Evangelicalism’s Response to COVID: Selfish or Selfless?

There is actually quite a bit of diverse doctrinal opinion I can withstand within Christianity. As most know, I was raised evangelical, Pentecostal to be exact. There is much that is familiar, soothing and reassuring within that framework. However, there is also much within that particular expression of faith that I have found increasingly difficult to reconcile with Christ’s teaching and the admonitions of New Testament scripture. American evangelism has never seemed to be able to rise above its fundamentalist background (itself a derivation of slave-holder religion) and its admiration of Christian Nationalism (a derivation of European colonialism and white exceptionalism). This particular blending has resulted in a religious structure resistant to cultural diversity, and actually hostile to any views not expressed from a dominant white male vantage point.

Over the past half dozen years as I have questioned and “deconstructed” my evangelical belief system I came to realize there was simply too much cognitive dissonance to keep the shell of evangelicalism, while reforming its core. Like the parable of putting new wine in old wine skins, evangelicalism is too stiff and set in its ways to accept Jesus’ gospel message unaltered. True repentance and an acknowledgment of the evangelical role in systemic racism, sexism and xenophobia has been proven to be a bridge too far for white evangelicals. Evangelism still functions, largely as a system of political oppression.

In particular, the pandemic crisis has revealed the disappointing truth about American evangelicalism: it is extremely arrogant and entitled. Something as simple as social distancing, wearing a mask and temporarily suspending large gatherings has sent many churches into an absolute meltdown. Rather than being their brother’s keeper, the concern is that their rights are being denied. It doesn’t matter that these events, like John MacArthur’s church, pack a few thousand people together with little regard for health and have shown to be “super spreader events.” 

My wife and I have been attending an evangelical church remotely via Facebook for some weeks now. It is the church she grew up in and I have attended for the last 27 years. I have been uncomfortable with some of the teaching, and as I have deconstructed, become aware of some of underlying assumptions that have contributed to a sort of tone-deafness to social injustices in America. This Sunday the Pastor started off with a special prayer for a Calvary Chapel church in Newbury Park, CA, …that God would be with the church as it practices civil disobedience to the State’s health orders to suspend large meetings. The large church felt that their “God-given right” to freedom outweighed any other considerations. A large group of “concerned” pastors and congregants from out-of-state also arrived to form a ring of “protection” around the Ventura county parishioners, who faced arrests and fines for endangering the community. As might be expected community members outside of the church arrived to counter protest the church’s decision and register their concern. There was a great deal of yelling, tussling and people getting knocked down. I just wonder what kind of a positive message the church was sending to this community? What kind of Jesus are those outside their church seeing?

Of course, a big part of the problem of this type of bad behavior and its resistance to CDC guidelines and state restrictions on large gatherings, is that conservative churches have decided to view this as a political affront to their “rights” and not as an opportunity to practice cruciform love. It is the ages old problem of balance of power and the fear of losing control over the narrative. The culture wars that started with Jerry Falwell and were abetted by respected leaders such as Billy Graham and James Dobson, were ultimately about acquiring power, not winning souls. Religious empires and mega-churches were built and maintained by the wielding of power and alignments with political leaders. Enormous amounts of money were changing hands. There has always been a major conflict of interest involved with mega-church/church growth movement.

In redefining the narrative as an infringement of the church’s “rights,” evangelicals have placed their own rights above those of others…something that has been repeated again and again over the years. It is reflected in the conservative religious response to caged children, the LGBTQ community, women and income inequity. By making it political rather than seeing the opportunity to show compassion, the church has condoned selfishness rather than selflessness as the path Christians should take. 

 

https://www.foxnews.com/us/california-church-service-prompts-clash-protesters-congregate-members

https://www.foxla.com/video/838715

Protesting Quarantine: When Being Christian is all About Me

As I stated in my last post, tough times bring out the best in people, but also the worst. Under financial strain and job loss some people’s faith causes them to reach out and help others, to show empathy and concern. But for others, fear and loss of control over their lives causes them to lash out, and show more concern for their own skin than concern for the well being of others. This is especially disheartening when I see those who claim to be followers of Jesus behave in ways that expose that when push comes to shove, their own needs come before those of others. 

