Remembering Billy Graham

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Here’s how historians (and a few smart pundits) are remembering Billy Graham.

Melani Mcalister says Graham helped to take evangelicalism global:

He used his status as the most important American religious figure of the 20th century to help lead American evangelicals into a more robust engagement with the rest of the world. He was also an institution builder who was deeply invested in Christianity as a global faith.

There were other people who taught more missionaries, and some who reached more people on television; there were even those whose preaching events rivaled Graham’s in size. But no one else did as much to turn evangelicalism into an international movement that could stand alongside—and ultimately challenge—both the Vatican and the liberal World Council of Churches for the mantle of global Christian leadership.

Mark Noll and George Marsden think about historical context and Graham’s influence:

Noll: My own sense as a historian trying to look at circumstances is that several things came together to make Graham so effective and influential: his own charisma and his life-long faithfulness to his preaching vocation, but also the fact that he emerged (a) immediately after World War II when audiences were prepared for a fresh gospel message, (b) just as leaders like Carl Henry and Harold John Ockenga were leading a wide portion of northern American fundamentalism toward a broader and more positive evangelical witness, (c) when an audience consisting of the moderates of conservative Protestantism and the conservatives of moderate Protestantism were able to work together, and (d) just as modern means of communication like TV were making possible wide impact by photogenic personalities.

Marsden: During and just after World War II there was an upsurge of interest in religion in America at just about every level, from healing-oriented tent revivalists to intellectuals. Especially in the late 1940s even some mainstream thinkers talked about whether some sort of Christian renewal might be necessary if Western civilization were to recover from its recent debacle. The war and its aftermath also generated popular interest in religion as veterans and others married, moved to the suburbs, and raised families. Youth for Christ already had an effective ministry during the war, and Billy was only one of quite a few effective evangelists of the time. His personal charisma and effective intense preaching style just brought him to the top among these. The combination of a traditional gospel of personal salvation and declarations that the future of civilization was at stake (in the age of anxieties over the bomb and the Cold War and also about the corrupting influence of prosperity and mass culture) helped him speak exactly to the mood of the times for many people.

Matthew Avery Sutton says Graham was a failure:

When Billy Graham stands before the judgment seat of God, he may finally realize how badly he failed his country, and perhaps his God. On civil rights and the environmental crisis, the most important issues of his lifetime, he championed the wrong policies.

Graham was on the wrong side of history.

The world’s most famous evangelist let his apocalyptic anticipation of the coming kingdom of God blind him to the realities of living in this world.

John Turner says Graham took evangelicalism mainstream but also politicized it:

Graham played a major role in dragging much of American fundamentalism into the camp of the “new evangelicalism,” meaning among other things a greater openness toward popular culture and a less combative tone toward theological moderates. Certainly, one should also credit Carl F. H. Henry, Harold Ockenga, and many others, but Graham’s influence dwarfed all others during the internecine fundamentalist battles of the 1950s.

Graham played an important role in the post-WWII politicization of American evangelicalism. His early sermons strongly reflect the anti-communism of the early Cold War, and his relationship with Richard Nixon accelerated the courtship between Republicans and evangelicals in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While Graham himself pulled back from more overt forms of political activism after Watergate and signaled a shift toward political moderation, many evangelicals followed the trail he had blazed during Nixon’s first term.

Jonathan Merritt praises Graham for distancing himself from the Christian Right later in his career:

Today, when Mr. Graham passed from this life into the next, we lost perhaps the last true evangelical statesman. Filling the space he vacated is a new crop of religious leaders who would do well to live as Mr. Graham did — resisting the pull of partisanship, standing courageously in the middle; speaking with love and mutual respect for those who claim other parties; clinging to the Gospel, but not in a way that marginalizes listeners based on their political affiliations.

America’s preacher has left us, and we need him now more than ever.

George Will says Graham was no prophet:

Jesus said “a prophet hath no honor in his own country.” Prophets take adversarial stances toward their times, as did the 20th century’s two greatest religious leaders, Martin Luther King and Pope John Paul II. Graham did not. Partly for that reason, his country showered him with honors.

Michael Gerson says Graham was “consumed by grace”:

Billy Graham was easily the most influential evangelical Christian of the 20th century — a man at home in the historical company of George Whitefield and John Wesley.

