Abortion Concern In Evangelicalism Is Primarily A Rhetorical Move

I was paging through Ed Stetzer’s new book some weeks ago and was reminded of these astonishing bits of data from that big Lifeway/Billy Graham Center research project last year: in the 2016 election, only 5% of “evangelicals by belief”* cited the candidate’s position on abortion rights as the most important factor in their vote. Much larger numbers of “evangelicals by belief” went to the polls with the same concerns as non-evangelical Americans: the economy, health care, immigration, and national security (these results are for all evangelicals by belief, not just white evangelicals).

But let’s be as fair as possible. 7% of evangelicals by belief also cited supreme court nominees as their most important consideration; abortion may have loomed large for those voters. And it’s possible that many evangelicals approached the election with abortion as a secondary or tertiary concern that factored into their vote. Still, I find these results remarkable. When evangelicals are asked to name the most important thing determining their vote, abortion barely registers. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that abortion plays a rhetorical function in right-wing politics out of all proportion to its actual power to drive evangelical moral concern.

As the 2020 election approaches, you’ll hear a lot of commentary about abortion and binary choices and the lesser of two evils. There are a small number of evangelicals who are sincere in their commitment to protect the unborn. With them I have no quibble. Though I disagree with many of their tactics and am concerned about pervasive sexism in the pro-life movement, protecting the unborn is a noble and righteous work. But the tenor of evangelical political discourse in the coming year and half will be an elaborate gaslighting effort. For most white evangelicals, abortion is a rhetorical shield to avoid answering for their enthusiastic embrace of an evil ruler.

A recent Foxnews poll highlights this again. White evangelicals broadly have warm and happy feelings toward Trump and his administration’s policies! Most white evangelicals seem to like racism and have unusual amounts of fear and hatred toward people who are not like them. Some results from that poll, among white evangelicals:

77% approve of Trump’s job performance.

75% have a favorable opinion of Trump himself.

3% think abortion is the biggest issue facing the country today. 33% think immigration is the biggest issue facing the country.

38% think the Trump administration is “not tough enough” on illegal immigrants; another 40% think it’s “about right.”

71% support building a wall on the border.

92% would be satisfied if Trump receives the 2020 Republican nomination (so much for the binary choice defense!). [Clarification: this question obviously only includes white evangelicals who are Republican primary voters].

Abortion is a very serious moral problem with no easy solutions. It is a shame that its primary role in evangelical politics is as cover for shameful behavior.

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*The survey defined respondents as “evangelical by belief” if they “strongly agree” with the following statements:

The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe

It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior

Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin

Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation

The survey seemed designed to rehabilitate evangelical reputations in the age of Trump, but instead it only reinforced the evidence that, broadly speaking, mainstream polls of self-identified evangelicals provide a roughly accurate picture of opinion. As data has consistently shown in recent years, more committed evangelical churchgoers tend to be more committed Trump supporters.

Why Did All Those Evangelical Leaders Go To The White House Dinner?

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Maybe it was the napkins. I’m not really kidding.

Yesterday Tim Wildmon, the President of the American Family Association, described his awe-inducing experience rubbing shoulders with powerful people in luxurious settings at the White House. Would you believe…the napkins weren’t paper? Acting on a tip from Franklin Graham, Wildmon pocketed one of those linen napkins and resolved to take it home with him.

You can listen to the audio here (though I’m not sure I recommend it.* If you dare, skip ahead to 12.00).

The napkin episode was emblematic. Wildmon was in awe of his surroundings and made liberal use of his iphone to document his presence in the White House. You might say this is normal behavior. It’s cool to be able to eat dinner with the President of the United States. But what’s striking is the deeper meaning Wildmon attaches to events like this.

It means that evangelicals are accepted. It means they’re not looked down upon. It means real progress is being made in winning their culture war and making life difficult for people who aren’t like them.

Wildmon seems easily awed by power and wealth, a common fault of insecure people everywhere. “He’s not ashamed of us,” Wildmon declared. While most Republican leaders are embarrassed by evangelicals, he said, Trump is “proud of us.” The importance he places on this tells us a lot about Wildmon and the evangelical movement he embodies.

