The War on Evangelicalism, Part Four

In many ways, the battle for the Bible and for the “soul” of evangelicalism mirrored the same lines of reasoning that undergirded the American Civil War. The Bible read literally simply did not clearly disparage slavery. One could find ample support for “Biblical slavery.” Abolitionists were at a clear disadvantage, then, if one assumed the Bible was to be taken literally. Likewise, the struggle for racial equality and women’s rights found scant support when the Bible was read literally and deemed “inerrant.”

Secondly, by defending an inerrant Bible (despite all the intellectual hoops one had to jump through to do so) Lindsell and other fundamentalists were afforded a certain “moral high ground in the battle, at least in their own eyes. While others sought to elevate blacks and women in society, fundamentalists defended the “Word of God,” from modernity and secularism. Inerrancy became the rule of engagement for the coming war for evangelicalism. Fundamentalism almost always assumes issues are binary, either all right or all wrong, and they were sure they were on the side of all-right. As Clark Pinnock once observed, “How awfully easy it is for people who think themselves in possession of God’s infallible Word to transfer some of that infallibility to themselves…And how easy for them, to respond to anyone who questions any aspect of their fortresslike position with righteous anger and adamant rejection.”  (1)

Thirdly, the fundamentalist’s views on scriptural authority and inspiration tended to downplay experience and practice in favor of knowledge. The Bible became largely a compendium of “facts” about God that Christians were to intellectually absorb. Orthodoxy was primarily defined as believing the right things. “The Bible, then, is not a ‘book full of timeless truths’ (2) but a revelatory vehicle that contains many types of revelation, all of which surround and support that which is primary in scripture: narrative.” (3) 

Nowhere was the battle to believe the “right things” more apparent than in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s. As David Gushee recounts, “Those identifying with the conservative side…believed that the denomination as a whole, and the seminaries and colleges in particular, were straying into mainline liberalism, including an eroding belief in the truthfulness and authority of the Bible.” (4) By this, of course, conservatives meant inerrancy of scripture. The battle for the Bible intertwined with secular politics, and with the Southern fundamentalist views of Jerry Falwell and others, Meant that the “Southern Baptist fights were the most visible. But in Brian McLaren’s 2016 book, ‘The Great Spiritual Migration,’ he describes a political fundamentalist takeover of the whole of evangelical Christianity, not just the Southern Baptists. …A movement of once-considerable theological and moral diversity was gradually and intentionally moved to a place of conservative theological and moral rigidity.” (5) 

But this brings us to a different level of theological infighting. The so-called battle for the Bible and the subsequent takeover of evangelicalism was strongly intertwined with a certain political stance and agendas. There were underlying political motives of the fundamentalist battle for control of American evangelicalism. More on that in part 5 of this series.

To be continued.

1 Roger E. Olson, “Reformed and Always Reforming,” Baker Academic, 2007, pp. 55-56, (quoting Pinnock) from “An Evangelical Theology: Conservative and Contemporary,” Christianity Today, January 5, 1979, p. 23.

2 Clark Pinnock, “Tracking the Maze: Finding our Way Through Modern Theology from an Evangelical Perspective,” Harper and Roe, 1990, p. 175

3 Olson, p. 54.

4 David P. Gushee, “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” p. 30.

5 Ibid., p. 31.

The War on Evangelicalism, Part Three

While Harold Lindsell’s “The Battle for the Bible” may have been the opening salvo on the war on Evangelicalism, Baptist segregationist Pastor and televangelist Jerry Falwell and his “Moral Majority” movement marked the beginning of an all-out assault on evangelicalism. It marked the D-Day politically of the war and would set the tone for the next two decades.