But this would be hard to tell from reading his sermons, which even close associates described as ordinary. His books are hardly more memorable. So what was it that compelled hundreds of millions of people to attend and watch his evangelistic “crusades” and to find personal transformation in his words?

Graham’s global ministry was the triumph of complete sincerity, expressed with a universally accessible simplicity. “There is no magic, no manipulation,” said publicist Gavin Reid. “The man just obviously believes what he says.” Graham could display charisma in meetings with presidents and queens. In the pulpit — the place of his calling from an early age — he was nearly transparent, allowing a light behind him to shine through him. He had the power of a man utterly confident in some other, greater power.

In my fundamentalist childhood, I remember Graham being variously an object of suspicion (for his ecumenism) and admiration (for his commitment to preaching the gospel). Encountering him as an adult, a Christian, and a historian is a different and complicated experience. His flaws are apparent, but I can’t judge him harshly. He grew toward goodness. On many days, that’s more than I can say for myself.

Billy Graham Has Died

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Advertising the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that made Graham a national figure

Billy Graham has died. There is much to criticize in Graham’s long career, but much to learn from as well. What stands out to me about Graham’s life is growth. Like other great historical figures, he was not static. As Graham’s influence expanded, so too did his moral vision. We’re all flawed. Only some of us become better as we age. Only rarely do powerful people become more compassionate as their power grows. But that’s what Billy Graham did.

He came from a provincial southern fundamentalism. Graham was so unsophisticated that even Wheaton College was a new world for him. As a young man he had a taste for fancy clothes and finer things, perhaps an early hint of how in his worst moments he would become blinded by his proximity to power. But Graham’s meteoric ascent also revealed a growing maturity.

In 1956 Look Magazine asked Graham if he was a fundamentalist. Graham replied,

If by fundamentalism you mean ‘narrow’, ‘bigoted’, ‘prejudiced’, ‘extremist’, ‘emotional’, ‘snakehandler’ without social conscience – then I am not a fundamentalist. However, if by fundamentalist you mean a person who accepts the authority of the scriptures, the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his second coming and personal salvation by grace through faith, then I am a fundamentalist. However, I much prefer being called ‘Christian’.

The cynic’s take is that this was nothing more than rebranding on the part of Graham and a cadre of elite white neo-evangelicals. It certainly was that. But that’s not all it was. Graham’s desire to simply be known as a Christian indicated a broadening of his vision. As he aged, Graham would become increasingly ecumenical and respectful of other traditions. For that he earned the contempt of fundamentalists.

Graham’s failures were many. At times he preached a vague civil religion, a Cold War religious nationalism that had little to do with following Jesus. He struggled to see beyond his investments in American nationalism and American whiteness. He could have struck a major blow for the civil rights movement, but instead his faith in individual conversion made him a useful avatar for colorblind reactionary politics. He conflated Christianity and Republicanism. Indeed, it is fair to ask if Billy Graham was the first court evangelical.

But if he was the first court evangelical, it’s a role he came to regret. Graham’s post-watergate career was not without problems, but the direction of his movement was clear. While a newly visible Christian Right would embrace the politics of fear and hatred, Graham tried to keep his distance. He seemed to stand for something more simple and more winsome: we’re all sinners, Jesus loves us, turn to him.

As we mark Graham’s passing it is easy to dwell on his failures. But I hope we will also appreciate how he grew over time and became a figure of comfort and inspiration to millions. In an age when many Christian voices promote hatred, Graham’s sermons offer a different message: God loves you. Tragically, Graham struggled to instill this message in his own children. Franklin Graham’s current behavior is not just a slander against the name of Jesus, it is a profound repudiation of the arc of his father’s life. Billy Graham was willing to learn and change. We need more people like that in public life.

Politicize the Shootings

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An NRA comic book from the 1950s.

The most profound change in my thinking through years of pursuing a career as a historian starts with this simple truism: everything has a history. It has taken years for the implications of this to dawn on me. It means that there is very little about us and the way we experience the world that is natural. Whatever you think about the raw materials we humans are working with (and what processes or divinity produced those materials), we have put them to use in astonishingly diverse ways.

Everything about my daily life has a history. The way I act in the world and think about myself is bizarre and unusual. I think and act this way not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a particular kind of human living in the United States in the twenty-first century. Look, I can’t even refer to my place and time without using invented concepts that have a history of their own.

