Former Fundamentalists Await the Apocalypse

Rapture 2

Today a piece by Sarah Jones at New York Magazine caught my attention. Here is a taste of “Apocalypse Now?”:

If you think it feels like the end of the world, you’re not alone. There is a pandemic. Donald Trump is the president. Hospitals don’t have enough ventilators, and the lieutenant governor of Texas thinks your grandmother should give up the ghost so that you can go back to your job. We keep hearing that the virus will peak, but nobody seems to know exactly when that will happen, or how long we’ll all be inside, or how many people will die before this is all over. The coronavirus isn’t the End, but its escalating horrors feel somewhat familiar.

Since the pandemic commenced, I have wondered if my fundamentalist upbringing might be useful. For American Evangelicals, the ’90s were the era of apocalyptic fantasia. Almost everyone I knew believed that Christ would return soon, and rapture his saints into heaven to spare them the death throes of the world.

So I called up a few friends. Like me, they grew up Evangelical or fundamentalist, with the same basic convictions about the imminent demise of humanity. I wanted to know if their old beliefs had emotionally prepared them for our moment of woe, or if they had simply become more anxious than usual. In the most secret regions of my brain I wondered, too, if they missed any of it, because sometimes I do. Believing in Armageddon was an act of catharsis. It promised relief. In the near-future, my suffering would cease and so, too, would the pain of the world. (Alas! God has stranded me here, on Post Malone’s planet, and I’m suffering right along with the rest of you.)

Read the entire piece here.

The “My Pillow” Guy’s Comments at Yesterday’s Press Conference Represent Everything Wrong With the Public Witness of the Christian Right

Watch Mike Lindell, CEO of My Pillow:

Lindell turns a coronavirus press conference into a Christian Right campaign ad for Donald Trump.

Outside of the United States, political leaders don’t like Christians because they proclaim a Gospel that speaks truth to power. Many are persecuted and even killed for their convictions. When this happens, unbelievers see the authenticity of Christ-followers and consider Christianity’s claims.

Inside the United States, people don’t like evangelicals because they act like complete idiots. They hijack press conferences with words that link the will of God to a corrupt president. They suggest that God “has been taken out of our schools and lives” and extol Donald Trump as some kind of divine agent who will bring God back.

How did Mike Lindell advance the Gospel yesterday?

Evangelicals, This is How Republics Fail

Donald_Trump_delivers_remarks_at_the_Liberty_University (1)

My latest piece at Sojourners. (Readers of this blog will note that it is adapted from a few posts that originally appeared here).

A taste:

The United States is not a Christian nation. Nor was it founded as such. The Founding Fathers argued over politics and policy just like we do, but they were united in the belief that republics fail without virtue. They believed people must always exercise what they called “political jealousy.” A jealous citizen kept a principled watch on government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force, a common ideology of resistance to tyranny grounded in a shared morality. By keeping our heads in the sand as Trump proves he is incapable of living according to the most basic standards of decency, evangelicals neglect to do their part in sustaining our republic.

We have failed to be good citizens. We have become complicit in the president’s nativism, racism, xenophobia, narcissism, and fearmongering. Sadly, Trump-supporting evangelicals have now lost much of their moral authority to speak out on matters related to government corruption, pornography, sex and violence in movies and television shows, racial reconciliation, school bullying, and the decline in civil discourse.

I left this discussion with my friend wondering: Am I being too hard on evangelicals? Perhaps. But this is my tribe. I have chosen, for better or for worse, to save my strongest criticism for my own people.

The political problems in our community run deeper than just our failure to speak with a prophetic voice. Donald Trump will be gone one day. But the political playbook that evangelicals follow will not go away unless we decide to burn it and start over. There is a very good chance that this playbook will lead evangelicals into the arms of another immoral tyrant who promises conservative Supreme Court justices and offers platitudes about religious liberty.

We need a new political playbook. We need to replace our lust for political power with heavy doses of humility. We must forge a new kind of politics defined, at its very core, by human dignity. It is imperative that we teach our children and grandchildren a way of engaging the world that offers it a glimpse of a coming kingdom defined by love, justice, mercy, and compassion. We need to offer hope, not fear.

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelicals Need a New Political Playbook

trump-speech

Thanks to everyone who offered words of encouragement and support in the wake of yesterday’s post on my refusal to become numb to the daily immorality emanating from the White House. This was the closest thing we get at The Way of Improvement Leads Home to a viral post.

A lot of people hated the post.  I mean REALLY hated it. Facebook friends that I didn’t know I had came out of the woodwork to condemn the post. I had to unfriend about five people who decided to make personal attacks on my character.  But overall the feedback has been positive.

But let me respond briefly to some of the criticism.

First, some conservative evangelicals have accused me of self-promotion. When people write publicly and their work gets attention there is always the temptation of pride, the unhealthy practice of thinking too highly of oneself.  In the Christian tradition, pride is the opposite of the virtue of humility.  It is a sin. I am tempted by pride every day and I regularly give into it.  I imagine that any Christian who writes for the public deals with this temptation.

I don’t like the word self-promotion, but if this is the word we use to promote our ideas then I will accept the criticism. For the last two weeks I have been talking with my students about the Christian’s call to create.  Because we are created in God’s image, we are co-creators with God, advancing his creation through our creative work.  The Christian tradition teaches that all of us have gifts that we are required to use to advance God’s purposes in the world.  I hope as a Christian who writes and thinks about politics, culture, and history I am using my gifts in this way.  So yes, I want my ideas to enter the marketplace. I want to make them public.  I see this as a calling confirmed by wise mentors and friends who have encouraged and supported me over the years.  I hope my writing is less about promoting myself and more about promoting my ideas in a way that helps people to think more deeply about the world.

Second, several folks have criticized me for writing and speaking in “liberal,” “left-wing,” or “progressive” outlets.  (Of course some of these critics see anything but Fox News as a liberal, left-wing, and progressive outlet). When I move beyond this blog and write for newspapers, magazines, and websites I send pitches to outlets across the ideological spectrum.  Most of my views, which I hope are informed by my Christian faith, do not fall comfortably in the traditional “Left”/”Right” or “conservative”/”liberal” camps.  Sometimes I think an outlet might be a perfect fit for a particular piece of writing only to find out that an editor does not share my enthusiasm.  I want to write more for editors at Christian publications, but most of them either keep me at arms length because they think my views are too divisive or do not publish the kinds historically-informed criticism that I write. I also pitch pieces to politically conservative outlets all the time.  So far none of them have taken my work.

