BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It's been kind of a tough year for evangelicals. As a voting bloc critical to the GOP's supposed permanent majority in Congress, they failed to stave off midterm election disaster. Meanwhile, two documentaries, Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi, and Jesus Camp, portrayed them in extremis. [VIDEO CLIP][MUSIC UP AND UNDER] MAN: How many of you want to be those who would give up their lives for Jesus? [SOUND OF CHEERING]
YOUNG PERSON: We're being trained to be God's army. [VOICES/CHEERS, APPLAUSE][END OF CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Some in born-again Christian circles think the problem is the very term "evangelical," which has become stigmatized by the bigoted stereotype and the excesses of a relative few. But Tim Morgan, of Christianity Today, says, not so fast--instead of swapping terminology, isn't it better to understand and influence the conversation?
TIM MORGAN: We're defined in the media by what we're against. We are associated in the public's mind with extreme fundamentalism. And we're linked by evangelicalism's critics with the secular political agenda of the hard right. BOB GARFIELD: I guess the quintessential stereotyping abuse happened in 1993, when The Washington Post, in an explainer piece about the political movement, described evangelicals as, quote, "largely poor, uneducated and easy to command." Do you remember it? TIM MORGAN: Yes, I surely do. I had recently joined the staff of Christianity Today, and we saw this huge reaction among conservative Christians. They were calling The Post, and they were sending in their tax returns. They were doing any number of things to prove to The Washington Post and to the Washington media that they're actually wealthy, in some cases, they're well educated, and they have a pretty good cross-section of political views. BOB GARFIELD: Do you think that the media have gotten more nuanced in their invoking of the word "evangelical" since the 1993 Washington Post [LAUGHS], you know, atrocity? TIM MORGAN: You can certainly say that the media has given greater focus to evangelicals. You find that evangelicals will appear on the front page of The New York Times. You will see that evangelical commentary will be on the op-ed pages. So in that respect, the evangelical voice is more clearly heard.
It's a real challenge, even for evangelicals inside our movement, to understand where we really inhabit the public policy debate, in part because there isn't an evangelical Pope. There's not a House of Bishops for evangelicals so they can sit down and debate these things and settle them once and for all. So you find that certain prominent leaders raise themselves up. BOB GARFIELD: As you point out, various religious leaders over time have put themselves forward as very, very prominent spokesmen for large constituencies. I'm talking about Pat Robertson; I'm talking about Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, each of these guys having had one or more vastly embarrassing public moments. What does it do to the movement, and what does it do to stigmatize the word "evangelical" itself? TIM MORGAN: It definitely has harmful impacts. There's no question that the most recent scandal involving Ted Haggard damaged the public perception of evangelicalism. Evangelicalism has always had a controversial history. If you go back to the early days of evangelicalism, when it was trying to distinguish itself from, you know, modern liberalist Christianity and also fundamentalism, even from the early days of Billy Graham, when he would have crusades where blacks and whites would intermingle, that was an example of social justice that was controversial in Southern crusades.
At the same time, there are examples of excesses, whether it is the street evangelist, whether it's the televangelist scandals of the 1980s. There have been cases where people have abused money, sex and power, and it's caused hurt to the cause of Christianity. And so evangelicalism has become a movement that I describe as embattled, but thriving. BOB GARFIELD: In Christianity Today, you wrote an editorial called Save the E-Word in favor of not ditching the term "evangelical" but embracing it. As a pure public relations matter, tell me why it's a mistake not to just find another word that is less charged and move on from there. TIM MORGAN: I think "evangelicalism" is a word that is worth saving and a word that's worth fighting for. It's a Biblical word. It's a word that carries a power of the Gospel message, the good news that we experience through Jesus Christ. This issue of stigmatizing the movement needs to be addressed head on, and we need to, as evangelicals, ask ourselves why does the public not perceive us in a more positive light? To what extent is that our own fault? To what extent can we be in a more honest relationship with people who disagree with us so that they also sense that we respect them as people?
So we have actually hard questions to answer within the evangelical movement. I think that's the point I'm trying to get at. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Tim, I very much appreciate your time. TIM MORGAN: Thank you. It's been a real pleasure being on the air with you. TIM MORGAN: Tim Morgan is deputy managing editor for Christianity Today. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]