Thoughts for Sunday

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Is it true that life comes from death?…

The evolutionary rhythm — from life into death, from death into life — which seems to meet us at the central point of the Bible, where the New Testament, in fulfillment of the Old, speaks of the sufferings and the glory of the Messiah — is this rhythm credible, rational, real?

Let us not be too hasty in answering this question positively: our positiveness might be wanting in specific gravity! Let us not contrast ourselves too quickly with those to whom the cross is a stumbling-block and a foolishness, for as a matter of fact we all belong with them…For the sake of the suffering of the millions, for the sake of the blood shed for many that cries against us all, for the sake of the fear of God, let us not be so sure! Such sureness is only a synonym for smugness. If any utterance at all is in need of substantiation, attestation, and demonstration in corresponding moral, social, and political action, it is the Biblical utterance that death is swallowed up in victory. But if we really believed this, our actions would manifest the possibility that lies beyond human thought: Behold, I make all things new. And if we were only aware how little that possibility is manifested in our conventional and self-reliant lives, we should assuredly take the utterance upon our lips only with the greatest shame, confusion, and restraint.

The only real way to name the theme of the Bible, which is the Easter message, is to have it, to show it, to live it. The Easter message becomes truth, movement, reality, as it is expressed — or it is not the Easter message which is expressed…

Karl Barth, “Biblical Questions, Insights, and Vistas,” April, 1920.

Do Historians of Evangelicalism Promote Racial Exclusion?

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I’ve started reading Frances FitzGerald’s new synthesis, The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America. It’s highly readable, engaging, and seems like it will serve as a useful overview for students or for people with a general interest in the topic. I’m not even half-way through, so consider what follows not so much a criticism of the book, but a broader commentary on the state of the field and our discourse. Perhaps it’s unfair to FitzGerald to use The Evangelicals as an occasion to do this, but her book repeats patterns we’ve seen in other work.

It begins with the publisher, which most likely has nothing to do with Fitzgerald. Open up the book jacket and you see this:

In this major work of American history, distinguished historian Frances FitzGerald describes the profound ways in which evangelicals have shaped our nation, our culture, and our politics. Her sweeping and authoritative account gives us the whole story for the first time.

You might say this is typical publisher overselling that doesn’t matter much. But why should we settle for misleading and exclusionary statements? Then turn to the end of the book, before the notes. FitzGerald has included a short glossary of theological terms. I don’t know if this was her idea or the publisher’s, but it’s a good idea. The first word FitzGerald defines is evangelical, using David Bebbington’s theological definition. There is no social definition; the theology does all the work here.

So, in sum we have:

  1. A book called The Evangelicals
  2. A publisher boasting it is “the whole story.”
  3. A definition of evangelicals that includes all Protestants who believe the theology Bebbington describes.

A book that did this would be really exciting. But it’s certainly not this book, which we learn pretty quickly when we turn to the introduction. FitzGerald writes,

This book is not a taxonomy or attempt to describe the entirety of evangelical life,  but rather a history of the white evangelical movements necessary to understand the Christian right and its evangelical opponents that have emerged in recent years. It purposely omits the history of African American churches because theirs is a different story, mainly one of resistance to slavery and segregation, but also of the creation of centers for self-help and community in a hostile world. Some African American denominations identify as evangelical, but because of their history, their religious traditions are not the same as those of white evangelicals. Only long after the success of the civil rights movement did some black churchmen begin to enter the story of white evangelicals and their internal conflicts.

In other words, this is another book about white evangelicals and the Christian right, making the very title of the book misleading. I’d be curious to hear what scholars of African American Christianity think of FitzGerald’s words here. I’m curious to know what I’ll think by the time I finish this book and the other one on the docket, Mary Beth Swetnam Mathews’ Doctrine and Race: African American Evangelicals and Fundamentalism between the Wars.

I don’t mean to pick on FitzGerald. After all, this is a synthesis that is in many ways only repeating the treatment (or lack thereof) of whiteness and blackness in many earlier books. Marsden, Carpenter, Sutton—wonderful books all, but no one is going to mistake them for sophisticated treatments of race. There are legitimate questions to ask about what we’re really doing with these methodological choices. FitzGerald describes it as historically driven, but I’m unconvinced. It is possible to describe exclusion without reinscribing it. We’ve failed to do that.

We run the risk of absurdity: defining our subject by race even as we pretend that race was not central to our subject.