Third, people say that I do not understand Trump voters.  They believe that if I only understood them I would not be so harsh.  They tell me that there are many evangelicals who are “reluctant” or “dismayed” Trump voters and I am not being fair to them.  This criticism of my work seems to confuse understanding with agreement.  Let me say this again: I do understand why evangelicals voted for Trump. Much of my understanding has been shaped by friends, family members, and neighbors with whom I have conversations.  But as I listen to Trump voters, I still hear fear, nostalgia, and a commitment to a political playbook defined by the pursuit of political power. (More on this below).  All of these things, in my opinion, are not healthy Christian approaches to politics or public life.  The fact that so many evangelicals disagree with me has nothing to do with it.  When I hear Christians equate majority opinion with moral certainty I remember what Jesus said about the narrow gate.  I hope and pray I am focusing my attention on the correct gate, but I also realize I could be wrong. We see through a glass darkly.

Fourth, people criticize me for painting Trump evangelicals with too broad of a brush.  This is a fair critique. It was a problem with the first edition of Believe Me.  I have fixed that error in the new postscript to the paperback edition and I have written about this change and talk about it whenever I have the opportunity.  But as I have said multiple times now, if someone voted for Donald Trump, whether they did so enthusiastically or reluctantly, they are partially responsible for the moral damage this president is doing to the United States with his behavior and policies. I understand that some believe that evangelicals must tolerate the immoral egomaniac in the White House and the damage he is doing to the republic because he is delivering on the Supreme Court and the economy, but I disagree with them and think that their choice to support this man–even if its just a vote– is harmful to the church and the country. Again, I have written extensively about this.

Finally, though some might find it hard to believe, I think this whole conversation transcends Donald Trump and his presidency.  Trump will be gone one day.  But the political playbook that evangelicals follow will not go away unless we decide to burn it and start over. There is a very good chance that this playbook will lead evangelicals into the arms of another immoral tyrant who promises conservative Supreme Court justices and offers platitudes about religious liberty.  I have no doubt that such a person is waiting in the wings.  He or she is watching Trump manipulate American evangelicals and is taking good notes.

This is why it is time for a new playbook. My prayer is that evangelicals will no longer be held captive by the political power plays of the Christian Right. I want my fellow evangelicals to embrace a politics of life. I want my fellow evangelicals to develop an approach to public life defined by human dignity. I want my fellow evangelicals to embrace a politics that offers us glimpses of a coming kingdom defined by love, justice, grace, mercy, and compassion.

For example, who said that the best way to reduce abortion is through the pursuit of political power and the appointment of federal justices?  Since Roe v. Wade evangelicals have tried to deal with the problem of abortion in only one way.  Unless evangelicals develop new thinking on this front they will end up in the hands of the next tyrant who is willing to use abortion to advance his or her political fortunes.

And what about religious liberty?  Yes, there are some legitimate threats to religious liberty, especially for Christian colleges and other institutions who uphold traditional views of sexual ethics.  But we need to develop new thinking about religious liberty that does not lead us into the hands of people like Trump.  We need a robust conversation about the relationship between religious liberty and the kind of persecution for the sake of righteousness that Jesus talks about in Matthew 5.  We need creative solutions that offer civil liberties to all people, including members of the LGBTQ community.  (I like this approach).  We need to have more face-to-face conversations, conducted in civility and love, with those who disagree with us on the issues driving the religious liberty debates in our country.  We need to stop going on social media and demonizing our enemies with Fox News talking points.

Am I being too hard on evangelicals?  Perhaps. But this is my tribe. I have chosen, for better or for worse, to save my strongest criticism for my own people.

Evangelicals need to rid themselves of the powerful hold that the Christian Right has over our politics.  Even those who do not consider themselves adherents of the Christian Right still seem to engage politically using this forty-year-old playbook.  Many evangelicals have thought long and hard about alternative Christian approaches to politics, but their views have received little traction.  We need to take these approaches seriously.  Read Michael Gerson, Jamie Smith (and his Kuyperian friends), John Inazu, Tim Keller, James Davison Hunter, Glenn Tinder, Ronald Sider, Peter Wehner, and others who know far more about political philosophy than I do.  What might the Civil Rights Movement teach white evangelicals about politics?

It is time for evangelicals to develop a different approach to politics. But first this president needs to go.  Only then, it seems, can we begin the serious work of reconstruction, education, healing, and the binding of the church’s wounds.

A Day at Messiah College With Students from Georgetown Day School

IMG_8575

The Georgetown Day School students get a lesson on the history and identity of Messiah College in Hostetter Chapel (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

Last year some faculty and administrators at Georgetown Day School (GDS) in Washington D.C. contacted me about the possibility of bringing some high school juniors and seniors to Messiah College as part of the school’s “minimester.” What is a minimester? Here is a description from the GDS website:

Georgetown Day School’s mission calls us to challenge the intellectual, creative and physical abilities of our students, and to encourage inquiry and self-reliance in those students as they grow into “lifelong learners.” In February of 2020, GDS students and faculty will participate in a three-day program designed to bring that mission to life through an immersive and experiential learning experience wholly separate from the normal day-to-day academic program of the school.

We’re calling this experience Minimester.

On February 26th – 28th, GDS teachers will lead dozens of deep, creative experiences with themes sprouted from the passions and interests of faculty and staff — passions that may or may not fall within the purview of their academic disciplines. Students will select the Minimester course in which they’d like to participate, and will spend the allotted three days immersing themselves in their chosen topic.

The students who came to Messiah College on February 27, 2020 were enrolled in a minimester course titled “A View from the Other Side: Partisan Politics in Trump’s America.” Here is a description of the course:

Over the course of our minimester, we will explore the other side — meaning the political, social, economic world beyond the typical GDS view of things. A variety of speakers, from “explainer” journalists and commentators to those who inhabit the conservative spectrum, will engage with us as we dive deeply into the current political landscape and the operative theme of, “how did we get here?” We’ll also journey outward, exploring the world beyond the Beltway and the GDS bubble focusing on candidates’ platforms and what it is that people have not been hearing for years from either Democrat or Republican candidates. We will consider what the world looks like to Americans living in Appalachia, the Rust Belt, and other parts of the country, and why they might take a chance on a non-politician who says, “No one cares about you, but I do.” One hoped-for outcome might be a service trip to Appalachia in the Spring. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “You have to go there to know there.”

