Tagevangelical

reconsidering “evangelical”

Once more about this word “evangelical.” A number of organizations, of various kinds, around the country are rejecting the label, for reasons laid out my by friend and colleague Tommy Kidd here. This has been coming for a while. Last year I offered my defense of the term and my desire to “steal it back” from those who have appropriated and abused it; it has, after all, a long and noble history.

But now I’m starting to wonder whether I can steal it back. As I mentioned the other day, I’ve received a good many responses to my recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, and it’s interesting how many of them center on my description of myself as an evangelical Christian. There seems to be general agreement — among correspondents who aren’t likely to agree on much else — that being an evangelical means supporting Trump or at least Trumpism, despising all perceived cultural elites, making our public schools repositories of “Judeo-Christian values,” and so on. The only thing missing from all those descriptions is any sense that being an evangelical has something to do with the evangelion.

I look at these emails and think about the time it would take to address all the misconceptions; then I reflect on how pointless such an endeavor would be. Because what is my (historically-grounded) position against the whole world of social media? By what means might the term “evangelical” be restored to some genuine meaning? Beats me. I’d like to steal it back, but I may be forced to let it go.

John Stuart Mill once wrote of the English, “It appears to them unnatural and unsafe, either to do the thing which they profess, or to profess the thing which they do.” A perfect description of American evangelicals today.

Hypocrisy? 

Darryl Hart says I have accused my fellow evangelicals of “hypocrisy” in voting for Trump. Well, no. I noted a major shift, from the 1990s to now, in the standards that most evangelical leaders use to evaluate the role of character in Presidential candidates: then it mattered a lot, and now it doesn’t matter at all. I think I document that pretty thoroughly.

Now, I do believe that people like William Bennett and James Dobson ought to explain what led them to change their minds so dramatically — a 180-degree reversal ought to be accounted for. But many of the people who voted for Trump in the past election didn’t vote in the 1990s, and if they did vote then may well have voted for Bill Clinton. So the question of changing standards doesn’t apply to them. My essay is concerned with one simple question: If character no longer counts, what does? And having explored that, I tried to make a defense of the value of bringing specifically Christian ideas into the general political conversation (a move that Rusty Reno thinks imprudent).

To Darryl’s claim that I “completely ignore” Hillary Clinton’s moral failings: I did indeed, because my essay is about how Christians who supported Trump evaluated his character. Those are not people who were ever going to vote for Hillary, any more than I would have.

the smell of strawmen burning

I enjoy talking with Rusty Reno — as I did just yesterday, here in Waco! — but he is, I have learned over the years, a frustrating person to argue with in print, because he doesn’t respond to what you write, but rather what he thinks you must have meant, or, worse, what he thinks someone of your type must inevitably mean.

Case in point: writing here in response to this article of mine, he writes:

Jacobs exemplifies the all-or-nothing approach to politics characteristic of Evangelicals. Seeking a theological voice in the public square, Evangelicals are tempted to discern direct divine warrants for their political judgments. This can lead someone to speak of God anointing Donald Trump to save our nation, and thus implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for anyone other than Trump. Alan Jacobs and other Evangelicals (Peter Wehner is a notable instance) are mirror images, describing Trump in ways approaching divine condemnation, implying that no Christian in good conscience could have voted for Trump.

In fact, more than half of my essay is devoted to a critique of the very “all-or-nothing approach” that Rusty says I exemplify. (Maybe he only read the parts of it that concerned him.) And here’s what I write in the conclusion to that essay:

What is required of serious religious believers in a pluralistic society is the ability to code-switch: never to forget or neglect their own native religious tongue, but also never to forget that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish. To speak only in the language of pragmatism is to bring nothing distinctive to the table; to speak only a private language of revelation and self-proclaimed authority is to leave the table altogether. For their own good, but also for the common good, religious believers need to be always bilingually present.

Does that sound like an “all-or-nothing approach” to politics? You could only say so if you weren’t paying attention — perhaps because you think you know what “Evangelicals” are like. (Rusty typically says “Evangelicals” the way Victorian civil servants said “Hottentots.” The first thing Rusty ever said to me, many years ago, was that a talk I gave — on a subject that did not touch on evangelicalism at any point — reminded him why he’s not an Evangelical. One of the chief themes of his essay seems to be that, while he supported Trump — vigorously — he didn’t do it for the reasons that Evangelicals did.)

