By Dan Wooding
Tom Krattenmaker, a USA Today columnist who describes himself as a “secularish” liberal from the People’s Republic of Portland, has surprised his friends in the media by taking a friendly look at Today’s evangelicals in his book, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians.
Krattenmaker does not identify as Christian, yet evangelical pastors and leaders are seeking his input and inviting him to speak to their congregations and audiences. He is proudly progressive in his politics, yet he has built bridges to, and spoken in defense of, conservative figures such as Focus on the Family President Jim Daly.
When he first emerged as a national commentator on religion in public life, he was fiercely critical of evangelicals, yet now he heralds a good-news story about his “evangelical fellow citizens” and challenges his fellow liberals to adopt a more nuanced and generous view of them.
In a recent interview with me for my Front Page Radio show, Krattenmaker explained that the refreshing ideas and common-good action of “new evangelicals” compelled him to update his understanding of evangelicals and where the lines of division in American culture truly run.
I began by asking him what had got him engrossed with this topic, when most secular journalist seem to portray evangelicals in a purely negative way.
“It started out with a strong journalistic sense and my being attracted to what I thought was a good story,” he explained. “Journalists are interested in everything that sort of defies expectations; that might be counterintuitive; and these things tend to be stories and that was my first attraction when I first came out of the gate as a commentator on what was happening in religion and public life in this country.
“I shared all those negative and somewhat simplistic ideas about evangelicals and many of my first columns for USA Today explored various aspects of that. But then I started hearing about some other really fascinating uplifting things that evangelicals were doing that defied stereotypes, so I was drawn to that because it was a good story. And I have to say that, as time has gone on, these journeys of mine have continued and it’s become more than just a good story to me; it’s been sort of inspiring and uplifting and it’s really influenced my own life at a very personal level, so it’s gone deeper than that.”
Krattenmaker went on to say that an event that took place in his home city of Portland was really the catalyst to get him to dig deeper into the topic.
A Seasons of Service team helping at
a Portland school
“Here in my city of Portland, I kept encountering some really inspiring things that evangelicals were doing that had been under the radar,” he said. “I am thinking now about Kevin Palau from Luis Palau Association and as you probably know, they have been doing some amazing things not only here in Portland, but also in other cities. I’ve heard Kevin say numerous times, and other evangelicals as well, that they want to be known for what Christians are for, and not what they’re against, and that is one of the big themes that comes out again and again in my book. One of the really cool things that’s happening now is that evangelicalism is bringing forward a new face.”
“The second chapter in my book focuses on some of the amazing things that evangelicals are doing here in Portland. It is something called ‘Seasons of Service’ which the Luis Palau Association started some four or five years ago. It is an amazing outreach service to the underprivileged, the poor, and the homeless.”
“One really striking feature has been this really deep and ongoing partnership between churches and struggling public schools in the Portland area. So these are not the kind of things that the liberals think of when they consider evangelicals. They might think of all the things that evangelicals are against, but when evangelicals are out there serving the underprivileged and when they’re supporting public schools, it’s very hard for critics to argue with that. It’s kind of disarming and it really starts to break down the negative stereotypes that many non-evangelicals have of evangelicals.”
I then asked Krattenmaker if he ever worked in a newsroom and if so, I wondered if the journalists there were very anti-evangelical. “In my first go as a journalist, while I was in my twenties, I was reporter for the Orange County Register in your neck of the woods and was very much in the newsroom,” he replied. “I left the newsroom about 20 years ago, but have continued as an independent freelancer ever since. And, for the past eight years, my writing has been devoted to this really fascinating topic of religion and public life, with the sub-specialty of someone who really looks at evangelical Christians and what’s happening there.”
But did he find the journalists he worked with were mainly anti-Christian? “I found journalists are often cynical about everything. It’s nothing personal against evangelical Christians; they’re just a somewhat skeptical, cynical group of people. That’s been my experience,” he responded. “I found that a lot of non-evangelicals have caricature views of evangelicals, and conversely a lot of evangelicals maybe exaggerate some of the negativity of non-evangelicals.”
“So what you describe there’s some truth in that, but they’re exaggerated. And if you really carefully look at what’s in media more and more in recent years, there’s been more nuanced treatment of what’s happening with Christians in general. I will say though that there are some journalists that are very much stuck in having the same old idea about who evangelicals are. They’re mainly interested in evangelicals as a voting block perhaps as a political force, perhaps as people they can count on to be anti-gay or anti-abortion. In my book I challenge these people to sort of update their understanding and have a more nuanced view of who evangelicals are and what they’re up to in the public square.”
I then asked Krattenmaker how he would define the word evangelical, and he replied, “I try to stick to the basics of these defining characteristics, such as very strong belief in the authority of the Bible, a very strong commitment to Jesus being the literally the divine son of God, a commitment to fulfill the great commission and evangelize.”
“I sometimes tell people that these definitions may be simpler than you realize. Just think about that word evangelical – part of it is evangelize and then if you reverse engineer that and ask why these people would feel so strongly about evangelizing, then you start to see what are some of the defining characteristics of evangelicals, such as the one I just described for you. Now in progressive America, not evangelical America, some would say that evangelical means that they’re right wing republican voters, but that’s just a silly idea. It comes down to the things I was talking about, particularly reverence for the authority of the Bible and following Jesus.”
“That term evangelical has a lot of baggage; it’s increasingly a problematic term. It gets misunderstood to be something political. More and more young evangelicals have great qualms about using that term. Many would say, ‘Well, I’m not sure that I’m an evangelical,’ so others say, “It’s time for a new term and time to retire that term’ which I sort of understand. It’s a problematic term now. But I try to keep to a very basic and holistic understanding of what that means.”
I know this isn’t possible but if you were ever able to interview Jesus Christ what would you like to ask him? “Wow, that’s a fantastic question. Nobody’s asked me that before,” he said. “I would ask him, ‘How do we truly follow you?’ and ‘how do we live lives of meaning and significance and contribution?’ I would also like to ask, ‘When people talk about salvation, what are we really talking about? What do we need to be saved from, and what do we need to be saved to?”
He added, “As Jesus walked this earth 2000 years ago, I would like to ask him, ‘How do we understand what it means to follow you today in a much different environment?'” — ASSIST News