Peter Wehner Interviews Tim Keller at *The Atlantic*

keller

Two evangelical Christians talk about faith, reason, and politics at, of all places, The Atlantic.   The Christian Right claims that the “secular media” does not respect people of faith, but stories like this remind me that such media outlets are more open to discussing issues of Christian faith than they were two decades ago.

Here is a taste of Wehner‘s piece on his conversation with Keller:

I asked Keller about the relationship of the Church, and in particular evangelicalism, to politics. The upshot of Keller’s position is that whereas individual Christians should be engaged in the political realm, the Bible makes it impossible as a Church to hitch your wagon to one political party, especially in these times. “For Christians just to completely hook up with one party or another is really idolatry,” Keller said. “It’s also reducing the Gospel to a political agenda.” (He pointed me to an address by Nathan Hatch, president of Wake Forest University, called “The Political Captivity of the Faithful,” with which he concurs.)

Keller noted that this danger isn’t new. As is his wont, he cited a book to help me more fully understand his argument—H. Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism, which holds that denominationalism is primarily a social phenomenon that tends to be captured by different political and social classes. Keller observed that because Christianity properly understood is not a legalistic religion—“there is no New Testament Book of Leviticus,” he told me—it can be a part of almost any culture. In that sense, it’s a fairly flexible faith. “Christians are always more incarnate in the culture—and the danger of that is that they get captured by it. That’s always been a problem,” he said. There’s ever the danger of “cultural and political captivity.”

When I pressed the point further, Keller admitted he believes that “most Christians are just nowhere nearly as deeply immersed in the scripture and in theology as they are in their respective social-media bubbles and News Feed bubbles. To be honest, I think the ‘woke’ evangelicals are just much more influenced by MSNBC and liberal Twitter. The conservative Christians are much more influenced by Fox News and their particular loops. And they’re [both] living in those things eight to 10 hours a day. They go to church once a week, and they’re just not immersed in the kind of biblical theological study that would nuance that stuff.” Too often, he believes, there’s no relationship between a proper Christian ethic and the way it translates into political and cultural engagement. It’s not the doctrine that’s at fault, Keller would argue; it’s the way people are taught and interpret it. It’s a failure of imagination and hermeneutics.

Read the entire piece here.

CBC Ideas: “The Pulpit, Power & Politics: Evangelicalism’s Thumbprint on America”

Trump court evangelicals

I recently joined Jemar Tisby and Molly Worthen on Canadian Broadcast Corporation’s “Ideas.”  You can listen here.

Here is a taste of the accompanying article:

John Fea has written an entire book about the apparently contradictory relationship of evangelicals and Donald Trump, basing the title on one of Trump’s oft-repeated catch phrases: Believe Me.

He sees the championing of Donald Trump by evangelicals through two lenses — as an historian, and as a committed evangelical himself.

Historically, evangelicals began courting agents of secular power in the Reagan era. The trouble he finds in this trajectory is that the evangelical church’s fixation on abortion, appointments to the Supreme Court, and supporting politicians they see as a means to a theological end, opens up the risk of losing credibility both to a generation of younger believers, and their own capacity to bear witness authentically.

The root of “evangelical,” he points out, means “good news, which in turn means a commitment to social justice and harmony. He dubs those seeking to curry favour and influence with the president “court evangelicals.”

Christian belief, he posits, doesn’t entail posing for a photo op and aligning oneself with power, but — like the prophet Nathan — telling the truth to it. 

Read the entire piece here.

What It’s Like to Talk With Pro-Trump Evangelical Family Members

Court

A gathering of court evangelicals

Check out Alex Morris’s Rolling Stone essay “False Idol–Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump.”  Morris talked to a lot of the right people, including commentators Greg Thornbury, Randall Balmer, Peter Montgomery, Charles Marsh, and Diana Butler Bass and court evangelicals Robert Jeffress and Eric Metaxas.

The most telling part of her piece is her description of a conversation with her pro-Trump evangelical mother.  Here is a taste:

In a dimly lit room, with a bottle of red wine, my mom, my aunt, and I pull our chairs close. I explain that I’m taping our conversation, that I love and respect them, and that I want to discuss why my Christianity has led me away from Trump and theirs has led them to him.

For a while, we just hit the typical talking points. There’s some discussion of Trump being a baby Christian, some assertions that the lewd behavior of his past is behind him, that in office he would never actually conduct himself as Bill Clinton had. But when I really double down, my mom and aunt will admit that there are flaws in his character. Though not that those flaws should be disqualifying.

“I don’t think he’s godly, Alex,” my aunt tells me. “I just think he stands up for Christians. Trump’s a fighter. He’s done more for the Christian right than Reagan or Bush. I’m just so thankful we’ve got somebody that’s saying Christians have rights too.”

But what about the rights and needs of others, I wonder. “Do you understand why someone could be called by their faith to vote against a party that separates families?”

“That’s a big sounding board, but I don’t think that is the issue,” says my mom.

“But it’s happening, and I’m not OK with it.”

My mom shakes her head. “No one’s OK with it.”

“If that’s your heart, then vote your heart,” says my aunt. “But with the abortion issue and the gay-rights issue, Trump’s on biblical ground with his views. I appreciate that about him.”

“As Christians, do you feel like you’re under attack in this country?” I ask.

“Yes,” my mom says adamantly.

“When did you start feeling that way?”