The recent outbreak of small protests against stay at home restrictions would have been a more effective example of first amendment rights if the protestors had shown respect for the health of others. But they did not. In fact, the actions of most of those protestors showed that they really did not care about others at all. Many shouted “this is America,” as if their particular display of “patriotism” was some how more genuine than the millions of Americans following the health guidelines, trying to keep others safe, and suffering along with everyone else.

Especially troubling to me, was the blending of Christianity, guns, flag waving, and of course, Donald Trump, as though the blending of these things equated true Christianity and true American democracy. How is it that America has produced such a virulent, self absorbed, selfish, shallow brand of Christianity in some areas of the country? My fear is that as the quarantine drags on longer, more and more of these “me first” Christians will become increasingly more hostile and desperate. We are already seeing ugliness being directed towards Dr. Fauci and Dr. Berx and there are valid concerns for their safety. Bad actors have increasingly been identified and arrested and there are rising concerns that the pandemic will spark domestic terrorism in the coming months according to a memo put out by the Department of Homeland Security April 23. 

“The memo, dated April 23 and obtained by POLITICO, cites recent arrests of individuals who have threatened government facilities and elected officials over the health restrictions that have been imposed to stop the spread of Covid-19. The warning, marked unclassified/law enforcement sensitive, was disseminated as so-called Liberate protesters have begun demonstrating outside several states’ capitol buildings demanding an end to the lockdowns.” (1)

The usual conspiracy theories that fall along racial/political lines are being once again dredged up and scape goats created to vent one’s frustrations against. Typically it is the messengers, the scientists, the governors, i.e., those trying hardest to help and flatten the curve that receive the brunt of scorn. When did medicine and science become a liberal plot to discredit Trump? I am not particularly apocalyptic, but when scripture describes “the love of many waxing cold,” (Matthew 24:12) and “even the elect being deceived,” (Matthew 24:24), it is easy to see how selfishness combined with leaders who promise much, but deliver little, can sway those with shallow faith.

Portions of the New Testament, like that in Matthew, warn of the dangers of listening to “false prophets,” who feed our fears and shore up our echo chambers. If Christians could only show more discernment, and realize that they are being used. These protests are not spontaneous, but carefully orchestrated by “non-profit” organizations like the Heritage Foundation, that hide behind a lot of patriotic posturing, but who’s goals are fattening the pockets of the wealthiest Americans:

—“The protests playing out now have the same feel as the Tea Party protests aided by Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity and others a decade ago — and with good reason: Early evidence suggests they are not organic but a brush fire being stoked by some of the same people and money that built the Tea Party.”

“Look no further than the first protest organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund — whose chairman manages the vast financial investments of Dick and Betsy DeVos, the Education Secretary — to see that the campaign to “open” America flows from the superrich and their front groups.” (2)

So, middle class, largely white, Americans who have lost jobs and healthcare coverage, and have reasons to be fearful, are being manipulated by groups that are fronts for Big Business and America’s top 1%, who play upon those fears to get support for maintaining the wealth inequality status quo. By clever use of religious and patriotic jingoism and appealing to our baser self interests disguised as “constitutional rights,” the Uber-rich manage to continue to deceive a large swath of people into believing that they have their best interests in mind; that somehow by protesting they are being more patriotic, more religious and are suffering unjustly. The bottom line is that the superrich are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor and middle class if it increases their bottom line.

The Koch Brothers are beginning to realize, however, that there are negative side affects when right-wing radicalism is unleashed. With the vast majority of Americans supporting social distancing and their governors’ responses to “flattening the curve,” the increasingly unsafe and “in-your-face” posturing of gun toting radicalism displayed by the recent mobs of quarantine dissidents is not playing well on social media and the news. 

“Americans for Prosperity — the main political arm of the Koch family — decided not to join some of its former collaborators from the tea party movement, such as FreedomWorks, in embracing the protests or helping organize them online.”

