Book World Live

Lauren Sandler
Author, "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement"
Tuesday, October 3, 2006; 3:00 PM

Her portraits of the leaders of this movement are sharp and often hilarious (she skewers the proselytizing pretensions of born-again actor Stephen Baldwin, who parlayed his status as a minor Hollywood actor into celebrity on the Christian youth revival circuit). And Sandler is honest about her own perspective. An 'unrepentant Jewish atheist,' she is frequently appalled by the worldview of young people who flock to the skateboard demonstrations and Christian rock concerts so popular among this group. She is baffled by young women who proudly embrace anti-abortion policies and traditional gender roles, and unnerved by their male peers who express unquestioning support for the war in Iraq. Her hostility to traditional conservative values makes her an unlikely tour guide through the world of evangelical Christianity. (Review: Jesus Rocks , Post, Oct. 1).

Lauren Sandler , author of "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement" will be online to field questions and comments about her book that examines a growing demographic with political prowess.

Lauren Sandler is the Life Editor at Salon.com and has previously worked for National Public Radio.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.

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Richmond, Va: I have been curious about this movement too, especially the young women so willing to fall into subservient roles. That worries me so -- we've worked so hard to get equality for women.

What larger cultural event is leading these girls to subsurvience?

Lauren Sandler: I think that many people today yearn for a less complicated time, a time of rules, a time of greater structure -- that yearning, and the absolutism of living life by a strict Biblical rule, is pushing women into subservient roles. This is an aspect of every type of fundmantalism (Jewish, Muslim, etc.), but there's something especially jarring about seeing it happen to the smart, independent women I've met, many of whom have read the same books I have, and have had the same hopes for their lives.

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Philadelphia, Pa: Do you think it is important for secular-minded individuals to keep an open mind when confronted evangelicalism? Did you change your mind about anything (political, moral, or otherwise) when writing this book?

Lauren Sandler: That's an intersting question. I think it's very important that secularists keep an open mind, and that we understand what the Evangelical experience in America is like. It's my belief that many young people are turning towards an absolutist faith because the secular world has done a lousy job reaching out to people, and helping them find meaning and purpose in life. We are a culture with very little community, very little to offer people but consumerism and entertainment. And I think that in such a complex and chaotic time, it's important that we understand our role in the phenomenon. My own morals and politics didn't change when I was reporting this book, but I did understand deeply how it feels to have people reach out with genuine concern and care, and I was aware of how absent the kindness of strangers can be in our lives.

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Lauren Sandler: Greetings. Lauren Sandler, here. I've written a book called "Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement," which is the result of my reporting around the country into what I see as an energetic and expanding movement of young Christians who are playing a key role shaping our nation's culture and politics. I invite your questions on the topic. You can learn more about the book at my website, www.laurensandler.com. Thanks.

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St. Mary's City, Md.: Christine Rosen's review seems to accuse you of being not just atheistic but anti-Christian. Although I haven't read your book, I find that accusation to be irresponsible.

True, most Christian evanglists aren't close-minded theocratic zealots. But the ones who are seek a great deal of influence over the country's governmental and military institutions. I'm thinking primarily of Patrick Henry College, the recent scandal at the Air Force Academy, and the Officers' Christian Fellowship. Being alarmed by these groups' objectives doesn't make someone atheist anti-Christian.

Also, what do you think of Rosen's comments about "traditional gender roles"? There are plenty of fundamentalists who use that term to mean that men should rule over women. One of James Dobson's books for married couples includes a two-page diatribe that claims God created women as inferior to men. And you probably heard about the Baptist Sunday school that used a literal reading of 1 Timothy to fire a female teacher.