It’s a movement seeking to conserve its place at the table. In response to power reaching out a welcoming (if transactional) hand, evangelical elites seem to feel great relief and a sense of safety. They revel in their place of prominence. In doing so, they forget the gospel. The good news that Jesus saves wretched sinners makes anything a President can offer seem rather boring in comparison.

The whole thing would be pitiful and poignant were the Christian Right’s agenda not so noxious. Wildmon does not, after all, seem cynical. He appears instead as a person you might pity in other contexts. He takes comfort in the idea that Trump is not ashamed of him, and even that isn’t true. It’s a reminder that not all of the evangelical elites are cut from the same cloth. Some, like Ralph Reed, are just as transactional as any other political power brokers. But others, like Wildmon I suspect, are lying to themselves before they lie to their followers.

It’s all very sad. As I’ve said before, if you want to find Jesus Christ, look to the margins. If he’s not enough for you, by all means, go to the White House and find another god.


*The AFA is one of the leading anti-LGBT groups in the country, with a long history of hateful and outrageous behavior. Their current campaign is a boycott of Target, because bathrooms.

How Can Trump’s Presidency Cause A Crisis of Faith?

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Is it possible for Christianity to be true if it doesn’t appear to have any significant effect on most Christians? Evangelical Christianity, in particular, makes rather grandiose claims about what happens to people when Jesus saves them. They are fundamentally transformed and given new lives. The love of God spills over, from the inside out, to every dimension of their being. They are not only given a new relationship with God and a subjective consciousness of the nearness of his love, they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to make practical changes in their lives leading to ethical improvement and concern for others.

In the Trump era, this looks an awful lot like fake news.

In recent years it’s been like one punch in the gut after another as people who seem to be sincere followers of Jesus reveal themselves as followers of Trump. Before it happened, I never would have dreamed that they were capable of this kind of behavior. At my most cynical, I couldn’t imagine it. But then it happened.

I don’t think I’m wrong to be bothered by this. It is reasonable for me to be saddened and angry. The betrayal I feel is real; there’s no sense denying the potency of these feelings. And I have to admit that all of this has made it much harder to be a Christian. If my faith says Jesus changes people but my eyes say he doesn’t, what am I supposed to think? I know I’m not alone in feeling this.

If you feel this too, I encourage you to take it seriously. Don’t tell yourself you’re wrong for feeling it. Do the work you need to do to make your way through it. Find support and fellowship if possible. What follows below is my story and my processing of it. It may be very different from yours. If it resonates with you, wonderful. But I hope you won’t use it to diminish what you’re feeling or to think that you should just “get over it.”

For me, there is something deeply provincial, even narcissistic, about my faith being upset by Trumpist Christians. Christians enslaving and commodifying people didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians conquering a whole hemisphere and slaughtering people in the name of Christ didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians colonizing the whole globe in pursuit of power and wealth didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians supporting the Holocaust didn’t give me a crisis of faith. Christians opposing the civil rights movement didn’t give me a crisis of faith (ok, well, maybe a little since I study it so much).

But now Christians support the latest American President and my foundations are shaken. Obviously this final act is real to me in a way the others are not. The immediacy of experience and emotion and relationships in a given time and place is part of what makes us human. We are here, not there, we are of this time, not another. We feel it more. This is inevitable.

But a Trump-induced crisis of faith is not inevitable. It shows how invested I have been in ideas and hopes far beyond what Jesus has promised. If you just read the gospels, I’m not sure you would expect there to be many Christians. And I’m not sure you’d expect many of the people who are Christians to actually give a whit about following Jesus. I mean, these passages are not exactly thrilling:

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

The message of Jesus is counterintuitive and humbling. It is upsetting to people who are moralistic, wealthy, or successful. It is upsetting to people who want to live comfortably. That most people would not want to follow Jesus is about the least surprising news in the world.

So why would I be so disillusioned by Christian followers of Trump? My disillusionment reveals that I have been invested in narratives of Christian progress and evangelical truth.