“The day that Obama put the rainbow colors in the White House was a sad day for America,” my aunt replies. “That was a slap in God’s face. Abortion was a slap in his face, and here we’ve killed 60 million babies since 1973. I believe we’re going to be judged. I believe we are being judged.”

Read the entire piece here.  Morris’s conversation with her family is almost identical to some of my conversations with Trump supporters over the past several years.

More on the Liberty University’s Falkirk Center and How It Will Approach American History

Here is Charlie Kirk and Jerry Falwell Jr. on One News:

So it looks like the Falkirk Center:

  • Will attack the work of outstanding public school history teachers, the kinds of teachers I have worked with over the years through my relationship with the Gilder-Lehrman Institute and elsewhere.
  • Will attack teachers unions.
  • Will oppose an approach to American history as taught, to quote Falwell “as some sinister, you know bourgeois, white man, taking advantage of everybody else.”  (Yes, that is an exact quote). Falwell claims that this view of history is “totally opposite of what happened.”
  • Will be a center to promote Christian nationalism, the “intersection” of the Gospel with the American founding.
  • Is a culture war institution, not an educational institution.
  • Will apparently be teaching students that Alexis de Tocqueville visisted America “in the 1700s” (Toqueville visited America in 1831).

See our previous posts on the Falkirk Center here and here.

Trump Must Win Wisconsin Evangelicals in 2020

Wissy

In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by 23,000 votes. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelicals make-up 17% of the state’s population.  Trump needs to win these evangelicals in order to win the state again.

Jess Bidgood of the Boston Globe talked to Wisconsin evangelicals.  Here is a taste of her piece “Trump’s evangelical support mystifies his critics, but in Wisconsin, it looks stronger than ever.”

Here is a taste of her piece:

NEW LONDON, Wis.—After it was clear that neither of her preferred candidates, Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, was going to be elected president in 2016, Linda Behm prayed.

Behm is an evangelical Christian and keeps a calendar filled with volunteer shifts at a thrift store and a food pantry in this small community an hour away from Green Bay. She wasn’t sure about supporting Donald J. Trump, the New York business magnate with a penchant for insults and crude behavior. But after asking God whether she should back him or Democrat Hillary Clinton in the general election, she decided Trump was the lesser of two evils.

These days, Behm, 69, finds the president to be coarse and exasperating, especially his tweets — and she took issue with his summertime missive urging four Democratic congresswoman of color to “go back” to other countries.

“We should be treating them like Christ should treat them,” Behm said. “Trump has to figure that out.”

But still, she feels better than ever about her decision to vote for the president, because she thinks he has delivered on the two issues she cares most about: curtailing abortion rights and protecting Israel. Behm expects to vote for Trump again in 2020.

“He’s our only choice,” she said.

In 2016, Trump’s alliance with white evangelical voters was obvious — 80 percent of white, self-identified born-again or evangelical Christians supported him, according to exit polls — but, for some of those voters, it was also uneasy. The president’s personal behavior and some of his core political beliefs, including his hostility toward refugees, seem at odds with the major moral tenets of Christianity. What’s more, many of his evangelical supporters weren’t exactly sure what they were getting from a nominee who was neither deeply religious nor a lifelong Republican and who described himself some years ago as “very pro-choice.”

Read the rest here.

Eric Metaxas Doubles-Down on His Belief That Those Who Oppose Trump are “Demonic”

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ted Cruz speaks with moderator Eric Metaxas at the National Religious Broadcasters Annual Convention at Oryland in Nashville

Last week on the Eric Metaxas Show, Franklin Graham said that the efforts to impeach Donald Trump were “almost a demonic power.”  Metaxas, the conservative pundit and court evangelical, responded with these words: ” I would disagree, it’s not almost demonic.  You know and I know that at the heart it’s a spiritual battle.”  When conservative writer Peter Wehner challenged Metaxas in a piece at The Atlantic, Metaxas said that Wehner’s piece was “PREPOSTEROUS.”  Get up to speed here.

If you have the time, listen to Metaxas yesterday on his radio show.  In an interview with conservative writer John Zmirak, Metaxas complained that Wehner and others misunderstood him.  He says:  “[Franklin Graham] did not say that everyone who opposes this president is demonic, he didn’t say anyone who opposed this president is demon-possessed–he said the opposition to this president is almost demonic.  In other words, there is a spirit that is so angry, it’s like people have given themselves permission to hate….”

I am not sure how Metaxas is saying anything different here. How can opposition to the president take place without people?  If the opposition is demonic, then the people promoting the opposition must also be under demonic influences. I am not sure what kind of semantic word-game Metaxas is trying to play here.  Perhaps I am one of the people Metaxas describes in this interview as “theologically ignorant.”  Maybe those two theological degrees from an evangelical seminary, including a course on spiritual warfare called “Power Encounters,” were all for naught.

In fact, by the end of the interview Metaxas doubles down on his previous comments and affirms again that those who strongly oppose this president and want him impeached are under the influence of “demonic forces.”

