoting politically conservative views or even (shudder) having anything to do with the radical dominionist and reconstructionist theocracy that almost every evangelical I have ever met would consider completely nuts. Those radical extremist groups are a fringe element that someone like Bill Bright or Billy Graham would reluctantly work with perhaps to serve the gospel but certainly not ally with in any political movement. Those groups rely on a suspect view of the Torah and an even more suspect postmillenial eschatology, neither of which is/was shared by Bright, Graham, or Stanley. The whole accusation is laughable. It's like saying R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and John Stott have joined up with Tim LaHaye to promote some new book on the rapture. That sort of thing just wouldn't happen.

One of the proposed methods of serving the kingdom of God (a spiritual reality and not a physical ruling by Christians) is to have evangelical Christians stop being isolative fundamentalists in their little communities but be out there in the world where they can be seen and heard, where people can be exposed to real evangelicals and where evangelical worldviews (read: philosophical views and a particular lifestyle, not political agendas) can be seen in action in government, academia, and every other place fundamentalists fled from in the early 20th century. I'm part of the fulfillment of this desire by being in a philosophy Ph.D. program. How this gets twisted to represent an evangelical agenda to take over the government and institute a theocracy is beyond me, but those who want to believe conspiracy theories will do so, and Escrow will feed them with his deceptive posts at the Huffington Post, where conspiracy theorists gather to feed into their twisted view of reality without much threat of anyone exposing their theories to serious criticism.

Escrow moves on to another non sequitur. He acts as if wanting to see kids accept and follow the teachings of Jesus amounts to being willing to use any method necessary to see that happen. Having the mere desire to do something is not the same thing as being willing to use any means necessary to see that happen. He further acts as if this missions organization created the dark situation that some of these kids are in so that they could go in an alleviate it. Whichever Campus Crusade staff members are in the president's cabinet must be pretty carefully undercover, because I've never heard about it, the people I know who work in the office of the president of the organization have never heard about it.

He concludes with a story that a Campus Crusade staff member tells of his initial bad excuse for not trying to figure out if someone was already a Christian. It's portrayed in such a way that makes it clear that this was a delay that shouldn't have happened. The excuse is that the staff member wrongly thought a guy might be a Christian already since he was a politically active conservative, and many politically active conservatives are Christians. It's clear in what he quotes that this was an excuse for this guy not to do his job, one he corrected. He was delighting in the fact that this guy then did trust Christ, which wouldn't have happened if he'd continued to use that mistaken assumption as an excuse. But Escrow thinks this is evidence that Campus Crusade equates religion and politics, rather than seeing it for what it is, an unfortunate view that our current political culture has, a view that unconsciously affects even Christian ministers, a view that Escrow seems to want to promote with a vengeance while criticizing those who want to fight it as if they agree with it.

It saddens me to see people so unconcerned with the truth that they'll believe everything someone they agree with will say and not seek out what's really going on. Read through the comments at the Huffington Post posting of Escrow's post, and you'll see exactly such an uncritical gullibility. I don't understand the desire to pretend people are saying what they're not saying just so you complain about it. I can't see any reason why people would read Steve Sellers the way Escrow does unless you want him to be saying those things from the outset, but the motivation to want that when you detest such things is very odd. If you don't like what they're not saying, then why want them to say it? But people seem to have this strange motivation to find opponents to berate rather than to communicate, learn, and appreciate something about those you might disagree with. They'd rather have people they can complain about, which I suppose gives a self-esteem boost because it makes other people seem worse than them. It's pretty sad, but those who don't want dialogue will not seek it and will continue to believe nonsense just because it makes them feel better about their moral superiority.

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Jeremy Pierce has a post on a recent piece in The Huffington Post. He defends Campus Crusade for Christ against a recent smear, but the argument is more generally about a certain type of ghoulishness that is eager to call good evil. Read More

Jeremy Pierce at Parableman is responding to an obviously utterly false misinformed, rhetorical, and manipulative rant about Campus Crusade for Christ International at The Huffington Post. As Jeremy points out, the author seems utterly unable to distin... Read More

4 Comments

One can only hope that the incredibly obvious mistranslations of Sellers' letter will be obvious to every reader. Thanks for the good analysis.

Jeremy, thanks for pointing this out. I've referred some people in our CCC group at Penn to this post, as I think it is very important that we be aware of some of the stereotypes that are out there, so that we can distance ourselves from them. Penn CCC I know has had particular difficulty with the general picture our campus has of us. It even goes so far that there are people here who are ordinarily willing to discuss spiritual things, but for whatever reason won't talk to someone they know to be a member of CCC. We've been working hard to fight the stereotypes, and I have the impression that our 'brownie ministry' last year was fairly successful at this (people from CCC once a month stood on the main Walk in the middle of campus handing out free brownies - gospel tracts, etc., were available for people who asked why, but we were very careful to answer the 'why' questions with "because Jesus loves you" rather than "so you will convert," and to make sure that this was acctually a true account of our attitudes and motivations), but we still have a long way to go. Has the Syracuse ministry (or other CCC ministries with which you are familiar) had similar issues? The Huffington Post article is certainly more extreme than anything I've heard at Penn, but the issues are certainly there.

We had an article in the Syracuse student paper about Jerry Falwell coming to some church that was maybe a 20-minute drive from campus. The piece lamented the fact that no one from campus went to it, either to protest or to attend for the purpose of the event. The piece mentioned that not even "the Campus Crusade for Christ" was there. I wrote a pretty careful response, which they printed (though they edited some key parts, which did alter my meaning in some important ways). But my main purpose was to explain why hardly anyone from Campus Crusade would be even close to interested in someone they would view as a fundamentalist on the fringes of evangelicalism, and that got through in the edited version.

We did get some good publicity once or twice when a reporter from the paper actually spent time with people, in one case even going on the Panama City Beach Spring Break trip with them for the purposes of writing an article, which turned out largely to be very fair.

I haven't noticed any individual issues as much at Syracuse, because I'm not an undergrad, but my sense is that those who actually know someone in the group don't have any strange views of it. At Brown the group was so small that it hardly got any notice on campus, and I think the few public mentions of it that I noticed were pretty fair. But that's Brown, where people are accepted in the "whatever floats your boat" way even if they privately think you're totally nuts.

Hooked up with you via intellectualconservative.com.

You are right on in your analysis. It's worth pointing out, however, that to many on the political left, everything is political. Their god is politics and government, so it only makes sense that apolitical people and organizations are confusing to them.

They don't think it's possible to be apolitical. We who want to engage society for reasons that are other than political would do well to remember the context in which we are operating.

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