I have assumed, often subconsciously, that contemporary Christians are more apt to get things right than Christians in the past. We’ve learned from the past, I often thought, and have stripped away many of the cultural blinders that so clearly got in the way of prior generations of Christians. I have assumed that our generation is the tip of the spear in a long forward-moving story of Christian progress. Maybe, instead, we’re just another iteration of the usual reality: selfishness the norm, faithful following of Jesus the exception.

And for all my quarrels with evangelicalism, I have continued to believe in its truth. I have thought of it as the most potent and “correct” form of Christianity. These are my people. In other words, it is not that big a deal if those Christians over there go off the deep end. What could we really expect of those [liberals, Catholics, etc., etc.,] anyway? But evangelicals—my people, bearers of truth—can’t go wrong.

My hopes have been built not only on the life of Jesus. I have also erected an elaborate and far more unstable scaffolding of cultural Christianity dependent on illusions of progress and evangelical innocence. This has come crashing down.

Ironically, this brings to my mind a very evangelical hymn. It has a line that goes like this: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” I thought I could rely on evangelicalism. I thought I could trust in the things I had been taught and the people who taught me. It turns out I couldn’t. But what I really want to say, to myself and to everyone who shares the ache of disillusionment, is that Jesus himself does not disappoint.

Evangelicalism Is Alive and Well

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Nearly a decade ago, Soong-Chan Rah wrote The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The book offered a searing theological critique of American evangelicalism’s obsession with materialism, individualism, and whiteness. It was also a demographic warning to American evangelicals. Beneath the radar of the media and white evangelicals themselves, the church was becoming more immigrant-based, more diverse, more urban.

The dominant impression we have of evangelicalism is the supposed 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. These are the people who get the attention of the mainstream media. They have big platforms and loud voices. They hoard money and erect big buildings. They cover their hatred with pious words. They have biblical proof texts to excuse every dimension of their selfishness.

I’m so glad this isn’t all there is.

Over the weekend I was at some evangelical gatherings that refreshed me and reminded me why I am still part of this vital and infuriating religious tradition. Here are some of the contrasts I noticed compared to the dominant form of evangelicalism with which most people are more familiar.

–Evangelicalism that is urban. It’s not afraid of the city because the city is home. It’s not sharing tips about which “dangerous” neighborhoods to avoid because that’s where our homes are. We don’t take “missions trips” to the city. We just walk out the front door and try not to be crappy neighbors.

–Evangelicalism that is in solidarity with the poor. This doesn’t put it quite right. Imagine an evangelicalism that is the poor. While the evangelical mainstream tries to explain why all its unjust advantages are actually God’s blessings to be enjoyed, other evangelicals experience the truth that God gives extra faith to the poor and walks with us in our sufferings.

–Evangelicalism that is Korean and Black and Puerto Rican and Haitian and Chinese. And a little white too. I’m not talking about the feel-good multi-ethnic churches that actually instill white norms. I’m talking about an evangelicalism where the ingrained spiritual arrogance of whiteness is granted no authority. This is an application of the central drama of the New Testament church: God, through Christ, making one people out of Jews and Gentiles. As the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder put it over 40 years ago, “The breaking down of the wall between two ethnic groups is the gospel. It is not a fruit of the gospel; it is not an object lesson in the gospel; it is not a vehicle of the gospel, it is the gospel.”

–Evangelicalism that has a theology of the public good. Jesus is a personal savior here too, but he inaugurated a kingdom and is renewing all things. The schools and streets are our responsibility and public needs come before our own. If you just want personal salvation Christianity isn’t for you.

–Evangelicalism that is hopeful. We’re so accustomed to fear-based religion we hardly know what this looks like. Imagine an evangelicalism that doesn’t have to turn to an evil ruler to protect itself from the monsters in its head because it has already faced oppression and found hope in the promises of God.

Don’t get me wrong. This other kind of evangelicalism I’m talking about is flawed. Any human community has its own share of brokenness and sin. If you don’t want to be disillusioned, don’t live life, don’t get close to anyone. But if you lean into the disillusionment and work through it, you may find your way to Christian hope on the other side. Not positivity or innocence. Hope.