This course included conversations at GDS with Juan Williams of Fox News, Kate Bennett of CNN (and author of the book Free Melania), and conservative Republican Washington Post writer Gary Abernathy, among others.

GDS teachers Lisa Rauschart (History), Sue Ikenberry (Politics), and Michael Manson (English) were familiar with my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and asked me if the could bring students up to Mechanicsburg to talk about why evangelicals support Donald Trump. They also wanted to learn more about a region that went heavily for Trump in 2016.  Throughout the course of the day, students and their teachers talked about getting out of the “GDS Bubble” and having an experience in a place that was unfamiliar to them. Most of these kids grew up in liberal and progressive Washington D.C.-area homes.

Fifteen students, the aforementioned teachers, and Gary Abernathy arrived at Messiah College by bus around mid-morning.  I took them on a very short tour of campus.  We stopped in the chapel to talk about Messiah College’s history and its connection to the Anabaptism, Wesleyan, and Pietist streams of Christianity.  The students seemed particularly interested in Messiah’s commitment to pacifism.  They were also surprised when I told them that the school, in accordance with its Anabaptist heritage, does not fly an American flag on campus.  These were bright kids destined for Ivy League and other elite colleges and they displayed a deep curiosity about Messiah’s roots and our unique approach to Christian education.  (I told them that if they liked what they saw and heard they should apply! 🙂 )

We treated the group to lunch at the dining hall (thanks Pete Powers and the School of Humanities) where they were joined by three Messiah students (including our own Annie Thorn) who were gracious enough to take time out of their day to visit with these high school students.

IMG_8588

L to R: Katy, Annie, and Chloe were great hosts! (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

IMG_8592

With GDS teacher Michael Manson and Washington Post writer Gary Abernathy solving the world’s problems in Martin Commons on the campus of Messiah College (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

After lunch we headed to downtown Mechanicsburg where we met local historian John Klinger at the Mechanicsburg Museum Association.  Klinger gave a short lecture on the history of Mechanicsburg and then took us on a walking tour of the town, ending at the historic Frankenberger Tavern on Main Street. The students got a full taste of the town, including one house that had a huge Confederate flag flying on its front porch. While I am no fan of this flag, it provided a wonderful educational moment.  I reminded the kids that they were no longer in Georgetown.

The day ended back at Messiah College with a conversation about evangelicals Trump.  I used the time to define evangelicalism using Bebbington’s Quadrilateral and tried to explain Messiah College’s relationship to the larger evangelical world.  I distinguished Messiah from Liberty University, a Christian school of which most of the students were familiar.  Some of the students had no idea that Christian colleges were not all alike.

I explained why I wrote Believe Me, said a few things about the central argument of the book, and then let the students ask questions. (Students received a copy of Believe Me as part of the minimester course).  This was the highlight of the day for me.  These kids wanted to talk about everything–abortion, gay marriage, religious liberty, immigration, and the way Trump was using evangelicals in the 2020 election.  I am guessing that many of them agreed with my conclusions about Trump, but disagreed with my reasons for opposing him. They were respectful and intellectually curious. A scheduled 45-minute session lasted close to 90-minutes and we continued talking as we left Boyer Hall.

Fea in Boyer with GDS

Why do so many evangelicals support Donald Trump? (photo by Susan Ikenberry)

Fea with GDS students

The conversation continued well after the former session was over (photo by Lisa Rauschart)

When we got on the bus, Abernathy thanked me for hosting the group and then told me, with a smile that could only come from spending a long today together, that he disagreed with just about everything I said.  I laughed and told him that he would get the last word with the students as they drove back to D.C. 🙂

At the end of the day one of the students asked me for some tips about how to overcome the divisiveness and partisanship in American culture today.  I suggested that we need more days like this one!  She agreed.  As these kids head off to college and find themselves in positions where they will be able to change the world, I hope they will remember their visit to Messiah College and their experience in central Pennsylvania.  Thanks for coming and letting us see ourselves through your eyes.  I learned a lot from the visit!

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

ef580-wesley

“I am an evangelical Christian, so it was nice to hear a lecture about evangelicalism that was not related to contemporary politics.”

This was our intern Annie Thorn‘s response to Bruce Hindmarsh’s lecture “John Wesley, Early Evangelicalism, and Science.” Hindmarsh, the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver, delivered this lecture on Tuesday night at Messiah College.  Hindmarsh is the author of three books published by Oxford University Press: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (1996),  The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), and The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (2018).  He is the past-president of the American Society of Church History.

Hindmarsh, whose lecture drew upon his 2018 book on early evangelicalism, argued that the rise of evangelicalism coincided historically with the reception of modern science in mainstream eighteenth-century culture.  The new science was generally embraced by evangelicals as a source of what Hindmarsh describes as “wonder, love, and praise.”  Few did more to popularize the new science than John Wesley.

According to Hindmarsh, Wesley accepted the findings of the new science, but he “nested” these new ideas in the “glory of God.” In other words, there was no tension between the two. Wesley was not an anti-intellectual. He wrote a host of books and pamphlets on science. His contemplation of the created order, and his advancement of society’s understanding of the new science, aroused the same kind of “doxology and praise” that stemmed from his conversion experience, that moment in Wesley’s life when his “heart was strangely warmed.”

I left the lecture with several thoughts.

First, like Annie, I was glad to hear again about evangelicals, like Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who were intellectuals. If you read this blog regularly, you know I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectual in American Life.  In his chapter on evangelicalism, Hofstadter argues that New England Puritans were people of the mind, but the project integrating faith and learning all but disappeared with the revivalism of the First Great Awakening.  (Edwards, Hofstadter argues, was the exception here).  Hindmarsh is one of several scholars of evangelicalism who has challenged this idea. (Although I am not sure Hofstadter is completely wrong.  I am inclined to think of Edwards and Wesley as outliers).

