Why Character Doesn’t Matter Anymore

The “cheerful prudery” of Ned Flanders has given way to vulgarity, misogyny, and partisanship. What does this mean for our witness?

This piece was adapted from Russell Moore’s newsletter. Subscribe here.

I guess Ned Flanders goes to strip clubs now.

Until this week, I hadn’t thought about the caricatured born-again Christian neighbor on the animated series The Simpsons in a long time. New York Times religion reporter Ruth Graham mentioned him and his “cheerful prudery” as examples—along with Billy Graham and George W. Bush—of what were once the best-known evangelical Christian figures in the country. Indeed, a 2001 Christianity Today cover story dubbed the character “Saint Flanders.” Evangelical Christians knew that Ned’s “gosh darn it” moral demeanor was meant to lampoon us, and that his “traditional family values” were out of step with an American culture this side of the sexual revolution.

But Ned was no Elmer Gantry. He actually aspired to the sort of personal devotion to prayer, Bible reading, moral chastity, and neighbor-love evangelicals were supposed to want, even if he did so in a treacly, ultra-suburban, middle-class North American way. As Graham points out, were he to emerge today, Flanders would face withering mockery for his moral scruples—but more likely by his white evangelical co-religionists than by his beer-swilling secular cartoon neighbors.

As Graham says, a raunchy “boobs-and-booze ethos has elbowed its way into the conservative power class, accelerated by the rise of Donald J. Trump, the declining influence of traditional religious institutions and a shifting media landscape increasingly dominated by the looser standards of online culture.” (This article you are reading right now represents something of this shift, as I spent upward of 15 …

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