On another matter: Rusty writes, “Christians have theological reasons for not theologizing their political judgments.” Whether that’s true or not depends on what Rusty means by the odd word “theologizing.” If he means that Christians have theological reasons for not making their public arguments in explicitly theological language, then he’s simply restating my claim that “religious believers in a pluralistic society” should remember “that they live in a society of people for whom that language is gibberish.”

But I think he means by not-theologizing something like “not seeking a theocracy,” because from that point he goes on to denounce Christians who “expect the laws of our country to accord with the Sermon on the Mount” — though that is not a position I have ever held. Maybe he’s not even talking about me there, but if not, I don’t know who he is talking about. Does he think that’s the typical view of Hottentots? — I mean, Evangelicals? Hell if I know. All this is just orthogonal to the issues I raise, and the issues that matter. The whole essay, I’m tempted to say, consists of a smokescreen made from burning strawmen.

The sine qua non of this rhetorical strategy comes when Rusty sententiously declares that a post in which I said that I would vote for “the reanimated corpse of Adlai Stevenson” in preference to Donald Trump is deficient in “analytic sobriety.” Can Rusty really be that completely humorless? I would ask him to take a post like that a little more seriously and a little less literally, but I think someone may have used that line before.

So I’ve written a few hundred words here and I still haven’t gotten to any of the really significant issues we could be debating, such as the difference between prudence and pragmatism, or Rusty’s rather astonishing claim that “Trump’s campaign came as close to the platform of European post–World War II Christian democracy as any American candidate for president has come in two generations.” This is what happens when someone ignores what has actually been argued in favor of a fantastical caricature, presumably because the caricature is so much easier to refute. I’ve got a list of seven other ideas Rusty attributes to me that I did not state and do not hold, but it’s too depressing even to contemplate going over those. Whenever Rusty takes the trouble to represent my views accurately, and respond to what I actually argued, I’m ready for a conversation. Until then: as William Blake said, “Enough! Or, Too much.”

and then when it’s convenient they’ll change back

No group has shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants. More than seven in ten (72%) white evangelical Protestants say an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life—a 42-point jump from 2011, when only 30 % of white evangelical Protestants said the same.

— PRRI

True Confessions (Wheaton College edition)

This long article/essay/meditation by Ruth Graham on the disturbing events at Wheaton College last year — click on the “wheaton” tag at the bottom of this post for some of my thoughts about that situation, and other issues related to Christian higher education — is by far the best thing that anyone has written on the subject: the most deeply researched, fair-minded, and thoughtful. I commend it to you whole-heartedly.

I’m going to take a personal turn now. Ruth was a student of mine, so I’m especially gratified by passages like this:

During my four years at Wheaton, I drifted away from evangelicalism. But I never contemplated transferring to another school. I was reading Foucault and Judith Butler (Shakespeare and Milton too); my professors were brilliant and kind and I found plenty of kindred spirits. When the religion scholar Alan Wolfe visited Wheaton for a cover article about evangelical intellectualism in The Atlantic in 2000, halfway through my time there, he found a campus whose earnestness was both endearing and impressive: “In its own way, campus life at Wheaton College resembles that of the 1960s, when students and a few professors, convinced that they had embarked on a mission of eternal importance, debated ideas as if life really depended on the answers they came up with.” At a suburban dive bar on the edge of a marsh, we drank illicit Pabst on Saturday night and talked about politics, music and philosophy like undergraduates anywhere. Then we got up on Sunday morning and went to church.

(By the way, Wen Stephenson, who became my friend during his work as an editor on that Atlantic story, interviewed me about its topic. I can’t bring myself to re-read that interview, but there it is.)

During my 29 years teaching at Wheaton, I saw many students “drift away from evangelicalism.” I didn’t always regret that — it depended on what they drifted to. Evangelical Protestantism is by no means the only way to be a faithful Christian, and for some people it proves impossible, or at least very difficult, to be a faithful Christian in that tradition. But sometimes I did regret the drifting, if it led away from Christian faith altogether.