As I listened to Hindmarsh in the context of my fresh reading of Hofstadter, I realized again that much of the motivation behind the work of the previous generation of evangelical historians–George Marsden and Mark Noll come immediately to mind–was to challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of evangelicalism as anti-intellectual. Marsden, Noll, and others authors showed us that evangelicals did care about thinking. They also showed us with their lives and work that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Hindmarsh’s lecture, and my post-lecture conversation with Annie, made me think about Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll argues that the anti-intellectual populism of present-day evangelicalism was more of a 19th and 20th-century phenomenon than an 18th-century one.  Modern day evangelicals can find serious thinkers in their history.  Noll showed that it is possible to explain the evangelical move toward anti-intellectualism as a rejection of the intellectual pursuits of evangelicals like Edwards and Wesley.

Second, it was good to listen to a scholar talk about the 18th-century. I told Bruce that his lecture made me long for the days when I used to spend most of my time doing early American history. Indeed, it’s a lot safer there. 🙂 I hope to return to this world once this whole Trump thing dies down!

Third, I left with a question about Messiah College, the school where I teach.  Messiah is rooted in the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist traditions of the Christian faith. Of these three traditions, Anabaptism seems to be the one that gets the most attention.  I think this is because Anabaptism’s commitment to peace and social justice often fits well with the progressive mindset of many academics.  But if there are Anabaptist and Pietist intellectual traditions, they often get overshadowed by a kind of activism (Anabaptism) and experiential religion (Pietism) that does not always draw heavily on the life of the mind. (This, I might add, is changing–especially on the Pietism front). But Hindmarsh made me wonder if Wesleyanism, at least as articulated by Wesley himself, might help us with the heavy intellectual lifting necessary for a Christian college to sustain a robust life of the mind.  I will continue to ponder this.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin DeYoung

The religion of john witherspoonKevin DeYoung is Senior Pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. This interview is based on his new book, The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon: Calvinism, Evangelicalism, and the Scottish Enlightenment (Routledge, 2020).

JF: What led you to write The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: The book is a revised version of the dissertation I completed at the University of Leicester under John Coffey. My interest in John Witherspoon was first piqued while reading on the origins of religious liberty in America. I started reading more and more about Witherspoon, and quickly I wanted to read everything I could from Witherspoon. I’m fascinated by how getting to know this one figure has helped me go deeper in a variety of topics: from the theology of Reformed Orthodoxy to the history of the trans-Atlantic awakenings to controversies in the Scottish Kirk to the philosophy of the Enlightenment to the founding of America. In particular, I wrote this book to push back against the received narrative that presents Witherspoon as a confused thinker who capitulated to Enlightenment ideas once in America and infused a deleterious Common Sense Realism into the bloodstream of the colonies.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: John Witherspoon is known for many things—he was a thorn in the side of the Moderate Party in the Scottish Kirk, a successful president at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), an influential moral philosopher, the conduit of Scottish Common Sense Realism into the civic and ecclesiastical life of the American colonies, an ardent supporter of the American Revolution, and, most famously, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. Most scholars, however—in overlooking his parish sermons, his treatises on justification and regeneration, his Lectures on Divinity, his student addresses at Princeton, his lifelong commitment to the Westminster Standards, and his work as a Presbyterian churchman in the United States—have failed to see that Witherspoon was not just a president, philosopher, and founding father, he was also an important theologian and Reformed apologist.

JF: Why do we need to read The Religious Formation of John Witherspoon?

KD: John Witherspoon’s career and ministry can be divided into almost two equal halves. For twenty-five years—from his ordination in 1743 until he sailed across the Atlantic in 1768—Witherspoon was a minister in the Church of Scotland, serving two congregations (Beith and Paisley), both on the outskirts of Glasgow. After moving to America, Witherspoon labored another twenty-six years, still as a preacher, but now also as a college president and a founding father of a new republic. Witherspoon’s theology (not to mention Witherspoon the person) cannot be understood unless we see him not only engaged with the Scottish Enlightenment, but firmly grounded in the Reformed tradition, embedded in the transatlantic evangelical awakening, and frustrated by the state of religion in the Kirk. The focus in the book on Witherspoon’s Scottish career is intentional: those that know his Scottish context well tend to be less conversant with the nuances of Reformed theology, while those that show an interest in theology tend to mine the first half of Witherspoon’s career in order to set the stage for his more famous endeavors in America. Both groups are more interested in Witherspoon’s Enlightenment credentials than his Reformation roots. My contention is that Witherspoon’s ministerial career, and the theology that drove it, deserve scholarly inquiry of their own, quite apart from whatever the Scotsman would go on to accomplish in the New World.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KD: My first calling is to be a pastor, but as a local church pastor I also have the unique opportunity to teach history and theology at a nearby seminary. I’ve always loved old books and the detective work that comes along with digging through the past. As a Christian, I consider academic history to be an exercise in loving my (dead) neighbor as myself. While we never articulate the past in a pristine way free from all biases, I strive to understand the people, movements, and ideas from the past with the same intellectual honesty and sympathy I would hope to be looked at in the future.

JF: What is your next project?

KD: I have a lot of projects in the works, most of which are on a popular level. I’m finishing up a storybook Bible along the lines of my children’s book, The Biggest Story. I’m working with the same illustrator, Don Clark, to create a book of 104 stories drawn equally from the Old and New Testaments. The big project I’ll start next is a book compiling 365 short chapters on important theological topics and terms. My hope is that the book will be used by some as a daily devotional, by some as a reference guide, and by others as a mini-systematic theology. In the future, I’d also like to see Witherspoon’s theological works and sermons published for a wider audience, and eventually I’d like to write a biography.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Positive Words from the #ExEvangelical Crowd

Believe Me 3dI am not sure if this is good or bad, but it appears that there are some people in the ex-evangelical crowd who like my analysis of American evangelicalism. After my interview at Salon with Chauncey DeVega, I got a message from Chrissy Stroop, a leader of the #exevangelical movement. She read the DeVega interview and wanted to feature my work in a piece on anti-Trump evangelicals.

Here is a taste of Stroop’s piece as it appeared at Raw Story (Evan Derkacz, the editor of Religion Dispatches, is listed as the author, but I am certain that Stroop wrote the piece.  Whatever the case, the quotes in the piece come from an exchange of messages with Stroop, not Derkacz):

In light of this situation, I’m singularly unimpressed with most critical commentary directed by anti-Trump evangelicals at their coreligionists; Trump is, after all, a symptom of a much broader malady, one in which these commentators are to varying degrees complicit. Where, for example, is Gerson’s accountability for his role in the George W. Bush administration’s lurch into “truthiness”? Here we are, 17 years after the devastating and destabilizing Iraq War was launched on false pretenses, in a U.S. whose Right wing is broken and has largely, including most white evangelicals, embraced the post-truth politics that are a hallmark of authoritarianism. Yet people want to celebrate Gerson for merely being anti-Trump? Sorry, not sorry, but it’s too little, too late.