Lauren Sandler: Rosen's review does imply that I am anti-Christian, which I was surprised to read. Most Christians I know who have read the book, and even many who are featured in it -- some quite critically -- think that the book is profoundly empathic towards Christians; in fact, another reviewer accused me of being *too* empathic, thus weakening my argument that there could be a problem with fundamentalism shaping our politics and culture (it's a criticism I was happy to receive). As many moderate Christians believe, I think that what's going on at Patrick Henry College and at the Air Force Academy isn't partcularly good for Christians, nor do I think that the Bible's "submission doctrine" that so many Evangelicals follow -- requiring the reversion to "traditional gender roles" -- is good for Christian men or women. I've taken a lot of heat on talk radio for this idea. But I believe in equality -- between men and women, between believers and nonbelievers -- and that seems to be a less and less popular notion in this country.

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Washington DC: Are there any common threads among the teens who are drawn to these evangelical youth groups? Have the numbers of groups and/or youth members of them increased in recent years, or is it only enhanced visibility via increasing media savvy of some of these groups? and if so, why?

Lauren Sandler: There are loads of common threads. That's one of the most intersting things about this movement, which I called the "Disciple Generation." I can't think of a youth movement that connects people more profoundly across demographic lines. This is a movement of cowboys, skaters, punk rock kids, nerds, drop-outs, cheerleaders, goth kids--you name it. And they all talk about how their faith and their faith community gives them a sense of identity, pupose, and community, which they say they can't find outside Christianity.

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SIMS, NC: Lauren, Evangelicals seem to be as much about the Republican party as they are about Christ. How do they justify putting politics before their religion when the religion doesnt fit their politics?

Lauren Sandler: These are great questions. I met plenty of people for whom the Republican party wasn't conservative enough -- they either vote for religious third party candidates or vote for the candidate who they think best reflects their faith. I am someone who believes that Jesus was a liberal, that his politics were about ending poverty, instilling an ethic of equality, caring for the needy, etc. The politics of this Christain movement are of a very different stripe, and distinctly aligned--against gay marriage, abortion, and evolution in public schools. As long as a candidate is unflappable on those few issues, many people I've met have told me they need to look no further into a platform or voting record. They would tell you their poltics and religion are one and the same--that there is no poltics and there is no religion, there's only faith.

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Northern Virginia: I always wince when I see either side of the political spectrum using children as their means to an ideological end. Particularly in this case, given that I was raised in a world not unlike the one depicted here. (One of my favorite pastors, for example, taught me how to shoot a rifle at church camp.)

But you know what? Those same church camps taught me about an individual relationship with God. And individual relationships bring about individualized thought, something that those outside of this world may never see because they are so insistent that it isn't there.

Perhaps you might be surprised to know that while still a Christian, and who does not shy away from descript words such as "fundamentalist" and "evangelical" to describer herself, also does not shy away from the words "liberal" and "Democrat." Those words describe me too, and many many others.

Lauren Sandler: I was surprised, though, at how few people I met who would relate to your comfort level with fundamentalism and liberalism. There is almost no awareness amongst this group -- which I call the Disciple Generation -- that Evangelical liberals exist. I saw a single copy of Sojourners magazine in my travels, and it was tucked into the back pocket of Jay (son of Jim) Bakker's jeans.

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Washington, DC: As someone who has studied contemporary American religion in some depth, it's frustrating to me to see the endless parade of liberal, self-proclaimed atheists who think conservative Christianity is some sort of freakshow. A fundamental premise of your book seems to be that you don't understand how anyone could devote their life to God, which puts you in the minority. What you have written is not a work of journalism about skateboard evangelists and the like, but rather a sarcastic treatise on people "brainwashed" by Christianity. This is not to say there is no room for liberal critiques of conservative religion--Randall Balmer, who also has a new book out, does it better than anyone. But how could what you write possibly be a helpful addition to the debate?

Lauren Sandler: I don't think that conservative Christianity is a freakshow, although I don't believe in God. You're right that it's hard for me to understand how people can devote there lives to something that I don't feel exists. I discuss many of the social factors that I believe lead people to belief, but as a non-believer I'm not the person to discuss what spiritual factors lead someone there. I guess you'll have to look at my book to assess for yourself whether I have added helpfully to the debate.

