A Review of John Fea’s “Believe Me”

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A clever cover design draws the eyes’ attention to the “lie” in “believe”

A lot of us remember the sense of shock we felt the night of November 8, 2016. For white evangelicals who opposed Trump, the sense of horror and disorientation were compounded by the actions of our fellow white evangelicals. When we woke up Tuesday morning, we already knew that most of them would vote for Trump that day. But we didn’t know that they would do so in possibly record numbers, or that they would actually succeed in electing their new king.

“I should have seen this coming,” writes John Fea in his new book, Believe Me. The toxic mixture of fear, nostalgia, and desire for power so vividly on display in 2016 was not an aberration, Fea tells us. Instead, it’s part of a long white evangelical tradition. The alliance with Trump may have come as a shock to some, but the roots of this strange embrace run deep into the white evangelical past.

These deep roots are best seen in the most effective chapter of the book, a “short history of evangelical fear.” Fea describes Puritan narratives of moral decline and social decay–narratives begun almost before there was time for decline to occur!–as perhaps “the first American evangelical fear.” As for the Puritans, so for contemporary white evangelicals: fear of national decline is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is a constant presence, part of the basic script by which they understand the world around them.

While historians are often reluctant to draw close comparisons between past and present, many readers are likely to be astonished and impressed by the thick resonance between historic events and contemporary white evangelicalism. It is hard to read Fea’s account of evangelical anti-Catholicism and not draw a parallel to fears of Islam today.

In contrast to Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in the Atlantic that described a nineteenth century evangelical golden age, Fea shows that white evangelicals’ commendable zeal to reform society was inseparable from their anxieties about what was happening to their “Christian nation” and their fears of Catholic foreigners. Also in contrast to Gerson, he does not ignore the fact that the predominant form of white evangelicalism in the South was a white supremacist heresy. For many white evangelicals, Trump’s racial demagoguery was not offensive. It spoke to their longstanding fears.

If white evangelicals, even at the height of their power, have often been afraid, what happens when their worst fears are realized? What happens when they seem to have lost their Christian nation? Hope for the future curdles into an easily manipulable nostalgia, and fear metastasizes into a desperate final grasp for power.

I guess that brings us to the Christian Right. Fea is perceptive in his understanding of it. He describes a decades-old “playbook” of trying to restore America to its supposedly Christian roots by electing the right people to political office. Specifically, it means electing conservative Republicans who will appoint judges to overturn Roe and other decisions held responsible for American decline. This playbook is often judged a failure because Roe is still the law of the land and the gay rights movement has transformed American culture. But Fea astutely notes that there is more than one way to measure the success of this playbook. It has been much more successful in granting a measure of power to a small cadre of white evangelical political activists. As far as they are concerned, this is no small thing.

More important, for millions of ordinary white evangelicals the Christian Right’s playbook has set the agenda for what political engagement looks like and is imagined to be. Fea wants readers to realize that there are healthier ways to think about the relationship between church and state and Christian political responsibilities, but the Christian Right has succeeded in crowding out these alternatives. For many white evangelicals, there is no plan B. When a transparently evil candidate came along, departing from the playbook was not an option.

Make America Great Again was not simply a catchy campaign slogan. It spoke directly to white evangelicals’ nostalgia and offered a salve for their fears. As Fea notes, these impulses are basically selfish. Seeking a return to a time when America was great for them, they overlook the struggles of other groups in American history.

This book is an excellent starting point for white evangelicals who have the courage to become students of their own tradition. Neither dismissing white evangelicalism nor sugarcoating it, Fea writes as a critical insider, one who knows of what he speaks through both personal experience and academic study.

Fea has dedicated the book “To the 19 percent” of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. It will be a useful resource for people in that camp. It may help them to better understand where they’ve come from and engage in dialogue with the 81%. It is less a criticism of the book than a sad commentary on our times that Fea’s analysis seems unlikely to move many who are part of the 81%.

 

A Must-Read White Evangelical Self-Critique

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If white evangelicalism is ever to become a force for good in the world (you may disagree with the premise but I take it as axiomatic that it is not that now) it must confront its history and tell it anew. It must realize that the story of an evangelicalism that held fast to the faith while the modernists betrayed it is a self-serving myth.

