Understanding the Evangelical Narrative, Part Two

The basic premise behind this short series is that evangelicals have a narrative that posits a history of sharing the good news of the Gospel and spreading the Kingdom of God, and that the narrative falls considerably short of the actual facts. The main reason for that is the belief that white evangelicals are somehow different than fundamentalists. There is a marked ignorance of the close ties to fundamentalism among the average evangelical parishioner. There are certain assumptions and character flaws of fundamentalism that have carried over into evangelicalism and have not been addressed. As a result, evangelicalism in the West is slowly dying and has failed to become socially relevant.

As expressed in part one of this series, the theological implications and presumptions concerning the nature of the Bible contributed, or at least supported, the Southern cause in the American Civil War. When defeated by the North, religious Southerners retreated to the SBC without admitting they were on the wrong side of the theological debate. This is an important observation, as it has a direct bearing on how evangelicals use scripture today. Rather than rethink their understanding of scripture, resentment set in and was directed towards blacks in the South. The enforcement of reconstruction soon fell by the wayside, as Northerners had their own sets of problems to deal with. The next century in the South would be a tale of religion fused with the State used to hurt and marginalized black Americans in the Solid South.

The period between reconstruction and the struggle for racial equality in the 50s is also a story of two different nations, flying two different flags: the Bars and Stars and the Confederate flag. Although both sides claimed to be American, in many ways they acted independently of each other. The plight of blacks was better outside of the old Confederate States, but equality of opportunity still was largely out of reach. The great wealth gap apparent today was established in the 100 years following the American Civil War. But what the Northern versions and Southern versions both had in common was white privilege. America was founded on the presupposition of a White American Church, and firmly Protestant.

It is this White American Church that accomplished much in the founding and growth of America, but also has done great harm to the gospel message. For one, it made the rise of Civil Religion inevitable: that is, the identification of Christianity with America, and vise versa. This was the underlying belief of both Northerners and Southerners during the Civil War, and is clearly apparent in the current American culture wars. Both sides have God on their side.

Secondly, the White American Church created a hierarchy of privilege, that largely ignored or minimized the validity of the need for equality among minorities. The black claim of “200 years of oppression” was largely scoffed at, similar to the current dismissal of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The White American Church has a difficult time empathizing with those that don’t look like them.

Thirdly, the White American Church dominates evangelicalism. While evangelical churches are no longer segregated, their politics are. That was clear in the 2016 Presidential election. The vast majority of white evangelicals voted for a racist bigot, while the majority of black evangelicals did not. While white evangelicals will largely cite abortion and gay marriage as to why they held their noses and voted for Trump, it is hard to ignore the great racial divide among evangelicals.

But, back to fundamentalism. While the roots of Christian fundamentalism are to be traced back to the American Civil War, fundamentalism did not fully develop into its modern form until the beginning of the 20th century. A series of Bible conferences held and the rise of dispensation teachings contributed to the backbone of a newly energized fundamentalist movement. Hotly contested at first, but eventually settled upon as one of the “fundamentals,” was biblical inerrancy. All biblical interpretation going forth would start with this basic assumption as self evident. Also promoted as essential, was a “plain reading” of the biblical texts, except where obviously of allegorical or poetic meaning. Much of the biblical narratives involving the flood, Adam and Eve, the Tower of Babel, etc., were literally and historically accurate. The new scientific findings on the origins of man, the flood and the age of the earth were viewed as false, as they did not line up with a literal reading of an inerrant scripture.

Again, this is of note, as it will play a continued role in fundamentalist and evangelical concerns involving race, climate change, evolution, abortion and sexual orientation. It would be the Scopes Monkey Trail of 1925 that would set in motion a firm distrust of science and “expert witness” that has haunted conservative Christianity ever since. In the arena of biblical scholarship it would be an aversion to historical and literary criticism that would dominate fundamentalism, and to a degree, evangelicalism as well going forth.

So, as fundamentalism entered the 20th century, three basic pillars of American fundamentalism emerged. One, the movement was dominated by white men; two, modern findings in science that conflicted with a literal reading of scripture were to be refuted. Third, in reaction to the liberal Christian views on literary and historical criticisms, the Bible was to be viewed as totally true and inerrant. Also looming on the horizon would be a series of conferences on “biblical prophecy.” Dispensationalism would soon become a dominating force in eschatology.

In the next post we will look at how the above four pillars of fundamentalism would coalesce into what would eventually become American evangelicalism.

To be continued.

Understanding the Evangelical Narrative, Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be continued.

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

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

See Sen. Warren’s video here:


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.

Someday Meditations: Intellectualism, Skepticism, and Mysticism

Wonderful analysis of the deconstruction/reconstruction process. Unfortunately for many fundamentalist Christians like S. Baptists, the higher the fence built around the theology the more likely the fundamentalist Jesus will be rejected altogether. I was fortunate, Ive always felt fairly comfortable with having a questioning faith, so my deconstruction, although fairly radical, never drew me away from God.

Letters to the Next Creation

My journey through faith hasn’t always felt good.  It’s sometimes been terrifying.  It’s sometimes been profoundly sad.  But it’s never been boring.

The relationship of faith to doubt or critical thought is a troubled one, at least as far as American Evangelicalism is concerned.  It definitely hasn’t always been this way in church history, but it seems like it might be here, now.

You know as well as I do that the people on this campus who talk the most about theology have the most active spiritualities.

If you approach your faith with intellectual rigor, there is a danger of faith becoming a religion of the “head” rather than the “heart.”  While I understand this is a theoretical risk, I’ve almost never seen it play out this way.

I find that the people most drawn to intellectually examine their faith often have deep spiritual lives.  They can’t put it down. …

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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: