How to Fight Evangelicals with Narrative, Part 1

on July 9, 2014

The New York Times ran a profile on the 4th of July that caught my attention. The article highlighted a young woman, Sarah Jones, who works for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a progressive organization that champions secularism. The intriguing hook is that Ms. Jones is from a fundamentalist background in Bristol, VA and attended Cedarville University. What follows is Jones’ abandonment of Christianity and conservatism for atheism and progressivism. Her story reveals struggles with depression and even sexual assault by one of her fellow students. It is a terribly sad story.

Some may wonder why this story ran in the Times, a newspaper that generally seems somewhat uninterested in matters of religion, at least in terms of individualized stories about people coming to faith. The Times has quite a bit of heft in terms of readership and platform. It is always noticeable how it handles that power. After all, people convert to Christianity every day. Why was Jones—someone leaving the faith—chosen as an example? Obviously, the tie-in was that Jones worked to combat against the pro-religious liberty alliance that surrounded the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga case.

On the other hand, the principles of serious journalism still undermine the worth of the story. My friend Tristyn Bloom at the Daily Caller pointed this out to me a couple days ago. The Times has seen it fit to cover someone who was raised to believe in a thing, then changed their mind about that thing, and now in turn works against that thing. When you think about it, this happens on both sides of the church wall and the political aisle all the time. Different crises and painful experiences encourage people to espouse Christianity and/or conservative principles or vice versa. Moreover, Jones claims a trustworthy perspective on religion and secularism because of her past struggles. As Ms. Bloom (alumna of Yale) wryly observed, “A lot of bad things happened to me at a largely atheist secular school, let me rattle them off as though that has bearing on atheism and secularity.” There is a fallacy afoot.

What is not offered here is reliable data. That is the vacuum. The Times’ article and others like it would be much more compelling from a rational standpoint if there could be a strong observable trend rather than arsenals of personal experiences and stories. Stories can lend color, winsomeness, and interest to broader trends. Of course, without substantial evidence to back up these testimonials, stories can obfuscate rather than clarify.

This gets us to the reason for this article: narrative rather than logic rules the day in terms of convincing the most people. This article was worth writing from a culture-war standpoint. The story—a kind of anti-testimony, an un-come-to-Jesus moment—makes readers feel like this is a common occurrence, encouraging some while demoralizing others. It might be misleading, and it might even be rhetorical over-reach, but it is an effective strategy.

  1. Comment by Dan on July 9, 2014 at 11:46 am

    NYT Magazine recently had a similar piece on Dave Brat, insinuating that because he is a Christian and graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary, he is somehow tainted and unable to do good work in Economics, even with his Economics PhD from American University. The take away point from the article was that a Christian world view prevents one from doing objective academic research.

  2. Comment by Jim Davis on July 9, 2014 at 1:00 pm

    The Times piece on Brat was especially ignorant because no one who knows anything about Princeton Seminary would call it conservative.

  3. Comment by Denver on July 10, 2014 at 11:48 am

    In all of the fad-laden business presentation and advice circles these days, narrative is all of the rage. I’m thinking we need a few more Lewis-like and Tolkien twin figures to provoke further thought.

    This really in no way differs from the traditional liberal weapon of coming up with a victim in which to construct a behemoth program or legal structure so it won’t happen to other supposed/probable victims with similar stories.

    You never want to underplay what someone has experienced, but the boldness has increased in that certain behaviors are being mapped onto greater Christianity because it’s convenient and fits the greater desired narrative of those backward-minded faithful.

  4. Comment by mickey40 on July 21, 2014 at 7:50 pm

    “…works for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a progressive organization that champions secularism.”

    No, they champion ‘Separation of Church and State’.
    Bart – ‘Separation of Church and State’ and secularism are not the same thing.
    And, what is wrong with ‘Separation of Church and State’? Religions have done quite well in the US with ‘Separation of Church and State. The opposite was tried four centuries ago and it gave humanity an Inquisition. Want that again?

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