“The move reflects a dramatic shift in tactics within the network, which in the past has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year on political action. It also demonstrates how the grassroots activist wing of the Republican Party — which was once funded and largely molded by the Kochs — has veered away from the small-government priorities of an earlier era. Now, much of the take-to-the-streets anger channels President Donald Trump’s skepticism of the kind of expertise that lies behind the coronavirus shutdowns.” (3)

In particular, the Koch Brothers have realized a diminishing return from the Tea Party movement, and have begun a balancing act of running the risk of losing wealthy conservative donors by not directly supporting the protests, yet realizing that the protests may be counter productive to their goals of deregulation. —In essence, the Libertarian goals of the Uber-rich can be likened to a parasite that lives off the health of the host, yet realizes the host must be kept alive or they themselves will perish. It is a rather macabre dance. —And yet, somehow these superrich groups have managed to convince a large portion of the conservative middle class that they have their best interests in mind: that they feel their pain and that they represent true populism. One of the greatest farces foisted on an unsuspecting middle class is that Donald Trump is a populist president. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And yet, conservative Christians in increasing numbers, turn to Libertarianism rather than the Sermon on the Mount as their touchstone for guidance in social activism. The social Darwinism of Ayn Rand seems more palatable than “blessed are the meek.” I tend to think that both the rugged individualism of “born again” conservative Christianity and the American two-party system may have outlived their usefulness. When Christianity and patriotism combine the end result seems to be neither. Wake up America! You are being played the fool.

1 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/23/dhs-increase-in-coronavirus-inspired-violence-205221

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/22/opinion/coronavirus-protests-astroturf.html

3 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/22/koch-coronavirus-shutdown-protests-202320

The War on Evangelicalism, in Conclusion

The period of time between the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the creation of the Moral Majority organization in 1979 was a period of great upheaval in American society. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Watt’s riots, hippies in Haight Ashbury San Francisco, the Black Panthers, the Freedom Marches, the rise of feminism and the ERA, there was a great deal of things upsetting for conservative Christians.

In the midst of this social upheaval, increasing public displeasure with Southern segregationism and the political pressure to segregate private Christian schools further agitated fundamentalist Christian leadership. But these leaders continually failed to appeal to a broad enough group to slow or thwart progressive legislation. It is at this point that the temptation to over-simplify and evaluate the evangelical development in the 80s and 90s in terms of a binary cause becomes apparent. I confess, I had, before making a more thorough study, leaned towards understanding modern evangelicalism primarily in terms of White Nationalism. This is an easy assumption to make if one thinks solely in terms of Southern fundamentalism. And, yes, fundamentalism thinking had a huge impact on direction and priorities of the evangelical movement from 1980 onward. However, the seeds of ultra conservatism were already within evangelicalism long before Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.  

Rather than see fundamentalism as a minority subset of evangelicalism, as some historians do, I tend to think of modern evangelicalism, as opposed to classic evangelicalism of the 18th-19th centuries, as an outgrowth of early 20th century, fundamentalism, dispensationalism and an apocalyptic world view. Matthew Avery Sutton’s “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” is a wonderful resource for tracing this development. (1) So, as the segregationist, fundamentalist preacher, Jerry Falwell readied his Moral Majority movement in 1979, the wedge issues he planned to use: abortion, the ERA, homosexuality, civil rights, liberalism, were already a part of the more moderate evangelical “worry-list.” Yes, his concerns were more racially motivated, but the wedge issues already concerned most evangelicals to one degree or another.

So what new impetus did Falwell bring to the evangelical table that had not already been there before? The most obvious is a new emphasis on rigidity in response to the wedge issues. Take abortion for example. Catholics had an absolute stance: abortion was wrong under all circumstances. Evangelicals were more conflicted and divided on the issue.

“If Republicans were reluctant to restrict abortion in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, so were most evangelicals. They greeted the first state abortion legislation laws with silence and apathy.” (2) Overall, the majority response to abortion was that “therapeutic abortion” was morally permissible, but not “abortion on demand.” Fundamentalists generally were more adamant on the subject and laid the sole burden for sexual responsibility squarely on the woman. For example Billy Sunday, John Rice and Henry Stough. (3)

When Falwell courted Catholics, not only was he breaking with the long-standing mistrust fundamentalists had of Catholics, but he was speaking language Catholics could understand concerning abortion. Hence, the Moral Majority borrowed from the Catholic playbook and effectively moved the needle decisively to the right for evangelicals. This is where I believe the long term effect on evangelicalism lay: fundamentalism moved evangelicals to the right, making them more conservative than they were prior to the Moral Majority.