Here are some other highlights from the episode:

  • Metaxas suggests that liberal philanthropist George Soros may have been behind the negative tweets he received from his affirmation of Graham’s “demonic forces” comment.
  • Metaxas complains that no one defended him on twitter after the conversation with Graham.  Hmm…. I wonder why?
  • Metaxas says Wehner’s article and all the other negative articles about him on this issue are “fake news.”
  • In a particular’y rich exchange, Metaxas and Zmirak, diehard Trump supporters, claim that they are the defenders of “honesty” and “truth.”
  • Metaxas is upset that Wehner called his Dietrich Bonhoeffer book “slipshod” in its accuracy and scholarship.  Wehner is right.  The book has been strongly criticized by nearly every major Bonhoeffer scholar.
  • Metaxas cries about political partisanship, implying that he is somehow above the fray.  This is coming from the man who referred to Hillary Clinton as “Hitlery Clinton” and said in Wall Street Journal article that if evangelicals didn’t vote for Trump “God will not hold us guiltless.”
  • Finally, Metaxas says when you allow lies to spread “you are part of the problem.”  Again, this is rich. At last check, The Washington Post has counted over 13,000 lies and false claims made by Metaxas’s man in the White House.  Who is part of the problem here, Eric?

Evangelical Theologian Ron Sider Wants to Ask the Democratic Presidential Candidates a Few Questions

sider_horzEvangelical theologian and author Ron Sider has a few questions for the candidates, and they are quite good.  Here is a taste of his recent blog post:

MEDICARE FOR ALL.

Bernie Sanders’ proposal is to end all private health insurance and put everyone on a government run single-payer system like Canada. Ask Sanders why he thinks it is not political suicide to tell the approximately 165 million Americans with private health insurance that they must promptly lose that coverage in exchange for a government program. Also demand that he tell you exactly how he will pay for it.

Elizabeth Warren also embraces Medicare for All (cost: $30 trillion over 10 years). When pushed to show how she would pay for it, she proposed new taxes on the rich. Then when criticized by Biden and others, she said she would move in two stages: first let everyone who wants to, buy into Medicare; then, a few years later, introduce a mandatory single-payer system.

Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar reject Medicare for All and instead want to let everyone choose between keeping their private insurance or buying into Medicare.

FREE COLLEGE

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make tuition free at all public colleges and universities. Ask them: why should children from wealthy families get free college tuition? And why do they totally bias their proposal against private colleges and universities? Their proposal would probably destroy most Christian colleges and universities.

Would it not be better to give a greatly expanded Pell Grant ( up to the total cost of tuition at state universities) to students from lower income families and let them choose whether to use it at a state university or a private college?

NATIONAL DEBT

Our national debt is currently at $22 trillion – that’s more than our current total annual GDP which was $20.5 trillion in 2018. The national government spends more than it takes in every year. This year the deficit is close to $1 trillion and current projections (thanks significantly to President Trump’s tax cuts for the rich) mean it will go to more than $1 trillion every year beginning in 2022. That means adding $1 trillion plus to the national debt each year. Thanks grandchildren!

In my book, FIXING THE MORAL DEFICIT: A BALANCED WAY TO BALANCE THE BUDGET, I say two things: it is immoral to use our grandchildren’s credit card to keep demanding things we refuse to pay for with our taxes; and second it is also immoral to try to balance the budget on the backs of the poor (as the Republicans keep proposing) by cutting effective programs that empower poor people.

Ask all the Democratic candidates why none of them have a concrete proposal to move toward a balanced budget. And demand one.

ABORTION

Most Democratic candidates offer no circumstances where they think abortion should be restricted by law even though repeated Gallup polls show that about 50% of the US public think there should be some restrictions. Ask them why they disagree with half of the American people.

Amy Klobuchar has said she favors some restrictions in the third trimester. Joe Biden in 2003 voted for a ban on certain late term abortions. Ask both for more details

Read the rest here.

Randall Balmer on the “Other Evangelicals”

Wallis

Jim Wallis of Sojourners

In his recent op-ed at the Concord Monitor, Dartmouth College scholar of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer reminds us that not all evangelicals were part of the 81% who supported Donald Trump in 2016.  Here is a taste of “The Other Evangelicals“:

The emergence of the Religious Right was surely a turning point – a sharp and unmistakable turn to the right – but it wasn’t inevitable. The 1970s, in fact, saw a remarkable resurgence of progressive evangelicalism, a version of the movement consistent with the legacy of 19th-century evangelicals.

Two geographical areas, northern Illinois and the mainline of Philadelphia, served as the focus for progressive evangelical activity in the early 1970s. In the greater Philadelphia area, Tony Campolo, a sociologist at Eastern College (now Eastern University), and Ronald Sider, a theologian at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary), led the charge.

Campolo was (and remains) a tireless advocate for progressive evangelical values; he is one of the founding members of an organization called Red Letter Christians, which seeks to remind the faithful to heed the teachings of Jesus.

Sider was founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of a bestselling book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, published in 1977.

The other locus of progressive evangelical activity in the early 1970s was Deerfield, in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago. There, Jim Wallis, a seminary student, together with his friends at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, formed a community in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago and began publishing a tabloid called the Post American. When the group relocated to Washington, D.C., in 1975, they took the name Sojourners.

On the same Deerfield campus, a cohort of young faculty at Trinity College, led by Douglas Frank, David Schlafer and Nancy Hardesty, began challenging their students to question the morality of the war in Vietnam and to take seriously both the teachings of Jesus and the example of 19th-century evangelicalism. I was one of those students. We learned about Jesus’s concern for the poor. We started to think about protecting the environment and defending people of color. We debated how to pursue justice.

Read the entire piece here

Theologian N.T. Wright on the State of the American Church

Wright

Emma Green of The Atlantic interviews New Testament scholar N.T. Wright about the American church.  Here is a taste:

Emma Green: Do you worry that the strong association between Christianity and politics in the United States—and specifically the alignment between the religious right, evangelicals, and the Republican Party—will permanently shape the image of Christianity?