In recent years some major studies of American religiosity have indicated that evangelicalism is in decline. When it comes to the dominant white middle class expression of evangelicalism in the United States, I hope that is true. Long ago Jesus told us some converts are not worth making.

Right now the evangelical mainstream looks like what I imagine happens when God enacts the very worst sort of judgment: delivering you over to what you want. But if you long to experience mercy rather than judgment, look to the margins.

Anti-fundamentalism in Modern America

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What do you think of when you think of fundamentalism? David Harrington Watt wants you to know that the thing you’re thinking is probably wrong. It is most likely a grab bag of ideas cobbled together from an intellectual discourse Watt calls “anti-fundamentalism.” Anti-fundamentalists have liked to think of themselves as detached observers studying an intriguing phenomenon. Look at those religious fanatics who can’t seem to cope with modernity! Look at how they stand in the way of progress! What is wrong with them?

Not so fast, says Watt. He invites anti-fundamentalists and all of us who have been influenced by that tradition (which is almost all of us, I think) to turn our gaze around and consider our own assumptions. Anti-fundamentalism then emerges not as a stable and neutral category of analysis, but an ideology designed to define, control, and make claims about the appropriate place of religion in the modern world (shades of Jonathan Z. Smith here).

The first fundamentalists were a group of conservative Protestants in the United States who proudly claimed that label in the 1920s as they battled theological modernists for control of the major Protestant denominations. They defended what they understood to be the fundamentals of Christianity against the theological modernists who rejected many traditional Christian doctrines such as the virgin birth. Fundamentalism was not the reactionary faith of uneducated yokels living in the countryside. It was especially appealing to the white Protestant middle classes and was particularly strong in many northern urban centers such as Chicago and Philadelphia. The fundamentalists weren’t even anti-modern in any thoroughgoing way (good luck defining modernity).

Watt thinks it makes a lot of sense to call those conservative Protestants of the 1920s and their religious descendants fundamentalists. He doesn’t think it is very useful to call other people fundamentalists. Obviously, many people disagree. Fundamentalism is now supposedly a global phenomenon, infecting nearly every religious tradition and threatening human progress wherever it raises its reactionary head. There are Islamic fundamentalists and Jewish fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists and nearly every other kind of fundamentalist you can imagine.

Watt thinks this is silly. How did a term invented in a little corner of the Protestant world in a particular moment of controversy become a way for people to imagine and talk about an ostensibly global phenomenon? Watt’s book uncovers the intellectual genealogy of this shift. Along the way, he argues that the discourse of anti-fundamentalism has usually told us more about the intellectuals engaging in it than the people they study.

Watt shows how, beginning in the 1920s, the discourse of anti-fundamentalism created an idea of fundamentalism that was more a term of abuse than a unit of analysis. He demonstrates that the dominant image of fundamentalism that became crystallized through the 1970s was based on frequently shoddy scholarship, a lack of attention to the primary sources, and was all too ready to take the modernists word for it, as if they were a disinterested party. Richard Hofstadter looks especially guilty here, and Watt portrays his Anti-intellectualism in American Life as the complaint of an intellectual upset that everyone didn’t pay him the deference he was due.

Then, of course, everything changed in 1979. With the Iranian Revolution, fundamentalism quite suddenly became an elastic global concept used to describe all sorts of religious movements Americans found threatening. Precisely because anti-fundamentalist discourse had by the 1970s created a monster of its own imagination, it was easy to transport it globally.

Any aspiring author can learn from this book. David Watt’s prose here—as in all of his books—is crystal clear, and utterly unpretentious. He writes simply and forcefully, knowing exactly what he wants to say. That means it’s an extremely easy read.

I’ll close with a quote from Watt’s conclusion. An inattentive reader might wonder if this is all a semantic game that intellectuals play. What is really at stake in calling people fundamentalists? Watt writes:

Getting rid of the words “fundamentalist,” “fundamentalists,” and “fundamentalism” will not solve the problem. The problem is not with the words. The problem is with the assumptions, hopes, and habits of mind upon which they rest. Simply coming up with new names without rethinking those assumptions, hopes, and habits of mind does us no good whatsoever. If tomorrow everyone in the world were to stop talking about fundamentalism and begin talking about something like “reactionary religious groups” or “bad religion” or “Falwellianism” or “Qutbism,” we’d have made no progress. The problem is not with the term per se but with the category itself and with the desire to name a dangerous other. It is about the wish to pretend that we know the direction history is moving in and what it means to stand in the way of progress. It is about a desire to sort humanity into two groups: those who are virtuous and those who are not. It is, in other words, about our desire to separate the sheep from the goats.