De-naturalizing our present doesn’t necessarily lead to a politics of the left or the right. The knowledge that we can change something if we want to might move you toward the right in an effort to preserve the fragile goods that a society has achieved. Or the same knowledge might move you toward the left in an effort to solve problems that have eluded the grasp of earlier generations. Either way, a historical perspective reminds us  that many of our social problems are political more than natural.

Everything about yesterday’s school shooting was unnatural. If violence is characteristically human, shooting schoolkids with guns is not. We had to build the social structures and legal regime to make such an act intelligible and possible. If in and out groups are characteristically human, the ideology of race animating the shooter is not. We had to come up with that particularly venomous idea before he could use it to hate.

If you watched the cell phone video from inside the school yesterday and it didn’t sit well with you, please consider doing everything you can to politicize that shooting. If you want to honor the victims, politicize their deaths. They died unnatural deaths. They died because it was our collective decision—expressed through politics—that they should do so.

Those who believe the costs of preventing their deaths are too high should have the moral and intellectual integrity to say so. Those who believe it is worthwhile to prevent their deaths should grapple with some hard realities: this belief is not commonsense. It is a political program with which many people disagree.

A Window into What Many White Evangelicals Really Believe

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I had an instructive conversation today. I’m sharing it now with people’s identities removed because I believe it is revealing of the state of some aspects of popular white evangelicalism, but I have no desire to publicly call out the people involved in the conversation.

The conversation below might seem extremely bizarre to you. You’ll notice that I’m writing in a more evangelical bent than I often do here, as I was trying to communicate to people who might possibly resonate with such language. You’ll also note that my interlocutors were not always as coherent as you would wish. But this is part of the point. I believe exchanges like this are representative of larger numbers of ordinary white evangelical people than we would like to believe.

We often hear from evangelical leaders who might sound reasonable and express cautious disagreement with parts of Trump’s agenda, but their constituencies often aren’t very large. For most ordinary white evangelicals, President Trump is a great leader who has rescued the country from the evil rule of President Obama and the nightmare possibility of a President Clinton.

The exchange began when a friend posted this:

I offer no apology for what I am posting, for this is truly how I feel. Please know that this is my opinion and not open for debate.

If you don’t agree with me, that is your perogative, and I respect that. So, I ask that you afford me the same courtesy in return. I will not be responding to any and/or all comments.

I have lived through many United States Presidents prior to our current President Trump. In my lifetime I have never seen or heard of a President being scrutinized over every word he speaks, demeaned by the public to the point of disgrace, slandered, ridiculed, insulted, lied to, threatened with death, threatened by some to rape our First Lady, and have his children also insulted and humiliated.
I am truly ashamed of the people of MY country. I am ashamed of the ruthless, insufferable, cruel, Trump haters who have no morals, ethics or values and the irresponsibility of the reporters who feel they have the right to deliver personal opinions just to sway their audiences in a negative direction even if there is no truth in their message.

After every other President was elected and took the oath of office they were allowed to try to serve this country without constant negative scrutiny from our news sources. ALWAYS BEING PRESSURED while news sources search only for negative results from our President will not serve the people of our country. Nor will it create informed Americans. ENOUGH is ENOUGH is ENOUGH.

If only one of my FB friends would repost this, maybe everyone across the globe will understand that there are some of us who feel that ENOUGH IS ENOUGH of this disgrace to Our President and to our United States of America. Shame on the news media for allowing this ongoing hatred and constant state of turmoil to

I assume this is a viral post; it has that feel, right down to an unfinished final sentence indicating an incomplete copy/paste job. Lots of friends chimed in with supportive comments about Trump’s greatness, a few offered criticism, and the original poster quickly decided to engage with commenters after all. So I jumped in:

I think we should pray for our President, definitely. I think those prayers should focus on him coming to repentance and making restitution for his actions. There are several things that are unusual about President Trump compared to past Presidents, but I think what has made many people react so strongly against him is the way he has dehumanized groups of people with his words. As Christians, we know that every life is infinitely valuable and created by God. So it is particularly evil to speak of others in ways that demean, dehumanize, or incite animosity against groups of people. President Trump has expressed hatred for women; he has equivocated about the evils of white supremacy; he has spoken with extraordinary harshness toward whole nations. When coming from the President of the United States, these words have power. These words are action. If we as Christians do not stand against such evil acts, we are not aligning ourselves with the Gospel.

