(Published in the print edition of the Dec. 15, 2013 The Oregonian, A & E section/Book section and online Dec. 11, 2013 – Tom Krattenmaker Story Oregonlive Books Link)
Tom Krattenmaker was a little nervous as he scanned the crowd gathered at the publication party for his second book, “The Evangelicals You Don’t Know: Introducing the Next Generation of Christians.”
Guests at the event held at the Pearl District’s Urban Grind included former Portland mayor Sam Adams; Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association; Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian Universalist minister; and Paul Louis Metzger, professor of Christian theology at Multnomah University’s Biblical Seminary.
“People you normally would not see in the same room were all there,” says Krattenmaker, a self-professed secular progressive. “They were talking beyond all these different cultural and theological lines. Everyone was commenting on what a great mix it was. That is what I loved about it, after I got over the initial stress of wondering how they would get along.”
Since 2005, Krattenmaker has been a regular opinion columnist for USA Today specializing in religion in American public life. The author, who also wrote “Onward Christian Athletes,” a 2009 Oregon Book Award finalist, works at Lewis & Clark College as associate vice president for public affairs and communications. His friends consider him a bridge builder, as attested to by the crowd gathered in his honor.
“I see him as an ambassador between two camps,” said Tony Kriz, a writer-in-residence at Warner Pacific College. And Metzger said, “Tom cultivates a culture of civility by way of his fair and just journalism. He doesn’t reduce movements or people to sound bites. There is such a need for that on both sides.”
In his new book, Krattenmaker challenges readers to rethink their stereotypes of evangelical Christians by sharing stories of “new evangelicals” who are expressing their faith in nonpartisan ways by making a difference in the surrounding community and in public schools.
“The message of the book in the end really is to learn to cooperate, to learn to team up to do things for the common good, and to not judge,” says Krattenmaker, who has also worked at Swarthmore College and Princeton University.
He hasn’t always felt that way. During the 2004 presidential election season, he was a critic of the evangelical right. But while working on a graduate degree at the University of Pennsylvania, his thesis adviser challenged his thinking.
“He called me out on what he thought was my anti-evangelical bias,” says Krattenmaker, adding that his USA Today editor John Siniff challenged him as well. “He knew I wanted to be fair and even-handed in my treatment of people from the other side.”
Krattenmaker met Dan Merchant in 2006, when the filmmaker was in Philadelphia working on his documentary “Lord Save Us From Your Followers,” for which Merchant traveled the country asking “Why is the Gospel of Love dividing America?”
Merchant, on a flight to Philadelphia, happened to see someone reading Krattenmaker’s article, “Playing the God card,” about how the GOP was called “God’s Official Party.”
“I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me,” says Merchant. He called Krattenmaker and interviewed him at Swarthmore for his documentary. When Krattenmaker moved to Portland, Merchant introduced him to some people on “the other side,” including Kriz, who had set up a “confession booth” at Reed College, to “confess the sins of the church, from the inquisition on,” and also for “personal shortcomings for not living the Jesus Way,” explained Kriz. Merchant did one as well in “Lord Save Us,” apologizing for how Christians had treated the gay community.
Krattenmaker learned about other noble deeds these evangelicals were doing such as washing the hair and feet of homeless people under the Burnside Bridge through Night Strike ministry and assisting the city and disadvantaged schools through the Luis Palau Association and Southlake Church, with Mayor Adams’ blessing. Their partnership was featured in an August article in The New York Times, “Help From Evangelicals (Without Evangelizing) Meets the Needs of an Oregon Public School.”
In addition, Krattenmaker saw other Christians beyond Portland in a new light, including Focus on the Family and its new president Jim Daly.
“I visited Focus on the Family, inspired to do my own version of a confession booth,” Krattenmaker said. “I confessed to Jim Daly for the mistreatment of Focus on the Family and Jim Daly by the liberals.”
He included the confession in the closing chapter of his book.
“I wanted to challenge my secular leaning progressives to update their view of evangelicals and to stop demonizing them,” he says.
Krattenmaker now calls many of the evangelicals he has written about his friends.
“He’s found common ground and has seen and appreciated the way the evangelical community has engaged in the community,” says Palau.
While some evangelicals are sold on his message, some progressives are skeptical. Sewall notes that while Krattenmaker’s writing is “important because he picks up threads of thought that others are not picking up on,” and he’s “an original thinker and a good writer,” she is hesitant on his subject matter.
“I have some strong negative feelings about evangelicals, in spite of Tom helping me to understand that they are more diverse than one might think,” Sewall says, adding that she thinks he is too “generous” in his writing about them and their beliefs.
How does Krattenmaker handle the skeptics?
“I know it’s not going to be all peace and harmony and flowers and puppies, but I do think we’ve exaggerated the depth of our difficulties in our culture,” he says.
At the book release party, he gave what he calls his “scrappy underdog” speech about how his book would be a hard sell for progressives.
“Most people on my side want to read about negative things evangelicals do, books that mock them,” he says, noting his agent was against the book. “But I did it anyway, without an agent. Hey, if Sam Adams can engage with evangelicals, I can too.”
So is the secular progressive going to convert to Christianity?
“I cannot predict the future, but it seems unlikely,” Krattenmaker says. “However, I have been converted in that I have a much different and more nuanced and positive idea about evangelical Christians.”
(Story also found on my Tom K story on WriterMom at Oregonlive.com