Calvin College

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Betsy DeVos, who President Donald Trump has nominated to be education secretary, will be voted on Tuesday by a Senate committee. She has never been a household word in America and neither have her Calvinist roots, which have been tripping journalists up ever since she was nominated. 

Can this woman, who’s been an advocate of private Christian education and who’s never attended public school (nor have her children), be the new education secretary? A lot of people think not, including 700 students and alumni at Calvin College, her alma mater, according to this Washington Post piece. Others point out that former President Barack Obama never attended public school, either. 

In 2013, Philanthropy Roundtable interviewed her about school reform in a piece that didn’t mention Calvinism or her faith at all. But once she was nominated, everyone was suddenly intensely curious about her beliefs.

Is it true that she wants America’s schools to build “God’s kingdom,” as alleged in a Mother Jones piece? Or is the general media hyperventilating about DeVos’s 15-year-old comments, as our own Bobby Ross asked in December regarding a piece in Politico? 

Politico has circled back to write more on DeVos and even claims some expertise on the nominee as evidenced by the presence of one of its reporters on this talk show. But they've got some major blind spots as to any decent qualities this woman might have. Even the New York Times is saying that she's been sympathetic to gay marriage all along -- a factoid that Politico completely missed.

So, let’s turn to this lengthy profile which has the headline “How Betsy DeVos used God and Amway to take over Michigan politics.”

On election night 2006, Dick DeVos, the bronzed, starched 51-year-old scion of Michigan’s wealthiest family, paced to a lectern in the dim ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Lansing to deliver the speech that every candidate dreads.
The Michigan gubernatorial race that year had been a dogfight of personal attacks between DeVos, the Republican nominee, and Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. Gloomy, bleached-out b-roll of shuttered factories in anti-Granholm ads made the governor’s sunny economic promise that “You’re gonna be blown away” sound less like an aspiration than a threat. Anti-DeVos ads cut closer to the bone, with one depicting a cartoon DeVos cheering a freighter hauling Michigan jobs to China. It was an unsubtle reference to DeVos’ time as president of Amway, the direct-sales behemoth his family co-founded and co-owns, when he eliminated jobs in Michigan while expanding dramatically in Asia. DeVos ended up personally spending $35 million on the race—the most expensive campaign in Michigan history—and when the votes came in, lost by a crushing 14 points.

Then it zeroes in on the wife.

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Twitter-verse fact checking: The New Yorker learns that Calvinism can be tricky stuff

Twitter-verse fact checking: The New Yorker learns that Calvinism can be tricky stuff

Here's some advice for journalists venturing into religion-beat terrain: Be careful when you get into church-history arguments with Calvinists, because you may be predestined to fall into error.

What we are talking about here is the profile of Betsy DeVos that ran the other day in The New Yorker. DeVos, for those following Citizen Donald Trump and his evolving cabinet, has been proposed as the next Secretary of Education.

The Big Idea in this piece (the stuff of politics, of course) is that she is a crucial figure in the world of big, scary GOP money that is on the wrong side of history. This is captured perfectly in the overture:

After choosing for his cabinet a series of political outsiders who are loyal to him personally, Donald Trump has broken with this pattern to name Betsy DeVos his Secretary of Education. DeVos, whose father-in-law is a co-founder of Amway, the multilevel marketing empire, comes from the very heart of the small circle of conservative billionaires who have long funded the Republican Party.
Trump’s choice of DeVos delivers on his campaign promise to increase the role of charter schools, which she has long championed.

Lots and lots of GOP money lingo follows. What will interest GetReligion readers comes later, when New Yorker veteran Jane Mayer ventures into the building blocks of the DeVos worldview, as well as her bank account. The result is a fascinating thread in the Twitter-verse that explores what some would call "post-truth" issues in the world of digital fact checking.

Here is the crucial material in the feature, as it currently reads on the magazine's website:

DeVos is a religious conservative who has pushed for years to breach the wall between church and state on education, among other issues.*

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Washington Post offers one-sided (positive) look at conservatives who oppose death penalty

Washington Post offers one-sided (positive) look at conservatives who oppose death penalty

As a life-long opponent of the death penalty, I have attended my share of prayer gatherings and rallies on this issue and other issues linked to it. That final clause -- "and other issues linked to it" -- is crucial.

What I have learned is that, in contemporary American life, there are basically two groups of people who are opposed to the death penalty.

The first group is made up of political progressives who oppose the death penalty and that's that. The second group (which would include me) consists of pro-life religious believers -- left and right -- who oppose the death penalty as well as legalized abortion, euthanasia and other life issues. The goal in this camp is to consistently apply a standard that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death.

In my experience, it's relatively rare to see mainstream press coverage of this second group, especially coverage that discusses the role that faith and doctrine plays in this stance. So I did a double-take the other day when I saw that Washington Post headline that proclaimed, "Meet the red-state conservatives fighting to abolish the death penalty."

Yes, this piece by New York magazine writer Marin Cogan is labeled "opinion." However, it's about as newsy as 80 percent of what runs as hard news in major newspapers today.

Let me confess that this is, in effect, a "Kellerism" piece that just happens to support a cause that floats my own boat. If you are looking for fair, accurate arguments in favor of the death penalty then this is not the piece for you. However, I wanted GetReligion readers to know about it because it does a pretty good job of handling faith-based material, while dealing with a group of believers that rarely gets much news coverage. So why an "opinion" piece?

Here is the overture:

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Wait! Which religious schools teach what about the moral status of gay sex?

Wait! Which religious schools teach what about the moral status of gay sex?

In recent years, I have been amazed -- when reading mainstream religion-news coverage -- to see basic moral and cultural beliefs that have been around in traditional forms of for millennia described as convictions that belong to "evangelical" Protestants, alone.

I understand what is going on when this happens. It's easier to bash away at televangelists for saying that sex outside of marriage is sin, as opposed to noting that these same beliefs have been articulated by popes, Orthodox rabbis, traditional Muslim leaders and others. Evangelical Protestants are popular enemies. The problem is that this presentation skews the facts of history.

Thus, I flinched the other day when I read a Salt Lake City Tribune report, picked up by Religion News service, about a Princeton Review ranking of campuses of higher learning that are opposed to recent trends in gay rights. Here is the top of the story. If you are holding a beverage, please set it aside to protect your screen and keyboard.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Brigham Young University remains one of the most hostile campuses in the country for gay and transgender students, according to an annual college ranking list.
But the private university does not top the list of LGBT-unfriendly schools. In fact, it came in sixth in a list of 10, mostly religious, schools. Grove City College (Grove City, Pa.) a Christian liberal arts school of 2,500 students. and Hampden-Sydney College, an all-male liberal arts college affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in Hampden Sydney Va., came in first and second.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that same-sex attraction is not a sin, but that acting on it is.

And? And? Isn't that an accurate description of the beliefs of millions and millions of other believers in a host of different traditions? 

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