At that point a particularly effusive commenter engaged with me:

He has not Had spoken WORDS of Hate against Women ??
You must watch CNN ,or the other Lying Media ,,paid off by The Clintons an As Far as Praying For Him Im sure All True Christians Do ,,
How Do you know hes Not ,,a True Christian ,,,,You know Not his HEART,,!!
One thing about God says If their NOT Against us ,their With us !!
Trump is Sure Not against The Lord Nor Our Nation!!,,
PS An I guess you have Never said a Vile Word against Any one ,,Give Us a Break ,,
Repent your self!!!
STOP your Trying to Judge a Man God Put in Our Office Of this Nation !!
This is a Fact ,,

To which I replied:

Let’s roll the tape. Imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on. In fact, Trump did say all these things about other groups. Would you support his words if they were directed at your community rather than other communities? And in fact, he has expressed dehumanizing attitudes toward people like you. He boasted that he likes to commit sexual assault.

She replied:

Hes right ,,every illegal should be stopped as every ,,Muslim,,,they are the Antichrist,,,
Ready when they Know its time to Rise up an kill all they can ,,
Its already happen in Our Nation Beheading a women at her work place ,,
Even God says to take care Of your Own first ,,
Obama as Hillary help try an Devide The People ,,!
Its a Fact ,,Hillary ,,Has had People Murdered ,,shes for Murdering our Inncent babies ,,
Shes a traitor as a Lier ,,
She endangered US as Nation!!
Keep Thousands From Hatti,,,Dirty Enemie Filthy ,,Moneyv,,she recieved from our Enemies that Chant Death to us ,,
Gave as Recieved Millions from ,,the Enemies ,,
If shes Fine With The Slaughtering of Our Inncent babies ,,That alone Is Enough For ,,True People Of God tovNot Vote for her ,,
She Left A church because They Did not BELIEVE in ,,so called Aboration !!Thank God shes NOT in leadership .,God put TRUMP in ,,This is A Fact !!
Stop Throwing !! YOUR Stone ,,,Several ,,May Belong Toward you !!
You just havient felt the Impact Yet ,,

I responded:

Because Trump is President, I am focused on holding him accountable. Hillary Clinton is a private citizen with no public office at this time. I have my differences with her. In contrast to your views, the scriptures speak of welcoming the immigrant and being kind toward strangers. They speak of putting the interests of others ahead of our own. As Jesus taught so clearly, every human being is our neighbor. No one, no matter their religion or anything else, should be labeled the enemy or treated with indifference. Your own words– “dirty” “enemy” “filthy”–testify against you. This is not how Christians think about precious people for whom Christ died.

She replied:

This Black an white craps ,,from the pits of hell ,,,
The Demacrate s cound care less about the whites blacks ect ,,they are just out For ,them selves ,,
They were who ,,are full of the KKK ,,Factv,,had my daddy jumped on years ago because he would NOT join ,,them
I was a little girl an had to See this ,,He pulled his gun on them ,,
This white an black ,,issuecis from hell not from God ,,
satans Come down with great wrath ,,because He Knows his Times Short,,
Trumps In Office an ,,no one acted like Idiots when Obama was in ,,as He Litterly ,,tryed to ,,Distroy our Nation ,hes a Muslim traitor ,,,
Hes Not American ,hes A Unbeliever in Christ ,,Hes A True Infidel ,,
I for one Thamk God its out Of Our Office ,,He didnt care who come here ,,because he wanted America Weakened ,,
Hes for the Muslim ,,Enemie ,,Not us ,,
Gave even millions to thoses that chant death to us ,,as He sent weapins to them ,,
Made Great Mockery Of Jesus Spoken Words ,,
And Jesus said if their Not For. US THEY are Against Us!!
And Obama Was an Is NOT For Us !!
Trumps ,,A Strong ,,Bold ,,Smart ,,Man Like Reagon ,
Hes for helping any one ,,
But putting Americans First ,,
And its about Time ,,Jesus said take care of your own ,first or you Worse Then an Infidel ,,
We have Many in our Own Nation Who need help
We can not takecon a thousand a day that pour in here ,,A Thousandc,,smh ,
While we true Americans ,,many hungry ,an homeless as ,,sick ,and Putting them ,First Wrong ,,,
We Need To Take Care Of Our Own ,,,,Time For America ,,To het back On her Feet ,,stand Firm,,strong ,,an Be the Light on That Hill !!
Im Done With Hearing ,,such ,Foolisness!!!