N. T. Wright: Part of the problem here is the word evangelical. I know a lot of people who have basically abandoned it since the whole [Donald] Trump phenomenon.

In England, people are a bit embarrassed about the word. But I’ve taken the view that the word evangelical is far too good a word to let the crazy guys have it all to themselves, just like I think the word Catholic is far too good a word for the Romans to keep it all to themselves. And while we’re at it, the word liberal is too good a word for the skeptics to have it all for themselves. It stands for freedom of thought and exploration.

Everything gets bundled up together, whether it’s abortion or gun rights or homosexuality or whatever. All issues are seen as either you’re on that side, and it’s the whole package, or you’re on this side, and it’s the whole package.

Read the rest here.

Metaxas: Peter Wehner’s Article in *The Atlantic* is PREPOSTEROUS

Metaxas

Many of you have seen Peter Wehner‘s piece at The Atlantic titled “Are Trump’s Critics Demonically Possessed.”  Wehner is responding specifically to Franklin Graham’s appearance on the Eric Metaxas radio program.  Watch (or if you can’t see the tweet, click here.)

Just for the record, here is the pertinent part of the video:

Metaxas: “It’s a very bizarre situation to be living in a country where some people seem to exist to undermine the President of the United States.  It’s just a bizarre time for most Americans.

Graham: “It’s almost a demonic power.”

Metaxas: “I would disagree, it’s not almost demonic.  You know and I know that at the heart it’s a spiritual battle.”

Graham: “It’s a spiritual battle.” 

Here is a taste of Wehner’s piece:

There are several things to say in response to the Graham-Metaxas conversation, starting with the theologically distorted and confused charges that were leveled by Graham and amplified by Metaxas. They didn’t make the case that Trump critics are sincere but wrong, or even that they are insincere and unpatriotic. Instead, they felt compelled to portray those with whom they disagree politically as under demonic influences, which for a Christian is about as serious an accusation as there is. It means their opponents are the embodiment of evil, the “enemy,” anti-God, a kind of anti-Christ.

There is no biblical or theological case to support the claim that critics of Donald Trump are under the spell of Satan. It is invented out of thin air, a shallow, wild, and reckless charge meant to be a conversation stopper.

Just ask yourself where this game ends. Do demonic powers explain opposition to all politicians supported by Graham and Metaxas, or to Trump alone? Would they argue that all Christians (and non-Christians) who oppose Trump are under the influence of Satan? What about when it comes to specific issues? Should we ascribe to Beelzebub the fact that many Americans differ with Graham and Metaxas on issues such as gun control, tax cuts, charter schools, federal judges, climate change, the budget for the National Institutes of Health, foreign aid, criminal justice and incarceration, a wall on the southern border, and Medicaid reform? Are we supposed to believe that Adam Schiff’s words during the impeachment inquiry are not his own but those of demons in disguise? Were the testimonies of Ambassador Bill Taylor, Fiona Hill, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman truthful accounts offered by admirable public servants that badly hurt the president’s credibility—or the result of demonic powers?

Eric Metaxas has responded to Wehner’s piece on Twitter.  Since Metaxas blocked me a long time ago I cannot embed the tweet here, but others have shared it with me.  It reads:

This article is PREPOSTEROUS. It claims I’ve said opponents of Trump “are under the spell of Satan  ” and other truly zany things.  I’ve written lots on this president & why I support him, but Mr. Wehner doesn’t seem overly interested in nuance. #slipshod

Metaxas should listen to his own radio program.  I am guessing that he will say there is some kind of difference between claiming Trump’s opponents are guided by a “demonic power” (as he said to Graham on his show) and claiming that Trump’s opponents are “under the spell of Satan” (which he said in the above tweet).  But I see no difference.  Neither does the average Trump-supporting evangelical. And neither does any right-minded person.  Metaxas can’t take a huge sum of money from Salem Radio (one source says he is worth $7 million) to pander to the Trump evangelical base and then claim, when intellectuals call him out on his use of words, that he is being misunderstood.  I might add that he has tried this before.  This is a man who knows that the Trump base butters his bread and yet still craves to be accepted as a New York intellectual–a man of “nuance.”

Ever since Trump has been impeached there has been an uptick in spiritual warfare language coming from the Christian Right.  If Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is correct, and Trump is indeed “the chosen one,” then opposition to the “chosen one” must mean opposition to God.  By claiming that Trump’s opponents are influenced by demonic forces, Metaxas and Graham are implying that Trump is on the Lord’s side.  And why do they believe that Trump is on the Lord’s side?  Because he is president of the United States.  And why is the POTUS always on the Lord’s side?  Because Romans 13 tells us that we must submit to government authority because such authority comes from God. (See more of our Romans 13 posts here). Moreover, America was founded on Christian principles and Trump, through his Supreme Court appointments and defense of religious liberty for evangelicals, is restoring America’s Christian heritage.

If you believe all these things, as Metaxas and Graham obviously do, then of course you will see American politics today in terms of spiritual warfare.  Ephesians 6:12 has now founds its way to the center of American political discourse.

Come on Rick Perry, is This Really How You Should Treat God’s “Chosen One?”

