It is okay to disagree with what someone says. It is not okay to disregard what they say because we attribute to them motives that we cannot possibly know. Yet this happens constantly. It has become an American pastime.
I recently wrote a column about how America’s understanding of Evangelicals is changing. Many Americans now take for granted that the term “Evangelical” is synonymous with “political conservative.” I am deeply concerned about this misunderstanding, especially when it occurs among Evangelicals themselves.
In response to that column, I received a highly critical letter. It stated: “It is telling that you complain that there are too many Muslims, Catholics (read: Hispanics), and Hindus who claim to be Evangelical. This is easy to translate. These nasty brown people are contaminating your lily-white movement.”
The letter continued: “It is also telling that, in an article about the ills of Evangelicalism, you make no mention of Donald Trump. You can no more criticize your leader than a Nazi could criticize his Führer …You are White Supremacists. You were participants in, or supporters of, the January 6 Insurrection. You have MAGA gear and white hooded sheets in your closet, or you support those who do.”
I conjecture that the anonymous author of this letter is an educated male who has reached middle-age or beyond. I base this both on internal components like vocabulary and grammar and upon years of experience in receiving signed correspondence from people who did share information about themselves.
However, I know I might be mistaken; the author could be a 20-year-old woman. The possibility of being wrong is not, however, something that seems to have occurred to the letter writer, who thinks he knows me because he presumes to know Evangelicals.
How does he know Evangelicals? Does he have coffee with them? Do they share meals? Do they do life together? Or is his knowledge derived entirely from media stereotypes? Would he be surprised to know that my friends include those “nasty brown people” he wrote about or that one of my closest life-long friends is espresso-colored?
When he calls Evangelicalism a “lily-white movement,” he is clearly being provincial. Far from being lily-white, nine of the ten countries with the largest Evangelical populations are in the Global South. The Evangelical Church is growing most rapidly in Africa. Within 30 years, if trends continue, half of the world’s Evangelicals will be Africans.
Of course, the anonymous writer could not know that I once pastored a white church in a racially mixed area of the city where we lived. After my initial interview with the board, I interviewed them. One of the questions I asked was: “If I am successful in racially integrating this church, will you be pleased?” I spent seven years, as I have described elsewhere, trying to accomplish that goal.
The letter author writes, “You can no more criticize your leader than a Nazi could criticize his Führer.” He obviously did not read the columns I wrote in 2016 and again in 2020, explaining why I would not vote for Donald Trump. Neither did he read the columns in which I called for a compassionate immigration policy or warned against the dangers of idolatrous nationalism. After such articles, I received letters similar in tone to his, but they came from the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Still, this author claims to know what is in my closet. He assumes he knows all about Evangelicals. Yet, he seems uninformed about the many Evangelicals who have stood against the very views he believes they espouse.
This is not meant to be a self-defense nor an attack on the letter writer. It is a plea to listen to what other people are saying. It is a warning not to attribute evil motives to our opponents. It is an appeal to believe that other people desire what is right and good, even when we think they are going about it in exactly the wrong way.
I also am not defending Evangelicalism, which needs a good housecleaning. Those inside the house already know that and they are the only ones in a place to do the cleaning.
(First published by Gannett.)