Still, we all, among the faculty, accepted that risk — it was and is built into the DNA of Wheaton (as it is in my current academic location, the Honors College at Baylor). As I’ve commented elsewhere, “The likelihood of producing such graduates is a chance Wheaton is willing to take. Why? Because it believes in liberal education, as opposed to indoctrination.” So I understood and accepted that the exposure to new and powerful ideas, some of them quite alien or hostile to Christianity, has a tendency to change people, sometimes quite dramatically.

But here’s my True Confession: what I’ve always found hard to accept is how many of my students — how many of my best students, including the ones I’ve invested the most time and energy in — become so embarrassed about having attended Wheaton that they never, later in life, publicly acknowledge the quality of the education they received there. In their determination to separate themselves from the religious world they grew up in — and also, it must be said, in attempts not to have their careers or social lives torpedoed by anti-evangelical prejudice — they are just not willing to say what Ruth says here: that however frustrating they found the chapel services, and however stiff-necked they believed the college’s administration to be, at least they received a first-class liberal-arts education from smart and caring teachers, most of whom also understood and sympathized with and did not judge students for any drifting from evangelical orthodoxy.

Let me emphasize again that I very much understand the impulse: many of these students can pay a social or vocational price for acknowledging that they attended Wheaton. What a blessing it is that there’s another Wheaton College, in Massachusetts: Maybe people will think I went there. And if people do find out that you graduated from “that fundamentalist school,” then perhaps the best strategy for moving forward is to say that you hated every minute of it, and repudiate it with all your being.

So I get all that. But it makes me sad, you know? Because I devoted my best energies to teaching those students — it was always a heart-and-soul thing for me, it really was. And because, while some graduates of Wheaton hated everything about it and can’t stand anyone involved with the place, many of them place a great value on the education they received there. I know: they tell me. But they only do so in private. And for my part, I keep their shameful secret.

“the wisdom of repugnance”: a test case

In this post I want to connect my earlier post about what needs to be done to reclaim the term “evangelical” with my frequently-asserted hostility to the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

In a well-known passage from The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

If one side of this proper training is the delighted recognition of, and attraction to, the good, the other and equally necessary side is the instinctive recoiling from “the disgusting and hateful.” That second kind of response is what Leon Kass appealed to in his famous essay on “The Wisdom of Repugnance.”

I believe that the proper response of the well-former mind and heart to the very idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States is, to put it bluntly, revulsion.

It is possible, of course, to feel that revulsion and then decide that it needs to be mastered. That is what has happened to many Republican politicians who have supported Trump: they let their political ambitions (in the worst case) or political loyalties (in the best) overcome their revulsion. Consider the former governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, who as I write has just withdrawn his support for Trump, saying, “He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be President of the United States.” That formulation is so perfectly accurate that I can’t help thinking that Pawlenty has been saying it in his head for quite some time now but has only today been driven to say it out loud.

I have little respect for politicians who ever, at any point, endorsed Trump, and none whatsoever for those who have not denounced him by this stage of the game, but I understand why they might have careerist reasons for doing what they do. We will set them aside, reflecting that verily, they have their reward — or their punishment, as the case may be.

What concerns me far more deeply is the ordinary, everyday Christian — the person who claims to be an evangelical Christian — who is not revolted by Trump, who lacks the requisite “wisdom of repugnance.” I think, for instance, of the people who have compared Trump to King David, presumably because both are guilty of sexual sin. But those who make this comparison have failed to recognize the difference between one who says “For I know my transgressions, / And my sin is ever before me” and one who says that he doesn’t “bring God into that picture” when he does something wrong and follows up by saying “I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad.” And if you don’t understand that distinction — and equally if you understand it but for political reasons pretend not to — there is very little about the Christian message that you truly grasp.

By the way, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton here because there is so little evangelical support for Hillary Clinton. She also offers much for us to be appalled by.

And I’m not even making the argument that an evangelical Christian should never in any circumstances vote for Trump. (Not today, anyway.) I am simply saying this: the fact that so many American Christians feel no revulsion at the thought of electing Donald Trump — this man so palpably “unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit” — as the leader of this or for that matter any other nation, but rather express great enthusiasm at the prospect, indicates not just a lack of knowledge but also, and more important, a lack of moral training. The immediate responses are missing or wrong.

There are many criteria we might apply to judge whether a given congregation (or for that matter denomination) is genuinely evangelical, here’s one of them: Is it raising up its people in such a way that they feel repugnance when confronted by truly repugnant ideas — like the idea of Donald Trump as leader of a nation?