Obama Perry

Recently Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said that Donald Trump was “the chosen one.”  Perhaps this explains why he serves in Trump’s cabinet and has never said a negative word about him in public.  But in the same interview with Fox News, Perry also said Barack Obama was God’s “chosen one.”  So I thought I would look a little deeper into what Perry thought about Obama, the “chosen one.”  Here is what I found:

Perry wanted to sue Obama for granting relief to undocumented immigrants.

Perry called Obama “president zero.”

Perry refused to shake Obama’s hand.

Perry declined to say that Obama was born in the United States.

Perry claimed that Obama “doesn’t reflect our founding fathers.”

Perry said that “Obama has made the world less safe.”

Perry claimed that Obama “doctored” the unemployment rate.

Perry connected “gays in the military” to Obama’s “war on religion.”

Perry said Obama was “privileged” and “never really had work for anything.”

Perry produced this apocalyptic attack ad on Obama

Perry took Obama out of context and called his words “pathetic.”

Now, Rick, is this any way to treat God’s “chosen one?” 😉

Thoughts on Rick Perry’s Claim that Donald Trump is the “Chosen One”

96716-perry

In 2006, while serving as governor of Texas, Rick Perry was asked whether non-Christians will spend eternity in hell. “I don’t know that there’s any human being that has the ability to interpret what God and his final decision-making is going to be,’ Perry said.  He added: “That’s what the faith says. I understand, and my caveat there is that an all-knowing God certainly transcends my personal ability to make the judgment black and white.”

I am not sure if Perry really believed this, or if it was just a fancy piece of political footwork to avoid making him look intolerant, but his answer revealed a certain degree of humility and an affirmation of the mystery of God.

Last month Perry did an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.  He told the story a Christian “prophet” who  prophesied in 2011 that Perry would one day be in the Oval Office with his grandson. Perry assumed that this meant he would be elected President of the United States.  “If you want to make God laugh,” Perry told CBN, “tell Him your plans.”  (Around the time of this interview Perry and his grandson got a picture taken with Trump in the oval office. This moment, Perry believed, was the real fulfillment of the prophecy).

Again, Perry’s answer reveals his belief that human beings do not know the will of God in every circumstance.  God’s plans are not our plans.

For a man who, at least in these two cases, appealed to the mystery of God and the inability of humans to understand His will, Perry seems pretty certain about God’s will when it comes to the presidency of Donald Trump.

Many of you by this point have seen Perry’s interview with Fox News in which he describes Donald Trump as “the chosen one” and rehashes what is now a common Christian Right talking point about how God uses flawed vessels to carry out His will.

Most Christians, to one degree or another, believe that God orders the world according to His purposes.  In the Fox interview Perry says that “God is very active in the details of the day to day lives of government.” I agree. But Perry seems to know exactly what God’s activity in government looks like.  Perry arrogantly believes that he knows why Donald Trump was elected.  In the interview he suggests that Trump was chosen by God to advance the Christian principles upon which the nation was founded and uphold the moral values that have defined the Christian Right for the past four decades. There are other evangelicals who have used the same belief to suggest that demonic forces are driving Trump’s political opponents.  (I am guessing that Perry believes this too).

For Christians who believe in divine providence, politics present a conundrum.  As believers, we want to know God’s will for our lives. We spend time in prayer and meditation trying to discern what He is calling us to do in the circumstances of our lives.

So if we try to discern providence in our spiritual lives, what is wrong with trying to do the same in the realm of politics?

Rick Perry and others who seem to think that Christians should rally around Donald Trump because he is “the chosen one” must be willing to reconcile their certainty about Trump with St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known.”  Perry offers a simple and direct reading of providence in American life that assumes an understanding of the secret things of God, things that sinful men cannot fathom outside of the scriptures.  Appeals to providence in public life not only lead to bad politics in a pluralistic society, but they also represent bad theology.

St. Augustine is helpful here.  In Book 20 of The City of God Against the Pagans, he reminds us what Christians can and cannot know about God’s work in the world.  The Scriptures teach us that history will end with the glorious triumph of the Son of God.  Christians put their hope in Christ’s return.  But as we live with this hope, we must be cautious about trying to pinpoint the specific plan of God in history.  We must avoid trying to interpret what is hidden from us or what is incomprehensible because our understanding is so limited.  As Augustine writes:

There are good men who suffer evils and evil men who enjoy good things, which seems unjust, and there are bad men who come to a bad end, and good men who arrive at a good one.  Thus, the judgments of God are all the more inscrutable, and His ways past finding  out. We do not know, therefore, by what judgment God causes or allows these things to pass.

Perhaps Ambrose Bierce best described Perry’s brand of providential politics when, in his Devil ‘s Dictionary, he defined providence as an idea that is “unexpectedly and consciously beneficial to the person so describing it.”  Indeed, I didn’t hear many on the Christian Right talking about how Barack Obama or Bill Clinton were God’s “chosen ones.”

Maybe God has put Donald Trump in his position of power.  My weak-kneed Calvinism leads me to at least entertain such an idea.  But I also reject Christian’s ill-conceived propensity for trying to discern with certainty the purposes of a sovereign God and then use such conclusions to serve political or cultural ends.  I am reminded of the words of Valparaiso University moral philosopher Gilbert Meilaender in his book The Way That Leads There: Augustinian Reflections on the Christian Life:

What God is accomplishing in that period stretching from the time of Christ to the final judgment is largely hidden from us.  Our task ,then, is less to look for signs of the times than to be patient, to wait for God–and, along the way, to carry out our duties faithfully.

