Myour father is A tough man. I spent most of my childhood in fear of him. He came from working-class America and attended, as he liked to describe it, “a tough school.” He served his country in the Marines, apprenticed as a carpenter, and was a strict disciplinarian for his three sons. He was 6 feet 4 inches tall and very intimidating. He also said that he would get angry at any time, which could lead to corporal punishment. His brothers and I usually committed crimes. Still, the penalty did not always match the violation.
He was raised as a Roman Catholic, but lived as a functional agnostic. Then he was saved. In 1982 he became a born-again Christian. He began attending Bible studies, praying before meals, using less profane language, and preaching the gospel to his family. His father’s spiritual growth was aided by Christian radio, especially James Dobson’s daily newspaper. focus on family program. Over time, this terrible man became a better father and husband. My mother likes to tell the story of how I noticed a change in her father and secretly asked her, “What the hell is going on with him?”
This change has been on my mind since I recently noticed that there has been an increase in books and articles criticizing American evangelicalism, and in some ways it’s no surprise. Publishers have released books with the following titles and subtitles: Evangelical Anxiety, Inside the Evangelical Movement that Failed a Generation, white evangelical racismand Follow Jesus and Leave American Evangelicalism. I have also joined this trend. Back in 2018, in these pages, I called on my fellow evangelicals to support Donald Trump. I spend a lot of time writing blogs criticizing Christian nationalism, evangelical Trumpism, and other distorted politics prevalent in my religious tribe.
But the story of American evangelicalism, both in my father’s time and in ours, is not all negative. For all the negatives that have come out of this movement, there are still countless stories of personal transformation that lead people to become better parents, better spouses, and better community members. Seeing the good in evangelicalism is essential to understanding its appeal to millions of Americans.
JAmes Dobson is He is a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and a staff physician at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. He had a pedigree that would impress an uneducated working-class evangelical like my father. Dobson taught his father that children should be disciplined as fathers because they have strong wills that need to be broken, but that such discipline should never be given in a spirit of anger. He gave it to me.
While Dobson’s message of compassion was valuable to his father, Dobson’s emphasis on male authority in the home has come under heavy criticism in recent years. Calvin College history professor Christine Kobes du Mez writes in her book: jesus and john waynedepicts Dobson as one of the evangelical patriarchs who “corrupted the faith and divided the nation.” Baylor University historian Beth Allison Barr associates Dobson with unbiblical views that “subjugated women.” They identified a deeply dark chapter in the history of American evangelicalism.
I admire Du Mez and Barr’s work and have recommended them to my own daughters. In fact, my oldest daughter majored in history at Calvin College. Du Mez was her advisor.
My wife and I never took a James Dobson approach to raising our two daughters, who are now well-adjusted adults. There were no chastity balls or regular spankings to protect their salvation. We also didn’t really listen to his marriage advice, especially regarding male headship and female submission. We have found other Christian approaches to marriage and family to be more beneficial and perhaps less harmful.
But books like De Mez and Barr, for all their value, are terribly flat as works of evangelical history, and my father, and the hundreds of others who learned from Dobson, It does not provide a historical account of the stories of millions of men and women. Love their families as Jesus loved the church.
His father didn’t need to teach James Dobson how to be a patriarch. He had become a patriarch years before he picked up Dobson’s book. dare to punish or accordingly focus on family on WFME Radio broadcasting from New York City. Dobson had another influence on him. His father took to heart Dobson’s lesson that as a male patriarch, he has a responsibility to lead his family with love and compassion. Such an approach to family life was in opposition to the working class, patriarchal, immigrant culture in which he was raised. His life and our family turned around 180 degrees. When my younger sister was born when I was a teenager, her parents made sure she was raised in an evangelical household. It was completely different from anything I had experienced. Defined by Christian love, a kind heart, and a father who was committed to the spiritual health of his family. Despite all this, a part of me will always remain grateful for the life and service of James Dobson.
I’m waiting to see my father’s story and the stories of others like him in a book about American evangelicalism in the 1970s and ’80s. I’m not holding my breath.
Du Mez and Barr’s work is part of a persistent narrative by scholars, memoirists, and journalists that evangelicalism is bad for America. Christian nationalism, white supremacy, and sexual abuse have given the “good news” of the gospel a bad name. Part of this critique is necessary and is a form of what Catholic legal scholar Kathleen Kaveney calls “moral chemotherapy.” She described it as a “reaction to potentially life-threatening distortions in everyday moral discourse” that “threatens to undermine the very possibility of moral and political reasoning in the community.” ing.
However, some of them are unfair or disproportionate. Journalists do not differentiate enough between Christian nationalists and conservative evangelicals who simply want their faith reflected in public life. The brand and platform is built on indicting the sins of evangelicalism. Overemphasizing the negatives is also unhelpful to those outside the evangelical world who want to understand why so many Americans are joining this movement.
Americans deserve a fuller explanation of the role of evangelicalism in our nation’s life. If we only focus on the moments when evangelicals do bad things, we miss the ways in which most evangelicals live out their faith. Every day, we see evangelicals serving their neighbors, addressing injustice, promoting the common good, and doing what is necessary to keep American democracy strong and caring. can. Just as anti-evangelical narratives about gender, patriarchy, and racism cannot explain my father’s story, neither can these moments.
Ttwice a week I maintain a blog post called “Evangelical Roundup.” It contains about 30 to 40 links documenting what’s going on in the world of American evangelicalism: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Over the years of doing this work, I have taught Christian nationalists, nativists, and MAGA advocates alike that Jesus is living out the Sermon on the Mount’s call to humility, meekness, and mercy. I realized that there are believers in Christ. They are evangelicals doing evangelical activities. They follow the way of the cross and extend the grace and mercy they have experienced to others. This is truly beautiful.
Take Eastern Nazarene University in Quincy, Massachusetts, for example. Earlier this year, the evangelical university signed an agreement with the state government to open a temporary emergency shelter for refugees in the school’s art center. East Nazarene understands this commitment in the context of its mission to equip students to “serve our world as agents of the love and truth of Christ.” The story of the East Nazarenes has received little attention aside from a few local news reports.
In my last few recaps, I have seen evangelicals open congregations to the poor, find solidarity with the victims of the Israel-Hamas war – all victims, pray for peace, hold clinics in megachurches, He has been calling attention to the fact that he is working for immigrants. We drive reform and defend human life wherever it is threatened. They follow the Bible’s commands to care for the “least of them” (Matthew 25:40), to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and to welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35). and pursue peace (Hebrews 12:14). Again, evangelicals do evangelical things.
We don’t know who these evangelicals will vote for in the 2024 election. Many of them will hold their nose and vote for Donald Trump. Some people probably don’t trust mask mandates or the coronavirus vaccine. Some may attend a church that occasionally holds patriotic Sunday services. But they are also doing the Lord’s work. In an age of extremism, when many evangelicals are truly lost, others are taking seriously the personal transformation they have undergone and their calling as disciples of Christ.
Like the story of evangelicalism in my father’s generation, the story of evangelicalism in three decades of the 21st century is complex. Let’s talk about the whole thing.