Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Ned Flanders and Evangelical Pathology

It is still an idea current on liberal blogs, and apparently in the NCC, Episcopal, and Methodist Church hierarchies, that evangelicals in general, and especially fundamentalists, arrive at their “peculiar” social ideas because they hate women and/or gays and/or sex and/or change – or that they fear same.

It’s a popular interpretation. Certainly, it’s the one we would pick up from popular culture. I think a different pathology is of greater importance. I’ve met lots of folk who hate or fear women, gays, etc, and I’ve met a lot of evangelicals and fundamentalists. I don’t find any overlap in those groups. Perhaps by location (New Hampshire) I meet unrepresentative samples of one or the other. This guy Fred Phelps out in the midwest (reportedly a Democrat, BTW) may fit the stereotype, but no one I meet does.

What I find in evangelical and especially fundamentalist culture are socially clumsy or irritating people, particularly males. My impression is that it is more comfortable to feel rejected and isolated because of one’s religion than because of one’s personality. Guys that are a little too loud, or declare their opinions tactlessly, or find lame jokes funny pop up everywhere, but we seem to have more than our share. Overfriendly, overweight guys, or leaner guys who are perpetually irritated about peripheral doctrines – I know lots of fundamentalists like that. Guys who like to show off their unimportant facts that other people don’t know… gentle guys who want to help but are intrusive - like Ned Flanders on The Simpsons, who tries to cheer you up by coming to your door with the family and singing “Arky, arky.” I often wonder who they’re irritating away from the faith out there. Relatives and coworkers, most likely.

Come to think of it, the cultural stereotypes on The Simpsons are generally more accurate than the popular imagination. Not that the stereotype applies to all of us. I, for example, am charming and socially facile.

As I said, there are guys like this everywhere, but we seem to have lots. What pathology is common among our females I am less certain of. Very insistent women, perhaps. And older women who speak like benevolent elementary schools teachers, even to other adults. The kind who love flannelgraphs.

Just as no one wants to think “people hate me because I’m a hapless jerk,” and would rather think “people hate me because I’m a follower of Christ,” so too going in the other direction. People would far rather think of themselves as hating fundamentalists because “they’re evil and filled with intolerance” than because “they’re socially clumsy.” That would be a petty reason for such intense dislike.

From my observation of the critics, both live and in writing, the petty reason is actually the main reason. I have long held that liberalism is more of a social than an intellectual discipline. These are people who believe that sailing races are more elevated than NASCAR, after all. Showing that you “get it,” that you understand the cultural references, and referring cynically to those things that all the dupes fall for is half the fun of liberalism.

If you think I’m way off the mark with that, then you really don’t listen very well. I work in a liberal environment and hear the condescension every day. Very seldom, by the way, do I hear even a sketchy intellectual argument defending liberal ideas. Some days I think it’s all social – just another way that the cool kids get to show their stuff.

So – I put the observed data of how many socially clueless people the fundamentalists have, and matched with the observed data that social skill is overvalued among liberals, to see whether there’s some relationship. Looks like a close fit from here.


David Foster said...

"liberalism is more of a social than an intellectual discipline"...completely agree, at least as far as the modern incarnation of liberalism (call it "progressivism," as its adherents do) goes.

But I doubt that social awkwardness is a primary reason for "progressives" looking down on fundamentalists, because most of them have probably never met one personally.

Anonymous said...

Yep, just comb the ways Red-Stater / Jesus Landers are dissed, and it's overwhelmingly "taste," supposedly as a marker for intellectual and moral pathology. Remember the NYTimes piece by the woman who was afraid if she didn't abort 2/3 of her triplets she'd have to shop at CostCo?

"I, for example, am charming and socially facile." Likewise, I am not an insistent flannelboarder, just leisurely and eloquent in my many traditionalist posts sprinkled with homemade, schematic graphics.

And of course they've "met" us. We've been described to them by the Village Voice, the Nation, the New York Times, and many more coastal voices. What more could our flesh and blood and our geeky presences convey?

Jerub-Baal said...

What I find in evangelical and especially fundamentalist culture are socially clumsy or irritating people, particularly males.


Living here in Greater Boston (I'll leave out the scare quotes) I hae to admit that I've run into a lot of clumsy, irritating, tactless and lame-humored liberals. They're a fair amount of the population, actually. That may be because "Progressivism" is the overarching fundamentalist dogma here.

And yes, I am at the core, irritating, socially clumsy, and prone to really bad puns and groan inducing shaggy-dog-stories.

But I have successfully completed the twelve step program.


jw said...

Hmmm, maybe. You've left out women (and men) who hate men which, in my experience, are far more common than socially inept men. We'll never make a jump into a better culture without taking into account all the forms of humanity.

I'd say that liberals appear to be more socially gracefull: It is appearance only.

Grace, in terms of social interaction, is a matter of making all comers feel at home & welcome. Both of the extremes, in terms of Christianity, can easily turn into anti-gracefull spouters of rhetoric and/or false chear (as in Ned Flanders).

Anonymous said...


BubbaB here, come over from Gaius's place. Just wanted to say, I like what you have to say, and I wanted to ask a few questions.

Based on this post, I take it you consider yourself a fundamentalist? (I am, myself, not only a fundamentalist, but a software engineer. I am 0-for-3 in the "socially facile" score...)

Secondly, is your profile's reference to "...four sons. Four?sons..." attributed to your love of "Fiddler on the Roof"? Very few who were not actually in the musical would get the reference.

---BubbaB (aka, Lazar Wolf)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

You're the first to catch the reference. I played Mendel in my youth; would make a great Tevye now.

An evangelical is a fundamentalist with a college degree, so I guess I'm an evangelical. I'm not a literalist at a lot of places where your ordinary fundamentalist might be, but I believe that we should hold pretty closely to the text as written, and not go stretching for things we might like the Scriptures to say. Most fundamentalists would object to my belief in infant baptism and transubstanciation - both of which have excellent biblical as well as historical support. But I go to a Covenant church, which includes those who do not believe as I do on those issues. We try to be biblically based without being doctrinaire - an impossible balancing act, perhaops.

Anonymous said...

Yes, my favorite part of "Fiddler" was having to try and grow a beard (as a sophomore in high school), failing miserably, and having to wear these horrible scratching fake beards. We couldn't take them off during scenes we weren't in, since it required several people to make sure they were on correctly... I would probably make a better Lazar Wolf now, and definitely a better Lazar Wolf than a Tevye...

I guess I am also an evangelical, by your definition. I am not so keen on the transubstantiation thing - I would be interested in hearing your references. Infant baptism never bothered me too much - if you accept that as your baptism later in life, I don't think the Lord will disapprove. (I have counseled several people to pray about it, leaving it up to them, and out of about 10 people, nine got baptized after being born again.) My issue is that baptism should be a public declaration, but too many American Christians will get baptized publicly, and then practice their Christianity privately (guilty, as charged...) So, maybe it's more important, as Michael W. Smith put it, "For the world to know the truth, there can be no greater proof: Than to live the Life."