Commentary that attempts to downplay, obscure, or to some degree excuse white evangelicals’ large-scale embrace of authoritarianism—even outgoing Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli’s much vaunted editorial calling for Trump to be removed from office—elicits in me, if I’m being quite honest, more contempt than respect. Yes, I know what it’s like to be inside evangelical subculture, how terrifying (and sometimes risky) it is to publicly break with the community’s widely held views in even the slightest way. But when wealthy white men, who will be in no actual economic peril if they take a stronger stance, fail to muster more than the tepid criticisms of the Gallis and Gersons of America, I find it beyond underwhelming.

On the most charitable reading, men like Gerson and Galli may be hoping to change evangelicalism from the inside in a way that I have long since been convinced is impossible. It’s noteworthy that in the midst of these anemic criticisms, anti-Trump evangelicals typically bend over backwards to assure fellow evangelicals that their community’s paranoid fears of “attacks” on their religious freedom are justified, and that their anti-choice dogmatism is a respectable position, and not the proxy for often unacknowledged racism that it systemically functions as. And yet the fact that there are still many evangelicals and fundamentalists who will castigate them for being “too liberal” speaks to what we might call evangelicalism’s pluralism problem.

While I would apply a portion of the criticisms laid out above to some of evangelical historian John Fea’s public comments, I was pleasantly surprised by remarks he made in a recent Salon interview with Chauncey DeVega that’s well worth the read. To give credit where credit is due, Fea, the author, most recently, of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, has been more forthright and steadfast than most evangelical critics of white evangelical support for Trump, and he’s also dug deeper into the problem. In his interview with DeVega, Fea starkly observed that evangelicals “have no model for pluralism. They cannot grasp any idea of a pluralistic society in which there are people who differ from them and question what American evangelicals believe.”

Read the entire piece here.

Stroop holds me at arms length, but I appreciate that she takes my views seriously.

Most conservative evangelicals and many moderate evangelicals hold me at arms left for the same reasons  Stroop liked the piece.

And don’t worry Mom and Dad, I am not becoming an “ex-evangelical” anytime soon. 🙂

Addendum (February 24, 2020 at 11:14am):  Stroop’s piece is now up at Religion Dispatches.

A Court Evangelical Who Hosts a Patriotic “Freedom Sunday” Warns Christians About Accommodating to the Culture

Here is court evangelical Robert Jeffress talking to Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs:

3 thoughts:

1. Jeffress should be careful about suggesting First Baptist Dallas, a bastion of segregation for most of its history, has never changed a message that he claims is built on “the eternal truth of God’s word.”  Those “six blocks” in Dallas were built on a mixed legacy.  It is a history and legacy that Jeffress and his congregation have yet to address.

2. Jeffress also better be careful when he says that it is only liberal churches that accommodate to American culture. Jeffress holds an annual Sunday morning 4th of July celebration in his church and has proven over and over again that the Republican Party holds him captive.

3. Jeffress suggests that the Bible teaches three things: opposition to abortion, religious liberty, and the support of Israel.  Jeffress knows it is politically expedient in the frenzy of a Fox News interview to boil public Christianity down to these three things.  Since Pete Buttigieg supports “none of these things,” Jeffress says, he should not be referencing the Bible in public.

Last night I picked-up my Bible, randomly turned to the first two chapters of the New Testament book of James, and started reading.  These chapters focus on a few central themes: growing in faith amid religious persecution, the guarding of the tongue, the condemnation of the rich, and the importance of good works as markers of a true Christian faith.  What if these things informed an evangelical public and political theology?

My Interview With Chauncey DeVega at *Salon*

Believe Me 3dLast month I had a long phone conversation about Trump and evangelicals with Chauncey DeVega, politics staff writer for Salon.  I appreciate Chauncey’s work in editing and clarifying my scattered and somewhat random thoughts into a coherent interview which Salon published today.  Here is his introduction to the interview:

To quote the bumper sticker: “What would Jesus do?”

Assuming that he existed and held the views imputed to him, Jesus Christ would not support Donald Trump.

Donald Trump’s behavior, values, policies and their consequences are the opposite of what Jesus Christ represented. Trump has put migrants and refugees in cages and delighted in their suffering. He feels contempt for the poor, the sick, the vulnerable and the needy. He has lied at least 16,000 times. He is corrupt and wildly greedy.

Donald Trump is violent, a militarist, a nativist and a white supremacist. He has given aid and comfort to anti-Semites, neo-Nazis and other hate-mongers.

We are told that Jesus Christ lived a life of love, humility and sacrifice. Donald Trump has lived a life of selfishness, greed and wanton cruelty.

Why are white evangelical Christians so overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump? While some have tried to present it as a riddle with no evident solution, the answer is quite simple: Donald Trump does the bidding of the Christian right. He has advanced its policies in a war against secular society, women’s freedom, LGBTQ rights, multiracial democracy and the U.S. Constitution.

But it’s important to note that the Christian evangelical community is not a monolith. There are many people within it who oppose Donald Trump and his movement, because they see it as antithetical to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

One such voice is historian John Fea, a professor at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. His new book is “Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.” Fea recently published an op-ed in USA Today entitled “‘Evangelicals for Trump’ was an awful display by supposed citizens of the Kingdom of God,” in which he explained that he had spent his “entire adult life in the evangelical community” following a “born-again experience” at age 16:

Read the entire introduction and the entire interview here.

What’s New at the Billy Graham Center Archives?