I assume she began talking about “black” and “white” because of my “black lives matter” facebook profile image. Then she kept commenting:

Just ,,admit it ,,your just against him cause his a better ,,,man ,,,an yes Hes White ,,rich ,,bold ,,strong,,
And For God,as As Our Nation an her people,,
Give it a rest ,,Its unreal How some act foolish ,,just because their mad cause Hillary the lier lost ,,
They want the blacks as whites ect ,,at their beaken call ,,free this an free that ,,so they can rule all ,,,
Black or white ,,
They care not for blacks nor the Foreigners nor Illegals Dem just want their votes to keep em in office ,,Continuing their Corruption!!
Playing like they care about ya ,,smh ,,NO they Dont ,,

And again:

Lolololo,,hold Trump accountable ????
,Hillary Should Be in Prison as Obama ,,Soro ,,several others Bill Clinton ,,used sex slaves he as Hillary ,,
Ask Cathy Obrian , Basterds they are ,,Evil True Basterds!!

And finally:

Hebrews 12:8
But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, THEN are ye bastards, and NOT sons!!!!!!!.”

Go to her profile page and prominently displayed at the top is this message: “LIVE For JESUS!!”

Now, I wasn’t in this to change her mind and I didn’t get angry about this exchange. That would be a waste of time. Frankly, I was just curious. And I wouldn’t think much of it if this conversation didn’t echo—even if in a more inchoate and unvarnished form—arguments and attitudes I’ve heard from other white evangelicals.

Thinking of these white evangelicals as unreasoning fools is exactly the wrong attitude to take. Notice how this commenter did in fact deploy theological argument to try to bolster her case. She invoked the sovereignty of God to try to foreclose any criticism of the President. In pointing out that I do not know Trump’s heart, her language recalled 1 Samuel 16:7. She referenced 1 Timothy 5:8 to make an argument for Christian nationalism.

She paraphrased Jesus’ cryptic words in Luke 9:50 to try to position Trump as a supporter of Christians even if he himself isn’t a very good one. She alluded to the story of Jesus defending a woman caught in adultery to argue that I should not judge Trump. She attributed division between black and white Americans (or perhaps even racial consciousness itself?) to the spiritual power of Satan. Finally, she directly quoted Hebrews 12:8, to what purpose I still can’t figure out.

The point is that her comments are overflowing with biblical allusion and theological argument. This is not merely a question of ignorance. It’s a question of what has been formed in her, and who has done the forming. Does she attend church? What is taught there? Is “love thy neighbor” so spiritualized that in practice you’re allowed to think and do whatever you want?

Notice how she positions her hatred not just as defensible, but as the proactively Christian attitude! She uses scripture to try to make a virtue of selfishness. So it’s a little hard to credit her professed concern for “innocent little babies.” It is characteristically human to love some people while hating others, but it’s a posture unlikely to win converts to your cause. This is especially so when the cause is invested in a vision of human dignity that you cheerfully deny to others.

It’s too easy to react to the views seen in this conversation with condescension. “Oh, she doesn’t know any better. Oh, she’s sincere. Oh, it’s a matter of ignorance.” As much as these factors may play a role, they don’t excuse the active theological reasoning taking place here. This is Christianity weaponized to oppress; it is salvation for me and hell for thee; it is “Jesus Saves!” as a gleeful taunt rather than a humble cry for help. This is what we’re up against in many white evangelical churches.

Crusading Christians

For much of the twentieth century, many American Christians used the language of “crusade” in the context of evangelizing activity. I’d like to know more about the origins and uses of this language. I’m sure it has been thoroughly explored. Who should I read about this?

