Sunday, December 23, 2007

American Christendom: just misunderstood (by the BBC, at least)

My main source for news is the BBC. With respect to the vast majority of current events, it's much more thorough and reliable than anything on this "side of the pond". But one thing BBC reporters really, really don't understand is American Christianity in general, and its intersection with American politics in particular. Maybe this ought to be an object lesson in how stupid people can be about other sorts of people.

I mentioned an example of this before, but here's a more egregious example.

In this article, Justin Webb discusses some trends in American Christendom, trends so drastic as to elicit a remark of "Golly, this is a big change." (That sounds more striking coming out of the mouth of a Brit.)

First, a note about the headline: "Bible bashing dying out in Kansas". Maybe that makes sense in Britainese, but around here you thump bibles. What gets bashed are gays. Bible-thumping, gay-bashing: that's what Kansas is known for.

Moving on:
Hiding in plain sight in this state is a revolution in American Christendom, a change of heart that could see American Protestant churches looking increasingly like their European equivalents.
Well, European churches look empty. Church attendance in America is down, but not exactly—and not in Kansas—down to the single-digit percentage rates you see in some European countries.

OK, so that's not quite his point, but what he's really getting at is no less crazy. The big hook for the article is Fred Phelps, about which he remarks:
The point is that Pastor Phelps and his followers are not much liked by anyone inside or outside Kansas. The "burning at the stake" wing of America's Christian churches - the wing that stresses vengeance over love - is in trouble.
The implication here is that, once upon a time, Phelps was beloved of all American Christians, or at least representative of the spirit of American Christendom; but now the wider part of Christendom has moved on, as is shown by Phelps' recent loss of popularity.

So, part of this is familiar enough. Phelps is the good old standby for those who want to caricature the abysmal state of American Christendom: Look at this bitter and hateful old man without a hint of love or caring in his whole withered soul—wow, aren't American Christians fucked up!

The only problem with this trope is that—as anyone who knows anything knows well—for all his notoriety, Phelps' "church" has always been limited to a few dozen members members of his (extended) family (and not even all of his family). Phelps' current lack of popular support is not evidence of any trend whatsoever. He has always been on the very fringe of the fringiest fringe of American Christendom. (Some would be tempted to place him on the fringe of the Christian Right in particular, but this ignores the fact that some of his stances—for example, that American soldiers deserve to die for the sins of their country—are utter anathema to American conservatives, and anyone else with any sense.)

So much for where Webb thinks American Christendom has been. How about where it's going?

Well, apparently,
Opinion polls suggest that younger evangelical Christians are falling out of love with the "big causes" their churches have championed in recent years, in particular with opposing abortion and supporting the Iraq war.
And Webb visits another church to illustrate how American Christians are increasingly turning their attention away from issues like abortion, and towards such concerns as "human rights and the environment".

About which, here are some instructive comments from Slacktivist a few months back:
The deciding factor for most evangelical voters -- including, based on their own words, the green evangelicals Caron talked to -- is still abortion politics. My guess is that while the folks Caron talked to might prefer a candidate who was both anti-abortion and anti-greenhouse gas, but when that option doesn't present itself, they'll settle for a candidate who is the former but not the latter.
So, sure, the political views of the evangelical "base" of the Republican party are changing somewhat. But not in the way Webb would have it.

The BBC article paints a picture of the average American Christian transforming from a soulless hate machine on the model of Phelps, to a polar bear loving member of Amnesty International. But both halves of this story are completely off.

Now, this is kind of an important topic. American Christendom, and the way in which it interacts with American politics, is a terribly important issue for American politics, which is in turn a pretty important issue for the rest of the world. And, what's more, it's not like Webb and his colleagues are trying to puzzle out the mindset of ancient Sumerians here: once you figure out the 'truck' / 'lorry', 'elevator' / 'lift' thing, and the etiquette for serving peas and beer, inter-cultural communication ought to go pretty smoothly. So this seems like one hell of a blindspot, and there's no excuse for having it. (Incidentally, Webb has in the past remarked upon bias and even anti-Americanism in the BBC's coverage of America, and religion in America—so he is really without excuse here.)

1 comment:

Chuck said...

I think you underestimate the degree to which the American entertainment-industrial complex interferes with foreigners understanding what life in America is like. If I had a penny fir each time somebody told me, "I went to America once- and it was nothing like the movies!", I'd be a very rich man.