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Liberal Jew Offers Surprising Take on Suburban Evangelicals

  • Robert Wayne Crosswalk.com Contributor
  • 2006 8 Aug
  • COMMENTS
Liberal Jew Offers Surprising Take on Suburban Evangelicals

Mark Pinsky knows something about fantasy land, and not just because he lives within a Pinocchio nose of Disney World.

 

As a hard left-leaning liberal Jew, Pinsky’s perception of evangelical Christians had been influenced more by what he read, watched and heard than by any up close and personal experience. He grew up in ethnically-diverse Pennsauken, N.J., attended Duke University in 1965, and from there moved to New York’s East Village for graduate school at Columbia University. Not exactly a life closely connected to evangelical Christianity.

 

No wonder that after leaving the Los Angeles Times in 1995 to become religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, Pinsky had pegged all evangelicals as hard-core conservatives whose slight differences resembled varying shades of white paint.

 

Then something interesting happened. Pinsky, who had been writing about evangelicals for years, began associating with them. One day he would sit with the parents of one of his children’s friends at a soccer game or scouts meeting. The next day he would bump into another evangelical couple at a parent-teacher association meeting.

 

Slowly, as he got to know them – his neighborhood is comprised predominately of white suburban evangelicals – Pinsky began to notice differences in the way evangelicals lived out their beliefs. One family might support President Bush while another disliked him. One might tolerate civil unions while another would not. His previous stereotyping seldom fit every situation.

 

Ultimately, Pinsky decided to chronicle his observations. The result is A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed, a book that provides both anecdotal and analytical insights into the multi-textured fabric of faith among evangelicals.

 

A caveat: Pinsky makes clear that his writing applies only to what he has witnessed in the Sunbelt suburbs. He makes no attempt to discern how evangelicals think and behave when they live in more rural areas within or outside the south.

 

Pinsky also stresses he wrote the book with “outsiders” in mind.

 

“To an evangelical, not much of this is new,” he said. “But for people in the blue states I think it is new. What I provide is a perspective for those in blue states who are unfamiliar with (evangelicals) and who might listen to someone who, in his own words, is a left-wing Jew from Jersey who was raised in the suburbs himself.”

 

At the same time, Pinsky thinks evangelicals also will find the book interesting because "here’s a chance to see themselves as others see them, from someone who is not an evangelical,” he said.

 

What does Pinsky see?

 

  • The evangelical movement taking place within Sunbelt suburbs is a shift from when the rural fundamentalist population drove the bus.

 

“If you accept the premise that evangelical Christianity is the successor to the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and ‘30s – it was largely rural and small-town and a working-class movement – then today the center of gravity has shifted and is now largely suburban. It’s a modern suburban movement,” he said. “My people came to the suburbs from the cities, whereas evangelicals, their roots are on the farm and in smaller towns.”

 

The horizon has been altered because two generations of rural Christians have grown up attending universities in larger cities, Pinsky said.

 

  • Not all evangelicals adhere to the teachings of James Dobson or blindly follow the lead of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other high profile fundamentalist pastors.

 

This may not be news to evangelicals, but Pinsky believes most liberals would be shocked by it. Just as shocking, Pinsky found that not all evangelicals support President Bush, especially as the war in Iraq drags on. He said that several evangelicals living in his neighborhood think the President is in over his head, so he reasons that similar attitudes are taking shape in suburbs across the south.

 

While most evangelicals give Bush the benefit of the doubt because he is born again, they are beginning to question his competency, Pinsky said.

 

“I think they’d rather have a non-evangelical who is competent than an incompetent evangelical,” he said. “What has happened over the last six years... There is rising concern over the competency of this administration. These (suburban) evangelicals are not unsophisticated people.

 

“I think it reaches a point where a (redeemed) heart only takes you so far (with your supporters). There comes a point where even if you like someone, if they’re not doing the job then you make a change. You make it with a heavy heart, but the deal has to be done. As much as people have affection for this guy, the question becomes whether he’s running the car into the ditch.”

 

Considering those observed opinions, Pinsky thinks that the Bush presidency might be the high-water mark of ultra-conservative evangelical influence in the U.S. As evidence, he cites the debate among the Christians he knows involving global warming, gay rights and creationism vs. evolution.

 

More educated suburban evangelicals, for example, tend to put less stock in the idea of a young earth (ie. about 6,000 years old), Pinsky said.

 

“How can all these people believe the earth is 6,000 years old?’’ he said, suggesting that creationists place less of a premium on higher education. “Most of the evangelicals in my neighborhood want their kids to get into the University of Florida, and Duke or Princeton. From my faith, the Jews for hundreds of years have subscribed to intelligent design, that it’s based entirely in science but also that God started all this.”

 

Finally, Pinsky has observed a less pugnacious attitude among younger, suburban evangelicals concerning evangelism. Unlike older generations of conservatives who push "below the belt issues,” these younger Christians from the 'burbs tend to be more moderately conservative.

 

For a Jew living among evangelicals, however, being on the receiving end of overt witnessing takes some getting used to.

 

“It’s in their spiritual DNA to proselytize. It defines them and is the essence of what they are,” Pinsky said. “As long as you understand the game and dynamic you can get along with it. But there are people who won’t take no for an answer, and that’s a big problem in a secular society.”

 

Pinsky followed with: “The problem is when you live in an area that is overwhelmingly Christian, where you get coerced prayer or ministers roaming the (school) halls.”

 

Fortunately, he said, that is the exception rather than the rule. Those who think otherwise are living in fantasy land.