Billy Graham’s meetings were famously called “crusades.” Even in the late 1960s, the black evangelist Tom Skinner’s ministry was called “Tom Skinner Crusades.” It might seem obvious to us that American evangelists and (especially) missionaries overseas might find it counterproductive to speak in the language of “crusade” to describe what they were doing, but it wasn’t at all obvious to them. In fact, in some cases they were quite explicit in drawing on a medieval heritage that we might associate with violence and extremism. Here was the emblem of one Christian college in the mid-1960s:

northwest christian college bulletin 1964

On one level, you might suggest this is about as serious as a sports mascot. But I would argue it indicates a deeper perspective conflating Christianity and the heritage of the so-called “West.” There is an interesting gendered dimension to all of this, one that comes through really clearly when you see how the college announced students’ marriages:

ncc bulletin 1965 conquests

Are College Students Being Brainwashed?

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A typical liberal professor caught in the act of indoctrination.

Conservative activists often claim that college classrooms are places of indoctrination. But a new survey finds that college increases students’ appreciation of views across the political spectrum:

college political attitudes

I hope this is true! The survey seems quite robust but I’ll leave that to the statisticians to sort out. In my classroom, I’m much more interested in provoking new questions and ways of thinking in students than in moving them toward a particular political posture. I hope that the vast majority of my colleagues feel the same.

In the field of history, to paraphrase one of my colleagues, we’re trying to get students to “give a crap” about people who are different from them. That means suspending judgment long enough to try to really understand people who are unfamiliar or even repulsive to you. We’re working on the level of imagination and empathy. These are the habits of mind and character required to engage seriously with the past.

If we’re doing our job well, it would make sense that students would have more nuanced views of the political other. It is not so easy to caricature people after you’ve stepped into their shoes. But before I get carried away with the grand effects of historical teaching, the authors of the study argue that what we’re doing in the classroom probably isn’t driving this phenomenon:

our best guess is this finding might ultimately have little to do with faculty directly and instead relate to the climate that campuses strive to create for the expression of diverse viewpoints, political and otherwise. While students may come to college never having met someone on the political “other side,” it is hard to avoid doing so in college. One central aim of higher education is to encourage contact, debate, discussion and exposure to persuasion from different kinds of people.

After a year of college, in other words, it might be more challenging for students to brand all liberals or conservatives as wrongheaded when they are studying, eating and learning alongside them. These experiences might even help students appreciate others as people with diverse histories and shared interests in working toward common goals.

One takeaway is clear: It appears as though the first year of college is doing what it should, exposing students to experiences that teach them how to think rather than what to think.

It’s worth thinking about this in relation to the widely-publicized (alleged) free speech crisis on American campuses. There is plenty of anecdote in that hysterical genre, but perhaps the data indicate our college environments are healthier than many people suppose.

Trump’s Spiritual Biography

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I admit I want to read this.

Two leading mouthpieces of the Christian Right are out with a new book next week, The Faith of Donald J. Trump: A Spiritual biography. One of the authors, Christian Broadcasting Network’s Chief Political Correspondent David Brody, has been conducting groveling interviews with Trump for a long time. The insights gathered from those discussions no doubt inform the book.

Presumably Brody is working with great material like this:

God is the ultimate. I mean, look at my golf course. The funniest thing about Brody’s interview style is the way he asks leading questions and then desperately wills Trump toward the right answer, but Trump can’t help but talk about himself or go off on irrelevant tangents.

With all these spiritual depths to explore, I’m sure the authors have had difficulty fitting everything into 300 or 400 pages. You can browse a sample of the upcoming book, courtesy of the publisher.

Popular evangelical mythmaker Eric Metaxas has written the foreward to the book, and he begins this way:

When my friend David Brody told me he was writing a book titled The Faith of Donald J. Trump, I was tempted to laugh.

My dear evangelical friend, this is one temptation to which you can safely yield. It is important to Metaxas that you know precisely how close he came to yielding. So, a page later:

But I must say it once more, that at first, I really was tempted to giggle.

Oh, my friend. Live a little. Let that giggle out.

Somewhere in Metaxas’ subconscious is the knowledge that he has become absurd. That knowledge is leaking out onto the page. He really wants you to know that his instinct, like that of any conscious person, was to laugh at Brody’s project.

Alas, Metaxas suppressed that instinct and came around to a more considered opinion:

But the terrifically stubborn fact is that Donald Trump has been embraced by many serious Christians, and this has caused many Christians and non-Christians alike to seethe with fury at the seeming hypocrisy of the whole arrangement. One vital clue to solving this thorny riddle has to do with what may well be the most fundamental dissonance and misunderstanding in the history of the world. I’m talking about the difference between moral behavior on the one hand and grace and faith in the God of the Bible on the other.