In reality, the white evangelical mainstream in the 20th century was generally a heresy. Instead of carrying the undiluted good news faithfully through the choppy waters of modernity, it bowed down to the most insidious gods of the age—race, nationalism, materialism. White evangelicalism was often the opposite of good news. It was not, to put it in evangelical lingo, a saving faith. It was not news worth sharing.

As both a historian and an evangelical, I reject the idea that the bleak picture sketched above is the whole picture. There were moments of redemption, places of good news, people of noble faith. But when white evangelicals turn this happy story into the whole story they don’t just obscure the darker side, they actively reinforce the hubris of a religious community seeking to avoid repentance.

We won’t act righteously in the present without rebuilding our story from the ground up. The task at hand is not to hold true to the faith of our ancestors as much as to recognize and repent of the sins—their and ours—that have formed us.

At a recent meeting of evangelical leaders at Wheaton College, Dr. Mark Labberton, the President of Fuller Seminary, gave a speech showing what this can look like. The speech is remarkable for its honesty, moral clarity, and historical consciousness. There’s very little excuse-making here. Instead, in a spirit of humility, he reckons not only with what white evangelicalism has become, but with what it has long been:

This is not a recent crisis but a historic one.  We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.  We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.

Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world.  Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.

Labberton goes on to identify “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” He names power, race, nationalism, and economics. Here he is on the question of race:

The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons.  All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.

Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.  The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice.  Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.

This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God.  When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel.

Read the whole thing. Note the lack of defensiveness and simple honesty. Insofar as his views represent the kind of training seminary students are receiving at Fuller, will these future pastors be able to get jobs in the white evangelical mainstream? I don’t know, but it’s encouraging to see such careful Christian thinking from a white evangelical leader. If only the average white evangelical cared even a little bit about Christian thinking.

History Matters: Remember Well

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A roundup of some recent history matters to remind us that history matters (ha, see what I did there?):

1. A new study puts data to what I’ve emphasized for the past couple of years: many Americans received “Make America Great Again” as a religious message promising renewal for a Christian nation. The study finds that belief that America is a Christian nation was a significant predictor of support for Trump in 2016:

Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election? Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally. These findings indicate that Christian nationalist ideology—although correlated with a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views—is not synonymous with, reducible to, or strictly epiphenomenal of such views. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

As I’ve argued before, much of white evangelicalism’s racism is rooted in these flawed understandings of the past.

2. Speaking of flawed historical narratives, here’s a fascinating profile of a leading Chinese historian trying to grapple with the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous policies:

Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.

Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.

“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”

The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage” is the understatement of the century. We’re talking about deliberately covering up and avoiding accountability for mass murder, for tens of millions of pointless deaths of their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party’s lack of openness about its past is deeply concerning for the future.

3. Michael Kimmelman profiles the proposed International African American Museum in Charleston, at the site of the entry point for most of the enslaved people brought to North America. The museum has been a long time coming and is still struggling to raise private funds and public money from a recalcitrant South Carolina legislature:

State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.

Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.

“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”

Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.

His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.

A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.

Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.

Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.

4. Finally, a sobering profile of “Nazi hunters” concerned about Europe’s blindness to its past:

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are not only Europe’s most famous Nazi hunters. For more than five decades, they’ve also been the vigilante enforcers of the continent’s moral conscience.

The husband-and-wife team — through painstaking research and often daring exploits — has tracked down murderers from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, to the jungles of Bolivia. They pushed for the arrests and ultimate convictions of former Nazis and French collaborators such as Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. And they have documented the stories of thousands of French Jews sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Their mission has been to seek justice, but also to force a European reckoning with questions of complicity and culpability in a war many people preferred to forget. It was largely their influence that prompted President Jacques Chirac, soon after taking office in 1995, to acknowledge that “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners.”