What does a healthy response to the current controversy look like? We might turn to the editorial page of the Deseret News for an example. After incisively quoting Proverbs 29 (“when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn”) they state quite straightforwardly their response to Trump’s sexual boasting: “What oozes from this audio is evil.”

My fellow evangelicals: listen and heed. Your very future depends on your ability to do so.

historical addendum to the previous post

The word ‘Protestant’ … originally related to a specific occasion, in 1529, when at the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet (imperial assembly) held in the city of Speyer, the group of princes and cities who supported the programmes of reformation promoted by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli found themselves in a voting minority: to keep their solidarity, they issued a ‘Protestatio’, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared. The label ‘Protestant’ thereafter was part of German or imperial politics for decades, and did not have a wider reference than that…. It is therefore problematic to use ‘Protestant’ as a simple description for sympathizers with reform in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the reader will find that often in this book I use a different word, ‘evangelical’. That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium.

— Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History

Steal It Back

The always-thoughtful Alastair Roberts asks:

In light of the ignominious behaviour of leading ‘evangelical’ voices in supporting and standing by Donald Trump, I have a question for my American friends who haven’t compromised on this point. At what point should the self-designation ‘evangelical’ be abandoned? At what point do the liabilities of the term outweigh its potential benefits? At what point does the meaning of a term need to be so hedged with qualifications and distinctions that it ceases to be fit for purpose?

Roberts concludes that the term should be retired: “We need to shift the weight of our identity and our labours away from the mass movement and back towards the church and the task of forming a healthy and well-defined public.” In one sense, he’s right: evangelicalism has traditionally been a renewal movement within existing denominations or traditions, not something that stands on its own outside those traditions, and I think it works best that way. Evangelicalism at its best sees how the Christian traditions tend to lose their focus and their fire; it strives to bring Christians within whatever tradition to a new intensity of focus, a new fire of faith.

But to say that is to say that the term “evangelical” needs to be re-situated, not that it needs to be abandoned. I find myself remembering that moment in Rattle and Hum when Bono introduces “Helter Skelter” by saying, “Charles Manson stole this song from the Beatles. We’re stealing it back.” It’s time to steal “evangelical” back.

Who should steal it?

  • Those who believe that renewal among Christians is necessary
  • Those who believe that such renewal is difficult
  • Those who believe that such renewal is costly
  • Those who believe that the power to be renewed comes only from the Trinitarian God
  • Those who believe that that power of renewal is primarily and always to be sought through what John Wesley called the “the ordinary channels of conveying God’s grace into the souls of men,” as identified in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In Wesley’s formulation, “First, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer…. Secondly, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in searching the Scriptures…. Thirdly, all who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper.”
  • Those who can discern the resources within their own denominational traditions to pursue these tasks

Whom should they steal it from?

  • Those who think God is happy with them just as they are
  • Those who turn to God for material prosperity in preference to intimacy with God and charity towards their neighbors
  • Those whose minds are formed not by “searching the Scriptures” but by television, talk radio, and Twitter

How should they steal it back?

  • Put “searching the Scriptures” at the heart of congregational preaching — and singing (which requires, among other things, immediately eliminating all praise songs that are not thoroughly scriptural and restoring the place of hymns that offer a sophisticated interweaving of biblical texts: nothing teaches Christians how the various parts of the Bible interrelate better than the great hymns)
  • Rigorously and patiently teach people the various disciplines of public and private prayer (Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Thanksgiving, Lamentation)
  • Regularly and reverently celebrate the Lord’s Supper

If even a handful of the churches that now call themselves “evangelical” were to take these steps — in full awareness of how radically countercultural such steps are, and in full willingness to pay the price in popularity for their dedication — then in a generation or two there could be enough people who are properly formed within the ancient practices of the Christian faith to provide the critical mass necessary to have a significant impact on society. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it will be a great work of mercy and grace. And anyway, the churches that fail to do these things will fade away, because they have nothing to pass on to their (biological and spiritual) children.