Luis_Palau_predicando_zoom

The Billy Graham Center Archives recently acquired some of Luis Palau’s private papers

If you study American evangelicalism, you have probably made a visit to the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College.  Last year the archives lost the papers of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, but it also acquired some very interesting collections.   Here is a taste of a recent post at the archives blog:

Every once in a while, acquisitions in a given year seem to follow a specific theme. In 2018 we received several large collections of private papers by prominent figures in evangelistic ministry, including Merrill Dunlop, Luis Palau, Merv Rosell, and George Beverly Shea. On the other hand, 2019 was the year of the authors. Individuals who had written significant books on evangelism and /or evangelical history contributed their research files, which included boxes and boxes of letters, transcripts, audio recordings, photos, and more that they had gathered. For example, Valarie Elliot Shepard donated the letters her parents had written to each other during their courtship, which formed the basis of her book, Devoted: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot (2019) The gift also included Jim Elliot’s papers from his days as a Wheaton College student. The Elliots were best known for their involvement in evangelism among the Waorani people of Ecuador. The Waorani had never heard the Christian gospel, and Jim and five other men formed a project to reach them. On January 6, 1956 after an initial friendly contact, all five men were killed by members of the tribe. In October 1958, Elisabeth, along with Rachael Saint, the sister of one of the five, and three-year old Valerie traveled into the jungle to live among the Waorani and begin the work that was to bring many of them to faith in Jesus Christ.

Read the entire post here.

John Inazu’s Advice for White Evangelicals

InazuInazu teaches law at Washington University in St. Louis.  He is the author of Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference and the forthcoming (with Tim Keller) Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference. Here is a taste of his recent piece at Christianity Today:

First, pay more attention to your words. Stop saying you’re living in a “post-Christian” country or that you are the “new minority.” These assertions generate antagonism rather than empathy. Similarly, take care in how you describe others. Invoking tropes like “social justice warriors” or “the gay agenda” assumes the same kinds of stereotypes that you don’t want people using against you. And invoking these tropes ignores the commandment to love others and treat them as individual image-bearers. By all means, speak truth and critique bad arguments and unjust policies. But don’t settle for lazy generalities and ad hominem attacks.

Second, diversify your personal networks. This won’t always be easy or obvious everywhere, but if you look closely, you’ll find people who, at the very least, think differently than you do. Some of you will need to risk finding your first cross-racial friendship. That might mean going to nonwhite spaces and institutions to learn and to experience the discomfort of a cultural baseline that is not your own. You should also diversify the leadership of your institutions. Who is in the room determines which questions get asked, and white evangelical institutions will not escape their insularity without greater racial diversity in circles of power.

Third, show up and take risks. If you want to be known as a pro-life people, advocate for all stages of life. Speak out about dehumanizing and family-separating policies like immigration detention centers and mass incarceration with the same fervor you have for religious freedom and opposition to abortion. Risk uncertain and messy relationships with your neighbors to help repair the social fabric. Step outside of your comfort zones and partner in common-ground causes with progressive and mainline Christians, with people of other faiths, and with nonbelievers. Defend the rights of Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, and Americans of no faith. Stand up against bullying of LGBT people. Look for opportunities to seek counsel from and promote women rather than avoiding them because of the Billy Graham Rule or the Mike Pence Rule. None of these opportunities threatens your faith. But they all require rethinking the assumptions that come from cultural, racial, and relational insularity.

Will these suggestions win you political favor? Maybe not. But, frankly, political expediency matters far less than the faithful witness of the church. And these suggestions will help you toward a more faithful witness by lessening your insularity. They will lead to less fear and more hope. They will move you closer toward the example of Jesus, who stepped into messy and uncertain spaces with people who were different from him. And that seems worth doing regardless of what is to come in this world—because it is what the gospel asks of those whose citizenship lies in heaven and who believe that he who conquered death will prevail over all other earthly challenges as well.

Read the entire piece here.

Muscular Jesus and His Tough-Guy Followers

Muscular JesusRodney Howard-Browne is the co-founder (with his wife Adonica) of Revival Ministries International, a Tampa-based Christian organization committed to revivals of “signs and wonders and miracles.”  He is a court evangelical who includes his meeting with Donald Trump as an important part of his biography.  Here is a taste of his bio:

On July 10, 2017, the last day of the meetings at the DAR, Drs. Rodney and Adonica were given the opportunity to spend the day at the White House. With a group of twenty-five others, they were invited into the Oval Office to visit President Trump. It was a surreal and humbling moment. They saw Protestant, Evangelical, and Pentecostal leaders coming together with the common purpose to pray for the President of the United States of America. President Trump was open to and sincerely welcomed their prayers.

While standing in the Oval Office, Dr. Rodney was asked to pray for President Trump. He prayed for his protection, for godly wisdom to be his portion, and that the wicked would be cut off and rooted out. It wasn’t a long prayer; it was a fervent and heartfelt one. Once Dr. Rodney left the Oval Office, he successfully launched a 24/7 prayer initiative for President Trump.

Pastor Howard-Browne is apparently very upset about John Bolton’s book manuscript.  He is so upset that he decided to tweet about it:

Howard-Browne is a real tough guy.  Don’t mess with him:

We are seeing a lot of this kind of macho Christianity lately.  I am guessing seminary professor Owen Strachan, the defender of Christian complementarianism, might have some theological differences with Pastor Howard-Browne. But Strachan seems to be playing in the same general arena when it comes to muscular Christianity.  Here is one of his recent tweets:

Strachan’s tweet reminds me of a recent tweet from conservative pundit Michelle Malkin:

Former Christian Right Leader: “Trump has used the March for Life for his own ends”

SchenkDuring the 1980s and 1990s, evangelical minister Rob Schenk was at the forefront of many Christian Right initiatives. But over the last decade or so, Schenk has come to grips with the spiritual bankruptcy of the movement he once helped to lead.  He is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary “The Armor of Light.” and the author of Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love.

Schenk is a March for Life veteran.  But this year he decided not skip the event.  Why?  Schenk explains in his recent piece at Sojourners.  Here is a taste:

With the campaign of Donald Trump, the movement I once devoted my life to was swallowed up by a political leviathan. In Trump’s craven pursuit of power, prestige, and the adulation of the crowds, the once poster boy for a lifestyle of pleasure-seeking and self-absorption that required legalized abortion for its own preservation, offered a deal to pro-lifers: Sell out to me and I’ll sell out to you. You’ll get everything you want if you give me everything I want.

Many pro-life leaders I know entered into this Faustian pact — and that’s why they giddily cheered Trump when he took the stage at Washington’s annual March for Life. Joining him on site was one figure who, back in my day, was rarely seen at a pro-life event: Franklin Graham. I remember when my colleagues and I were furious with Graham and other national evangelical celebrities who couldn’t have cared less about the child in the womb. But at the march, Graham was feted as a hero only because of his sponsorship of Trump.

