Understanding the Evangelical Narrative, Part One

Last week Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren held a town hall meeting posted to Facebook where an evangelical gentleman named Tim asked her some questions. As I listened to his questions, I felt he had, indeed, summarized white evangelical concerns very succinctly and accurately. He was expressing his “sincerely held religious beliefs,” yet was totally oblivious to the underlying assumptions and the irony of presenting evangelicals as an endangered and marginalized group.

Tim started the conversation by stating that he loved America and Americans but was disheartened by what he viewed as a “bombardment” from Democrats “demonizing” his political and religious beliefs as “bigoted and intolerant.” Furthermore, he did not feel his beliefs were getting “the respect and honor” that were due them.

Tim then goes on to frame his questions in terms of having to “give up” his beliefs, That what he teaches his children, and giving up his beliefs concerning marriage and abortion.

In a nutshell, this is the evangelical social and political narrative. To summarize:

Evangelicals believe they are demonized, marginalized, victimized and scapegoated. The Bible tells them that the world will hate them, therefore They expect this to happen in the “end times.” Their “rights” will be gradually stripped from them as they refuse to bend to the apostasy of the “world.” They will be “persecuted for His Namesake.” “Soon they’ll be coming for our Bibles!”

There is nothing more pathetic and tragic than seeing a grown man whine and cry about losing privilege, when for 200 years they have been on the top of the food chain. But let’s look at what is pathologically wrong about Tim’s belief system and how he is attempting to spin things so that he is the oppressed martyr rather than the oppressor.

To understand American evangelicalism you have to understand the rise of Christian fundamentalism in America. And, to do so it is not sufficient to understand it as a primarily theological disagreement over the nature of scripture. There is a solid racial component that is conveniently ignored by the white evangelical narrative.

If we travel back in time to our American Civil War we are faced with the religious belief that slavery was ordained by God…that certain groups of people were “different” than white folks. Those who held that belief largely retreated into the Southern Baptist Convention following the stinging defeat of the Confederacy:

“For the Confederacy, the defeat was shattering. The Southern Nation (as it saw itself) was overthrown, but it neither abandoned its ideals nor vanished. Instead, it retreated—arguably into the Southern Baptist Convention. For a century to come, the South and the North would develop differently theologically. Proto-Fundamentalism (later known as evangelicalism) was dominantly a Northern movement. Only recently have SBC conservatives begun to think of themselves as “evangelicals.” (1)

The fundamentalist narrative as described by Mark A. Noll in his “The Civil War as a Theological Crisis,” centered around the application of an inerrant text, in particular how it applied to slavery. In a very real sense, Southerners felt the Southern cause was a defense of the Bible, while the abolitionist arguments had no Biblical merit and were ultimately an attack on the authority of scripture. This line of reasoning continues today amongst evangelicals when debating “Biblical marriage,” gay rights, feminism and abortion. Proof texting ones views from an inerrant text almost always ends in a reductionist and dumbed-down theology. However, as Noll points out, taking a more nuanced approach toward scripture will always face an uphill battle when facing literalists, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that so many biblical attacks on slavery were so weak…the most direct biblical attacks on slavery were ones that relied on common sense, the broadly accepted moral intuitions of American national ideology, and the weight of self-evident truths.” (2) 

This conflict still wages a century and a half later between those who see the “plain meaning” of the biblical texts as opposed to society’s appeal to a general sense of fairness, equality and social justice. And, unsurprisingly, the appeals for inclusion and social equalities are a tough sell amongst evangelicals.

Because this conflict over defending an inerrant plain reading of biblical texts was not resolved theologically by the American Civil War, the problem has persisted and metastasized into other areas besides slavery. Making it doubly hard to combat is the “no true Scotsman” fallacy that accompanies evangelicalism. Although the defeated South retreated into its own subset of American society, and exacted revenge on the newly emancipated black populace through segregation, by the end of the First World War fundamentalists were presenting themselves not only as the only Christians true to the Bible, but as the only true American patriots. Liberals were destroying the country. And God was angry.

To be continued.

1 https://sharperiron.org/article/proto-fundamentalism-part-1

2 Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, p. 40.

See Sen. Warren’s video here:

https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=2ahUKEwiJsbDo04PnAhUBQawKHbPFBIkQFjAAegQIAxAB&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNowThisPolitics%2Fvideos%2Fsen-elizabeth-warren-answers-evangelical-mans-question-about-their-differences%2F966749423707518%2F&usg=AOvVaw1fPrXM8whbEqoGUHhOBwJ6

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