RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The big national media don’t say nice things about evangelicals very often. So it’s worth taking notice when the New York Times sends a bouquet.
“Evangelicals are usually regarded by snooty, college-educated bicoastal elitists (not that any read this newspaper) as dangerous Neanderthals,” admitted columnist Nicholas Kristof in a recent Times piece titled “Following God Abroad.”
But Kristof, for one, has changed his mind.
“[W]hile the old religious right was destructive when it launched the cultural wars, the new internationalists are saving lives in some of the most forgotten parts of the world,” he wrote.
Who are the “new internationalists”? In Kristof’s view, they are the growing ranks of evangelical Christians using their energy, money and influence to, among other things: fight for international religious freedom; halt the global trade in slavery and forced prostitution; and stop the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
A Harvard man (Phi Beta Kappa), Rhodes Scholar, Pulitzer Prize winner and expert on Asia, Kristof qualifies as an elite by most definitions. He hasn’t become an uncritical fan of evangelicals, to be sure. He quickly reassured fellow elites that he opposes the domestic politics of the “religious right” and disagrees with evangelicals on “many issues.” He expressed impatience with what he calls their “simple-minded moralistic streak.”
He also dismissed the logic of Christian concern for the human rights of both the born and the unborn — as expressed in opposition to U.N. funding for coercive population control programs.
But Kristof’s admiration for evangelicals who minister to the world’s poor and oppressed is quite sincere.
“[A]ll in all, we should welcome this new constituency for foreign affairs in Middle America,” he recommended. “I’ve lost my cynicism about evangelical groups partly because I’ve seen them at work abroad.”
Of course, several snooty, college-educated elitists (college professors, in fact) immediately fired off letters to The Times attacking evangelicals for caring only about counting converts. But Kristof’s words represent a welcome change from the usual drumbeat of big-media hostility toward evangelical activity abroad.
A clarification is in order, however: The “new internationalism” of evangelicals is anything but new. Go back several generations, or several centuries, and you’ll find that the only outsiders who worked in many far-flung places — besides colonial forces, traders and adventurers — were missionaries.
Who, beginning in 1793, spent four decades teaching the poor of India to read, producing grammars and dictionaries in six Indian languages, and tirelessly campaigning for laws against infanticide, child abandonment and the ritual burning of Indian widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres?
Answer: William Carey, the humble British Baptist cobbler who became the father of modern evangelical missions. He did much of his heroic work over the objections of the powerful East India Company — not to mention the clerical establishment of his own church.
Who, beginning in 1895, spent 56 years in India, rescuing more than
a thousand children from neglect and abuse as Hindu temple prostitutes?
Anglican missionary and author Amy Carmichael.
Who, after going to China in 1873, campaigned for an end to the binding of women’s feet, and at the end of decades of selfless service gave her own food — and life — to the starving?
Lottie Moon, Southern Baptists’ most renowned missionary.
Missionaries of the past sometimes lifted whole societies from the depths of ignorance and despair. The differences between their day and ours: publicity, proximity and participation.
News of missionary labors “used to circulate in the churches and the [religious] subculture,” Edith Blumhofer, director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, told Christianity Today in response to the Kristof piece. “Now it’s out there. It’s up on the Web…. It’s more accessible to other people.”
In addition, far more Christians now possess the awareness, the commitment, the resources — and the plane tickets — to participate in the missionary task for a week or a lifetime.
But their motivation, by and large, remains the same as Carey’s. “Preaching the gospel is the very element of my soul,” Carey once wrote. For him, education, social reform and rescuing the oppressed were compassionate means to a godly end: spreading the message of Christ.
That motivation goes back much farther than a few centuries. But it irks modern secularists who think the evangelistic impetus behind Christian ministry to the poor is somehow unworthy or dishonest.
Yet many of the world’s 1 billion or more people who live in absolute physical poverty also suffer the deepest spiritual poverty: They have been denied the good news that God loves them.
For Christians who take God’s commands seriously, relieving one kind of poverty — but not the other — is unthinkable.