Interview: Secular Author Reveals 'Evangelicals You Don't Know'

Evangelical Christians are not as bad as you think, Tom Krattenmaker tells his fellow progressives, secularists and religious liberals in his new book, The Evangelicals You Don't Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians.

Krattenmaker describes a new generation of evangelical leaders, such as social activist and "red letter Christian" Shane Claiborne, Focus on the Family President Jim Daly and megachurch pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren, who are working to shatter the stereotypes held by many non-evangelicals after three decades of Christian Right political activism.

Krattenmaker is a religion writer for USA Today. He has often been critical of Christians, and evangelicals in particular, in his previous writings. While researching for the book, though, Krattenmaker traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to spend some time at the Focus on the Family headquarters. While there, he apologized to Daly for stereotyping him and ignoring the good work that Focus has accomplished. He wrote about that apology in some op-eds associated with the release of the book.

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In a Friday interview with The Christian Post, Krattenmaker talks more about the book, what intrigues him about evangelicals, and how he got the idea to confess his sins to Daly.

CP: You've written about evangelicals many times before. What interests you about the topic?

Krattenmaker: As a journalist, I find it to be a really compelling and interesting story. As you know, things that are surprising, counterintuitive or "against the grain" are often news, just because they are surprising. That was part of it, coupled with the fact that evangelicals have been a big story, generally speaking, over recent decades – a lot of visibility, a lot of influence over culture and politics, controversial, certainly, from the standpoint of non-evangelical liberals, even disliked greatly. So I always thought that evangelicals were a big story in general and then this new thing that has been happening in evangelicalism, that's a big story too. I explain in the opening chapter that if you have an important development within evangelicalism, it's news.

But my interest goes farther than that. I found it to be meaningful personally. I found that these things that are happening with evangelical Christians, the positive stories I have been encountering, are really inspiring, and they've motivated me to want to be a more compassionate person and a more open-minded, less defensive person. It's been really uplifting. I've been at times infuriated at things evangelicals say and do, and at times absolutely blown away and inspired.

CP: You were involved in an evangelical youth group for a year in college?

Krattenmaker: Yeah, I was a participant in Campus Crusade when I was an undergraduate back in the '80s.

CP: Did that experience lay some of the groundwork for your interest as well?

Krattenmaker: I think it bespeaks my interest in evangelical Christianity. Even when I've been a critic, I've often intuited something compelling about it.

I've often admired the commitment and energy of evangelicals, the way evangelicals seem to be more "all in" on their faith commitments than religious liberals might be. That's a complicated discussion, and I do know religious liberals who are absolutely "all in," and are on fire for their faith, even though it's a different form of faith.

But yes, I've been interested ever since then. In my life since my undergraduate years, I haven't been a participant in evangelical Christianity, but I've remained interested.

CP: How would you describe your current religious beliefs?

Krattenmaker: I don't really fit any category. If you were to walk around with me for a day or a week, you'd probably come away saying that Tom is basically a secular guy who lives a secular life because these days I'm not attending any church.

I do read a lot of books about religion and about Christianity. I have lots of intense conversations about it, I think about it, write about it. I even have a quirky spiritual life. But, at least on the surface, the public presentation of myself, you would say I'm basically secular, or that I don't belong to any of the best known categories.

CP: What is the audience you most want to reach with the book?

Krattenmaker: The ostensible primary audience is secular progressives and religious liberals who, together, form what you would call the non-evangelical segment of the population. And my hope, as the subtitle of the book strongly suggests, is to introduce them to these new things that are happening in evangelical America, which will probably surprise them and complicate many of their stereotypes.

The secondary audience would be these "new evangelicals" themselves, people about whom the book is written. It's likely going to be the case that the secondary audience is bigger and more enthusiastic than the primary audience, which I think is great. I'm more than fine with that.

It's sort of like there's this dynamic where you have a whole audience that is sort of reading over the shoulder of the ostensible primary audience. I'm getting much more enthusiasm from evangelicals who are interested in the book. In fact, more so than people who comprise the ostensible primary audience.

CP: You've been a critic of politically conservative evangelicals in your previous writings.

Krattenmaker: Yes.

CP: For this book you decided to visit Focus on the Family, which has been one of the epicenters of the Christian Right. What happened on that trip?

Krattenmaker: First of all I want tell you about how I got the idea. You probably are familiar with the confession booth scene in Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz, where Donald Miller and Tony "the Beat Poet" Kriz do that crazy thing at Renn Fayre at Reed College, where they set up the confession booth in the midst of the wild frenzy at ultra-secular, ultra-liberal, Reed College.

It's fascinating. I love stories like that, where you do this really crazy counterintuitive thing. They set this confession booth up, not to get these heathen Reedies to confess their sins to Christians, but the opposite – they confessed the sins of the Church. That was really striking to me and so fascinating. I found that kind of thing totally disarming and inspiring.

And then I love the way Dan Merchant picked up on that in his movie, "Lord, Save Us From Your Followers," where he did the confession booth at the gay pride festival in Portland. And, if you've seen the movie, you know what a powerful scene that is and how touching those encounters were when Dan Merchant apologized for the mistreatment that gay people have experienced at the hands of Christians, including himself.

