Columnists > Voices

'Monumentally patronizing'

A response to a New York Times column about evangelicals

Issue: "Ten Commandments showdown," Aug. 30, 2003

ON AUG. 15, NICHOLAS KRISTOF OF THE NEW YORK Times examined "the most fundamental divide between America and the rest of the industrialized world: faith. Religion remains central to American life, and is getting more so, in a way that is true of no other industrialized country, with the possible exception of South Korea."

Mr. Kristof wrote, "My grandfather was fairly typical of his generation: A devout and active [mainline] Presbyterian elder, he nonetheless believed firmly in evolution and regarded the Virgin Birth as a pious legend. Those kinds of mainline Christians are vanishing, replaced by evangelicals.... The result is a gulf not only between America and the rest of the industrialized world, but a growing split at home as well. One of the most poisonous divides is the one between intellectual and religious America."

He concluded that "we're in the middle of another religious Great Awakening, and that while this may bring spiritual comfort to many, it will also mean a growing polarization within our society.... I worry partly because of the time I've spent with self-satisfied and unquestioning mullahs and imams, for the Islamic world is in crisis today in large part because of a similar drift away from a rich intellectual tradition and toward the mystical. The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain."

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Michael Horowitz, a Jewish leader in Washington, wrote a letter to Mr. Kristof in response. Here are excerpts:


"You've written a monumentally patronizing column-one that assumes that secularists are smarter [than believers] and that American evangelicals are akin to Islamist ayatollahs. My experience with the American Christian community-as extensive and intimate as that enjoyed by any non-Christian-is that American evangelicals are, increasingly, Rhodes scholars, Supreme Court clerks, law review editors, Ph.D. physicists, quiet community leaders, entrepreneurial businessmen. The equation of the mullahs with American evangelicals is profoundly inaccurate if only because the evangelicals I meet are self-questioning about their faith-earn it every day through struggles of the heart and mind.

"Your smug inaccuracy is ... further bolstered by such patronizing notions as, for example, the repeated slander endlessly propagated by the Times that evangelical Christian support for Israel or opposition to anti-Semitism is done out of blind obedience to an obscure biblical passage rather than because the faith of evangelicals helps them understand the importance of supporting democracy, promoting tolerance, and reading the lessons of history. They understand that confronting Islamist terrorism is as much in the interest of oppressed Muslims as anyone else.

"The most profoundly inaccurate element that underlies your piece-the biggest lie of all-is one that assumes that all religious faith is pretty much the same in its character and effect. For all of the sins committed in its name, Christianity (and the Judeo-Christian heritage that happily still remains strong in America) has promoted democracy and tolerance-has surely done so far better than the secular faiths of the 20th century in whose name rivers of blood have flowed.

"Do you think that the rapidly declining mainline denominations you set up as models-which have largely substituted the politics of the left for belief in Torah and faith in Jesus, and have offered consistent apologies for the faiths of Mao and Stalin-have served rationality or tolerance or peace? What in the history of the 20th century, Nick, leads you to think that secularists who claim to think with their minds instead of being captured by the mad excesses of their hearts have not in fact been more mad and excessive in their actions and with their ideologies?

"The notion that evangelical Christianity is a kinder, gentler version of al-Qaeda terrorism and radical Islamist preaching-your central premise-is as dangerous an idea as floats around the world. Christianity is now experiencing the most rapid growth in its entire history-is happily spreading throughout the world.... This development, Nick, is closely linked to the spread of democracy and human rights.

"Your column does perhaps the greatest disservice of all to Muslims struggling to recapture their faith from modern-day Kharajites. It sells out beleaguered Muslim believers/heros like the late Anwar Sadat and the clerics struggling today, with almost no money, against Saudi-financed Wahhabi mosques and madrassas. Theirs is not an easy struggle, to be sure, but your implicit equation of fascist mullahs with Islamic faith is as patronizing as your treatment of American evangelicals."


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