Yet today, at the respective ages of 82 and 79, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld say they are horrified by the state of affairs in Europe and beyond: the rise of right-wing populist movements, and now governments, across the continent, often fueled by support from young voters. The parallel forces of nationalism and xenophobia, once again permissible in the public sphere. The apparent desire — from Poland to the United States — to play with the truth of the past so as to alter the norms of the present, the norms the ­Klarsfelds spent decades upholding.

“The young today don’t know hunger. They don’t know war,” Serge said in an interview at the Klarsfelds’ office, reclining at a desk piled high with the kind of documents he and his wife have used for years to build their dossiers. “They don’t know that the European Union brought to Europe so much, and they don’t know that the generation that came before them worked so hard for what there is.”

There’s a theme in all of this, right? Bad memory of the past supports injustice in the present. We’ve got to try to remember well.

More Evidence that Churchgoing White Evangelicals Are Trump’s Base

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In and around white evangelicalism there’s a long debate about exactly how popular Donald Trump is and who the self-described white evangelicals are in all those polls. Some white evangelicals have continued to insist that polls are capturing the opinions of Trumpist “cultural evangelicals” who aren’t actually connected to local churches. Others say that the polling largely captures the reality of what white evangelicalism has become.

Reuters has a large ongoing rolling poll average that gives us another data point in this debate. It allows you to filter the data by a lot of different attributes. It shows some fascinating results.*

Let’s combine the polling from the last month and progressively narrow it down to smaller populations:

Trump approval/disapproval among:

Public: 38.3% / 57.0%

Ok, the public is not happy with the President.

Whites: 47.9% / 47.9%

White Americans are evenly split.

White born again Christians: 65.4% / 30.5%

Two-thirds of self-described “white born again Christians” favor Trump. Now here’s where it gets interesting. If the “cultural evangelical” thesis is correct, self-described white born again Christians who rarely attend church will be more supportive of Trump than self-described white born again Christians who frequently attend church. Let’s see:

White born again Christians who attend church several times a year: 61% / 36%

Hmmm. Less favorable toward Trump than white born again Christians overall. What about more faithful church attenders?

White born again Christians who attend church every week: 70% / 27%

White born again Christians who attend church more than once a week: 80% / 17.6%

For what it’s worth, there you have it. Reuters thinks it’s the people in church every time the doors are open that are most supportive of Trump. Assuming for a moment that the data points to something real, it raises questions about what’s driving the correlation. Obviously it’s multi-causal, but it’s worth asking whether there is something about these church environments themselves that make faithfully engaged people more likely to support oppression.


I’m not good with statistics so tell me if I’m getting something wrong here. Obviously the more filters you add the smaller the sample size and the larger the margin of error. But these results align with other polling data that seems to refute the talking point that “cultural” evangelicals are more supportive of Trump than faithful churchgoing white evangelicals.

 

Don’t Disrespect the Golden Calf

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Mike Pence, self-professed evangelical Christian, worships his god. October 8, 2017

As ridiculous as this controversy is, it is exposing many evangelicals’ truest commitments.

Nation over people.

Country over God.

Patriotism over justice.

Politics over principle.

Fear over hope.

Many white evangelicals willfully refuse to engage with the intent of the kneeling players. The players insist that they are protesting racial injustice. White evangelicals insist they can unilaterally redefine the meaning of these protests. It’s about disrespecting the flag. When they make this reinterpretation, they expose themselves. The symbols of their beloved nation are more important to them than the very lives of black people.

Why is evangelicalism shrinking? Causality is always plural, but perhaps it has something to do with the in-your-face idol worship of the white evangelical mainstream. The truly sad thing is that this idolatry hurts other people and entraps its devotees. I’m praying that more white evangelicals will be willing to lay down their fears and consider the liberating possibilities of following Jesus wherever he might take them. I don’t fully know what that means in my own life, but I am certain it doesn’t take us to the dead end of Christian nationalism.

It’s Too Bad Billy Sunday Isn’t Around To Campaign for Roy Moore

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While doing lecture prep today it occurred to me that Roy Moore and Billy Sunday might have gotten along really well. Moore has cultivated an image as a fighter, as God’s man standing against the forces of liberalism and secularism. He believes America is a Christian nation. On Tuesday Moore defeated incumbent Alabama Senator Luther Strange in the Republican primary. The Senate is probably about to have its first contemporary full-fledged Christian nationalist. But Moore’s brand of reactionary politics and populist appeal under the banner of Christian nationalism is not at all new.