While I believe, judging from Falwell’s views on “separation of the races,” that segregation was more on his mind than abortion, legal protection for Christian schools that discriminated against blacks ultimately failed, even though Carter was denied a second term by evangelicals. Where Falwell succeeded, and I believe decidedly succeeded, was galvanizing evangelicals and Catholics under the common cause of overturning Roe v Wade. Between the academic assault on moderates within the evangelical system of higher education, and labeling of abortion as “murder,” a noble cause was born that enabled evangelicals to politically resist “liberal causes” that they felt supported abortion. To put it another way, evangelicals could broadly condemn governmental efforts at progressive social programs because they, at least, did not support the “mass murder of infants.” The Moral Majority was wildly successful in hiding their morally questionable views of racism under the rubric of defending the unborn. To be fair, I suspect a fairly large group evangelicals still believe there are morally excusable reasons for abortion under some circumstances, but fundamentalism combined with Catholicism has affected the legal aspirations concerning abortion towards completely overturning Roe v Wade.

Not that abortion is the only residual concern of evangelicals: a concerted effort was attempted to curtail Gay rights as well as the Equal Right Amendment for women. While the attempts to halt Gay marriage ultimately failed and the ERA quietly went away, the desire to overturn Roe v Wade has remained a pressing concern for evangelicals. It is still the cause de celebre among many evangelicals.

Which brings us to the current evangelical agenda: to stack the court system from the SCOTUS on down, to reflect conservative social causes. While the initial rise of the Religious Right was arguably fueled by fundamentalist racism, that was too narrow a cause and too unpopular to remain a central focus of the Religious Right. As Falwell skillfully used wedge issues to his advantage I believe the political landscape and emphasis for evangelicals changed as a result when the next century arrived. Although white evangelicals and evangelicals of color may vote differently, evangelicals of every stripe have found a common cause in its efforts to forge a “Christian Nation.” In other words, no longer content to vote on single issue items, there is an all out push towards Christian Nationalism, a blend of Christ and Caesar.

 This will be the subject I tackle in the future. Ultimately the dangers inherent to Christian Nationalism are far more dangerous to democracy than the racism of 20th century fundamentalism as it appeals to a much larger audience and has managed to infiltrate much of the Republican Party platform. But more on that at a later time.

1 “American Apocalypse, A History of Modern Evangelicalism,” Matthew Avery Sutton, Harvard College, 2014.

2 “God’s Own Party, The Making of the Religious Right,” Daniel K. Williams, Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 111, 115.

3 Ibid., pp. 145-146.

4 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

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

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.

Abortion: The Great Evangelical Trigger

All social constructs have their own particular interpretation of their history, their own myths. The supposed lengthy anti-abortion stance among evangelicals is one such myth, as well as the supposed abhorrence for abortion that has supposedly existed for time immemorial. Prior to 1979, most evangelical leaders viewed abortion as a “Catholic issue.” Life began at birth. The reason for the timing of the switch in 1979 coincided with increased pressure on evangelical “segregation academies,” in the American Bible Belt to desegregate or be fined and lose tax exempt status. Evangelicals seem to conveniently forget the seamy underbelly of racism that was such an integral part of much of the fundamentalist Christian background in America.

Jerry Falwell needed the support of Catholic conservatives to turn the tide of progressive social action and desegregation (he was a segregationist). Catholics had always been consistently anti contraceptive, anti abortion. Together with the fundamentalist theologian, Francis Schaeffer and Paul Weyrich a plan was concocted to launch a movement Falwell called “The Moral Majority.” By doing so, undermining desegregation and fomenting racial tension could continue largely hidden by a “righteous and noble” cause.

