If you failed as miserably as I did, you get Pinsky's point: Too many of us living outside the red states know evangelicals only by their media and pop culture caricatures, and not as neighbors and friends. As a result, we tend to view evangelicals as monolithic when, in fact, "they hold surprisingly diverse views on many issues."
Pinsky writes from experience: a self-described "left-wing Jew" raised in New Jersey (he grew up near Camden and did a fellowship at Princeton), Pinsky covers religion for the Orlando Sentinel. It's Pinsky's job to report on houses of worship, but it's outside the job-at his kids' school, at Scouts, in the bleachers at ball games-that he encounters evangelicals "simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories."
I spoke with Pinsky over the weekend, partly because I was humbled by how little I knew about the evangelical world, and mostly because he wrote what is undoubtedly the second greatest book on religion ever, "The Gospel According to the Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the World's Most Animated Family "(he's also written a follow-up, "The Gospel According to Disney: Faith, Trust, and Pixie Dust," also published by Westminster John Knox Press).
First, definitions: An evangelical Christian is one who actively tries to convert others to his or her faith. Pinsky relies on figures suggesting there are roughly 50 million adult evangelicals, and their political center of gravity has tended to swing to the suburbs of the Sunbelt.
It's that proselytizing impulse-what evangelicals call the Great Commission-that Jews probably fear the most and understand the least, said Pinsky. Evangelicals must share their faith with everyone, and are not targeting Jews. "It's true that for them if a Jew were to convert it is like the brass ring-that's the reality because of our historical relationship with them and Jesus," he said.
When neighbors and strangers approach Pinsky, he has a ready answer: "Thank you, but I already have a `faith home.' It's nicer to say that than `don't bother me.'" When the person is particularly aggressive, Pinsky might say, "When the messiah comes, one of us is going to be very surprised and I am willing to wait. That generally stops them short."
But even within the evangelical denominations, there is, beyond virtual unanimity on gay marriage and abortion, surprisingly robust debates on the war, taxes, and even civil unions.
Evangelicals are also becoming political realists, and on some of the hot-button issues-returning prayer in the schools and a Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage-realize that they and the Bush administration are just "going through the motions."
Pinsky acknowledges that many Jews worry that Christian support for Israel comes with a "galling price tag": simultaneous backing of Jewish "messianics" and a theology that places Jews in an ugly end-times scenario. "Basically, they want us back in Israel so that we can disappear," he said.
I suggest their eschatology worries Jews less than the implied political trade-off: their support for Israel for silence on domestic issues that the majority of Jews have placed at the center of their communal politics.
Pinsky puts such concerns in perspective. "They know that there are so few of us, and that the relatively little clout we have is concentrated in blue states and a couple of swing states like Florida. And the clout that we do have is generally invested in that one issue," meaning Israel. Evangelicals may pressure Bush-threatening, for instance, to withhold their support for Social Security overhaul if he doesn't press hard on gay marriage-but don't need the Jews to pass their agenda. "We're so small and don't really count. And they don't need our money."
Pinsky says he doesn't agree with his evangelical neighbors on politics or theology, but praises their influence on home and community. "There's a great deal of respect for religious observance," said Pinsky, who is active in his Reform synagogue. For Jews who do affiliate with Jewish institutions it means a very strong ethic of "huddling together." "We have a community-wide beit hamidrash for kids 14 to 17-we get hundreds of kids to the JCC on Monday nights."
But it's the home life of evangelical families that has really earned Pinsky's admiration. "At this time of American history-if kids are going to be friends with anybody, who do you think is less likely to be drinking, having sex, and doing drugs? Well. Once you establish the ground rules of the relationship-that they're not going to proselytize your kids (and most people are quite willing to accept that) -many Jews I know are more comfortable when their kids are with Christians kids."
I can't resist asking Pinsky what he makes of the one evangelical I probably know best: Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson's goody-goody neighbor.
"Listen, Christianity's undermining sin of the past 400 years is not money or sex-it is hypocrisy," said Pinsky. "Ned is lot of things but he is not a hypocrite. And he is motivated by love. He may be naïve, a bit of a doofus, but he is sincere. And if he does do any kind of proselytizing, it's to someone like Homer, who is nominally Christian."
And in that, Ned is like a lot of evangelicals Pinsky knows. "They are good and reliable friends and people you wouldn't mind leaving your kids with."