Billy Sunday, a popular fundamentalist preacher in the early twentieth century, leveraged his former career as a professional baseball player to garner crowds with the overt physicality of his preaching. His message, like Moore’s, was nationalistic and reactionary. As Frances Fitzgerald relates in her recent book, The Evangelicals, when the 100% Americanism craze swept across the country during the Great War Billy Sunday was happy to ride that wave. “Christianity and patriotism are synonymous terms,” he declared. During the Red Scare he supported the Palmer Raids and urged on the racist immigration restriction laws.

In his book, American Apocalypse, Mathew Avery Sutton describes Sunday concluding one of his revival meetings by leaping onto the pulpit and waving an American flag. On another occasion, Sunday declared, “No man can be true to his God without being true to his country.”

Sunday was a premillenialist who believed the world was going to hell in a handbasket. But that didn’t stop him from conflating faith and nation in the meantime. With a little poking around on Google I haven’t confirmed that Moore is a premillenialist, but I’d be a bit surprised if he isn’t.

Billy Sunday died in 1935 but he remained something of a legendary figure in some circles. His influence is suggested in this photo of a very young Billy Graham:

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How Evangelical Nationalism Enables Racism

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Jerry Falwell, Sr. leads a “I Love America” rally at the New Jersey State Capitol, 1980. William Sauro, NYT.

A lot of people are noting the juxtaposition of Trump’s imploding business advisory councils and his quiet-as-church-mice religious advisory council members. These court evangelicals (John Fea’s term) will claim they are staying on to try to provide Christian instruction to Trump, as if there has ever been any evidence that he would abide such a thing. The real reason they’re staying on is access. Trump provides them influence (or the illusion of it) at the commanding heights of the nation they believe they ought to lead. The President’s racism is a minor inconvenience in comparison to the gains they envision.

For these court evangelicals and their followers, the on-ramp to supporting racism is not necessarily direct. It is shaped by the distinct character of evangelical nationalism. Let me try to explain what I mean. This is kind of a think piece. Tell me where I’m getting it wrong.

White evangelicals are often described as anti-statist. Hostility to governing institutions runs deep in some evangelical circles. And it’s certainly true that many white evangelical leaders have turned rhetorical posturing against the federal government into an art form. But as Axel Shaffer has argued, white evangelicals have combined that rhetoric with efforts to make the state work for them. The goal is to capture the state, not tear it down.

Though the number of white evangelicals with such frightening ambitions is relatively small, they punch above their weight. The widespread populist evangelical nationalism among ordinary white evangelicals sustains the more radical state-capturing project of Christian Right leaders.

Many white evangelicals feel both hostility toward the state and an intense identification with the nation. They are at once alienated outsiders and the nation’s truest inheritors. The evangelical historian George Marsden identified this ambivalence decades ago in his classic study of fundamentalism and American culture. The nation is, rightfully, theirs. It was founded on their principles, blessed by their devotion. Yet the forces of liberalism and secularism, acting through the federal government, have taken the nation from them.

In this wing of evangelicalism, memory and national identity center on the concerns and interests of privileged white Christians. Slavery and genocide are glossed over or presented as exceptions that somehow do not alter the essentially Christian character of the new nation. The 1960s are remembered not primarily for the destruction of Jim Crow, but as the moment when the nation turned its back on God by taking prayer and Bible reading out of schools and embracing the sexual revolution.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the work of history that has had more influence among white evangelicals than any other in recent decades: Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. Published in 1977 and still in print, it has sold almost 1 million copies. In his book, Why Study History?, the evangelical historian John Fea described Marshall and Manuel’s argument:

The United States, from the time of its first settlement, was founded to show the rest of the world how to love God and neighbor. God had made a special covenant with this country, not unlike the covenant he made with the children of Jacob. Throughout its short history, America has occasionally lived up to this covenant, but at other times it has not. The study of the past presents a constant reminder of this unique and ongoing relationship between God and the United States and the role that all Americans, but especially Christians, play in making sure that divine favor rests on this land.

