It Only Hurts When I Laugh: Why “Harper’s” Won’t Change America

The May issue of Harper’s magazine is, as usual, a feast. But there is a distinct theme running through it: an almost apocalyptic collection of editorials and essays that chronicle the dangers of evangelical Christianity. From Lapham’s characteristic fundamentalism of the left, through Jeff Sharlett’s foray into the exurban world of Ted Haggard’s megachurch, to Chris Hedge’s hilarious and frightening tour of the National Religious Broadcasters conference. (One could also compare Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Tocquevillean tour in The Atlantic Monthly.) The writing is crisp and witty; the research is thorough and sometimes even charitable; this is just the kind of stuff that makes us shell out the cash for Harper’s, The Atlantic and other favorite cultural observers.

But I can’t stop thinking about Levi-Strauss. Indeed, periodicals are increasingly publishing pieces that I’ll call “Harper’s anthropology”—though you’ll also find it in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and other key media outlets. Just as Western anthropologists of generations past trudged through island jungles in search of the exotic “other” in “primitive” societies, so today journalists depart from the safety and civilization of Manhattan to the exotic environs of—Kansas! Or Oklahoma, or Florida, or Colorado Springs.

Not having seen middle Americans who believe actually believe in God, these journalists cum anthropologists are simultaneously awed, bewildered, fascinated, and frightened. Their articles read a bit like dispatches from strange lands. “I’ve been to red America,” they seem to say, “and it’s stranger and scarier than you could have imagined.”

One of the letters in the same issue of Harper’s astutely observes that this kind of “Harper’s anthropology” of middle America only serves to exacerbate the problem. It is just this tone that contributes to the martyr complex that comfortable, middle-class white folks feel in suburban Kansas City—and it is precisely this sense of victimhood which galvanizes the Religious Right.

Now, I’m the first one to enjoy the sardonic witticism of Harper’s anthropologists. (When Wells Tower went undercover as a grassroots volunteer for the Republican party in rural Florida, the result is an uproarious story. Who can forget his account of one of the Republican faithful dressed in a furry dolphin suit, invoking the name “Flipper” outside a Kerry appearance. Or his encounter with a Democrat protester who points to a carefully positioned Kerry/Edwards sticker and shouts to the young Republicans: “See this sticker? You know what’s under there? My penis, my homosexual penis!”)

And I remain convinced that many of these observations are right on the money—mainly because I’m an insider. I get the jokes because I live with this stuff. When, for instance, Sharlet describes “Commander Tom”’s maniacal commitment to the Royal Rangers (an Assemblies of God version of the Boy Scouts), I have a weird sense of laughing at myself since I, too, have seen the Frontiersmen Christian Fellowship at Royal Rangers Camperoos. My boys have worked their way through the ranks of Straight Arrows, Buckaroos, and Trailblazers. And Sharlet is right: there are parts of this that are downright spooky. Or when Hedges describes the creepy netherworld of Christian radio, with its holy dieting programs and violent anti-gay rhetoric, he rightly identifies a significant force that shapes the imaginations of many Christians who would describe themselves as “evangelical.”

But here’s the rub: I get the jokes because I’m an insider; but it’s precisely because I’m an insider that I know that Harper’s anthropologists aren’t going to change things. All-expenses-paid trips from New York to exotic locales like Colorado Springs will feed the alarmist stance of detached coastal regions, but these dispatches from the twilight zone of the Midwest aren’t going to change the hearts and minds that matter. They’re only going to contribute to the problem. If, as an evangelical, I am horrified by what I see played out under the banner of the Religious Right, I know that countering this won’t be accomplished by witty, sardonic editorials in my favorite magazines—not even witty, charitable editorials for Sightings! Rather, what it will take is a patient, charitable transformation of the evangelical imagination from the inside. And that can’t be done by visitors writing for Harper’s. It will take a long-term commitment to re-educating evangelical hearts and minds in the venue of denominational magazines like The Pentecostal Evangel or the CRC Banner—and perhaps even through the airwaves of—gasp!—Christian radio. That will be a calling, not for visiting anthropologists, but resident teachers.