Evangelical Borg

Two features on the growing strength of evangelical Christians reveal the stagnation of the press’s understanding of the breadth and depth of evangelical Christianity. An intriguing story by The New York Times‘ David K. Kirkpatrick on Patrick Henry College, a four-year higher ed institution for Christian home-schoolers, reports that the new college’s students are especially popular in right-wing politics (seven White House interns come from the tiny institution). But instead of exploring the worldview they bring with them, Kirkpatrick runs down a laundry list of issues and the school’s position on each (a big no to abortion, of course; a more surprising thumbs up — so to speak — for spanking).

The Revealer is reminded of a conference at which leading journalists, tiring of evangelical historian Mark Noll‘s attempts to add nuance to the story of religion in America, ran down a similar list asking him to restrict his answers to “for” or “against.” Such reductionism fails to respect evangelical Christians and does little to explain them to those who are curious about — or frightened by — their views, as represented in the mainstream press.

Another story, by The Christian Science Monitor‘s Robert Marquand, exemplifies a different kind of oversimplification. Reporting on the potentially enormous implications of evangelical Christianity’s growing base in China (as many as 50 million believers), Marquand does a great job of teasing out the political distinctions between officially sanctioned Protestantism and the underground churches in which the faith actually thrives. But as for what Chinese Christians believe, the varieties of their faith, the nature of their devotions — almost nothing.

Perhaps the problem is with the word “Christian.” A bit of ancient branding seems to have fooled otherwise smart reporters into seeing in the 240 home-schoolers of Patrick Henry and the 50 million Protestants of China one, uniform army of the Lord.

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