One sign of a landmark shift in public attitudes: A poll last year found that Americans approved more of gays and lesbians (53 percent) than of evangelical Christians (42 percent).
That’s partly because some evangelical leaders were intolerant blowhards who give faith a bad name. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson famously blamed the 9/11 terror attacks in part on feminists, gays and lesbians, and doctors who perform abortions. After an outcry, both men backed off.
Today, among urban Americans and Europeans, “evangelical Christian” is sometimes a synonym for “rube.” In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.
Yet the liberal caricature of evangelicals is incomplete and unfair. I have little in common, politically or theologically, with evangelicals or, while I’m at it, conservative Roman Catholics. But I’ve been truly awed by those I’ve seen in so many remote places, combating illiteracy and warlords, famine and disease, humbly struggling to do the Lord’s work as they see it, and it is offensive to see good people derided.
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On a recent trip to Angola, the country with the highest child mortality rate in the world, I came across a rural hospital run by Dr. Stephen Foster, 65, a white-haired missionary surgeon who has lived there for 37 years – much of that in a period when the Angolan regime was Marxist and hostile to Christians.
“We were granted visas,” he said, “by the very people who would tell us publicly, ‘Your churches are going to disappear in 20 years,’ but privately, ‘You are the only ones we know willing to serve in the midst of the fire.’ ”
Foster, the son and grandson of missionaries, has survived tangles with a 6-foot cobra and angry soldiers. He has had to make do with rudimentary supplies: Once, he said, he turned the tube for a vehicle’s windshield-washing fluid into a catheter to drain a patient’s engorged bladder.
Armed soldiers once tried to kidnap 25 of his male nurses, and when Foster ordered the gunmen off the property, he said, they fired AK-47 rounds near his feet. He held firm, and they eventually retreated without the nurses.
Oh, by the way, this is where Foster raised his family.
and the family nearly starved when the area was besieged during war and Foster insisted on sharing the family rations with 100 famished villagers. This created family tensions at times, but today the kids speak glowingly of their dad.
“For a while, I blamed my dad and his high-risk dedication to others,” said Rob Foster, the son with polio. “Today, I no longer feel like that; I am no longer bitter or resentful. If me getting polio meant that thousands of lives were either saved or immeasurably improved by my father’s work, then so be it.”
With support from the Fistula Foundation, Foster is also repairing obstetric fistulas – devastating childbirth injuries that leave women leaking urine or feces.
Several other evangelical Christians work as doctors and nurses at the hospital, the Centro Evangélico de Medicina do Lubango, or CEML, along with a vast number of Angolan Christians. The foreigners, Foster included, receive a paltry stipend of $35,000 a year if they are married or $17,500 if single.
Most evangelicals are not, of course, following such a harrowing path, and it’s also true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.
Likewise, religious Americans donate more of their incomes to charity, and volunteer more hours, than the nonreligious. In the United States and abroad, the safety net of soup kitchens, food pantries and women’s shelters depends heavily on religious donations and volunteers.
Sure, it puzzles me that social conservatives are often personally generous while resisting government programs for needy children, and, yes, evangelicals should overcome any prejudice against gays and lesbians – just as secular liberals should overcome any prejudice against committed Christians struggling to make a difference.
The next time you hear someone mock evangelicals, think of Foster and those like him. These are folks who don’t so much proclaim the gospel as live it. They deserve better.
The New York Times