Thoughts for Sunday

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Ecuadorian theologian C. René Padilla

In 1974, C. René Padilla shook up the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization with his criticisms of American evangelicalism. Here’s an excerpt that remains relevant today:

A Church that is not faithful to the Gospel in all its dimensions inevitably becomes an instrument of the status quo. The Gospel is meant to place the totality of life under the universal lordship of Jesus Christ, not to produce cultic sects; it is an open break to the status quo of the world. Therefore a Gospel that leaves untouched our life in the world — in relationship to the world of men as well as in relationship to the world of creation — is not the Christian Gospel, but culture Christianity, adjusted to the mood of the day.

This kind of gospel has no teeth — it is a gospel that the ‘free consumers’ of religion will want to receive because it is cheap and it demands nothing of them…The gospel of culture Christianity today is a message of conformism, a message that, if not accepted, can at least be easily tolerated because it doesn’t disturb anybody. The racist can continue to be a racist, the exploiter can continue to be an exploiter. Christianity will be something that runs along life, but will not cut through it.”

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.

Stop Worrying about the Evangelical Brand

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This is the brand.

This week there has been a rash of stories describing white evangelicals’ conflicted feelings about the term “evangelical.” Many are fretting that the label is hopelessly politicized in the age of Trump.

On Tuesday the editor of Christianity Today wrote:

No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.

The New York Times:

Will Hinton, a web developer in Atlanta, said he knew hundreds of politically conservative evangelicals who had grown increasingly repulsed by the religious right’s leaders, the tone they take and some of the causes and candidates they promote.

Mr. Hinton grew up in the movement as a politically active high school student who spoke at conferences and worked on Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign. Now, at 45, he said he was still an evangelical, still a conservative, but without a political party or movement.

“I have dozens of conservative evangelical friends who were so happy that Roy Moore did not win,” he said, “because the evangelical support for Trump and Roy Moore is ruining the witness for Christ for generations in this country.”

The Washington Post:

Jen Hatmaker, a Texas-based author with a large evangelical following, sees “a mass exodus” from the label in her community. “The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” she said…

“I think when we start throwing around terms like ‘evangelical’ to the outside, it can be really ostracizing,” said Peter Heilman, a 29-year-old pastor-to-be leaning his tattooed elbows on his ripped blue jeans. He grew up labeling himself lots of ways: conservative, Republican, evangelical. But interning in a more politically and racially diverse church has convinced him to drop those words — he’s concerned people won’t listen to him preach if they disagree with his politics.

“You have to understand the people you’re speaking to and what’s going to allow them to keep open ears,” he said. “When it comes down to it, labels can be a dangerous thing.” …

“Shorthands have always been helpful,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, in Illinois. “The question is, ‘Do I want to be affiliated with that?’ when terms have been redefined, either when it’s been hijacked or misunderstood.”

If you are on the inside of evangelicalism and take it for granted that Christianity is a force for good in the world and evangelicalism in particular is lifegiving, then it matters a great deal if our “Christian witness” is being harmed. If Jesus really does rescue people and the tarnished evangelical brand turns people off from Jesus, then this is a disaster. I understand these concerns and in many ways I share them.

But the preoccupation with the evangelical brand fails to seriously account for the lived experience of the people evangelicalism harms. Too many white evangelicals seem more bothered by the toxicity of the brand than the underlying reality of what evangelicalism does to real human beings.

The problem with mainstream white evangelicalism is not that it’s misunderstood or has some unsavory connotations. The problem is that it’s a movement determined to oppress people. It’s allied with political forces of unusual cruelty and nihilism. Yes, that hurts Christian credibility, but more importantly, it hurts people!