….the God of the Bible does not ask us to be morally perfect so that He will accept us. He asks us to admit that we cannot be morally perfect, to see that only He can be morally perfect…

People who understand this therefore understand the concept of grace to those who—as they are—are morally imperfect…

My first instinct was to laugh at the idea of taking Trump’s spirituality seriously, Metaxas says, but then I realized that the Christian concept of grace could be used to excuse and justify any kind of behavior. When you apply the concept of grace to unrepentant people who are really powerful, it shows you how big grace really is! Brilliant!

In the introduction, the authors get right to the point many evangelicals want to know: is Donald Trump really a Christian? We’re not going to tell you, they say. But they do have a quote from Mike Pence:

President Donald Trump is a believer. I say that with great conviction.

Pence always lies with great conviction. When the authors went looking for a quote from Trump himself testifying of his faith, the results were a bit underwhelming:

I would say that the faith is that I am a believer. I believe. And when you believe, many good things can happen. And hopefully, those good things will happen for the nation.

Ok, so the power of positive thinking. But many evangelical readers will find this highly significant:

One major theme of Part II of this book will be that Donald Trump seems to be on a spiritual voyage that has accelerated greatly in the past few years as he has regularly interacted with evangelicals.

As a baby Christian, Trump is still learning who to hate, and how best to hate them. Don’t worry, he will get better at it.

Boycott the GOP?

lol gop

“Ha Ha, party before country, amiright?”

I’ve often said that the normal rules for how we should approach politics don’t apply to this moment. That’s why, even though I’m much less partisan in my outlook than I was five years ago, I am more insistently opposed to the Republican Party in its current form. If you’re conservative in ideology, you obviously can’t support the Republican Party. If having a republican form of government is important to you, you obviously can’t support the Republican Party.

For a whole lot of reasons—partisan habit, lack of historical perspective, media echo chambers, policy concerns—a lot of people don’t realize that the rules have changed. They go on voting for the party of radicalism even though they think of themselves as conservatives. They go on supporting attacks on the bill of rights even though they think of themselves as lovers of the Constitution.

In short, this is a moment when normal partisan behavior crosses over into actively undermining what is best in the American tradition. Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes get it. They’re two independent-minded observers who have little love for the Democratic Party. But the normal political calculations no longer hold, as they write in the latest issue of the Atlantic. Trump has remade the GOP in his image, and his instincts are fundamentally anti-democratic and lawless. In this context, our normal policy debates are like arguing over the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. Rauch and Wittes write:

So we arrive at a syllogism:

(1) The GOP has become the party of Trumpism.
(2) Trumpism is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law.
(3) The Republican Party is a threat to democratic values and the rule of law.

If the syllogism holds, then the most-important tasks in U.S. politics right now are to change the Republicans’ trajectory and to deprive them of power in the meantime. In our two-party system, the surest way to accomplish these things is to support the other party, in every race from president to dogcatcher. The goal is to make the Republican Party answerable at every level, exacting a political price so stinging as to force the party back into the democratic fold.

The off-year elections in November showed that this is possible. Democrats flooded polling places, desperate to “resist.” Independents added their voice. Even some Republicans abandoned their party. One Virginia Republican, explaining why he had just voted for Democrats in every race, told The Washington Post, “I’ve been with the Republicans my whole life, but what the party has been doing is appalling.” Trump’s base stayed loyal but was overwhelmed by other voters. A few more spankings like that will give anti-Trump Republicans a fighting chance to regain influence within their party.

We understand why Republicans, even moderate ones, are reluctant to cross party lines. Party, today, is identity. But in the through-the-looking-glass era of Donald Trump, the best thing Republicans can do for their party is vote against it.

We understand, too, the many imperfections of the Democratic Party. Its left is extreme, its center is confused, and it has its share of bad apples. But the Democratic Party is not a threat to our democratic order. That is why we are rising above our independent predilections and behaving like dumb-ass partisans. It’s why we hope many smart people will do the same.

Read the whole thing. May their ranks increase.