Depending on whom one talked to, Falwell was either a fundamentalist or an evangelical. He certainly started out as a fundamentalist. His foray into politics somewhat sullied his reputation as a fundamentalist, as Bob Jones University “declared that the Moral Majority organization “was Satanic”, holding the view that it was a step towards the apostate one-world church and government body because it would cross the line from a political alliance to a religious one between true Christians and the non-born-again, which was forbidden by their interpretation of the Bible.“ (1) But, Falwell never disavowed fundamentalism, and continued to espouse many of its tenants.

Which is part of the point I wish to make. By allying with conservative politicians and Catholics, Falwell was able to infiltrate evangelicalism, while still able to forward a fundamentalist agenda. But let’s be clear here. This entanglement with American politics was a major departure for a fundamentalist. Instead of rejecting politics, as most fundamentalists before, Falwell heartily jumped into the fray, while still clinging to most fundamentalist beliefs, the most prominent of which was racism.

Viewing the fight for civil rights as a communist plot, Falwell was a staunch defender of segregation. For him and other fundamentalists, communism fostered American racial discontent as a tool to discredit capitalism. The political ploy he relied on was, of course, “states rights.” (2) The argument that States, not the federal government, should decide issues of discrimination has been a consistent tool in the fight against inclusion by conservatives ever since.

However, the racism inherent to fundamentalists like Falwell put him at a tremendous political disadvantage. “Although Southern fundamentalists were advancing in socioeconomic status and becoming more politically active, they were unable to create a nationally,  influential political movement, primarily because their defense of segregation ran counter to the nation’s increasing acceptance of civil rights and left them regionally isolated.” (3)

As Falwell positioned his morality troops in 1979, fundamentalists of another sort were preparing their assault on Southern Baptist colleges. David P. Gushee, a renowned Christian ethicist, who has since renounced evangelicalism, describes the bitter cultural battle being fought when he attended seminary in the 80’s.

“The Southern Seminary where I arrived in 1984 was embroiled in a fierce denominational controversy…Little known to me before my arrival was that the fact that the Southern Baptists were at the forefront of the religious wars of the 1980s and beyond, and that Southern Seminary was ground zero. I showed up in the midst of the carefully organized campaign of ‘fundamentalist-conservatives’ to take over (back?) the denomination from ‘moderate’ (moderate-conservative? liberal?) control.” (4)

Interestingly, I was finishing up my seminary degree from Fuller Seminary about the same time Dr. Gushee was beginning his. I was aware of the battle, but as I was not Southern Baptist, didn’t think that much of it. I was also aware of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority, but likewise, dismissed it as “fringe.”

So, as the 1980’s began, a basic two-pronged fundamentalist strategy formed: one on the popular level with the Falwell-led Moral Majority, the other on campuses and within the Southern Baptist Convention, led by fundamentalists such as Paige Patterson. More on that later.

To be continued.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Falwell_Sr.

2 “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Christian Right,” Daniel K. Williams, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 46.

3 Ibid, pp. 46-47.

4 “Still Christian, Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism,” David P. Gushee, Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, p. 28.

The War on Evangelicalism, Part Two

As I have alluded to in part one, the trajectories of American fundamentalism and American evangelicalism are intertwined. It is impossible to understand current evangelicalism in America without understanding how fundamentalism has shaped or reshaped American evangelicals. While post-war evangelicals tried to distance themselves from their dour cousins, eventually they became more than kissing cousins and by the end of the twentieth century what was initially a small baby bump, became a toddler that looked and acted more like the fundamentalist father than the evangelical mother.

So, what had happened? To the uninitiated, evangelicals were what they’d always been: devoted to an inerrant Bible, at war with a secular society and keen on personal salvation. Well, that set of descriptors certainly hadn’t changed for fundamentalists. They’d been preaching that for over a century. But was that always true for evangelicals? Actually, no.