What does it mean to “carry out our duties faithfully” in the age of Trump? Part of our responsibilities as Christians is to live and speak prophetically.  For believers, God’s will has been revealed to us through the scriptures.  The Bible has much to say about the poor, the refugee, the widows, and how we must treat those who do not share our race or ethnicity.  When our leaders blatantly lie to us, we must stand firm on the side of truth.  We are called to defend life and the dignity of human beings.  We must speak out against those things that harm the witness of the Gospel in the world.

Perry and the rest of the Trump evangelicals would do better to approach their understanding of politics with a sense of God’s transcendent mystery, a healthy dose of humility, and a hope that one day soon, but not now, we will all understand why Donald Trump was President of the United States.  We should again take comfort in the words of Augustine: “When we arrive at that judgment of God, the time of which in a special sense is called the Day of Judgment…it will become apparent that God’s judgments are entirely just.”

Two final thoughts on Perry’s statement:

1. Perry says he gave Trump a one-page sheet describing three Old Testament kings who God used despite their flaws:  Saul, David, and Solomon.  Indeed, God did use these flawed men to serve His purposes in the ancient world.  But if you are going to play the “God uses sinful men” card, then you also need to tell the entire story.

For example, when God’s decided to give the Israelites a king in the person of Saul, he was making a compromise with His people by offering a solution to their problems.  It was an imperfect solution. There was a price to pay for such a compromise, as God warned that there will be a day when “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:18).  The Israelites believed Saul would be more effective than God (or his prophet Samuel) in protecting them from their enemies.  Saul sought political power over the will of God. Consider 1 Samuel 13, the passage in which Saul does not wait for the priest Samuel to arrive at his camp at Gilgal to make a sacrifice and instead makes the sacrifice himself.  In a fascinating study of the Book of Samuel, legal scholars Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes offer an insightful take on this important scene in the book.  According to these authors, the scene teaches us what happens when religion mixes with power: “What the author of Samuel conveys by this striking episode is how religion, even when sincerely believed, can be instrumentalized in power struggles and how political rivals can shed moral qualms about treating the sacred as just another weapon to be opportunistically deployed in a competitive struggle for prestige and power.” Sometimes it is better to obey than to sacrifice.

Or consider King David’s sin with Bathsheba.  Evangelicals like to stress how David repented of his sins in Psalm 51 (something Trump said he does not do), but it also worth remembering that David’s failure had serious consequences for his family and the nation of Israel.  Remember what the prophet Nathan said to David after he confronted the King about his affair with Bathsheba and ordered the death of Bathsheba’s husband: “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own. ‘This is what the LORD says: “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you.””  (2 Samuel 12:10-14).  Read 2 Samuel 17-24 to see what happened.

And then there was David’s son Solomon.  He was a man of great wisdom, but his “heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel.” 1 Kings 11 says that Solomon “loved many foreign women.” Despite the Lord’s specific admonition forbidding Solomon to enter “into marriage with them,” Solomon did it anyway.  “There the Lord said to Solomon, ‘since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statues that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant.'”  Following the reign of Solomon, Israel would be divided into two kingdoms and begin a downward slide toward Assyrian and Babylonian captivity.

Of course the United States of America is not Old Testament Israel and it is almost always a bad idea to apply Old Testament passages to contemporary American politics. But even if we accept for the moment Perry’s practice of using the stories of Old Testament kings to prop-up Donald Trump, it is clear that the analogy he makes between our current president and these kings does not go far enough.  If we carry Perry’s analogy to its logical conclusion we must say that the sins of leaders have consequences for the future of the national communities in which they lead. In other words, the United States is in big trouble.

2.  As I told The Washington Post today, there are many members of the clergy who claim that Donald Trump is anointed by God to restore America to its Christian roots. But Perry is a member of the president’s cabinet.  The belief that Donald Trump is carrying out God’s will like an Old Testament king has now made its way into the rhetoric of those who hold power in this country.  If what he said in the Fox interview is true, Perry is preaching this message to the president himself.  I imagine that these themes are discussed regularly in the Wednesday morning cabinet Bible study attended by Perry, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, Sonny Perdue,  Alex Acosta, and others.

An Australian Christian Reflects on Religion and Politics in the United States

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A recent Washington Post op-ed by an Australian observer of the American religious scene should serve as a wake-up call to United States Christians. Michael Bird is a professing Christian and New Testament scholar at Ridley College in Parkville.   Here is a taste of his piece “Jesus isn’t interested in America’s two-party division“:

As a scholar of the New Testament and a professing Christian, I simply do not recognize the plethora of American “Jesuses” spawned by the political left and right. What I see is neither the Jesus of Nazareth I know from history nor the Christ of faith that I know from my church.

To begin with, I am not remotely convinced by the Jesus of American conservative culture. A Jesus who sounds like a deified version of Ronald Reagan. A Jesus who believes that God helps those who help themselves. A Jesus who rejects biological evolution but ostensibly believes in an economic contest of survival of the fittest.

Then, among progressives, their Jesus is often described in ways that would probably best fit the long-lost love child of Lenin and Lady Gaga who grew up to become an Antifa activist. The industry of progressive politics trades in a secular Jesus sanitized of anything that sounds too religious.

I understand that everyone wants Jesus on their political side. In fact, I find it heartening that Jesus is still the endorsement that everyone wants! But there are immense costs being paid when politicians and pundits claim Jesus for their own side.