The white evangelical mainstream is crouched in a defensive posture of fear and grievance. Evangelical leaders counseling love and hope and winsome engagement with society are generally ignored. Instead, most ordinary white evangelicals embrace the politics of Trumpism and refuse to admit what that politics actually does.

They oppress immigrants and drive them from their homes; they load new burdens on the poor and withdraw care for the sick; they single out LGBT people for scapegoating and special forms of discrimination; they cast Muslims as religious enemies; they support racism, sexism, police brutality and voter suppression. In their reckless pursuit of power, they reject what is best in the American tradition: liberal democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of the press.

The vast majority of white evangelicals do not recognize this description. They don’t feel like they are oppressing people. They feel like they are an embattled minority struggling to hold their own in a hostile culture. This isn’t exculpatory, however. It only means that white evangelicalism shares a common feature of oppressive political mobilizations, where oppression is driven not so much by hatred of the other but by the insecurities and tensions within the community. Indeed, a politics of grievance and fear is characteristic of genocidal movements.

The point here is not that white evangelicalism is genocidal (it’s not!) but that white evangelicals’ lived experience as embattled minority and their political mobilization as oppressors are not contradictory. The two are linked; it is precisely white evangelicals’ preoccupation with their own lost power that makes them so indifferent toward human suffering outside their community.

Trying to rebrand evangelicalism or disassociate from it is an insufficient response because it doesn’t address the underlying reality of oppression. The Post talked to a black evangelical who gets it:

Emmett Price, a professor who focuses on African American studies at the prominent evangelical seminary Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts, said he worries that white Christians who are abandoning the term are only looking to avoid the negative associations, not to reform their communities. If they’re concerned that politics have tarred evangelicals as racist, he said, they ought to be focused on making evangelical churches less racist — not on calling themselves something else.

“There’s a desire to detach from the political landscape right now. If one wanted to go and essentially fight somewhere for inclusivity, one would stay in that space and invite others in,” he said. “Ditching a term is simply ditching a term.”

For those of us who are heartsick over the state of evangelicalism, rejecting the label or discarding difficult relationships with evangelicals may actually be a selfish choice.* The harder task is to take ownership of what our communities have become and seek reformation from the inside.


*I’m not speaking here of people who have suffered spiritual or other forms of abuse in evangelical settings. By all means, get out! And I’m not speaking of Christians of color who find their very identities assaulted in evangelical spaces. I’m referring specifically to people like me!

Searching for a Christian Sense of the Common Good

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I was seventeen years old when I started my sociology 101 class at my little community college in Garrett County, Maryland. I hated it, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. In fact, it took several years to become clear. The discipline of sociology studies groups, a category that I barely recognized. I couldn’t completely articulate it at the time, but what I knew in my bones was this: the world is made up of autonomous individuals making choices. What happens to those individuals depends on the choices they make. Hurrah for the individual! Hurrah for the market that judges justly!

Had my imagination been formed more by the Bible than by the fragmenting individualism of the late twentieth century United States, I would have had many intuitive connections to sociology 101. But I had managed to read the Bible cover to cover more than once and missed the point every time. What I didn’t realize is that the Bible is less a story about people than it is a story about a people.

The arc of the Christian scriptures doesn’t follow the journey of righteous individuals. It tells of God’s faithfulness to a group, culminating in the creation of a new kind of human community, the kingdom of God on earth. Throughout the story, the people of God are called to weave their lives together in patterns of mutual dependence.

When the prophet Isaiah declared, “pour yourself out for the hungry” (Isaiah 58), it was a demand placed on the community, not a suggestion for charitably-minded individuals. Yahweh called his people to repentance for their failure to take collective action. All of this was lost on me to such a degree that I literally didn’t know systemic injustice was a major biblical theme. I made that shocking discovery in 2005. Before that time, all that mattered was my salvation, my faith, my piety, my charity.

So I sat in my sociology 101 class, chafing against liberal academia and its efforts to divide people into groups and deny them their personal responsibility. I raged against politically correct talk of “disparities” and “inequality” and “systemic racism.” Individuals make their choices and have to live with them, I knew.

