Leftist Jewish Journalist Survives Evangelical Beat

Quiz: What do you get when you take one leftist Jewish journalist, assign him to the evangelical Christian beat for major newspapers on both US coasts, sprinkle in some fiery sermons and politically conservative speeches, mix thoroughly, and bake with the heat of fiercely contested national elections?

Note: This is not a joke.

Sound like a recipe for nitroglycerin shortcake? Maybe you’d expect mutual animosity: “Those wacko God-squaders are at it again, imposing their beliefs and politics on the rest of us sane people.” “He’s just another example of the biased secular humanist liberal media that’s ruining America.”

Yet this cake hides no explosives. The leftist Jewish journalist made a significant discovery on the road to meeting deadlines, one he feels can instruct his colleagues and us all.

He says to effectively cover the strange tribe to which he was assigned, it helps to know its members as neighbors and friends. His lesson has affected his writing in ways that have conservative evangelicals commending him for fairness and that provide useful illustrations for managing today’s turbulent culture wars.

A Jew Among the Evangelicals

Mark Pinsky’s new book, A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed (Westminster John Knox), tells how this “nice Jewish boy from Jersey” ended up attending church “more often than many Christians” and sometimes more often than he attends his own synagogue. During his ten years covering religion for the Los Angeles Times, he focused on leaders of major evangelical ministries and had little connection with local grassroots evangelicals.

When he moved to Florida in 1995 to write for the Orlando Sentinel, they were everywhere: In the neighborhood, at kids sporting events, birthday parties, PTA meetings, Scouts, “I encountered evangelicals simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories.”

Still a committed Jew, Pinsky found they were neither monolithic nor, as The Washington Post once claimed, “”poor, uneducated and easy to command.”  They displayed surprising diversity on a range of issues including the Iraq war, environmentalism, tax policy, women in leadership, and immigration.

The Readable Radical

Disclaimer: Pinsky, whom I’ve known since our university days, is a personal friend, so I’m biased. But I’ve also observed a curious development here that merits wider consideration. His Duke Chronicle column was entitled “The Readable Radical” and he was at the vanguard of late-1960s campus leftist causes. I didn’t always agree with his politics, but I admired his concerns about justice, hypocrisy and the disenfranchised.

He still votes with the Democratic left, but he also understands the Christian subculture he covers better than many of its members. Mutual respect characterizes his relations with its leaders.

Pinsky is not without good natured humor as he highlights evangelical quirks. Example: the Orlando golf club that hyped its Easter sunrise service and “Easter Egg Scramble” golf tournament. And, perhaps-not-so-tongue-in-cheek, he admits he especially likes about evangelical Christians that “if you are sorry, they have to forgive you.”  He knows their boss said, “When you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against{1}.

Lessons for Life in the Larger World

His book draws lessons from his peculiar and unlikely journey for life in the larger world. His stories of “how people just like you wrestle with feelings, values, and beliefs that touch the core of their beings” provide “a glimpse of someone learning to understand and get along with folks whose convictions differ from his own.”

Get to know your intellectual and philosophical adversaries, he recommends. Take them to lunch. Ratchet down the rhetoric. Maybe connection can produce understanding and civility can grow into bridgebuilding.

Not bad advice in a world too-often filled with brickbats and name calling.


1. Mark 11:25 New Living Translation.

© 2006 Rusty Wright