The primary problem is, of course, the absurd anachronisms.

Read the entire piece here.

A Thoughtful Piece on the Meaning of “Evangelical”

Welcome church

Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri

Jason Byasse‘s piece at Religion News Service gives me hope.  The theologian visited a few evangelical congregations in the Midwest and writes about what he found.

Here is a taste:

But on a visit to several evangelical churches in the heart of Red America not long ago, I found hope to think “evangelical” can mean something else instead.

In St. Joseph, Missouri, in the far west of the Show-Me state, where even Democrats tout their gun-packing bona fides, I visited the Word of Life Church. Pastor Brian Zahnd was once a charismatic TV preacher, but he’s much more Mennonite now, learning from historic peace-loving communities that peacemaking is better than televangelism. On Twitter, Zahnd seeks to disentangle evangelicalism from President Trump. “I don’t believe in conservativism; I don’t believe in progressivism. I believe in Jesus,” he wrote in one post.

The Sunday I was there, I saw him preaching with great ’60’s rock songs as his texts. The sermon that day was on Cat Stephens’ “Ride the Peace Train.” This is no hippie lullaby, he said, it’s a non-violent revolution, prophesied by Isaiah and inaugurated by Jesus.

Now whatever that is, it’s not Trumpism.

Read the entire piece here.

Trumps Critics are “Satanic” and Other Evangelical Craziness on the Eve of Impeachment Hearings.

 

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Two books on evangelicals and Trump on the shelf at Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI

Newsweek is calling attention to a televangelist named Irvin Baxter who believes that Donald Trump is the only thing standing in the way of the coming of the Antichrist.  Anyone who does not support Trump is working for Satan.

Here is a taste:

 

Evangelical pastor Irvin Baxter, a televangelist who is the founder and president of Endtime Ministries, said Donald Trump’s critics are “satanic” while claiming that Satan was angry that the president is “messing up” his goal of creating a unified global government.

Baxter, who hosts a nationally syndicated biblical prophecy program on TV, End of the Age, made the remarks during Monday’s Jim Bakker Show, as first reported by Right Wing Watch. He argued that Trump is hated because he stands in opposition to a “satanic” plot that has been in the works for 100 years to create a world government system.

“All of a sudden this guy by the name of Trump comes along,” Baxter said. “He starts campaigning against their globalistic system. The first thing he did was pull us out of the Paris climate change accord, which was—.” The evangelical leader was then cut off, as the studio audience erupted in applause.

Read the rest here.

Meanwhile, court evangelical Steven Strang, the author of God and Donald Trump, has a new book coming out describing the 2020 election as “spiritual warfare” and claiming that “satanic schemes are so brazen on key issues that the book was written to explain what’s at stake.”  Strang is the CEO of Charisma magazine.  I wrote about him in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Learn more about Strang and his new book at Right Wing Watch.

Evangelicals Will Need To Reckon With Their Support of Trump in Order to Move Forward in Hope

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In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I argued that American evangelicals must come to grips with a long history of nativism, racism, unhealthy nostalgia, fear, and the pursuit of political power to accomplish the goals of the Kingdom of God.  In other words, the election of Donald Trump illuminated the dark corners of the movement–dark corners that have been around for centuries.  Those evangelicals who support Trump are the latest (and perhaps most egregious?) examples of this kind of historic behavior.

Trump will be gone soon.  And, as Garrett Epps’ notes in his recent piece in The Atlantic, when we  awake from this nightmare, the knowledge we will have gleaned from these years is harrowing.

Here is a taste of Epps’s piece:

Consider the devolution of Bill Barr, from an “institutionalist” who would protect the Department of Justice to a servant of Donald Trump. Consider the two dozen House Republicans who used physical force to disrupt their own body rather than allow government officials to testify to what they know about President Trump—because to follow the rules of the House, and the strictures of national security, would threaten their party’s grasp on power. Consider the white evangelical leaders who prated to the nation for a generation about character and chastity and “Judeo-Christian morality,” but who now bless Trump as a leader. Consider, if more evidence is needed, the unforgettable moment at the Capitol on September 27, 2018, when Brett Kavanaugh dropped forever the mask of the “independent judge” to stand proudly forth as a partisan figure promising vengeance against his enemies.

The last incident, I think, sums up the horror of what the nation has learned about many of its leaders. It seems likely that Kavanaugh’s self-abasement was not the impulse of a desperate man, but a conscious choice made because, unless he showed himself willing to fight back viciously, he risked losing the support of the president. That choice had the desired effect. Trump embraced Kavanaugh, and used his tirade to move supporters to the polls that November.

This is the point. These are not victims crazed by “polarization” or “partisanship” or “gridlock” but cool-headed political actors who see the chance to win long-sought goals—dictatorial power in the White House, partisan control of the federal bench, an end to legal abortion and the re-subordination of women, destruction of the government’s regulatory apparatus, an end to voting rights that might threaten minority-party control, a return to pre-civil-rights racial norms. The historical moment finds them on a mountaintop; all the kingdoms they have sought are laid out before them, and a voice says, “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.”

One by one, they have bent the knee.

This episode, as all things must, will someday end. It may even do so without the erection of a full-blown autocracy on the grave of the American republic. Trumpism may be rejected in a fair national vote, and Trump may in fact leave office. A semblance of rule of law may be preserved.