Ironically, as Russell Moore has pointed out, this is a form of theological liberalism that denies the sufficiency of the new covenant in Jesus Christ. It recalls the efforts of liberal Protestants’ in pre-war Germany to meld Christianity and nationalism. There, the consequences for German minorities were disastrous. So too could it be here.

As white evangelicals seek to vindicate the supposedly Christian origins and, it is hoped, future of the nation, they write marginalized groups out of the story. Imagining a past without oppressed people opens up space to imagine a future without them. This is potentially deadly. Many white evangelicals’ self-identification with this Christian nation is so strong that listening and learning from people the nation has harmed is extremely difficult. Often, the reason white evangelicals can’t be honest about racism is because they’ve never been honest about the nation they love.

The roots of this are broad and deep. We’re not talking about a fringe movement. Consider two of the most outspoken white evangelical Trump supporters among his religious advisory council: Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress. Both men supported Trump early and loudly. Both men are influential leaders. And both men trace their roots to a father (Falwell, Sr.) or father figure (W.A. Criswell) who once embraced racist nationalism. Let’s examine them in turn.

As buffoonish as Falwell Jr. often appears, it is wishful thinking to believe the President of the largest evangelical university in the world doesn’t have real influence. He does. And he is using that influence to walk in the footsteps of his father. The outlines of Falwell Sr.’s career are well-known: from small-town segregationist preacher who shunned politics, to founder of the Moral Majority to take back the nation for God.

In this apparent change from political outsider to insider there is an underlying consistency: Falwell’s intense identification with the culture around him as something that must be protected from liberal forces. The shift from a southern-inflected nationalism in the 1950s to American nationalism in the 1980s is hardly the point. Falwell moved on from defending segregation to defending “morality” without ever really grappling with why he had been wrong in the first place.

Now his son supports racism because doing so gives him access to the state and the chance to protect the nation from liberal forces. The apple didn’t fall far.

The case of Robert Jeffress is a bit different. As with Falwell, some of us may like to pretend he’s a fringe figure, but he’s not. He’s pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas. This isn’t just any church. This is where W.A. Criswell preached for over half a century. Rick Warren, in his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Church, called Criswell “the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century.” When the most influential American pastor of this century says that, you ought to pay attention.

In an interview this week, Jeffress described Criswell as a spiritual father figure:

Jeffress grew up in the historic Dallas congregation, which formed in 1868 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year. As a boy, he gained spiritual insight from the late Rev. W.A. Criswell, First Baptist’s preacher for half a century.

“When I was 5, I started to become interested in becoming a Christian,” said Jeffress, who has served as senior pastor for 10 years. “My dad brought me down to Dr. Criswell’s office, and he presented the gospel, and I accepted Christ as my savior here.”

It should come as no surprise that Criswell spoke forcefully in defense of segregation during the 1950s. Indeed, this understates what he did. Over a period of years, Criswell—“the greatest American pastor of the twentieth century”—preached overt heresy from the pulpit. Criswell later publicly recanted these views and said he had been wrong. There is evidence of sincere wrestling with his sin. There are also questions to be asked about how total his repentance was, not least because of Criswell’s own words: “My soul and attitude may not have changed, but my public statements did.” Curtis Freeman has a balanced account of all this in the Journal of Southern Religion.

What is most striking about Criswell’s segregationist statements is not so much that they were demagogic and hateful—though they were—but that they expressed a comprehensive view of the world, a total attachment to nation and culture rather than Christianity. In 1956 he criticized integrationists for “trying to upset all the things that we love as good old Southern people and as good old Southern Baptists.” In an often-quoted conclusion to that sermon Criswell said:

Don’t force me by law, by statute, by Supreme Court decision…to cross over in those intimate things where I don’t want to go. Let me build my life. Let me have my church. Let me have my school. Let me have my friends. Let me have my home. Let me have my family. And what you give to me, give to every man in America and keep it like our glorious forefathers made it—a land of the free and the home of the brave.

