If you chanced to walk across the Diag yesterday afternoon, you probably witnessed a proud Michigan tradition – a loudmouth evangelist. Shouting from atop a stool, this gentleman implored students at the “University of Masturbation” to cease drinking, fornicating and sodomizing lest we be cast into a lake of fire.

Eston Bond

This guy didn’t provide quite as good entertainment as Brother Stephen, who visited three years ago and employed an impressive variety of vocal tones that ranged from a demonic growl for statements like “The Koran is a terrorist manual from Hell!” to a cheery sing-song, complete with gestures, for “Ashcroft is a good man because he loves the Bible!” But he still put on a good show and managed to anger and offend plenty of sinners, judging from the number of people who got in shouting matches with him.

To be fair, yesterday’s evangelist didn’t just shout. He eventually settled into a quieter discussion with a smaller crowd, largely other Christians, to whom he tried to sell his particular brand of Christianity. In his view, he lives a life entirely without sin, and the Bible commands him to judge sinners. Of course, he had a nifty, convoluted answer to the old “Judge not lest ye be judged” line. It isn’t much good to argue with these guys; they always have a nifty, convoluted answer.

I might not agree with anything these Diag evangelists say, and I might cringe every time they shout to a gay person that homosexuality is a sinful choice or to a Muslim that he worships a false god, but I find myself with a certain degree of respect for them nonetheless. They’re going up against nearly every social norm to act on their beliefs. Jesus tells them to love their neighbors, and nonbelievers will burn in Hell. As loving Christians, they’re trying hard to save the rest of us from damnation.

A bit of begrudging respect, however, does not approval of militant evangelicals make. There sure doesn’t appear to be much love in their preaching to the sinners – “scathing” was the word the evangelist himself used yesterday to describe it. And I just have trouble taking people very seriously when they misleadingly argue against evolution by claiming it violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Then there’s the ever-present specter of hypocrisy, from endless televangelist fundraising scandals to the situation that has kept the gay-bashing Brother Stephen from returning to our campus – a 2004 conviction for soliciting sex from a 14-year-old boy.

What I find most troubling about the sort of hard-line Christianity that has an increasing degree of influence in our society and government, however, is its strict focus on the individual. The sole important factor in determining salvation, in most brands of evangelical Christianity, is personal redemption, not good works. Thus, the focus is on sins of the individual conscience that separate us from God. In practice, most of these sins deal with sex or drugs; these are the “moral” issues that dominate so much of our political debate.

Left behind are some other portions of the New Testament: the part about turning the other cheek, that bit about it being more difficult for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, the Sermon on the Mount and that whole blessed-are-the-peacemakers thing. They don’t exactly play up the command to love thy neighbor as thyself either.

Jesus’s teachings have inspired literally millions of people to go out and do good in the world. Christian charities carry on this work around the world today. And yet, as comfortable as the evangelist was yesterday shouting graphically about sexual “sins” in terms not particularly fit for print, he saw no need to encourage his listeners to help the poor or treat those around them more kindly. He did mention Hurricane Katrina – but, rather than pushing the crowd to donate to and assist in relief efforts, he argued that the disaster was God’s punishment for a wicked city that was allowing a gay festival originally planned to take place shortly after the hurricane hit.

I’m perfectly aware that such extreme views as that version of Katrina aren’t representative of most Christians, or even most evangelicals. And I’m probably going to hell, if only for the pleasure I derived from watching the evangelist argue that it is possible to live a life without sin against an older, very devout man who later said he once healed an atheist with terminal cancer by praying with him on the sidewalk outside of Michigan Book and Supply.

But many of the beliefs the evangelist espoused – that evolution is a lie, that homosexuality is a choice and a sin – are more widely shared, and their proponents are increasingly determining the direction of our government. Evidence that policies they advocate such as abstinence-only sex education don’t work means little to a crowd that bases its worldview on faith.

The divisive doctrines the evangelist preached may or may not save souls, but they certainly don’t use Christian teachings to make our society more tolerant or charitable. I doubt the Jesus who loved the lowest of the low in his society would be very pleased with that.

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Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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