This is largely unknown among the evangelical faithful even though the information is readily available online and many books have addressed it. I do not doubt the sincerity of most evangelical parishioners. The tragedy is that they are being used, and have been for the past 35 years. Falwell’s plan was brilliant, as the simple mention of “abortion” is a powerful dog-whistle to those that have been brainwashed. It is a convenience relied on by evangelicals like John MacArthur, to discourage attempts at social justice while still appearing highly moral. It is the underlying reason evangelical talking heads like James Dobson use such inflammatory language as genocide, murder and infanticide…to rile up their supporters. For evangelical leadership it has always been about control.

The reasons behind the evangelical about-face on abortion may be highly suspect but they are right about one thing: both Jews and Christians have generally opposed abortion on ethical grounds. Of course, it should be noted that, for the most part, we are talking about Patriarchal societies, where women were highly controlled by men. Evangelicals will claim the Bible is unequivocally “pro-life,” but is it truly? Sanctity of life covers more than the human fetus in the womb. The intrinsic value of EVERY human life lies at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. Yet, this was not the message of large swaths of the Old Testament. This is problematic for evangelicals that claim the Bible is GOD’S WORD and inerrant in everything it claims. While God may be against abortion, that is not an easy deduction from a “flat” reading of scripture.

Much like the swordsman in Princess Bride when evangelicals claim the Bible is pro-life, they keep using that word, but I don’t think they truly know what that means. Parts that are inconvenient to the pro-life claim are glossed over, or ignored completely in favor of Bible harmonized to fit their agenda. The evangelical “flat reading” of scripture tends to result in some very questionable understandings of pro-life, such as strong support for the death penalty among evangelicals. Also lost on most evangelicals is the role poverty plays in the decision to have an abortion, and the disproportionate financial burdens draconian abortion laws place on poor Black women in America. This is due in large part because evangelicals think in terms of sin and punishment.

Then again, evangelicals are not known for nuance in their reasoning. Having an inerrant Bible, read largely literally and a history of distrusting science has led to a dangerous political climate in America and has put a great deal of women’s lives in jeopardy.

Back in 2016, after the first large Women’s March on Washington, I wondered why Pro-Life women’s groups were not listed as officially in the march, as they comprise a large group of women, and I thought, women should be allowed to iron out the differences and arrive at a reasonable compromise without men’s input, after all it’s their bodies at stake here. Silly me. Fundamentalists do not compromise. This is the danger of fundamentalism when it infiltrates the politics of a democratic nation. Dialogue ceases and progress stops.

Yet this does not address the ethical questions abortion raises, and I believe they are valid. What makes dialogue extremely difficult among Christians I have found from my own experience, is the difference between how the Bible is used and what are the underlying presuppositions about the nature of scripture itself. The pro-life inerrantist will marshal numerous quotes from early christian leaders showing the church believed abortion to be a sin. Likewise Jewish sources as well as carefully selected scriptural passages. Scripture is seen as a monolithically pro-life “rule book.” Conversation grinds to a halt when I explain that I do not follow scripture, but instead follow Jesus Christ. To a Biblican this is heresy. Let me be clear, the average evangelical “follows” the Bible, and because the Bible is unevenly “pro-life,” we end up with a group of people claiming to follow Christ that end up supporting the same man Neo Nazis do. There is a deep incongruity that results from treating the Bible as a rule book rather than a guide leading us to Christ.

So rather than ask the difficult questions of how to reduce unwanted pregnancies and how to prevent the need for abortions, evangelical pro-life leadership attempt to push laws outlawing abortion. Draconian measures to force women to bear children, even in the instances of rape for example. Obsession over sexual activities before marriage lead to ineffectual purity culture and sexual abstinence teaching as a birth control method. 

So, what we have ended up with in the current political crisis in American is a rather large group of citizens that is easily controlled and directed primarily by one “trigger.” “Vote pro-life” becomes the only qualification a candidate needs to meet to garner the evangelical vote. It covers a multitude of sins. This type of reductionist reasoning has had disastrous results for both the church in America and for our country.

Further reading:

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist/2012/02/18/the-biblical-view-thats-younger-than-the-happy-meal/

https://newrepublic.com/article/140961/amazing-disgrace-donald-trump-hijacked-religious-right

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-evangelicals-hate-jes_b_830237