In the end, though, what really grieved me was how little this will do for the desperate women and children — born and unborn — and for the quiet, unassuming helpers who stand with them. At the same time, it will only advance Trump’s cruel agenda that includes separating families at the southern border, deporting people who have only known the U.S. as their home, cutting back social programs for the poor, and, now, interrogating pregnant women seeking tourist visas. It will also give Trump a false moral cover for his exposure during his impeachment trial. Trump’s shameless exploitation of the pro-life movement, his crass transactional abuse of the sacred, and his quid-pro-quo terms for the movement’s leaders (Give-me-religious-cover-and-I’ll-give-you-your-judges) will continue to cheapen and contaminate what was once pure, holy, and human.

Trump has used the March for Life for his own ends. The pro-life leaders who ceded the stage to him did a supreme disservice to the people for whom that stage was built. If life really is sacred, then everything around it should be kept sacrosanct.

Read the entire piece here.

The “Age of Fracture” and Evangelicalism

RodgersIn his 2011 Bancroft Prize-winning book The Age of Fracture, Princeton intellectual historian Daniel Rodgers writes:

Across multiple fronts of ideational battle, from the speeches of presidents to books of social and cultural theory, conceptions of human nature that in the post-World War II era had been think with context, social circumstances, institutions, and history gave way to conceptions of human nature that stressed choice, agency, performance, and desire.  Strong metaphors of society were supplanted by weaker ones.  Imagined collectivities shrank; notions of structure and power thinned out.  Viewed by its acts of mind, the last quarter of the century was an era of disaggregation, a great age of fracture. (p.4).

Lately I have been wondering how Rodgers’s ideas in The Age of Fracture apply to the last eighty or so years of American evangelicalism.  A few of the questions I am asking:

  1. To what extent did the neo-evangelical movement of the 1940s and 1950s represent some kind of “evangelical” (as opposed to the “fundamentalism” of the folks like John R. Rice, Bob Jones, and Carl McIntire) consensus?
  2.  Rodgers writes, “What is important are the significant breaks–where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes.” (p.4)  If there was a period of mid-century consensus, how do we define it?  In the 1940s and 1950s, the average American knew evangelicals through the Gospel message of Billy Graham.  Since the 1980s, the average American knows evangelicals through their commitment to conservative Republican Party politics.
  3.  In the “age of fracture, Rodgers writes, “notions of power moved out of structures and into culture.  Identities became intersectional and elective.  Concepts of society fragmented.”  To what extent did evangelical “structures” or institutions (controlled by white males)–seminaries, publications (I am thinking about Christianity Today here), organizations (National Association of Evangelicals?)–give way to categories of cultural identity such as politics (e.g. Christian Right), class (e.g. Trump evangelicals vs. “elitist” evangelicals), race (e.g. we now refer to “White” and “Black” and “Hispanic” and “Asian” evangelicals); and gender (e.g. the #metoo movement has come to evangelicalism).
  4. What role has the Internet and social media played in the fracturing of American evangelicalism?  Did social media cause the fracture, or merely reveal it?

Just to be clear, I am thinking about this historically.  This is not an endorsement or criticism of the “age of fracture” as it relates to American evangelicalism.

New Editor, Old Debate

183a7-wheatonAbout fifteen years ago I encouraged a student of mine at Messiah College to pursue an M.A. in American Church History at Wheaton College.  After his first semester was complete we exchanged a few e-mails.  He commented on how Wheaton was very different from Messiah.  I asked him to give me a few examples how these two Christian colleges were different.  He responded by saying that the faculty and students at Wheaton were “obsessed” with defining the word “evangelical.”

I thought about this student today when I read Christianity Today‘s editorial, “What Does ‘Evangelical’ Mean?”  This is certainly a timely topic in the age of Trump, the court evangelicals, and the 81%.  It is also a debate that gets rehashed every 5-10 years or so.

It looks like Daniel Harrell, the new editor at Christianity Today, wants to start off his tenure by revisiting this time-honored conversation.  Check out the editorial here.  It includes essays by evangelical insiders Mark Galli, Bruce Hindmarsh, Leith Anderson, Ed Stetzer, Ron Sider, Brandon Washington, Craig Keener, Richard Mouw, and Ted Olson.

Is Evangelicalism Dead? If So, What Should We Call “followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition?”

Wallis Jim

Jim Wallis, founders of Sojourners

Randall Balmer thinks evangelicalism died on November 8,. 2016.  I appeared with him last Spring at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and he made the same assertion.

If evangelicalism is dead, what shall we call “followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition?”

Here is Balmer at Sojourners:

Since the 2016 election stripped evangelicalism of all claims to moral credibility, what are those of us who formerly claimed that label to do? Some have suggested Followers of Jesus, which has the virtue of simplicity. Others favor exvangelicals, which may be a tad too cute; besides, I resist defining myself in negative terms. Red Letter Christians is a worthy choice (and, if memory serves, I’m a charter member), but it’s a term that needs explanation these days, and there’s a perception that, however loosely configured, it’s an organization, not a movement.

I propose instead Sojourners Christians, which is a bit more generic. This is not an attempt to elevate or to reify this magazine, but since its earliest days as the Post-American, Sojourners has taken seriously Jesus’ mandate to be peacemakers, to welcome the stranger and care for the least of these. In addition, Sojourners has matured to take into its orbit Catholic spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the best of the peace church and the black church tradition. Even mainline Protestantism finds a place in the Sojourners spectrum, although many of us remain properly wary of its vanilla, anything-goes ethic.

If I were younger, more ambitious, and technologically savvy, I’d set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account for Sojourners Christians. If this idea has any merit, I’ll leave that to others. In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, I shall refer to myself as a Sojourners Christian.

I respect Randy’s decision to search for a new name.  Indeed, the Christian Right has tarnished the Gospel by mixing it with a power politics.  But I think I am still with Ron Sider on this one.  The word “evangelical,” the “good news” of the Gospel, is too good to surrender to a political movement like the Christian Right.  Let’s try to steal the word back.  I have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a book, and a speaking schedule that, among other things, is trying to do this.

What Will Evangelicals Do Without Starbucks?