My radical individualism not only contradicted the communal emphasis of the scriptures, its practical effect was to eviscerate any notion of Christian public action or Christian concern for the collective good. In my zealous pursuit of personal piety, I declared vast domains of human life and flourishing no-go zones.

Do you see a social problem? Let me check my ledger. I’m sorry, that problem falls on the “individual responsibility” side of my ledger; Christianity has nothing to say about it.

Having made that claim, it doesn’t mean I don’t act in those public spheres. I simply do whatever I want, basically. In these spaces where my imagination and habits and heart ought to be captured by the values and practices of the Kingdom of God, there is instead a vacuous selfishness filled by the gods of capitalism, individualism, safety, comfort, race, nation.

Do my politics endanger you? I’m sorry, my Christianity lets me have whatever politics I want as long as I’m charitable in my personal life.

This is one of the dark sides of a certain radical evangelical tradition that has thrown off every hierarchy, every structure, every tradition. What remains is the individual alone before God, free to choose pleasing artifacts of the Christian past to enliven spiritual life, but not be governed by any of it.

At the core of this ungoverned Christian is the Bible and the feelings it provides. When alone before God with Bible open, he speaks to us. Don’t worry about your social location. Don’t fret about your bias. You came by that insight honestly, in fervent prayer. It’s good as gold.

So if in the privacy of your prayer closet God told you he’s a white nationalist, don’t let anybody tell you different. If God told you to support despicable leaders because it’s actually all part of his plan, stand firm! If God told you Roy Moore is a good man, don’t you dare hold his words and actions against him!

Unfortunately, this isn’t even satirical. For Trumpist evangelicals, the judgment and wisdom of Christians most affected by Trump’s cruelty count for nothing. Listening to the global church and Christians of color in the United States is absurd. After all, if God has told me to support Trump, who are they to tell me otherwise?

This kind of radical individualism twists Christianity into a bizarre inversion of itself. The message that Jesus saves is an invitation into a community. Instead, we’ve turned it into a cry of self-absorption.

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching Evangelicalism at Temple

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What happens when you try to teach the history of evangelicalism in a Temple University GenEd class made up of mostly freshman with majors from all over the university? This month I found out.

As we came to the end of our unit on evangelicalism Friday, I asked the students how their view of evangelicalism differs from a month ago. Here are a few paraphrased responses:

I knew that it was around but I didn’t know it was such a big deal.

I had no idea it was so big and influential or had such a large effect on American politics.

I thought it was an old-timey religion and didn’t realize it was something still going on today.

I had never heard of it before.

I had never thought about how religion connects to history.

My favorite response came from another student who said she told her friend she was learning about evangelicalism and he said, “Oh yeah, they’re all assholes, right?” While she may not have a favorable opinion of evangelicals, her first instinct was to complicate her friend’s breezy assumption. She now knows there is a much longer, more diverse, and more complicated story than she had realized.

If I do something like this again, I will take more time and be more explicit in laying a theoretical foundation to explain to the students why we’re studying religion in a history class. The course is called “The Making of American Society.” They intuitively understood why we would study immigration under that heading. And civil rights? Of course. But evangelicalism? That needed some justification.

The telling comment came from the student who said she hadn’t thought about how religion connects to history. In other words, even at the end of the unit she was thinking of religion as something separate from history instead of something that occurs inside history.

At a place like Temple, it seems that students who may be right there with you when discussing complicated and fraught questions of race, gender, and politics are suddenly adrift when the conversation turns to religion. This dynamic alone shows how dramatically the country has changed and how many students live in a secular environment or one where religion is so privatized they have difficulty understanding basic features of the American past and present.

I did talk to them briefly during the unit about Robert Orsi’s work, but in the future I need to be much more direct and careful in laying a foundation for discussion and understanding. If students subconsciously think religion is outside history, then studying it can seem not only confusing but inappropriate or irrelevant.

This is only one variation on the constant challenge that is at the heart of what we do: provoking students into trying to understand people and worlds unlike their own. Even if everything goes pretty well, the result feels incomplete. But if the student’s world seems more complex than it did a month ago, that’s a partial victory to take home and try to build on next time.