What would occur in the decades following Watergate could only be described as a collision between evangelicals and fundamentalists centered around race and the inerrancy of scripture. Simply put, inerrancy of scripture combined with white privilege clashed with the more nuanced views of evangelical scholarship and the classic evangelical call for social justice. Warning shots were fired when Harold Lindsell published his popular “Battle for the Bible” in 1976. (1)

In David Ewert‘s 1977 review of Lindsell’s book, he clearly describes the growing tension between conservatives as to how to describe the inspiration of scripture:

“It is disheartening when brothers within the evangelical tradition confront each other as enemies or rivals when they discover that not everyone understands the Bible exactly as they do. But it strikes me as unspeakably sad when someone feels “called” to divide the evangelical movement, in which the Bible is confessed to be inspired and authoritative for doctrine and practice, by demanding that everyone use the same vocabulary when defining inspiration (other than that which the biblical writers use).” (2)

More moderate views were held by evangelical scholars such as Clark Pinnock, who’s views on inerrancy of scripture had evolved over time. In 1978, Pinnock described the problem arose because for fundamentalists “the confluence of the Princeton theology of Hodge and Warfield with dispensational thinking in the Fundamentalist position meant that for fundamentalism and its successors, biblical inerrancy had to be an important question. …For evangelical theology, belief in biblical inerrancy and belief in biblical authority have been very closely connected, and therefor the inerrancy debate touches upon what many people feel is the basis of authority and religious certainty.” (3)

I will not attempt to go down the rabbit hole of that debate, as that is an entirely different subject. But, as one with first-hand memories of that debate, I can attest to the bitter conflict that ensued, as I was attending Fuller Seminary around that time, and everyone was taking sides in the battle. Sufficient to say, it formed the backbone of division within conservative Christianity. I, as with many other moderate students and faculty, had sided with the more nuanced views of “sufficiency of scripture” and its authority in matters of doctrine, but rejected literalism and strict inerrancy as indefensible. Over the next 2 decades we would lose that battle.

To be continued. 

1 The Battle for the Bible, Harold Lindsell, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976. 288 pages.

2 https://directionjournal.org/6/2/battle-for-bible.html

3 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/004057367803500108?cookieSet=1

The War on Evangelicalism, Part One

At a recent town hall meeting, Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, took questions from an “evangelical” man named Tim. 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. (1) 

There are reasons evangelicals like Tim feel this way. Society is changing, and depending on one’s perspective, either it has always been changing, or the change is a dramatic harbinger of the “end times.” 

“Where conservatives and liberals differ, of course, is in interpretation.  To liberals and secularists, America has always changed, and if it is changing for the more multicultural and less religiously homogeneous, the better.

But for conservatives, these trends are signs of, depending on one’s point of view, the approaching end-times (over 75 percent of American evangelicals say they believe the Rapture will take place in the next 50 years); the possession of the United States by demonic entities (Trump’s closest religious adviser believes this); a ‘war on religion’ by secular elites and government; a conspiracy by Hollywood and media moguls; or at the very least, a dangerous loss of our moral center.” (2)

But where conservative American Christianity is concerned, Tim’s concern is not new, but has a history dating back at least to the beginnings of the 20th century. Part of the problem stems from the perception of loss, another is the tendency to wear rose-colored glasses when longing for the past. 

Prior to the American Civil War, the American governance and White Protestant ethos went remarkably well in hand. Like Protestantism and Catholicism in European countries, the status quo of society assumed a certain parallel between religion and society, church and state. However, in Europe that glove in hand relationship was dissolving as secularism gained ground. With the rise of German “Higher Criticism” many conservatives felt the previous assumptions of Biblical authorship were under attack.

What followed the rising secularism and critical studies of scripture was the development of fundamentalist Christianity. In the succeeding decades until WWII, among these fundamentalists, there was a rigorous rejection of secularism and critical study as well as a general rejection of society’s trajectory. All of those distractions were “worldly” and the church needed to separate herself from them. Following WWII, a more nuanced conservatism arose, breaking ranks with fundamentalism. It was called evangelicalism. This is the story of the attack on that evangelicalism.

