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

John MacArthur: “So how’s Removing Social Justice from the Gospel Working Out for Ya?

In 2018, John MacArthur, a leading evangelical minister created a statement that 12 thousand evangelical ministers signed onto. It reads in part:

“WE DENY that true justice can be culturally defined or that standards of justice that are merely socially constructed can be imposed with the same authority as those that are derived from Scripture. 

“WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel.

“WE DENY that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church…We deny that laws or regulations possess any inherent power to change sinful hearts.

“We reject any teaching that encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression. While we are to weep with those who weep, we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.

“We deny that only those in positions of power are capable of racism, or that individuals of any particular ethnic groups are incapable of racism…And we emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of Scripture. Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.

https://statementonsocialjustice.com

My thoughts. 

In removing social justice from the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, by making it a “distraction,” or voluntary, white evangelicals like MacArthur have shown their hand. So while we have evangelicals who are truly sorry for the deaths of blacks like George Floyd the tendency is to see only the individual sin of the police officer and not the systemic racism behind it. This is not surprising as the evangelical emphasis of the born again experience is totally focused on the individual. This bifurcation divorces social responsibility from the Christian message. The end result is that white evangelicals continue to support racist leaders and support legislation designed to silence and marginalize others.

In large part systemic racism happens in America not in spite of Christians, but because of them.

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

Righteous Indignation is so Exhausting!

If you’re anything like me, the constant barrage of negativity on social media begins to take a toll. As I finished my last post a day or so ago, I was struck by how much negativity from social media, the news and the books I read, has fed into me, a spirit of discontent and anger. I am tempted to delete all my WordPress posts and start all over. But in the spirit of honesty, I will leave them up, but contemplate where I wish to go from here.

On Facebook, I recently stopped making any political statements, (at my wife’s urging) and after about a week of doing so I began to feel a sense of relief and well being. I have come to realize that my posts here on WordPress tend towards the accusatory, and could use a bit more positivity.

To be honest, I have to wonder if some of this is psychological baggage that has carried over from my fundamentalist upbringing, or perhaps religion in general tends towards the argumentative side of social interaction. Certainly the period of time in American church history that I have lived through (1950s to present) has seen a great deal of social and religious upheaval and strife.

What I need to find in my own life, and would be helpful in American Christianity as well, is a sense of balance. Yes, we need to be aware of principalities and powers that seek to divide and destroy freedom, but seeing others as enemies tears the fabric of the Church apart. It is tearing America apart as well. While I will continue to try to understand and report on directions the church is taking, both socially and politically… both good and bad, I will attempt to do so more evenly. And perhaps with a bit more academic detachment.

That’s it for now. We’ll see were this takes me.

Thanks

Kirk

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 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.

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.

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