Challenging Stereotypes with Tom Krattenmaker

Tom K

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion and public life. His first book, Onward Christian Athletes, is on Christianity in professional sports. His latest book, The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, challenges the stereotypes of evangelicals in America and introduces readers to those who are bringing forth a non-partisan expression of evangelicalism and creating opportunities for alliances and partnerships to advance the common good.

KW: As a progressive, what led you to challenge the stereotypes of evangelical Christians in The Evangelicals You Don’t Know?

TK: When I first started writing columns about religion in public life for USA Today, I was angry about what conservative evangelicals were saying and doing in politics. This was around 2003, 2004, at the height of the war on terror and the evangelical president’s messianic zeal to implement his idea of God’s will in the Middle East. My first wave of pieces called out and criticized various aspects of this.

But once I got started paying close attention to evangelicals in the public square, I began encountering ideas and people and projects that surprised and impressed me. Like a ministry washing the feet of homeless people (and giving them clothes, food, haircuts, and hugs) under the Burnside Bridge here in Portland. I realized my own understanding of evangelicals was incomplete and unfair—and I realized that what progressives think they know about evangelicals is a highly skewed picture. It occurred to me that there were unrealized opportunities for understanding, partnership, even friendship. So I’ve been trying to try to tell this good-news story to my fellow progressives in the hope they will update their understanding of what’s going on in evangelical America and starting to think about the opportunities to work together.

KW: What did you like about the experience of talking to various Christians during your research? What did you not like?

TK: On a personal level, I have encountered so much kindness, openness, and non-defensiveness. It’s had an influence on the way I approach things and interact with people. I’m really appreciative of the access and opportunities that some evangelical leaders have given me. I’ve twice been on the stage at the Q conference to be interviewed by Gabe Lyons; to get “air time” at that conference is an amazing (and probably undeserved) privilege. And just recently, a young evangelical leader at a fundamentalist bible college has invited me to participate in a process he’s leading to create a millennial declaration on evangelical Christianity. This, despite the fact that I am neither a millennial nor an evangelical. Radical inclusiveness!

Really, there hasn’t been anything I don’t like about the interactions I’ve been having with evangelicals. Some of my secular progressive brethren are uncomfortable being around evangelical prayer and worship songs and the like. Even though I don’t join in, I’m quite accustomed to being in that environment now and comfortable with it. And, hey, the playing and singing are usually very good at the churches and conferences I’ve attended!

KW: What are some of the new currents rising among Christian evangelicals in America and how do they challenge the current stereotypes?

TK: There are a lot. But the one I highlight most for non-evangelical readers and audiences is that these new evangelicals are not part of the Christian Right, and that they share much the same critique of that movement as many a secular progressive. They don’t “hate gays.” They don’t want to use the abortion issue to demonize women and liberals and whip up politically useful anger. They care about the environment and poverty and human exploitation, and so on. I’m always quick to add that they’re not true-blue Democrats either. Political independence seems to be the trend, which I’m convinced is the right tack for idealistic Jesus followers.

KW: What’s one interesting finding from the book that you’d like to highlight?

TK: My sit-down with Jim Daly, the man who replaced James Dobson as the head of Focus on the Family, is probably the most surprising episode in the book—and from the standpoint of some secular progressives, the most controversial. When we talked, Daly was strikingly candid and critical of the culture war mentality his organization adopted in times past—its tendency to make enemies out of good people who don’t share the politics and worldview of the Focus leadership. He emphasized that a different time is setting in now in evangelical America, with a new set of leaders. And most of them are wisely retiring the idea of a culture war and the need to wage a political battle and “take back America for Christ,” to use that oft-heard battle cry.

Of course, I had a few things to say in that meeting, too. In addition to asking Jim some hard questions, I extended something of an olive branch and spoke apologetically about the ways in which “my side” in the cultural argument continues to mistreat and demonize his organization. In a way, it was my own secular version of the memorable confession booth scenes from the book Blue Like Jazz and the Dan Merchant film Lord Save Us From Your Followers and, indeed, that’s where I got the inspiration (or the bad idea, some would say) to make these “confessions” to the Focus on the Family leader.

KW: What question do you most like to get asked and why?

TK: Evangelicals are always asking why a guy like me, a secular progressive writer and columnist, is taking such an interest in them and is so willing to engage with them. I’m always glad to get that question because it reveals a really important dynamic that I like to talk about. What’s behind that question, of course, is a sense of surprise. And why would they be surprised, you ask? Because for the most part, liberal non-evangelical writers and pundits seem to be interested in evangelicals only to the extent that they’re saying and doing things that infuriate liberals—insisting on creationism in the public school science textbooks, maybe, or likening same-sex relationships to bestiality—or to the extent they’re a factor in politics, as in, “What percentage of the evangelical vote will get behind Mitt Romney?” etc.

The funny thing is, I initially started researching and writing about evangelicals in the same mode. As I mentioned before, I was mad about things they were saying and doing in politics. But as I continued to explore the landscape, I discovered there was a whole lot more to know about evangelical Christians. Following those storylines has been extremely rewarding journalistically and personally.

KW: Who are some leaders worth noting in The Evangelicals You Don’t Know? Who do you want to introduce readers to?

TK: The aforementioned Jim Daly is one. He’s a great example of an evangelical leader whose conservative theology and politics remain intact even as he’s found a kinder tone and a positive way to engage people outside his camp, in a manner words apart from the way his predecessor, James Dobson, approached things.

I introduce readers to Gabe Lyons and his surprising optimism about the end of “Christian America.” Plus Jonathan Merritt, who has done great work to articulate the new political sensibility of his fellow young evangelicals. And I feature a lot of the evangelical change agents who we have here in “Jesus’ Favorite City,” a.k.a. Portland J, which is a great site for evangelical innovation. People like Kevin Palau, Tony “The Beat Poet” Kriz, and Paul Louis Metzger.

Speaking of Metzger, he coined a phrase that perfectly captures the changing cultural context, and the changing ways in which new evangelicals are spreading the good news of the gospel. What he’s done is flip the well-known Josh McDowell evangelism pitch—“the evidence that demands a verdict”—and has proclaimed that the lordship of Jesus is the “verdict that demands evidence.” This gets to the heart of what the new evangelicalism is about: service, justice, and behavior that models what it means to be follow Jesus. Which I think is the best way for evangelicals to give a good account of themselves and their faith in an increasingly skeptical and pluralistic culture.



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