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Washington, D.C.: In Sunday's review in the Post, Christine Rosen criticizes your embrace of "the tired metaphor of Christian conservatives as an army that 'aims to destroy everything that it is not'". As a person who grew up within, and later rejected, a fundamentalist-leaning church culture, I am also puzzled by your use of that metaphor. Could you talk a little bit about what has convinced you that Christian conservatives want to destroy everything that they are not?

Lauren Sandler: In my reporting, I found that most people I spoke to would like to replace public schools with Christian schools, our government with a Christian government--the entire secular culture with a Christian culture. Not to seem overly alarmist here -- though I think it's important to sound an alarm these days -- I did not write that sentence as a metaphor. I meant it literally. If I had met people who are content to live as Christians in a secular culture, without needing to change and shape institutions and individuals, I would not see it this way. But, simply, that's what I found.

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Eastern Market, Washington, DC: Lauren,

It may not be propitious for an inter-generational/cultural dialogue, but as an American who has spent much of his working life among other cultures and languages (and therefore relatively open-minded), I consider these people idiots, plain and simple. I cannot think of one word that I could exchange with them. If that's my fault, so be it.

Lauren Sandler: I urge you to see "these people" as much, much more than idiots. For two reasons. First of all, many of the members of this Disciple Generation I met are extremely articulate, thoughtful, creative -- they are quite astute, I believe in many of their criticisms of the secular world as empty, consumerist, and purposeless. I think that the perspective that there's a "they" and "they" are inferior is frankly one of the key problems in our country right now, and what keeps our national situation so polarized and seemingly hopeless. I urge you to pick up a copy of my book so you can encounter some of the remarkable people I met. But furthermore, to call them "idiots" is to radically undestimate their power. The debate team at a school I visited called Patrick Henry College beat Oxford in a debate about English Common Law at Oxford. If they weren't so sharp and so prepared -- and preparing more every day as secularists sit, complacently dismissing Evangelicals as "idiots" -- we'd have little to worry about. I met pastors, students, organizers, you name it, with rhetorical power and quick wits which would put many people I know to shame. As a secularist, you should look out over this nation and see a population of fierce competitors with a commitment to their cause that it's hard to imagine beating.

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Mechanicsville, Md: Since the secular world is falling short on giving youth a sense of purpose and community, wouldn't you agree that the "disciple generation" is working? Perhaps there is TRUTH in the message of their faith?

Lauren Sandler: That's a great question, and a tough one. As a nonbeliever, I have a hard time seeing truth in faith. But there is no doubt that this generation are finding very valuable and powerful things in their modes of living. I just don't want people to have to have a conversion experince to experience love, community, and meaning in their lives. I think that the secular world has an awful lot to learn from Evangelical America.

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Margate, NJ: This is the first I've heard of you, so I'm really interested in your background. I myself grew up an evangelical Christian and to this day remain extremely active in my church, which, however, is a fairly anglo-catholic Episcopalian parish. I bear the scars of years within evangelical communities, yet I still have some sympathy for many aspects of the evangelical movement. What I'm driving at is that I think I have lots of experience and perspective for a relatively even-handed critique of evangelicals. I say you have empathy for evangelicals, and I have no reason to doubt you. But what about your own background do you feel qualifies you to speak and write about the evangelical tradition? (This isn't a challenge, but I really would like to know where you're coming from.)

Lauren Sandler: I'm writing about this movement not from the perspective of a theologist, but someone who writes about the fusion of culture and politics in this nation who happens to be young herself and who has spent a great deal of time thinking about what it would mean to have a youth movement occur in this country again like it did in the 60s -- and that's just what I think is happening now, but on the religious right this time, not the secular left. My book is a work of journalism. It's a story I write with a great deal of opinion, sure, but the bulk of my book is journalism. That's what I do. And just as my experience as a journalist brought me to report in Iraq -- which I didn't need to be Muslim to do -- it brought me out to meet people across the country.