Again, read Freeman’s account. There is American myth and individual selfishness here aplenty. I defy you to find a hint of Jesus in it.

Now, Robert Jeffress pastors Criswell’s old church, and he too is sacralizing American nationalism. The forms of racism they enable are different—for Criswell it was segregation and southern extremists, for Jeffress it’s colorblindness and a racist President. But in both cases, their conflation of faith and nation fatally compromises the supremacy of Jesus and the worth of human beings.

The court evangelicals seek to bring America back to God. Christians of conscience must firmly stand against that project. Under the banner of restoring the Christian nation, these men and women would oppress human beings. God has set his love on people. No nation can compare to the inestimable worth of a person made in the image of God.

 


Update: While some news outlets have been reporting on the evangelical advisory council as a currently functioning board, Fea says he learned today it was disbanded after the election. Whether Trump’s circle of evangelical advisors is an official board or not is hardly the point, but I would like to know more about why it disbanded.

What White Evangelicals See When They Look at the Trump Administration

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“Court evangelicals” outside the White House, July 27, 2017

Apparently, there is a “spiritual awakening” in the White House. The Christian Broadcasting Network reports:

A spiritual awakening is underway at the White House.

Some of the most powerful people in America have been gathering weekly to learn more about God’s Word, and this Trump Cabinet Bible study is making history.

They’ve been called the most evangelical Cabinet in history – men and women who don’t mince words when it comes to where they stand on God and the Bible…

Health Secretary Tom Price, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Agriculture Secretary Sunny Perdue, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo are just a few of the regulars.

“It’s the best Bible study that I’ve ever taught in my life. They are so teachable; they’re so noble; they’re so learned,” [Capitol Ministries Founder Ralph] Drollinger said.

It’s groundbreaking since he doesn’t think a formal Bible study among executive Cabinet members has been done in at least 100 years.

America’s top cop, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, also attends the study.

“He’ll (Jeff Sessions) go out the same day I teach him something and I’ll see him do it on camera and I just think, ‘Wow, these guys are faithful, available and teachable and they’re at Bible study every week they’re in town,'” Drollinger said…

Like others, Drollinger often compares President Trump to biblical strongman Samson.

“I just praise God for them,” he said. “And I praise God for Mike Pence, who I think with Donald Trump chose great people to lead our nation.”

A former professor of mine at a white evangelical college shared this article yesterday and wrote, “This is one of the many reasons I’m glad I voted for President Trump.”

It’s hard for those of us outside the bubble of right-wing nationalist Christianity to understand or even imagine what this administration looks like from the perspective of many white evangelicals. This article gives us a hint. They really believe that this administration is full of godly people trying to restore Christian values to America.

What does that return to Christian values look like? It looks like Bible studies, and accolades and access for the right people, most of all white evangelicals themselves. It means relentless symbolism to demarcate the righteous and unrighteous teams. And it means discrimination against the bad people: transgender, homosexual, immigrant, black, and so on.

The mythic Trump administration most white evangelicals see goes part way toward explaining the puzzling phenomenon of white evangelicals apparently being unconcerned about their “witness.” If you’re familiar with the evangelical world, you know that among our highest values is representing Jesus to the world. We want Christianity to appear winsome and attractive. Jesus said his disciples were “witnesses” of his life, death, and resurrection. Now, 2000 years later, when evangelicals share with others our own encounter with Jesus, we might say that we are “witnessing.” In evangelicalism, few things are worse than damaging your “witness” before a watching world.

So it’s amazing that more white evangelicals aren’t responding to the widespread perception that they are hateful hypocrites. I wouldn’t expect white evangelicals to agree with the critique, but I would have expected them to be concerned about it. Instead, their right-wing nationalist bubble is so thick that they don’t seem able to comprehend or imagine how their behavior looks from the outside. When what you’re hearing about the Trump Administration is Bible studies and prayer sessions and enthusiastic praise from Christian leaders you trust, it’s all too easy to believe the critics are just “liberals” and “secularists” and people hostile to Christianity anyway. This bunkered, tribal mindset has a long tradition stretching back at least to the modernist-fundamentalist battles of a century ago. It shows no signs of abating.