The tabloid story of beauty queen Carrie Prejean hit a new level this week. Whether that level is high or low is certainly up to individual perspective, but there’s been no way to avoid it. The story has been on CNN and TMZ and all the morning news shows.
Why? It has all the intriguing elements that grab the attention of American pop culture: beauty, money, Donald Trump, religion, gay marriage, Perez Hilton, Focus on the Family, breast implants, provocative photos leaked to the internet, lawsuits, book tour, an ex-boyfriend with a so-called sex tape and Larry King. Did I miss anything?
I can’t possibly retrace the whole story, but let me give the outline. Carrie Prejean, a student at San Diego Christian College, was competing in the Miss USA pageant. In the final, gay activist blogger Hilton asked Prejean about her view of gay marriage, in light of California’s battle over its legalization. Prejean answered honestly based on her beliefs: marriage is between and man and a woman, and there should be no gay marriage. It was, at the time, a spontaneous and a simply brave expression of Christian conviction.
But that moment set off a firestorm. Hilton lambasted her with vitriol on his web site. There were immediate calls for her replacement as Miss California and meetings with The Donald (who owns the Miss USA pageant), Agreements were negotiated and press conferences were held and everybody smiled. But it just wouldn’t go away. Revealing photos of Carrie in early modeling poses were released that became fodder for accusations of hypocrisy in her claim to moral purity as a committed Christian. It came out that the Miss California pageant funds had paid for Carrie’s breast augmentation prior to the Miss USA pageant. Not long after that revelation, the pageant organizers did fire Carrie for violating the terms of their agreement and gave the crown to the runner-up.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Within just a few weeks after all this broke, the evangelical Christian world elevated Carrie as the latest hero in the cultural war. Evangelicals are so hungry for the approval of the culture, so intent on being proved right or gaining headlines, that we grab any celebrity who nods in Jesus’ direction ( or who is at least socially conservative) for our cause. It almost always backfires. (Remember, it was just a few years ago that Mel Gibson was the evangelical poster boy because of The Passion of the Christ. Haven’t heard much from those same voices since it was revealed that Mel has a new girlfriend and a baby with her.)
Anyway, Carrie was brought to Colorado Springs and interviewed by Dr. Dobson on the radio. That was the key to an even broader set of interviews and visibility. Suddenly, the beauty queen was not just showing up for ribbon cuttings and visiting the children’s wing at the hospital; she was the headline speaker at Christian gatherings and conventions and banquets. She became the paid spokesperson for a Christian “save marriage” organization.
And the theme of her talks and interviews has taken on a familiar mantra: “I am being persecuted and mistreated because I am a Christian. These liberal people hate me and want to shut me up because of my beliefs. They have targeted me and there is an organized campaign to shut Christians out.” And when the pretty Christian girl says that, conservative Christians nod their heads, murmur “amen”, get outraged and write checks. Some Christians just love a good martyr.
Now, let me be quick to say that I admire Carrie for her convictions and her stance. From all I can tell, she has a genuine faith in Christ that continues to shapes her life. I’m not sure in a similar setting (not that I would be in a beauty pageant; I don’t have the legs for it!) that I would as bold or as direct in articulating my own beliefs. I tend to be more nuanced, which can leave people confused as to where I stand. Carrie displayed a simple courage in that moment that is praiseworthy.
My concern is with what has happened since, which I think shows the larger problem we evangelicals have in reaching our culture. Carrie is the product of our basic evangelical discipleship. She is merely putting on display what we are training thousands of people in our churches to believe and how we are training them to act. Evangelicals applaud because it is familiar, but much of it is largely inconsistent with call of Jesus to live a kingdom gospel and ineffective.
Two examples will suffice. First, Carrie articulates the attitude of outrage that many evangelicals have when they are dismissed or attacked by a secular culture. We pout and cry out, “They are attacking me because I am a Christ-follower and hold His values!” That is probably true. You can hear that bias in the questions and in the pursuit of items to discredit the validity of Carrie’s faith.
But…why is this such a surprise? Listen to just one conversation with Jesus: “….you will be hated by all for my name’s sake…a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master…if they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household…Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell….Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword…whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt.10:21, 24-25, 34, 38-39)
In other words, when Jesus and his gospel realities are set in the middle of people, it immediately causes a reaction. That reaction will likely not be positive and may cost us our reputation or our very lives. Our call is to be faithful—no matter the cost. But Jesus insists that following Him follows the shape of His life—enter a world, proclaim His gospel, serve others and sacrificially give your life away. Our response to even deadly response is not to whine, pout, complain or counterattack– but to rejoice. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” (Matt.5:11-12a)
It’s crucial that we start training our people what it means to belong to Jesus in the world and how gospel-aware people respond. It’s something decidedly different than what we’ve shown so far. Honest Christians who can rejoice when persecuted are infinitely more compelling than those who pout over mistreatment.
Second, as she has done interviews for the book, Carrie has only sounded the “I’m mistreated for my beliefs” note or its twin “I’m going to tell my side of the story and defend myself.”. In other words, In spite of wonderful questions and openings to engage in a broader conversation about faith culture and values, she has stuck to that theme—her theme.
Now, to be fair, that may be what her handlers—publicists, publishers, lawyers, etc—are telling her to do. And sometimes, the interviwers won’t go beyond the sensationalistic stuff. But I suspect it is more. Evangelicals walk into the larger world committed to get our message out, no matter what. We have not done a good job of equipping our young people to engage others in conversation around matters of faith, culture and values. We have largely told our people what is right and wrong, identified the big bad wolves to avoid and encouraged them to stand in a circle in the corner at church and sing worship songs with their fingers in their ears. We have not trained the most recent generations how to listen well and authentically engage ideas (and the people that hold them) that are at odds with the Bible.
This is crucial. We must both teach the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and learn how to have conversations with people who deny it, expressing our hope “with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15-16) At the very least, “respect” means that we take the time to understand the mindset of those who may oppose Bible-based values and take the first step towards establishing common ground with them so they actually hear us when gospel realities are presented.
It no longer works to be a culture warrior on the attack, insistently repeating our talking points with a louder and louder voice. A Christ-follower who will lovingly acknowledge the underlying heart motives and values of those we want to reach is much more likely to gain a hearing for the truth of Jesus.
So, let’s learn some lessons from our beauty queen. Follow Jesus with transparent honesty—even when it is public. Expect difficulty in the following, and learn to rejoice in it. Engage hearts, because ultimately, people matter more than issues. And always, always, find a way to make the conversation less about us and mostly about Jesus.
Update: Christianity Today just released this interview with Carrie Prejean.