The upshot of all this is that white evangelical is one of the most familiar phrases in our political lexicon, even though we can’t agree on what evangelical means, and we’ve barely even tried to figure out what whiteness has meant in the movement. This is so odd, so difficult to defend on a historical or intellectual level, that I begin to question our (I include myself in this) ethical stance. Does our work historicize racial exclusion, or recreate it? I think we would do well to sit with that question for a while.

Republican-Voting Christians Need To Speak Up Now

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“People will die, but the rich will be so much richer! Ha ha!”

If you’re a Christian who votes Republican, your voice is desperately needed now. Call your Republican member of congress and tell them you oppose the GOP health care bill because it fails to provide for the poor and the sick. If you’re a Christian, these principles are more important to you than limited government.

The Republicans are trying to pass a health care bill that oppresses the poor and sick so that rich people can have more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would lose health insurance coverage. The best estimates we have indicate that this would cause thousands of preventable deaths every year.

I’ve heard from Trump-supporting Christians who have been offended by my words during and after the election. They didn’t want to be lumped in with the people supporting hatred, racism, and oppression. This is an opportunity for those Christians to demonstrate their sincerity. Do they oppose this cruel legislation? Or do they put party politics above human decency?

Sincerity, good intentions, or ignorance do not absolve these Christians from responsibility. If they think this bill falls under the rubric of “complicated partisan politics” and so they can’t speak against it, they’re supporting oppression. Even if they sincerely believe the lies of the Republican donor class, they’re still supporting oppression. No one is making them tune in to the make-believe world of talk radio and Foxnews. No one is making them believe the self-serving lies wealthy people tell about the economy. No one is making them ignore evidence and sit in an echo chamber. These are the choices they make.

Many of them will respond, “But it’s not the government’s job to provide health care.” If that’s their belief, they have a responsibility to explain why people must die for the sake of their abstract principles.

In sum, if Republican-voting Christians can’t rouse themselves to oppose this inhumane legislation, they ought to step up and have the courage of their convictions. If you want to oppress people, own it and do it proudly.

Russell Moore Apologizes; Keeps His Job

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Russell Moore has apologized to Trump-supporting Southern Baptists, and will keep his job:

A week ago, Moore met with denominational leader Frank Page over an investigation into numerous complaints regarding the ERLC. The criticism centers around Moore’s vocal opposition to Trump and his campaign, his characterization of the faith and motives of Trump’s Christian supporters, and whether such messaging (toward fellow Southern Baptists not DC lawmakers) extended beyond the proper role of the ERLC president.

Moore reiterated and clarified the apology he shared in December, but ultimately stood by his positions.

“I stand by those convictions, but I did not separate out categories of people well—such that I wounded some, including close friends,” said Moore. “I cannot go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions. But I can—and do—apologize for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh. That is a failure on my part.”

No word yet on whether Moore’s Southern Baptist opponents who have promoted racism, hatred, lies, and oppression of the poor will apologize for their behavior. Don’t hold your breath!

White Nationalism Is Deadly. Don’t Play With It.

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Racist Congressman Steve King

This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!

And yet.

If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people.  And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.

That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.

It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.

I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.

But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.

I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.

Prestonwood Baptist Church: a Portent of things to come?

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Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas

In an ominous development, a Southern Baptist megachurch is withholding funds from the denomination because of Russel Moore’s outspoken words against Trump during the campaign. Moore, the president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, spoke frankly last year about the spiritual dangers of supporting Trump. Now, because of Moore’s supposed “disrespectfulness” against his fellow evangelicals, major financial resources are at stake.

Moore’s public response to this has been unsurprisingly gracious. But danger looms ahead. What we’re seeing here is a large and powerful church attempting to leverage its financial clout to shut down Christian speech in the public sphere. What will Moore and others have to do to maintain unity with these Trumpist evangelicals? What compromises will need to be made to keep them money flowing? What silences will be bought?

It is difficult to see how unity is going to be maintained in this environment. We have a large group of evangelicals who are cravenly putting partisanship ahead of the gospel, and it seems they will brook no dissent. In these contexts, those who believe that the word of God stands above even a Republican president are inevitably going to be seen as sell-outs or worse.

I would rather be in solidarity with oppressed people of any faith or no faith at all than in union with the people supporting the oppression. If Prestonwood Baptist Church is any indication, the space for a middle ground may already be closing. I believe Dr. Moore is a man of integrity, and precisely because of that I don’t know how long he can remain the president of the ERLC. Hopefully I’m wrong.

How Robust Is White Evangelical Support for Trump?