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Part of the freakshow, Northern Virginia: The "submission" doctrine is often misunderstood by Christians themselves, as well as those outside the faith. It's not surprising to see you misunderstand it too, despite your time.

In short, it does not mean "do whatever your husband says without question." Those who think it does misunderstood it.

I could never explain atheism or Islam, and wouldn't be a credible chronicler of those views. I'm just not sure how someone whose views are the anti-thesis of Christianity can be viewed as the same.

By the way, do you think Jesus existed?

Lauren Sandler: I have met many people who interpret the submission doctrine in many ways. I haven't explained my reading of the submission doctrine here, so I'm not sure what you are referring to. I have seen quite a number of young women who live their lives in service to their husband and their children, who have abandoned careers and further education to do so, and who believe their husbands should have final word in the decisions made in their homes. I believe that these behaviors dramatically turn back many hard-won advancements of women, and yes, it concerns me. I don't need to be a Christian to have those concerns, nor do I need to be a Christian to observe how women live as a journalist or listen to them tell me what they believe. And, yes, I do think that Jesus existed.

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Towson, Md: Ms. Sandler,

Am I correct in assuming that the evangelical youth movement is organized around a few charismatic leaders? Who are these leaders? Are they spawned from the Dobson/Robertson/Falwell axis, or have they come up on their own? Do they show the same level of politicization as the older generation of mega-evangelists?

Lauren Sandler: This is a movement that is more of a grassroots movement than one that follows a few national leaders. There are some very influential folks in the Disciple Generation -- like Mark Driscoll the founding pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, or Cameron Strang who publishes a very cool magazine called Relevant -- but on the whole this is a movement that functions as a web laid over the nation. This generation tends to reject the leadership of Dobson (though they like his tattooed son Ryan) and Robertson and Falwell. This is typical of periods of great Awakening like the one we are in now. You tend to get guys thumping bibles and preaching old time religion who get the movement off the ground, but it really takes a youth movement to translate faith into their venacular and culture to bring it to critical mass, and that's what's happening today.

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Kansas City, Mo: Why is the evangelical movement growing at this particular juncture? Do you see any parallels to past religious revivals that would give us a hint at its probable trajectorys?

Lauren Sandler: Great Awakenings tend to grow out of periods of cultural and social chaos felt on a national level. It's no surprise then, in this era of global terror, when people are redefining their nation's role in the world and perhaps their role in the nation, that this is happening now. As I mentioned in another reply, when a religious revival hits the youth culture, it usual is a harbinger of a massive national religious awakening.

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Arlington, Va: Wow, I'm a little frightened by some of the comments on this chat. If it's true that only Christians can understand Christians, by extension no human being or group can ever understand another-- and they should be castigated for trying. Did the people you spoke with for the book castigate you in this way? It sounds like they welcomed you, rather, hoping that their message might be spread/understood...

Lauren Sandler: Most people I spoke to were quite moved by the book. But some others are rather angered by it. I told every person I met, upon meerting them, that I was a liberal and a nonbeliever. I found it remarkable -- though perhaps I shouldn't have, since it is the duty of every Evangelical to spread the faith -- that almost every single person I approached opened their hearts, their lives, and often their homes, to me with incredible generosity. Many had a hard time understanding how I could be immersed in this movement without being born-again in the process.

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Lauren Sandler: Thanks everyone, for your great questions. What a terrific conversation! I wish I could have written replies to all of you in the allotted time. There were plenty of very important questions that went unanswered--my apologies. I urge you to keep this discussion flowing at home, with friends, and with people you know who might not necessarily share your viewpoints. I hope to have an event in Washington in the next month or two and invite you all to come. I'll list it on my website, www.laurensandler.com.

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