Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Embarrassing Condescension

Its reputation in tatters over the Jayson Blair scandal and combating a widespread perception of being out of touch, in May the liberal New York Times presented editors with recommendations from an internal committee on how to restore its credibility among readers. Among the recommendations for the “newspaper of record” was this one: “Increase coverage of middle America, rural areas and religion.”

Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof didn’t need the advice. He’s been following evangelicals for years, at one point dubbing us the “new internationalists,” in recognition of the powerful Christian focus on global human rights and religious liberty over the last decade.

But something tells me Kristof’s recognition of our achievements in these areas of mutual concern is less than enthusiastic—kind of like finding out that you and David Duke share a favorite hobby. It may be a fact, but you hope no one finds out about it.

Kristof writes in his July 24 column, for example, “[T]hese days liberals should be embarrassed that it’s the Christian Right that is taking the lead in spotlighting repression in North Korea.” Two days later, Kristof wrote, “Time magazine gets credit for putting Darfur on its cover—but the newsweeklies should be embarrassed that better magazine coverage of Darfur has often been in Christianity Today.” (Disclosure: As an editor at CT, I’ve played a small role in coordinating some of that embarrassing coverage.)

Do you detect a pattern here? Acknowledging that theologically conservative Christians have been pivotal in fighting and spotlighting human rights abuses worldwide, Kristof nevertheless expresses an unconscious elitism. Being beaten by a presumed equal is no shame. But losing to an inferior is necessarily an embarrassment.

Kristof seems shocked, shocked, that evangelicals don’t fit the standard liberal stereotype. He shouldn’t be. Our engagement on issues of wide social and global significance has a significant pedigree. Kristof needs to do some more reading.

William Wilberforce, an evangelical parliamentarian, was instrumental in abolishing the British slave trade. The English preacher John Wesley did more to socially uplift the poor than any government program could ever dream of.

In the United States, Bible-believing Christians played prominent roles in the abolition movement. Despite the ingrained racism of many Christians, others marched alongside Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights.

In more recent decades, evangelicals have spoken up for Jews in the Soviet Union, fought sexual trafficking, supported legislation against prison rape, pushed for an end to civil war in Sudan, worked tirelessly to provide pregnant women with practical options to abortion (which even Hillary Clinton now says is a “tragic choice”), and helped bring down the national abortion rate. According to Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania, the value of social services provided by the average North American church annually is $184,000.

Overseas, Christians in India are seeking to end social and legal barriers that have crushed the nation’s despised Untouchables for centuries. Christians, after a slow start, are playing a vital role in slowing the spread of AIDS in Africa. While not all evangelicals agree on the particulars, we are now even speaking up about diverse issues such as poverty and global warming.

Last year, prominent human rights leader Michael Horowitz, who is a Jew, unabashedly told me that evangelicals played “the central role” in passage of the North Korea Human Rights Act of 2004, saying, “It was the evangelical passion in the Wilberforce spirit that was the powerful animating force, the energizing force, around this issue.”

If advocates such as Horowitz aren’t embarrassed by our involvement, why should Kristof be?


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