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When Disrespect is Respectful
The Groves of Academe
While pondering Christian Smith's "Force of Habit" [September/October] and a response to it [Will Katerberg, "Special Pleading?", November/December], I came across an article in a Philadelphia weekly newspaper that explains why the academy's hostility to Christianity may actually be fitting. It was a report from the newspaper's lesbian columnist about a pizzeria in the city's Northwest section that bakes exceptional pepperoni pies with a serving of Jesus on the side—not the elements of the Supper, mind you, but Christian music, Christian television, and even Bible verses on the takeout boxes. To be sure, the writer did not seem to notice the inconsistency between her previous column alleging bigotry against people unenthusiastic about gay unions and this one, which was less than enthusiastic about displays of evangelical zeal. But she did unintentionally locate one important source of academic opposition to Christianity: to be sympathetic to or a proponent of faith's importance is to identify apparently with Bible verses on takeout pizza boxes that say "repent and be willing to turn from your sin."
The problem isn't merely tackiness. It also involves politics. Popular evangelical Christianity today is known not simply for "spreading the word" because men like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson used their mailing lists and platforms to recruit votes for the Republican Party. This may have been an appropriate use of their ministries. But it also surely helps to explain why academics, many of whom reside in Blue America, might be edgy when hearing positive comments about popular Christianity.
This is not news to Christian Smith. His two most recent books, Christian America? (2000) and American Evangelicalism (1998), document skillfully the hostility that exists between rank-and-file evangelicals and "mainstream" culture. To be sure, some of this tension is simply based on misinformation. Yet, I would not have thought Smith needed to resort to a French philosopher's idea of ...