Supporters of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump cheer at a campaign rally in Wilkes-Barre

This is one of the first images that a search for “white evangelicals” produced.

Chris Gehrz, a professor of history at Bethel University in Minnesota, has some good thoughts and questions today. Reacting to polls showing strong white evangelical support for Trump’s travel ban executive order, Gehrz writes:

I’m from an evangelical family, attend an evangelical church, and work at an evangelical university, and I can’t think of a single evangelical who viewed that executive order favorably. Perhaps I just move in relatively progressive circles, or people are censoring themselves around me (in person or on social media). But off hand I can think of several evangelicals in my acquaintance who supported Trump (or at least opposed Clinton) and yet were bothered by the order.

Moreover, on this particular issue, a wide array of evangelical leaders actually did speak out, responding with varying degrees of alarm to the administration’s treatment of refugees and preference for some religions over another.

So what do we make of this 76% figure? It’s entirely possible that evangelical has simply lost all meaning. Or that there’s a fundamental split between the term as a category that historians like me use to interpret religious belief and behavior and the term as what Tim Gloege has called a “marketing segment… ‘Evangelicals’ in this sense were not an untapped segment of voters that pollsters discovered, it was one they created.”

So “this ‘evangelicalism’ was not an organic movement; it was a conjured segment.” But a conjured segment that soon attracted leaders… many of whom now seem not to speak for their supposed followers.

Read the whole thing. I do think there is an artificial polling effect here. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy or a feedback loop. As “white evangelical” becomes primarily a political moniker in our public discourse, those who disagree with the politics the term signifies stop calling themselves white evangelicals. Anecdotally, we saw a lot of this immediately following the election. If “white evangelical” just means “a White Christian with conservative politics” then the polling results are predetermined.

But there’s something else going on here too. I’m inclined to say to Gehrz: yes, you do just move in relatively progressive circles. It seems to me that white evangelicals who say they don’t know evangelical Trump supporters (or supporters of the ban specifically) are either in a really unusual bubble or they’re kidding themselves. In these progressive evangelical circles, we hear it said that the polls showing 75% white evangelical support for Trump reflect “cultural Christians” in the South who don’t even go to church and aren’t “real” evangelicals. I think the pervasiveness of this feeling does tell us something about how diverse and divided evangelicalism is. But mostly I think this is a self-serving way to avoid facing the rot in our own communities.

Let’s grant that the polls overstate Trump support among “real” evangelicals (whoever they are). The support still appears very strong among churchgoing white evangelicals, almost certainly a healthy majority. How do we know? We can start with Pew’s poll last week, which showed support for Trump by frequency of attendance at religious services. This measure is extremely broad in that it encompasses all kinds of Christianity and other religions as well, but in a way it is more specific than asking someone if they are a white evangelical. Whether or not you go to religious services is more concrete and easy to answer than whether you affirm a disputed identity. In the absence of more detailed polling of white evangelicals, generic religious attendance might be a better measure. And what that shows is that high religious attendance is correlated with support for Trump.

Consider also a Barna poll from last October. It asked people in more detail about their religious beliefs and classified them as evangelicals based on a series of theological questions rather than self-identification. The result? 55% of evangelicals backed Trump compared to 2% for Clinton. Barna’s post-election recap found that the strongest support for Trump was among these evangelicals, not among nominal believers.

Historians can quibble with this data too, mostly because it is defining evangelical only by claimed beliefs rather than practices. But the evidence we have—imperfect though it is—paints an uncomfortable picture. Most committed church-going white evangelicals probably support Trump. A majority may even have an actively favorable view of his presidency. There’s no easy answer to this, or excuse for it. But this is our reality, and we need to face it.

Refugees and the Elite/laity Divide in Evangelicalism

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In recent days we’ve seen a good example of the divide between evangelical elites and ordinary white evangelicals. Last week, a large group of evangelical leaders took out a full page ad in the Washington Post to express support for refugees and concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order. The signers are not minor figures or political activists. They are some of the most popular and influential figures in evangelicalism. White evangelicals read their books, donate to their charities, and listen to their sermons. And yet…

The first poll of white evangelical opinion since Trump’s inauguration reveals that 76% approve of President Trump’s job performance and 76% approve of the executive order on immigration and refugees.