Don’t abandon “evangelical.” Steal it back.

liturgy (from my Sent folder)

I only attended low-church evangelical congregations for a few years after I became a Christian, but those were tough times for me, and more than once along the way I wondered if I had made a big mistake by trying to follow Jesus — at least, through trying to follow him alongside other people, in church. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than them — in fact, I usually thought I was worse. I especially felt I was too emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins, so I tried to be super-happy, but I could never quite get where he thought I needed to be. And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad at what I, through my rebellion, had done to God — but if I couldn’t climb the mountain of happiness I also couldn’t make my way down into the depths of the pit of sadness. Again: emotionally incompetent.

It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them.

Even more important, the tradition was so wonderfully patient with me! It didn’t ask me to comprehend the tragedy of my sinfulness immediately. Instead, it said “Here you go, we’re starting this season called Lent now. You’ll have forty days to meditate on these matters, and we the Church will help you at every step.” And then when Easter came the liturgy said to me, “You can’t celebrate this in an instant — in fact, we’re going to take fifty days to live into the miracle of the Resurrection and the new life we have in Christ.”

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

a question for David Gushee

My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?

But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.

It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.

And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:

Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.

A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well.

So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?

That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)

Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him? 

Lakoff on evangelicals

Those whites who have a strict father personal worldview and who are religious tend toward Evangelical Christianity, since God, in Evangelical Christianity, is the Ultimate Strict Father: You follow His commandments and you go to heaven; you defy His commandments and you burn in hell for all eternity. If you are a sinner and want to go to heaven, you can be ‘born again” by declaring your fealty by choosing His son, Jesus Christ, as your personal Savior.

Understanding Trump « George Lakoff. One of the most frustrating things about being an evangelical Christian is the frequency with which you have to hear yourself described by people who don’t have the first idea what they are talking about.

Lakoff’s post is noteworthy because it’s wrong about evangelicals at their best and equally wrong about evangelicals at their worst. As everyone with even the slightest understanding of the history of Christianity knows, evangelicalism has never in any of its forms taught that if you follow God’s commandments you go to heaven. It has traditionally held that no one follows God’s commandments, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” that “by grace are you saved through faith, not works, lest any man should boast.” These are among the most famous verses in the Bible, but clearly Lakoff is completely ignorant both of them and of the role they played in forming and perpetuating evangelicalism.

But do those verses characterize the foundational beliefs of most American evangelicals today? By no means. As Christian Smith and his colleagues have so exhaustively documented in multiple books — see especially Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, and Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers —Americans who describe themselves as evangelicals increasingly practice a religion that Smith calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. And while the researchers’ focus is on younger people, “emerging adults,” MTD is not a position they have arrived at in spite of what they learned in church, it is the very model of how human beings relate to God that their churches taught them (whether explicitly or implicitly). The God of MTD and its twin, the Prosperity Gospel, isn’t interested in commandments and doesn’t send people to Hell, except maybe Hitler and a few others. He wants us to be happy and prosperous, according to our own definitions of happiness and prosperity.

In short, Lakoff’s imaginary Strict Father Religion, concocted in blithe indifference to the demonstrated facts on the ground — I think of C. S. Lewis’s old tutor Kirk: “You can have enlightenment for ninepence, but you prefer ignorance” — is characteristic of evangelicalism neither in its strongest (most historically and biblically grounded) forms nor in its desiccated Prosperity Deist forms. And, given that Lakoff wants to explain the popularity of Trump among evangelicals … well, the Donald isn’t exactly a Strict Father, is he? More like a sugar daddy, promising to use his unmatched personal charisma to make all the good white people safe and rich — the perfect Mortal God (to borrow a phrase from Hobbes) for Prosperity Deists.

capitulation (2) 

Evangelical leaders: If you back Trump, for the rest of your days, you will be forced to live with having had a hand in fracturing our nation on the basis of race, discarding the sanctity of marriage, and scorning honesty itself — all for the chance, the remote chance, that Trump will make one or two decent Supreme Court picks. You will be selling your integrity for the most meager of returns.

Otherwise, you can fight all the way to Cleveland, and beyond if a strong independent candidate emerges. If the choice does come down to Trump or Hillary Clinton, you can instead reserve your vote only for those down-ballot candidates with the integrity to resist corruption from either presidential nominee. Faced with the choice between further debasing our politics and refusing to do so, you’ll emerge with your integrity intact.

Christians have had to take tougher stands in darker times before. They do so in other nations today. This decision, by contrast, should be easy. Trump is not worth your consideration or even one moment of your time. Let others bend the knee.