Starbucks

Evangelicals love to drink coffee.  Some of the larger megachurches have coffee bars and cafes.  Back in 2007 or 2008, I wrote a piece about evangelicals drinking coffee during the church service.  Back then I felt optimistic that the piece might convince people to stop raising one hand in worship God while sipping a mocha with the other hand.  But I am afraid I lost that battle.  Today  the number of fluid ounces of coffee consumed in the sanctuary far exceeds the monthly intake of sacramental wine (ahem, grape juice).

I wonder how many pro-life evangelicals know that Starbucks supports Planned Parenthood?  Julie Zauzmer reports at The Washington Post:

The Rev. Bjorn Lundberg will escort busloads of his parishioners to Washington on Friday for this year’s March for Life. They won’t be stopping at Starbucks on the way.

The coffee giant is not aligned with their cause, Lundberg says. As a Catholic priest who leads a 9,500-member parish in Winchester, Va., he stopped patronizing Starbucks when he learned the chain matches its employees’ charitable donations, including to Planned Parenthood and other nonprofit groups that support abortion access.

“You’re talking about material cooperation,” the priest said. “If someone says, ‘I want to buy a refreshment from this restaurant’ and the restaurant very publicly supports some kind of abortion thing, then I am cooperating.”

Molly Spence, a Starbucks spokeswoman, confirmed that Starbucks matches employees’ donations to most nonprofits and called that “a far cry” from promoting abortion.

Read the rest here.

If only Chik-fil-A had good coffee!  🙂

What White Evangelicals Can Learn About Politics From the Civil Rights Movement

 

MLK GRave

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour. Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement. We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis, and Nashville

Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement. In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates. In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original Freedom Singers.

In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches. In Birmingham we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair. McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.

In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton, one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on my colleague Todd Allen’s “Returning to the Roots of Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics. Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.

As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the ground that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House and continues to garner white evangelical support for his presidency. Hope and humility defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement. The movement served, and continues to serve, as an antidote to a politics of fear and power.

****

Those who participated in the civil rights movement has much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs—to name a few. They feared for the lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day. For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved. The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this. When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.

King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions. I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m no concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

It was a message of hope. Because of his faith, God had given him—and the women and men of the movement he led—all the strength they would need to continue the struggle. King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward. Was he talking about his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?

No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” An assassin’s bullet took King’s life the next day, April 4, 1968, but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power—not just in his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good? Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress. It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicked will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity. Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it.”

I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip. It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates. Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.

Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity, but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand those purposes—if not in this life, surely in the world to come. The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far. Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities. I thought of the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

I saw this kind of hope in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.

I heard this kind of hope in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me ‘Round” from the front of the sanctuary of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.

As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

But too often fear leads to hopelessness, a state of mind that political scientist Glenn Tinder had described as a “kind of death.” Hopelessness causes us to direct our gaze backward toward worlds we can never recover. It causes us to imagine a future filled with horror. Tyrants focus our attention on the desperate nature of our circumstances and the carnage of the social and cultural landscape that they claim to have the power to heal.

A kernel of truth, however, always informs such a dark view of life. Poverty is a problem. Rusted-out factories often do appear, as Trump once described them, like “tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” Crime is real

But demagogues want us to dwell on the carnage and, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “waste our summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets.” Hope, on the other hand, draws us into the future, and in this way it engages us in life.

*****

It is nonsensical to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power. Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight. But when the movement leaders entered the halls of power, they were usually there to speak truth with a prophetic voice. King, for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble of means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods. Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the great social movement in American history. These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them. They offer us a beautiful illustration of what scholar James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence.”

For Hunter, a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to serve the people and places where they live. The call of faithful presence, Hunter writes in his book To Change the World, “gives priority to what is right in front of us—community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these are constituted. It is in these places, through “the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation—family, neighbors, co-workers, and community—where we find authenticity as a body of believers. It is here, Hunter adds, “where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy. This is the crucible with which Christian holiness is forged. This is the context in which shalom is enacted.”

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to us the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown Chapel AME church. This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches began. For Bland, who was raised in a housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred space.

The humility on display during the civil rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now. This is usually the case with nonviolent protests. Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.

Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old music major at Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959. Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest. Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched, covered with ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.

Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, but he was also the high priest of a spiritual movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment. In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love. Many in the movement practiced what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.” They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own.

Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power—the power of the cross and the resurrection. This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness to the world.

The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: “The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate. It wouldn’t have solved any problems for me to hate whites because they hate me. Oh, there’s so much hate! Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

****

Where does all this reflection leave us? Where did it leave me as I got off the bus and headed back to my working-class, central Pennsylvania neighborhood. How might hope and humility inform the way we white American evangelicals think about politics and other forms of public engagement?

It is time to take a long hard look at what we have become. We have a lot of work to do.

This essay draws heavily from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, which was recently released in paperback by Eerdmans Publishing

Ron Sider: I’m Still an “Evangelical”

Sider-764x1024

Ron Sider on the cover of Eternity magazine, April 1979

Ron Sider, one of the elder statesmen of American evangelicalism and someone who I deeply respect, is sticking with the label:

Why would I continue to call myself an evangelical when 81% of white evangelicals voted for a man who is a racist, violates women, lies constantly, ignores (and makes worse)  the environmental crisis, tries to undo a law that expanded healthcare for 20 million Americans and gave a huge tax cut to the richest Americans while trying to cut effective programs for the poor? To make matters (much) worse, many prominent evangelical leaders uncritically support President Trump as God’s anointed.

Many Christians who have long identified as evangelicals and many millennials who grew up in evangelical congregations now consider the label evangelical irreparably toxic. To vast numbers of people both inside and outside the church, it means “Religious Right”, homophobic, anti-science, anti-immigrant, racist, and unconcerned about the poor.

I have struggled with this issue for the last three years. Some of my good friends have stopped identifying as evangelicals.  I must confess that in spite of my many decades of strong identification as an evangelical, there are times when I think that it may be time to use a different word. 

But then I remember the long, distinguished history of the term. I recall the fact that the word essentially means a commitment to Jesus’ Gospel.  I ponder the fact that we need some label to distinguish theologically liberal Protestants from those who remain committed to the central beliefs of historic Christianity.  And I note the fact that many millions in the United States and 600 million around the world in the World Evangelical Alliance still want to use the label evangelical…

Read the rest here.

If it’s good enough for Ron Sider, it’s good enough for me. 🙂