This is not surprising, but it is still somewhat mysterious to me. Do white evangelicals just ignore the opinions of their best pastors and theologians and parachurch leaders? Or is the theology white evangelicals receive on Sunday mornings flawed at its core? One ad in the Washington Post is not likely to overcome the more routine messages of therapeutic, self-focused religion. White evangelical leaders (not the political hacks) have been sounding reasonable for decades. Yet in many ways, they appear powerless to shape the views of ordinary white evangelicals. What is creating this elite/layperson divide and what sustains it? How do education and race and class figure into it? I’m still not sure we have an adequate understanding of how the politics of the white evangelical mainstream is constituted. In any case, while white evangelicals cheer Trump on, evangelicals who actually help refugees have to close down services.

The real scandal here is not that most white evangelicals voted for Trump. We can concede the point and agree to disagree about that political calculation. The scandal is that most white evangelicals view Trump and his whole suite of policies favorably. They like Trump. Whatever else that tell us, it reveals that evangelical leaders have failed dramatically in getting their flocks to apply Christian thinking to public life.

White evangelicalism and Dissent

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The great Emma Green had an important article last week about the dangers of speaking out against Trump in many evangelical circles. Some people have lost their jobs, while others stay silent for fear of the backlash:

Take the story of Meghan Liddy, a 23-year-old missionary living in Ghana. During the campaign, she was an outspoken supporter of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on social media. She got angry messages from people at the nondenominational church outside of Chicago where she grew up, she said, and was once targeted by a 48-hour wave of trolling by Christian groups for posting about her beliefs. When she wrote Black Lives Matter, she got an email from one of her biggest supporters threatening to pull her funding. They had been giving $300 a month, she said, which helps cover her living expenses in Ghana.

“I remember calling someone and asking, ‘What do I do?,’” Liddy said. She’s currently in the process of adopting two Ghanaian girls, and she worries about the organization she founded and runs, Family First, which offers assistance to families with special needs. “I was at this crossroads: Do I publicly let people take my funding and deal with it, and believe that God will continue to provide for me?” Liddy told me. “Or do I bend my beliefs in order to get funding?”

She ended up telling her supporter that she would keep writing about Black Lives Matter—and was immediately asked to return the most recent check she’d received, she said. Other churches have pulled their funds as well: $50 here, $100 there, Liddy said. “I’ve never gone without. There have been months where things are very tight—where at the end of the month, there’s about $1 in my account,” she said. “But we’ve never had an emergency situation where we weren’t provided for.” If she ran out of money, she said, she would “pray pretty hard.”

Read the whole thing. It shouldn’t need to be said that this reflects an environment in which nationalism and political conservatism are held as sacred. The apostasy proceeds apace.

The Heresy of Nationalist Christianity

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Is it time to think of Trumpism as heresy? Catholic scholar Charles Camosey believes so:

Though it seems to be waning a bit now, Catholic support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election was disturbingly high. It was disturbing on multiple levels, but especially because the primary vision for Trump’s campaign was to “make America great again” by putting “America first.”

If accepted and supported by Christians, this is a classic example of heresy – which historically has taken something true and pushed it well beyond its proper place…

In addition to heresy, “Trumpism” is a classic form of idolatry. Stanley Hauerwas, perhaps the most important Protestant thinker of the last two generations, pulled no punches in calling out Trump’s deep faith in Americanism.

For an orthodox Christian, Hauerwas insisted, America cannot be first. The Gospel of Jesus Christ must be first.

Hauerwas was right to describe Trump’s inaugural address as a “stunning example of idolatry.” When the president said, “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America and, through our loyalty to our country, we will recover loyalty to each other,” this was, using the words of Hauerwas, “a theological claim that offers a kind of salvation.”

Just one problem, though. When made by a Christian, it is an idolatrous and heretical claim.

Christ knew we would come to know people “by their fruits,” and the fruits of a Trump administration are already quite clear. The heresy of “America first” overshadows the Gospel…

It is one thing to vote for Trump as the lesser of two evils. I strongly disagreed with this strategy, but it is defensible from a Catholic point of view. And I fully understand the views of those who did so in defense of prenatal children.

What is not defensible, however, is positive, formal support for “America First.” That so many Catholics have expressed such support, however, may indicate that the time has come to name “Trumpism” a heresy.

Though Camosey is writing from a Catholic perspective, his words are even more relevant for all the “God and country” Christians of white evangelicalism. Their intense investment in the American national project recalls the heretical 19th century liberals who conflated the Kingdom of God with the progress of the American nation. It also brings to mind the 20th century German liberals whose belief in German exceptionalism prepared them to glorify war and endorse an anti-Christ.

What we’re seeing from many Trump-supporting Christians is not just a political disagreement, but a different gospel altogether.