In the fundamentalist telling of the story the attack came from a myriad of things: humanism, secularism, movies, dances, communism, liberalism, feminism, the list is long. In reality, though, the attack on evangelicalism was from within. It would be “friendly fire” that would eventually topple evangelicalism. Tim, as with most 21st century evangelicals, is unaware of the war that ensued in the last 20 years of the 20th century. Most experienced it but were deceived as to its real nature, and where the shells were coming from. The battle was fought over how the church was to understand and define itself. As such, it was an internal affair, and as with most wars, the victor rewrites the history of that war.

Many of the conservative evangelical denominations such as the Pentecostal Assemblies of God or the Southern Baptist were, and could be argued, still are, fundamentalist denominations. Dispensationalism and end times eschatology are rather new developments within the last 150 years, and tend to define fundamentalism. Along with that is the belief in the “inerrancy” of scripture, one of the fundamental tenants of fundamentalism. While it has been argued that fundamentalism is a smaller subset of evangelicalism; since fundamentalism arose from the modernist debate in the early 20th century, and evangelicalism, as is known today is post-WWII, I consider modern                                    evangelicalism as a subset, or outgrowth of fundamentalism.

This is apparent when observing the development of the term evangelical in the late 20th century by preachers such as Billy Graham and the development of evangelical institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary and the National Association of Evangelicals. While evangelicalism existed prior to the 20th century, it differed markedly from what would become fundamentalism because of its emphasis on social reform. This would be revived with the new post-war evangelicalism of the 50’s. These new evangelicals came from fundamentalist backgrounds but wished a more socially engaged experience than the separatism of fundamentalism.

Adding more confusion to the matter is that many of the most vocal evangelical leaders in the news today, like Jerry Falwell and his son, as well as Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, are, actually fundamentalists. The vitriol and harsh judgmental expressions of Franklin Graham or the ultra Calvinism of John Piper track more closely to fundamentalism than evangelicalism. It is understandable that the News Media and even evangelicals are confused, as I believe the confusion between fundamentalism and evangelicalism is intentional. But more on that in part two.

To be continued.

1 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

2 https://www.thedailybeast.com/of-course-christian-conservatives-compare-trump-to-jesus-they-think-theyre-fighting-for-americas-soul

Gun Packing Parishioners and The Sermon on the Mount

The recent church shooting in Texas where 2 were killed before armed parishioners shot and killed the gunman has been quite the topic of discussion on social media for the past week. As usual discussion breaks down to those on the Left saying this is not something Jesus would approve of, and those on the Right saying “turning the other cheek” would have meant many more lives lost. What Christian gun advocates fail, of course, to realize, is that voting for politicians that “owe their positions” to the NRA and the gun lobby, means that they are responsible for the continuation of an environment that breeds more gun violence. It is a circular trap. 

But, in my discussion with members of the Religious Right recently I ran into numerous comments that basically amounted to admitting the Sermon on the Mount was simply not practical in “real world” scenarios. It should not have caught me off guard, but it did.

One of the advantages of disengaging from a tribal “bubble” and deconstructing, is that you can see things from a different angle than that of the “tribe.” Things I had always been taught in my past dispensational/rapture/end-times evangelicalism suddenly began to fall in place. A “big picture” started to form.

In dispensational teaching, there are a couple of different approaches to the Sermon on the Mount. A. It was the millennial kingdom being offered to the Jews, which they rejected. That marked the end of the Age of the Jews and ushered in the Church Age. It was only meant for the Jews, hence has no bearing on present day Christianity. And, B. that it is a call to the church as well, but a sort of interim ethical code until the Kingdom of God is fully implemented. 

The average Christian in the pew is not particularly interested in Ryrie or Scofield so I won’t get into classical dispensationalism (although I remember some of my Sunday School teachers teaching straight out of the Scofield Study Bible). But I think it is generally accurate to say that most evangelical readers will see the Sermon on the Mount as having “personal” rather than general application. 