David French

excerpts from my Sent folder (3)

… As someone who was raised in a functionally non-Christian family and became a Christian in college, I have something like an anthropological take on those of you who were raised in the faith. But **X** strikes me as one of those people who just can’t get past his conservative-evangelical upbringing: there’s so much about it that he hates and wants to repudiate, but whenever he tries to throw it away it ends up sticking to his hand, so back in his pocket it goes. This gets repeated with slight variations for decades.

I think it’s a matter of wanting to retain absolutely everything that’s good about an evangelical upbringing and discarding absolutely everything that’s bad, but life doesn’t work that way. You’re going to end up keeping some things you wish you could lose and losing some things you wish you could keep. Sad but inevitably true.

Into All the World

The message powerfully communicated in this book is entirely clear: when using the term “evangelical,” it is now imperative to consider the entire world. Whatever system is used for counting, more evangelicals now live in Nigeria and Brazil, when taken together, than in the US. More evangelicals are now found in each of those two countries—and also in each of China, Kenya, South Korea, India, and Indonesia—than in any of the European homelands from which evangelicalism emerged. And today the most evangelical nations in the world, when measured by proportions of national population, are not the United States, England, Scotland, or Canada—but Vanuatu, Barbados, the Bahamas, Kenya, the Solomon Islands, South Korea, and the Central African Republic.

Mark Noll

a suggestion about the future of Wheaton College

When I was visiting Wheaton College last week I happened to hear a story on NPR about Intel’s attempts to create a more diverse workforce, with more women and minorities. Apparently Intel is putting a lot of energy behind this endeavor, and having some success, though retention continues to be a problem.

I was especially taken by one moment in the report:

Freada Kapor Klein is an investor who funds diversity-focused startups like Jopwell, which connects job candidates who are underrepresented minorities to tech companies. Klein says culture is key.

Tech companies don’t just make new engineers pass a coding test. They have to pass a “culture fit” test. That’s where a huge amount of bias creeps in, she says, as existing teams only want a unicorn. “They are looking for the one-in-a-million person who comes from a different racial, ethnic, cultural, gender background, but in every other respect is identical to the white and Asian men who work there,” Klein says. “That’s not diversity.”

It seems to me that this is a story that the leadership of Wheaton College should meditate on as the college tries to move on from its difficult relationship with Larycia Hawkins. I believe — I have good reason to believe — that Wheaton really, truly, seriously wants to have a faculty and student body that is more reflective of the ethnic and cultural range of worldwide evangelical Christianity. But I also saw, during my twenty-nine years on the Wheaton faculty and several years as director of the Faculty Faith and Learning program, far too many situations in which non-white faculty members were treated, if not with outright suspicion, then at least with bemusement and puzzlement, because they did not express themselves in ways that matched the cultural practices of white midwestern evangelicalism.

Minority faculty were of course not the only ones to have this kind of experience; it happened also to white faculty from charismatic or Pentecostal traditions, and to some others as well. But minority faculty — who not incidentally tend also to be charismatic or Pentecostal — always seemed to be under deeper and more lasting scrutiny.

I remember one black colleague who devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far; though I guess the deep-seated reluctance to go off-script is a trait I shared with white midwestern evangelicalism, one that helped make me comfortable at Wheaton, even though I am not midwestern. But I also believe that if I had gone off-script in precisely that way it would not have created the same degree of consternation. I am convinced that my colleague’s race made students, faculty, and administrators wonder what else he might do that deviated from the script.

To my lasting regret, that colleague left Wheaton, under less than ideal circumstances, and I believe he was allowed to leave simply because he wasn’t a unicorn. He was not someone who had dark skin but was “every other respect … identical” to the overwhelmingly white world he worked in. He didn’t “fit the culture” — and note that in this case the lack of fit was not even theological, or spiritual, but (supposedly) professional.

But what if the narrow scope of “the culture” is a bug, not a feature? What if a more ethnically diverse faculty, even if it contained people who made some of the existing faculty and administration and alumni and donors uncomfortable, helped the college to achieve its mission? I made a similar argument some years ago in suggesting that Wheaton should be open to hiring Roman Catholics — my logic here is fundamentally the same. What if an institution’s existing culture, and its concern to hire people who “fit” its existing culture, actually inhibit its ability to fulfill its mission?

