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Who's Afraid of Evangelicals?
Fomenting fear and hatred toward an entire group of people is wrong. Yet some of us are doing it again.

Canadians disagree on a lot of things. But we agree on this: fomenting fear and hatred toward an entire group of people is wrong. Yet some of us are doing it again.

Why are all sorts of otherwise intelligent people characterizing Canadian Evangelicals as ignorant, right-wing, and—perhaps worst of all (in their opinion)—American?

It was wrong when French and English Canadians did it to each other. It was wrong when majorities of Canadians did it to native peoples, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Pakistanis, Muslims and homosexuals. It is just as wrong nowadays when politicians, journalists, academics and others do it to Evangelical Christians.

During our recent national election, and especially during and after the American election a few months later, all sorts of otherwise intelligent people characterized Canadian Evangelicals as ignorant, right-wing, and—perhaps worst of all—American.

Why this fearful—some would say paranoid—reaction against Evangelicals? Who are these fearsome folk that prompt such outrage?

Having studied North American Evangelicals for two decades, I here offer three propositions about Evangelicals and Canadian public life:

  1. Canadian Evangelicals are not just like American Evangelicals;

  2. Canadian Evangelicals are not threats to Canadian public welfare, but positive contributors to it; and

  3. Canadian Evangelicals yet do post a threat to some cherished ideals of our current intelligentsia—and that threat accounts for the recent rash of "Evangeliphobia."

1. Canadian Evangelicals are not just American Evangelicals in toques and skates.

Evangelicalism gets its name from the Gospel, the "Evangel," the Good News" of the Christian religion. The 16th-century Protestant Reformers sometimes referred to their program of church renewal as "Evangelical"—as a recovery of the Gospel. But it was the 18th-century revivals in Britain and its colonies in North America that gave birth to the movement that scholars now call "Evangleicalism."

Those revivals happened among a wide range of Christian denominations. Today there are Anglican Evangelicals, United Church Evangelicals, Presbyterian Evangelicals, Lutheran Evangelicals, Baptist Evangelicals, Mennonite Evangelicals, Pentecostal Evangelicals and so on.

Evangelicals have no distinctive doctrine. They merely hold to the traditional teaching of their respective denominations. Uniting them across denominational lines is their characteristic emphasis upon the preaching of Jesus Christ's work of salvation the importance of personal response to that preaching in conversion; the discipline and joy of a vital religious life; and the happy obligation to love one's neighbours. This is the generic Evangelicalism that enables members of the World Evangelical Alliance to recognize each other from every continent and from a dazzling range of traditions.

Yet Canadian Evangelicals are not simply clones of their American cousins. Historical studies and sophisticated polling agree that the pattern of recent Canadian Evangelical involvement in public life differs markedly from the American one.

The Canadian pattern of voting in federal elections is consistent in this respect: Canadian Evangelicals vote generally in the same proportions as the country at large. Perhaps as many as ten percent more of them lean to Conservative than does the country as a whole. But the best numbers indicate that in the last federal election perhaps half of the regularly churchgoing Evangelicals voted Conservative. This is hardly a monolith of rightwing allegiance.

Canadian Evangelicals are not threats to Canadian public welfare, but are positive contributors to it.

Indeed, there simply is no major religious bloc of support for any party in Canada. Elections in this or that closely contested riding may be swayed by a slight tendency for Roman Catholics to vote Liberal and Protestants to vote Conservative. But nationally the differences are within a 60/40 split on both sides.

Evangelicals support conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family, centrist organizations such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and left-wing organizations such as Citizens for Public Justice. There simply is no big Religious Right in Canada.

(By the way, don't believe what you hear from the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons about how Evangelicals all voted for George Bush and so delivered the election to him. First, the definitions of "Evangelical" vary wildly among American pollsters, giving hugely different results. Second, the data do not support Falwell & Co. The best American analysts conclude carefully that more Evangelicals voted for Bush than for Kerry. But many Evangelicals—even white, male, Southern Evangelicals—did not support the Republican cause. And most African-American Evangelicals apparently voted Democrat. The equation of "Evangelical" and "Republican" is far from accurate even in the United States.)

2. CanadianEvangelicals are not threats to Canadian public welfare, but positive contributors to it.

Evangelical cooperation has figured in a wide range of ventures over the last century and longer: from Christian student clubs to fellowships for business people and professionals; from soup kitchens in our cities to relief and development work overseas; and from religious pop music to first-rank scholarship.

Canadian Evangelicals typically are aware of and contribute toward various ventures all around the world …

Those who worry about Evangelical involvement in Canadian public life should remember that previous Evangelical activism helped abolish slavery, promoted women's suffrage, prompted child labour legislation, animated many in the civil rights movement and provided social safety nets for unwed mothers, vagrant children, alcoholics, the mentally ill and many others on the margins.

Political options as various as the Social Credit Party and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation emerged out of an Evangelical culture that refused to let terrible needs in society go begging. (Both William Aberhart and Tommy Douglas were Baptist pastors.)

In all of this activity, Canadian Evangelicals resemble their counterparts in the United States and Britain, yes, but also in Australia, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi. Indeed, Canadian Evangelicals typically are aware of and contribute toward various ventures all around the world in charitable giving that is significantly above the national averages (as reported by Revenue Canada and the IRS). Sociologists on both sides of the border have also shown that North American Evangelicals contribute a disproportionately large amount of volunteer time to various causes.

Most Canadians, however, have no knowledge of this movement that involves perhaps ten percent of Canadians. Canadian ignorance of Evangelicalism is not out of line with such ignorance in many other countries.

Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked the question, "Who Is John Stott?" Brooks, himself a Jew, challenged his fellow East Coast intellectuals to identify this major figure in global Evangelicalism, a man much more widely respected than the "usual suspects" who show up on religious TV. Margaret Wente in The Globeand Mail has asked a similar question of her readers. Can you name two Canadian authors whose books internationally have sold millions and millions of copies? Janette Oke and Grant Jeffrey: Ever heard of them?

Canadian Evangelicals don't pay much attention to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson or Franklin Graham. They're much more likely to be interested in what Brian Stiller, Don Posterski and Maxine Hancock have to say. Do those names ring any bells?

If you really want to know what Canadian Evangelicals are like, don't settle for watching religious television. Visit Tyndale University College in Toronto, or Trinity Western University in British Columbia, or Briercrest College and Seminary in Saskatchewan. Read FaithToday magazine and ChristianWeek newspaper. Watch a World Vision broadcast.

3. CanadianEvangelicals still pose a threat to some cherished ideals of our current intelligentsia. Why would anyone be bothered by such a helpful bunch? There must be something that triggers such loathing, ridicule and alarm among so many otherwise temperate and thoughtful people.

To be sure, there are stupid, conceited and intolerant Evangelicals who think they know it all and who think everyone else should get in line with them. There are similarly obnoxious people among politicians in every political party, professors in every university, journalists in every newspaper—and, for that matter, among Jews, feminists and homosexuals. If you want to pick on a group, you can always find someone who demonstrates those people at their worst.

No, the cause of the resentment lies much deeper. It is because Evangelicals are what we might call "moral realists."

It has become increasingly fashionable (and personally convenient) to prefer moral relativism to moral realism.

Moral realists are people who believe that good and evil are qualities of the universe that are just as real, just as objective and just as nonnegotiable as physical qualities such as mass or extension. Something is right not just because our society says so or because you or I happen to prefer it to be so but because it is inherently right, just the way that a bowling ball is dense and a mountain is large.

Moral realists also believe that human beings are equipped to recognize right and wrong, at least generally and usefully. Particular human beings may be impaired severely in this respect, just as some people are blind or deaf to aspects of physical reality. Some people perversely refuse to acknowledge what their senses tell them. And no one sees or hears perfectly.

Still, most of us, most of the time, can tell what is right or wrong. That's why so much is shared among the world's various peoples regarding fundamental ethics.

Without going into great philosophical detail, let us understand simply that Evangelicals believe that the best way to live in the world is to acknowledge what is actually right and wrong, and to live accordingly.

Most people in our culture were moral realists until about a generation ago. It has become increasingly fashionable (and personally convenient), however, to prefer moral relativism to moral realism—in both scholarly circles influenced by various extremes of postmodernism and among regular folk who believe that no one and no group can tell other people what to do. Our society has largely embraced a liberalism entirely committed to the maximization of individual choice with as little interference as possible from the state, from the Church and from any other external authority.

Evangelicals, then—like conservative members of virtually every other religion—are pulling in a very different direction. Evangelicals believe that the best thing you can do for your neighbour—the best way to love your neighbour, as the Bible says we should—is to ascertain what is truly in your neighbour's best interest and then work for it. Here's the crucial part: one is to do so regardless of what the neighbour himself or herself happens to think is in his or her interest.

For in the moral realist's outlook, whether someone disagrees with moral reality might pose certain practical problems—such as how we get the addict to recognize the destructiveness of his behaviour, or how we get the promiscuous playboy or avaricious business person to acknowledge that his actions are, in fact, wrong, no matter how much pleasure and satisfaction they may produce for him. That people prefer to do this or that does not change the moral fact that this or that is actually right or wrong.

Justice for a moral realist does not consist in unfettered liberty, but in the careful balancing of values—freedom, yes, but also equality for everyone and the promotion of human flourishing—to be understood in light of the way things really are in the universe.

Such traditional moral language sounds commonsensical to the Evangelical. To many other Canadians today it sounds instead like dogmatism that threatens their agenda of radical personal liberty. Thus many have concluded that Evangelicals are not to be argued with, because the whole Evangelical way of viewing morality is wrongheaded. Instead, Evangelicals are to be fought, using whatever tactics work best. In our society, those tactics include ridicule and fearmongering—Look how stupid and dangerous these people are!

There is an inconsistency, however, inconsistency in the way so many Canadians cherish their moral relativism.

Although it's very Canadian nowadays to castigate your opponents as wanting to "impose their views" on the nation by "legislating morality," the strongest advocates for abortion or gay marriage or (fill in your favourite controversial issue) still insist that their views are not just their own, but that they are simply right—indeed, a "human right." Morally right. One doesn't often find, however, a sustained argument for the "rightness" of these things beyond the grounds of—yes, we're back to it again—the central conviction that everyone should be as free as possible to do whatever he or she likes. And in this very narrow way, such people are "moral realists" also.

They badly want to have their views not simply tolerated as permissible in a free society, but enshrined as the law of the land, enjoying full public sanction. The current stereotyping and, indeed, the scapegoating of Evangelicals thus is an issue that reveals more than a hypocritical exception to the otherwise happy multicultural acceptance of diversity in this country. It is a symptom of a dogmatic intolerance in the public philosophy of many Canadians who congratulate themselves on their broadmindedness.

Evangelicals have contributed immeasurably to Canadian society because they have believed it is the right thing to do. It is irresponsible to ignore that contribution and disrespectful to mock its motive.

Evangelicals may be mistaken and their views unattractive or implausible to some. But they are authentic Canadians, and they deserve authentically Canadian treatment by everyone.

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., is the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. His books include Canadian Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Toronto Press / Regent College Publishing) and Evangelical Landscapes: Facing Critical Issues of the Day (Baker Academic).

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February 2005.




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