As we have seen with Pastor John MacArthur, and the many evangelicals who signed his letter condemning “social justice” as a “distraction” from the gospel, the Sermon on the Mount has no practical application for society in general. (1) Some of this comes from the modern struggle between capitalism and communism, as evangelicals are capitalists and as MacArthur points out in his blog, “social justice” has been employed as political shorthand by radical leftists as a way of calling for equal distribution of wealth, advantages, privileges, and benefits—up to and including pure Marxist socialism.” (2)

Not terribly surprising I suppose, as the specter of communism was a huge part of the preaching of evangelicals such as Billy Graham during the Cold War in the 50s and 60s. This also explains why you will never hear evangelicals clamoring for the Sermon on the Mount to be posted in American courtrooms. American evangelicals much more readily identify with Mosaic law than the Law of Love outlined in the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus’ radical redefinition of the Law of Moses, “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” “don’t judge others,” seems to have never set well with Christians, and the church has been terribly inept at following the teachings of Jesus, so this is not just an evangelical problem, but one that has dogged the church for centuries.

However, the bifurcation of Jesus’ teaching into something only Christians can strive for because the “world does not know him,” has the undesirable effect of producing a less just society. Because evangelicals have released government from attempting to achieve a more just society (for example the evangelical response to the 60s civil rights movement), they have actually been contributing to social injustice.

Which brings me back again to the parishioners packing pistols in the Texas church. When fear motivates the way Christians vote, and those fears largely revolve around “protecting oneself,” the stage is set for violence. Yes, killing the gunman prevented more victims, but the mantra, “only good guys with guns can stop bad guys with guns,” is circular. Evangelicals with their blind support of the NRA and gun proliferation, actually help create a scenario where it becomes necessary to arm parishioners. In the end, the Sermon on the Mount not only becomes impractical for secular government, but for Christians themselves.

1 https://statementonsocialjustice.com

2 https://www.gty.org/library/blog/B180907/the-injustice-of-social-justice

Deconstruction and the Culture Wars

My spirit is disquieted. I have a hard time falling asleep. I cannot turn my mind off. I have mixed feelings of anger, anguish, dread. At times deep sorrow washes over me. Other times a feeling of loss. But at times I feel a fleeting sense of peace…of feeling I am heading in the right direction. I tend to be a rather introspective person, always have been, so this is not some pathology, I have known depression enough to know that this is not simply depression. Most of my life I have been actually rather optimistic. No, this is no doubt a byproduct of spiritual deconstruction coupled with the sense of loss of my childhood beliefs.

In some ways I envy the British and Europeans, for whom Christendom died a century or more ago. The merger of religion and state was a failure, so the whole misguided experiment was simply abandoned. Here in the States, we doggedly refuse to abandon the effort to force the Kingdom of God down everyone’s throats. I am watching helplessly as fundamentalism reasserts its hold on American politics and presents society with an ugly Jesus.

As I have mentioned in the past, my wife and I grew up in the Assemblies of God denomination. We still attend one such church, largely because it was the church my wife has attended all her life, and because my 95 year old mom needs a ride to church, and that’s her church. I am not a member, I have grown apart from that denomination theologically, and have gradually come to the realization that I no longer identify as “evangelical.”

As can be expected, attending a meeting every Sunday where you no longer fit in is not very satisfying. It is not that I expect everyone to applaud my journey or my theological views, but I have found in the last half dozen years, that fundamentalism does not encourage the exchange of differing theological or spiritual understandings. I miss seminary where we were encouraged to wrestle with scripture, to debate ideas, bounce things off each other…in other words, it was a “safe” place to deconstruct and reconstruct unhindered by ecclesiastical censure.