Wheaton has a detailed and quite specific Statement of Faith, but again and again over the past few decades faculty who can enthusiastically sign that Statement have been deemed not quite right, not comme il faut, not “one of us.” The (often inchoate) sense of institutional culture and “fit” has too often trumped the college’s explicit statements of what it’s all about. Here’s my proposal: What if Wheaton were to trust its own Statement of Faith? What if it were to open its doors to people who don’t look or speak or think like the typical Wheaton person — but who share the same convictions? Might the college not, ultimately, be greatly invigorated by all that new blood? Might it not come closer to the vision granted to John the Revelator? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.

understanding evangelicalism …

… is hard. Evangelicalism is a much more complex phenomenon than many of its detractors, and for that matter many of its adherents, are willing to acknowledge.

If you have half an hour to spare, listen to this:

Tim Blackmon is the chaplain of Wheaton College. Listen to his message and you’ll understand, I think, why the evangelical movement — which is simply a movement driven by love of the evangelium, the Good News — can’t be mapped onto any of our conventional political categories. It is intensely local and yet wholly cosmpolitan; it is deeply committed to conserving its traditions and yet revolutionary in its social (and personal) implications. It’s a far richer and more complex thing than almost anyone realizes.

In some quarters of American life, evangelical Christians are viewed as fearful and xenophobic—afraid of “the other.” Perhaps in a few cases, which happen to make the news. But in fact, US evangelical churches are refugees’ best friend. If anyone looks fearful and xenophobic, it is the federal government and its broken immigration policies.

This is not to deny the real political, social, and economic challenges of welcoming more sojourners. This is not to suggest that we open our borders without any security checks. It is to refuse to let the gods of fear and security dictate how we respond.

Nor do we mean to suggest our churches are doing all they can for the sojourner. Our resettlement agencies, here and abroad, need more money, more volunteers—more sponsorship from local churches—to face the burgeoning refugee crisis.

This is an unparalleled opportunity to love neighbors here and abroad, and to showcase the beauty of the gospel that proclaims good news to the poor, liberty for those stuck in refugee camps, and a new life for those fleeing from oppression, so that those “yearning to breathe free” can breathe easily.

This article reports the results of a nationwide audit study testing how Christian churches welcome potential newcomers to their churches as a function of newcomers’ race and ethnicity. We sent email inquiries to 3,120 churches across the United States. The emails were ostensibly from someone moving to the area and looking for a new church to attend. That person’s name was randomly varied to convey different racial and ethnic associations. In response to these inquiries, representatives from mainline Protestant churches—who generally embrace liberal, egalitarian attitudes toward race relations—actually demonstrated the most discriminatory behavior. They responded most frequently to emails with white-sounding names, somewhat less frequently to black- or Hispanic-sounding names, and much less to Asian-sounding names. They also sent shorter, less welcoming responses to nonwhite names. In contrast, evangelical Protestant and Catholic churches showed little variation across treatment groups in their responses. These findings underscore the role of homophily, organizational homogeneity, and the costs of racial integration in perpetuating the racial segregation of American religious life.

The inability of evangelicals to agree on how slavery should be construed according to Scripture, which all treated as their ultimate religious norm, was in fact connected to the economic individualism of American society.  The recourse to arms for civil war did reflect, at the very least, a glaring weakness in republican and democratic polity.  From the outside [i.e. in Europe] it was clear that American material interests exerted a strong influence on American theological conclusions. … Foreign commentary makes clear how tightly American religious convictions were bound to general patterns of American life.  Only because religious belief and practice had grown so strong before the [Civil War and Slavery] conflict, only because they had done so much to create the nation that went to war, did that conflict result in such a great challenge to religious belief and practice after the war.  The theological crisis of the Civil War was that while voluntary reliance on the Bible had contributed greatly to the creation of American national culture, that same voluntary reliance on Scripture led only to deadlock over what should be done about slavery. … The issue for American history was that only two courses of action seemed open when confronting such a deadlock.  The first was the course taken in the Civil war, which effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant. … The second [course of action] though never self-consciously adopted by all Americans in all circumstances, has been followed since the Civil War.  That course is an implicit national agreement not to base public policy of any consequence on interpretations of scripture.   The result of following that second course since the Civil War has been ambiguous.  In helping to provoke the war and greatly increase its intensity, the serious commitment to Scripture rendered itself ineffective for shaping broad policy in the public arena.  In other words, even before there existed a secularization in the United States brought on by new immigrants, scientific acceptance of evolution, the higher criticism of scripture, and urban industrialization, Protestants during the Civil War had marginalized themselves as bearers of religious perspective in the body politic.

Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. An incredibly important passage for the current moment, as pointed out at agreatercourage — see Derrick’s further reflections there.

“The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is…”

The problem that I and many other Baptists had with Carson speaking at the Pastors’ Conference is not primarily that he is an Adventist. My problem is that evangelicals need to stop platforming political candidates at denominational functions. This goes not only for Carson, but even for someone like former Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee.

By highlighting the political insiders of the week at Kingdom-oriented events, we keep giving the watching world the impression that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is inextricably connected to voting Republican. And that our talk about Jesus, grace, and forgiveness is really just pious window-dressing for a core political agenda. Annual denominational meetings for pastors should attend to issues such as the best preaching practices, evangelism, missions, reaching and discipling young people, praying for revival, etc. – isn’t that enough to do without giving keynote space to random presidential candidates?

—Thomas Kidd

The chronicles of American Christianity are littered with pronouncements of the shallowness of evangelicalism—set-ups for testimonies of leaving the faith entirely, or (far better) departing for greener pastures within Christendom. But the Lincoln Park Zoo best exemplifies my experience. I have, admittedly, supplemented my evangelical diet with a hearty dose of high church Anglicanism. Nevertheless, as I’ve pursued the study of ancient Orthodox and medieval Catholic Christianity, I’ve been consistently surprised to discover the same things I learned as an evangelical convert. Decades ago someone wrote a bestseller entitled “All I really need to Know I learned in Kindergarten” (including, I presume, how to work the anti-intellectual American book market). Nevertheless, I’m tempted to say that all I really need to know about Christian life I learned in the evangelical culture that I so desperately tried to escape.

A wonderful meditation, complete with an image from the wall of my former church, All Souls’ Anglican, by Matt Milliner.

Evangelicals and Americans

Is evangelical Christian morality still viable in American public life? This is the question lurking in recent debates over religious-liberty issues, from the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision to the Christian bakers who object to baking cakes for gay weddings. In discussions of these cases, objections to same-sex marriage and contraception are described as a retreat from “secular society.” And in some cases, evangelicals actually have retreated: Since the Boy Scouts of America decided to allow openly gay Scouts to participate, a “Christian” alternative has been created, giving Christian parents a “safe” space where they can send their kids. But these incidences of retreat have actually been rare. Ultimately, the idea that evangelical Christian morality is incompatible with modern life isn’t sustainable.

Is Evangelical Morality Still Acceptable in America? – Alan Noble – The Atlantic. I get what Alan Noble is trying to do here, but this is a conceptually confused essay. Just look at the title and the first and last sentences of this quotation. Together they assume that “America,” “American public life,” and “modern life” are synonyms. Which they most definitely are not. It just doesn’t make sense to put American evangelical Christians on one side and “American society” (another phrase used here) on the other. That contrast assumes precisely the point that the cultured despisers of evangelicalism assume: that evangelicals are somehow less American than they (the despisers) are, or non-American. But American citizens who happen to be evangelical Christians are not by virtue of that commitment any less American than anyone else. Nor are they necessarily less a part of “American public life.” Last time I checked a good many of them were in Coongress, and on the radio and television, and in books and magazines.

I fear that Noble’s way of formulating the conflict — which he rightly discerns — plays into the hands of those who think that they get to decide how much of the Christian religion they are willing to tolerate. I, on the other hand, am not willing to grant them that authority. Nor is the law — at least for now.

One of the most important moments in the history of American religious freedom — now rarely remembered — is the letter that President George Washington wrote to the members of the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Those Jews had (graciously) written to thank the President for his suppprt of their religious freedom. To this Washington replied that he deserved no thanks: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

I’m going to give you that again: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

In the same way, people who happen to despise evangelical Christians cannot arrogate to themselves the decision of how much religion they’re willing to accept. They are not the arbiters of tolerance of others. We are all on an equal footing before the law, and should insist on that equality — for others more than for ourselves, but when necessary, for ourselves also.

Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.

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