Brokaw Among the Evangelicals

In an NBC news special, the veteran newsman focuses on the Rev. Ted Haggard and several members of his New Life Church

BY: David Kuo

 

In an in-depth NBC "Dateline" tonight (8 p.m. ET, NBC), Tom Brokaw ventures to New Life Church in Colorado Springs, CO, to explore evangelical Christians and their societal impact. Going in-depth with New Life's pastor, Ted Haggard, and several families that are exploring or deepening their own faith, Brokaw finds an often-conflicting portrait of what it means to be an evangelical in modern America.



Rather like a "National Geographic" reporter exploring a lost tribe in a newly discovered Pacific archipelago, Brokaw tries to dissect these mysterious people who, "believe the Bible is the word of God, salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and that Christians should share their faith with others." At times he seems bewildered by this group of people, even though his theological definition of them is one that would fit nicely on most Christians for the last 2,000 years.

He explains that their form of modern worship, which includes multimedia and live rock music, flies in the face of 2,000 years of church history. He seems incredulous that they "believe in angels and demons." These are, however, not criticisms of character but rather his interesting anthropological observations. It would have been interesting to see his reporting several centuries ago when Christians took popular beer-drinking tunes from bars and turned them into hymns. Christians, it seems, have a long history of usurping the secular into the sacred.

At other times, however, Brokaw raises important theological points that are at the heart of evangelical debate. For instance, he asks Haggard--a shiny, happy, charismatic pastor who has helped build New Life into a church of more than 10,000 people in a small city--why it is that the concept of sin seems absent from New Life's teachings. This is a point many evangelicals make towards the mega-churches--that they water down a very hard message about Jesus, repentance, and a reformed life in favor of "feel-good Christianity."

But Haggard responds, "the emphasis isn't on how to get our sins removed... but on how to fulfill the destiny God has for people." To Haggard it is an emphasis on the new life that Christ promised. His point isn't that Jesus' death on the cross was any less important but that Jesus' death, which took away all of our wrongdoing, was a first step to what he promises in John's Gospel: ".I have come to give life and give it in full."

Brokaw also profiles a number of individuals who are at various points on their own faith journies. One African-American family that attends New Life sees it as "positive peer pressure" for their kids against the negative peer pressure of alcohol and permissiveness, with which they're hit in the general culture. A young Air Force cadet testifies that New Life has changed his life so powerfully that no matter what happens in his career in the military or elsewhere, New Life is what he will remember and not the Air Force Academy. And Brokaw follows a Caucasian family in which the wife is a born-again Christian and the husband isn't as they look into New Life and a shared faith. The stories are well told and evoke not just the powerful, positive change that a relationship with Jesus can bring but also the uncertainties and mysteries that surround that faith as well.

That is, in a way, where the show misses the mark. Brokaw skirts issues, such as the belief by some Christians--including, it seems, Ted Haggard--that God will bring prosperity, or at least financial relief, to those who claim it. He also fails to touch on the growing popularity of more passionately aggressive forms of singing and worship-- speaking in tongues, healings, and prophesy, for instance. An aggressive and objective examination of those elements of modern Christianity would be most helpful.

Ultimately, however, it is Brokaw's exploration of evangelicals and politics that is most bracing. Ted Haggard isn't just the head of New Life but he also heads the National Association of Evangelicals, a group of 45,000 churches and a key White House ally. And Haggard is hardly ashamed of it. He passionately believes that Christian influence in politics is a uniformly good thing because it enlivens the political debate. "We all have a responsibility to advance God's will through government," he says, while acknowledging that our pluralistic society is dependent on people of all beliefs bringing their passions to the public square. "We should not be discouraged by lively debate or religious infusion of ideas into the political debate"; the more the merrier, he seems to be saying. And Haggard is using his influence to move evangelical political action in different directions, such as emphasizing the importance of the environment and fighting poverty.

At the heart of Haggard's political heart, however, are domestic issues like abortion and traditional marriage and his belief that "our justices have run amuck." It is there that Brokaw narrows that target and asks important questions about whether Christian political involvement has gone too far and if the debate helps contribute to the perception of Christian intolerance. The upbeat Haggard happily disagrees: "In the Christian community people vote every Sunday by which church they are attending.and right now I am winning."

In some ways that quote, played at the end of the piece, feels disingenuous and a bit snide --like it was taken out of a different context for the purpose of an eye-rolling guffaw. But in other ways the quote itself is the ultimate evidence that Christians in politics need to be careful about their every word, because it isn't their reputation they are impacting but Jesus.'

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