So I wanted to deal with that in the book. I have this chapter in the middle that I call "Confession Booth." I recount those things that happened in Blue Like Jazz and "Lord Save Us ... ." And then I imagine, if you were to expand on this in an ongoing confession and reconciliation process, what would be the confessions that these new evangelicals are making, and what are the things that I, or secular Americans, would want to hear.

But then, I wanted to turn the tables and do my own version of it at the end of the book. At first I was just going to make it a literary confession and just imagine what I would say or do if I had my own version of that. In the early stages I was discussing this with a friend of mine who I often hike with. He is a devout Catholic and a scientist. I told him I was going to do this literary confession booth in the book. He said, "Whoa, Tom, you should do a real confession booth, not just some literary, imagined thing." I was immediately struck by that and I thought he was right.

I got a lot of input from friends and people I was interviewing for the book and figured out a way to do it. It became obvious that the best place to do it would be Focus on the Family because I've been very critical of them in the past, and, as you pointed out, they've been sort of an epicenter for this kind of Christian Right form of evangelicalism; but also because it's a new day there and Jim Daly is presenting a different face of that organization, and they deserve credit for that. I don't think that they've been getting the credit that they deserve from my secular, progressive fellows.

CP: As I read your book, it seems to me that you draw this distinction between the "good evangelicals" – Jim Daly, Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Merritt – and the "bad evangelicals" – Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Tony Perkins, James Dobson. Am I reading that correctly?

Krattenmaker: I don't use those terms, but that would certainly be a takeaway that some readers would have. I don't think that "old school evangelicals" appreciate the distinction that comes through.

It's basically a good news book, good news about this new thing that is happening in evangelical America, which I'm supportive of and impressed by. But there's also a pretty strong critique of what's gone wrong, in my view, with right-wing politicized evangelical Christianity over recent decades. I'm sure that some of those readers might feel thrown under the bus. So be it.

But what I would point out is that this critique that comes through in the book and runs through the book is not mine and mine alone. I'm quoting evangelicals themselves and drawing on their ideas and their critiques when I do analyze what's gone wrong with right wing Christianity in the public square. I point that out too. Those are the critiques that have the most credibility and are the most persuasive.

CP: It does make me wonder, though, if you were to spend time with Tony Perkins and James Dobson in the same way you did with Jim Daly, if you might come to the realization that you have stereotyped them as well.

Krattenmaker: That's quite possible. I've been imagining what would've happened if I had been at a conference and had sat down with them. And I have been critical about and said some very negative things about the side with which I identify in the ongoing cultural debates. But, to be really honest, I imagine that if we sat down, one-on-one, there would be courtesy and mutual respect and we would probably find some things we could talk about where we have common interest.

And so, I need to be constantly challenging myself and make sure that I'm not demonizing people unfairly, that I'm not falling into my own version of black and white thinking about the "other side," and not just demonizing everything they do. So I'd have to be open to that, even though I remain very critical of some of the things they've said and done and continue to say and do in the culture war stance and mindset they continue to bring forward.

CP: After spending all this time studying evangelicals, is there anything you still find mysterious, or wish you understood better about evangelicals?

Krattenmaker: I continue to be extremely curious. That's obvious, right? I'm very curious about evangelicals. I'm always trying to understand better how faith works in their life because I don't have the same form of belief.

I've never been quite able to accept the factual accuracy of the theological assertions of evangelical Christianity. So it does sort of remain mysterious to me how evangelicals have been able to make that leap of faith and go all in on the wager that Jesus really is, factually, the divine son of God. And the fact that I've never accepted the factual accuracy of that is intriguing to me.

I'd like to think that it's not that I'm stubborn or I'm a jerk or want to be immoral or anything like that. It's a mysterious thing that happens and some people make that leap of faith and others don't. And I don't know if it's fully understandable in a scientific way, why that happens with some people and not with others.

I certainly don't begrudge evangelicals for making that leap. I'm not one of those guys that says that Christianity is inherently irrational. I just don't buy that. That's very reductive.

So that remains fascinating to me and I'm always thinking about that, trying to probe that and understand it. I certainly would not want to begrudge that or take that away from the evangelicals who I've been getting to know. I think it's really important to them and does a lot of good in their life and a lot of good for our society that is brought forward in public settings.

CP: Since The Christian Post has a lot of evangelical readers, I'm going to leave the last question open-ended to give you an opportunity to say whatever you would like to say to our readers. So anything else you would like to add?

Krattenmaker: The Christians I've engaged with for my new book, as well as for numerous USA Today columns, have treated me with incredible kindness and hospitality. I'm grateful to them. They have had a positive impact on my writing, for sure, but also on me personally. There's a lesson in that, I think, for evangelicals who are leery of engaging with the "other" or not sure how to do it in this rapidly changing cultural context.

As you know from reading the book, Napp, I urge my fellow non-evangelicals to revise their stereotyped views of evangelicals and engage in an act of "disaggregation." This would apply to evangelical people as well as evangelical ideas and projects. I would urge evangelicals to do the same with respect to liberals and seculars. Only a very small number of us have a deep-seated hostility to evangelical Christianity. We're not all anti-religion flame-throwers in the Christopher Hitchens mode. I'm convinced most of us will receive evangelicals graciously as they come forward in the public square with friendliness, non-defensiveness, and an idealistic desire to help make things better. I mean, who could argue with that?

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