But it is not the inability to “be myself” that I am bemoaning, but, rather the inability to “reach” lost evangelicals. It is not a pleasant experience to watch the church dying in real time, to see family members and friends succumb to self-delusion and harmful confirmation biases. Being “saved” in scripture, the concept of salvation, is not a “point” in one’s life that one can look back on and say, “that’s it, that’s when I was saved and said the sinner’s prayer.” Nor is it a destination when you die. Again and again, Jesus showed us that salvation was a continuous, lived experience.

A century and a half of individualistic, “sawdust trail” conversion experiences has numbed the conservative church to the central call of the Gospel message: love your neighbor. Conservatism has replaced the gospel in too many American churches. The gospel of unbridled capitalism and libertarianism has replaced the open generosity of Jesus’ message. The culture war that is being fiercely waged by the Religious Right is not political but spiritual. It is not, as conservatives opine, about gay marriage, feminism and transgender bathrooms. No, the struggle has always been about defining “who is my neighbor?”

So, once again, yesterday, I had the jarring experience of sitting through another service that started with everyone holding up their Bibles and in lock-step repeating the mantra…”I believe the WHOLE Bible, what it says about me, what it says about you…” as I glanced around the room and saw the frozen smiles of a couple hundred people waving their Bibles in complete obedience to their leader a chilling realization came over me, “it’s a cult.” Even though the pastor’s message was helpful for those facing hard times, the picture of everyone holding their Bibles up was so jarring, and the revelation that evangelicalism is a cult so disturbing, I was distracted for the rest of the service. It didn’t help that as we pulled out of the parking lot, the car ahead proudly displayed a Trump/Pence 2020 sticker.

Five Problems “Bible Believers” Face

The first major problem for evangelicals and other Christian fundamentalists is preliminary assumptions made about the Bible. Starting off with, the term, “THE Bible.” It is not A book, but a series of (often unrelated) letters, poems, laws, prophecies, warnings, instructions, historical propaganda, creation myth, etc). Fundamentalists largely ignore this and attempt a broad scale synthesis, forcing scripture to conform to their presuppositions about it. 

 Secondly, the “word of God,” small letter “w.” Fundamentalism, a hundred years ago, in its reaction to textual criticism, mistrust of science, the suffragette movement and desegregation, arbitrarily decided to call the Bible “inerrant” so that key verses could be pulled out of original context to combat evolution, the woman’s right to vote, and the “Negro” from equality with Whites. The result has been, as Roger E. Olson points out in his “Reformed and Always Reforming,” a church that has become stagnant and cannot reform itself any longer. Once you have nailed all your theology about God down, and it is based on inerrancy, there is nothing more to learn. Evangelicals have an exclusive corner on the TRUTH!

 Thirdly, evangelicals are thoroughly docetic, that is, scripture appears to be human but with humanity essentially strained out. The result of this is not a living series of documents that we can wrestle with and see our imperfect selves in, but a prodigious tomb of encyclopedic propositions on the nature of God.  The Bible becomes a rule book instead of a guide to the Kingdom.

 Fourthly, scripture is put on par with Christ, rather than allowing (as Jesus did in his ministry) to stand above scripture and interpret it for us. Instead of Christ-followers we have a large group who are “Bible-believers,” with the defense of an inerrant scripture taking precedence over “true religion” which is taking care of those who are marginalized and to avoid improper entanglements with “the world.” As we have seen historically, those who defend the inerrancy of scripture loudest, have been the most instrumental in marginalizing those with a different skin color, different religion or those who have a vagina and uterus. Inerrancy killed 100s of thousands in the American Civil War, all because a group of people with an inerrant text saw in the Bible the excuse to own other human beings.

 Lastly, Jesus was not, contrary to what evangelicals believe, a particularly observant Jew. His treatment of the Sabbath was scandalous, in the Sermon on the Mount, he twisted laws that hurt others, that were violent, into loving laws, something evangelicals seem to have a hard time grasping or promoting politically. The result of ignoring how Jesus replaced the Laws of Moses with the Law of Love, has been the biggest failure of evangelicalism.