The Super Bowl Was A Glorious Assault On Our Moral Senses

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I watched the Super Bowl and I was thrilled to see the Eagles win. It was a great game. But it was also a spectacular assault on the moral senses. Perhaps I noticed it more now that I don’t usually watch games. At the Super Bowl the volume is raised to 10 and we are supposed to submit to our overlords of militarism, nationalism, and materialism. A healthy dash of sexism and historical appropriation is also recommended.

This is all so normalized that to talk about it is to immediately render oneself a hand-wringing do-gooder unable to have fun. Oh believe me, I had fun last night. But yeah, I noticed what I was being asked to bow down to.

There were the manipulative pregame displays of patriotism, in which we’re told to bask in militaristic nationalism. Nothing could be more quintessentially patriotic than saluting our troops, our carefully depoliticized troops, who are always only protecting us, defending freedom, always ready to respond to aggression but never to deliver it.

History is carefully excised from the patriotism on offer here. The aggressive and acquisitive militarism that has defined centuries of American expansion is not to be seen. There is only “America the Beautiful” embodied most fully in the humble soldier. After watching last night’s display, it’s no wonder so many people have the impression that the point of singing the national anthem is to honor soldiers in particular.

It is to be expected that nations would recognize and honor the important role that soldiers play in a fallen world. And whatever we think of the big questions of war and peace, it is unjust for us to be dismissive of the sacrifices soldiers make while we happily enjoy the fruits of their efforts.

The problem here is that patriotism has become militarized, so that the highest and fullest expression of American nationalism is the depoliticized and dehistoricized American soldier. This is an anti-republican ethos more suited to empire than a democratic state. But perhaps that’s fitting. Though our national self-image speaks of freedom and democracy, our celebrations tell a different story. We honor America not through self-government and civic-mindedness but by paying lip service to the sacrifices of soldiers.

And so protesting racism and police brutality on the NFL’s stage was unpatriotic. Somehow kneeling during the National Anthem had something to do with the troops. If you have a republican conception of citizenship and patriotism, this never would have occurred to you. But if deep down you believe in a militarized American empire, the logic works.

The debate over the player protests has not been about whether NFL games would become politicized. It has always been about whose politics would be displayed. And this is all quite cynical. In militarism there is money to be made. Concern for human life doesn’t sell. It offends too many Americans.

And then there were the commercials. Advertising in general is something not to be taken for granted. Basically, there was a time when it did not exist. Now it does. We are molded by it and we like it. I’m trying to raise kids and form some good things in them. But I constantly find myself asking, “how can I compete with that?” They are little materialists before they know what hit them. And I don’t know how to stop it.

There was the infamous ad this year, the MLK ad. Some folks thought it would be a good idea to use some words from one of Dr. King’s sermons to try to sell some trucks. Nevermind King’s increasingly radical anti-capitalist rhetoric. Nevermind that the sermon in question literally warned against buying cars and being duped by advertisers. Nevermind that the values King spoke of rebuke the foundations of our economy. That the King estate had to sign off on this garbage is yet another sad episode in a long and sordid tale of King’s descendants fighting for the crumbs from the table.

And how about that halftime show? It was a remarkably insipid performance, but you can’t really blame the NFL, right? It’s not as though there are a bunch of other talented performers around who could do a Super Bowl halftime show. So someone said, “Hey, what if we invite back the cause of the most notorious moment in halftime show history?” Sounds good! But what about Janet Jackson? “No, America has seen her boob. She must never perform again.”

If things weren’t so rigged against white men, Justin Timberlake would do the halftime show every year.

I had lots of fun watching the Super Bowl. I invited my sons to watch with me, and I just tried to close my eyes to all that it was demanding of us.

Does Black History Belong In Your Church?

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I’m thankful for 8th Street Community Church, where we are reading portions of the Letter from Birmingham Jail every Sunday morning during the month of February. We will not be skipping the inconvenient parts.

Is there space in your church to think about and be influenced by prophetic black Christianity? Would it be too controversial?

It is normal for Christians to admire Dr. King from afar as a vaguely Christian figure who preached love and tolerance. It is harder and more necessary to grapple with King as a serious Christian thinker who speaks to our time and critiques our theology.

The Letter from Birmingham Jail is far from a complete record of King’s thought, but it’s a great introduction to it, especially for Christian audiences. One of my dreams is for more white evangelical churches to make space for these ideas. If your church would like to have an event in the Philadelphia area, I am available to facilitate reading and discussion of the letter. I’ve got lots of practice!