I’m about to start a series where I analyze the myriad reasons people become cynical about evangelicalism. But that begs the question: why does evangelicalism attract so much cynicism?
I think it’s the convergence of several factors. They include:
- Evangelicals are sincere. Instead of the self-aware distance our culture adopts, evangelicals engage with people openly and directly. When somebody is so gosh-darn sincere about how his new beliefs changed his life, he’s wide open to cynicism.
- Evangelicalism is simplified. At the risk of starting a larger theological argument, evangelicalism lacks the complexity of other Christian traditions. Evangelicalism is about a handful of simple ideas clearly presented.1 It’s easy to attack somebody whose beliefs are “simpler” than yours.
- Evangelicals are unsophisticated. This means that poor, uneducated people like it. The rich, sophisticated people therefore like to belittle it. You may wonder why being popular with poor people should be a stain against evangelicalism. Or you may wonder why cultural elites–who love preening about their concern for the poor and inequality–would demean evangelicalism as the religion of uneducated people. But remember, evangelicals are poor red state people. That makes them completely different for some reason.
- Evangelicals don’t like ambiguity. This tendency is especially true in the arts. One of the reasons Christian movies tend to be so bland is that they don’t like subtlety or ambiguity. If a movie (or any other artwork) is Christian, evangelicals expect it to be explicitly Christian throughout, to not have any naughty bits, and to have a clear gospel presentation at the end.
- Evangelicals are political. And these politics often contradict the Received Wisdom of our Educated Cultural Elites. It also leads to the blatantly false, but still popular idea that evangelicals care more about politics than they do about helping poor people.2
- Evangelicals can be anti-intellectual. This is the most unfair reason on the list. The evangelicals I know (and I know a lot) who are truly “anti-intellectual” are rare, and usually come from small fundamentalist pockets. But of course, those are also the ones who make the news most frequently.
- Evangelicals try amazing things. They often try radical steps to change the world for Christ. Sometimes this is awesome. Sometimes this means prominent failure, embarrassment, or scandal. If you try to do something incredible based on sincere simplicity, it’s not uncommon to fail.
Some of these reasons are fair critiques of evangelicalism. Some are unfair. Some are just plain wrong. But all of them are stereotypes. For each category I just mentioned, I can think of evangelicals who go against it.
But cynicism is all about stereotyping. How else could you take such a dismissive and self-important stand toward the beliefs of millions of people? Of course, it’s possible to critique evangelicalism without being a cynic. But that would involve nuance, subtlety, and fairness to the evangelicals you’re criticizing.
Cynicism and subtlety don’t mix.
Are there other reasons why evangelicals are easy targets for cynicism? Are there any reasons I was wrong to list?
1 I’ve mentioned him already, but I think Babbington’s quadrilateral expresses these beliefs concisely enough.
2 Take, for instance, the criticisms by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, which are demonstrably and obviously false.