What then? Like young Goodman Brown, can Americans unsee the lawless bacchanal of the past three years? Can they pretend it did not happen, and that the fellow citizens who so readily discarded law and honesty never did so?

Trump has, one way or another, changed our national life irrevocably. When one side of a political struggle has shown itself willing to commit crimes, collaborate with foreign powers, destroy institutions, and lie brazenly about facts readily ascertainable to anyone, should the other side—can the other side—then pretend these things did not happen?

Read the entire piece here.

I am afraid that Trump, “one way or another,” has changed the church “irrevocably.”  When Trump is gone can we just pretend that his crimes, lies, racism, nativism, ugly populism, etc. did not happen?  The church will need to reckon with its support of this man in order to move forward in hope and continue its Kingdom work.

Moral Majority Veteran Cal Thomas on the Prosperity Preacher Who Just Joined Trump’s White House

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Here is what I wrote about Cal Thomas in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

When Jerry Falwell Sr. founded the Moral Majority in 1979 –in his attempt to clean up and win back America–journalist Cal Thomas and evangelical pastor Ed Dobson were two of the Moral Majority’s most important staff members.  Thomas put his journalism career on hold to join Falwell in Lynchburg as the Moral Majority’s vice president for communications.  Dobson, a professor at Falwell’s Liberty Baptist College (later to become Liberty University), served as a tireless promoter of the organization from his position as a member of the board.  During the 1980s, those two were influential in shaping the direction of the Moral Majority.  They believed in Falwell’s vision completely and served the cause with passion and zeal.

But in 1999, Dobson and Thomas reflected soberly on their experience with Falwell and the Moral Majority in their book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?  They concluded that the answer to the subtitle’s question was a definitive “no.”  Neither Dobson nor Thomas left evangelicalism or ceased their commitment to conservative causes; but they were forced to admit that the political strategy they helped to forge in the 1980s had failed.  Despite their efforts, Roe v. Wade had not been overturned.  The Internet had made pornography more accessible than ever.  Drug use had not subsided, and crime had not dissipated in any significant way.  In the process, the prophetic witness of the evangelical church was subordinated to political power and all its trappings.  As Cal Thomas put it, in a reference to Palm Sunday, “Who wanted to ride into the capital on the back of an ass when one could go first class in a private jet and be picked up and driven around in a chauffeured limousine?

Thomas, who parlayed his Moral Majority fame into a nationally syndicated newspaper column, did not mince words when he disparaged the evangelical pursuit of political power, “Christian faith is about truth,” he tells his readers, and “whenever you try to mix power and truth, power usually wins.”  Through his years with Falwell, Thomas learned ho power is the “ultimate aphrodisiac.”  It is not only seductive, but also affects the judgment of the one who “takes it.”  Thomas warned his evangelical readers how the chase for political power threatens the spread of the gospel.  He quoted the late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen: “The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the gospel is the greatest temptation of all.”  Thomas pointed to the myriad ways in which the Moral Majority–and the Christian Right agenda that is spawned–played to the fears of white evangelicals.  For example, Moral Majority fundraising letters always followed a basic formula: “First, they identify an enemy: homosexuals, abortionists, Democrats, or ‘liberals’ in general.  Second the enemies are accused of being out to ‘get us’ or to impose their morality on the rest of the country.  Third, the letter assures the reader that something will be done…. Fourth, to get this job done, please send money.”  Thomas completely rejected the court evangelical notion that Christians need to have a “seat at the table.”  “Access” to political power, he argued, required compromise of “cherished and deeply held convictions.”  He added: “Religious leaders who seek favor with the king run the risk of refusing to speak truth to power out of fear that they won’t be invited back.”  

These are strong words.  Thomas offers a cautionary tale to today’s court evangelicals based on their own extensive experience in the king’s court.  (Of course this did not prevent Thomas from endorsing Donald Trump).  In his recent column he criticizes the selection of prosperity preacher Paula White as Trump’s new director of faith-based outreach.  Here is a taste:

As far as I can tell from a reading of history, while some presidents were friends of clergy, who sometimes advised them, to my knowledge, none hired them as staff members until the presidency of Richard Nixon. It was during Nixon’s administration that Charles Colson began mobilizing the evangelical community to support the president’s policies and programs, seeing evangelicals as just another special interest group, like organized labor has been for Democrats.

After his conversion and after serving time in prison for crimes related to the Watergate scandal, Colson told historian Kevin Kruse, as recounted in The Washington Post, “Sure, we used the prayer breakfasts and church services and all that for political ends. One of my jobs in the White House was to romance religious leaders. We would bring them into the White House, and they would be dazzled by the aura of the Oval Office, and I found them to be about the most pliable of any of the special interest groups that we worked with.”

The latest spiritual adviser to the president is TV evangelist Paula White-Cain. For 18 years she has claimed to have President Trump’s ear on religious matters, but while his policies closely align with evangelical concerns, there is little evidence her “advice” has had any effect on his personal behavior.

Ms. White-Cain is unlikely to serve the role Nathan the prophet filled when he confronted King David over his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, bringing David to repentance and one of the great statements about placing faith in political leaders: “Put not your trust in princes … in whom there is no help.” (Psalm 146:3)

Read the rest here.

Do Evangelicals Care What I Think About Trump?

Believe Me 3dHistorian David Swartz does not think so.

Here is Swartz at The Anxious Bench:

White evangelicals are doubling down on President Donald Trump. Their choices in 2016—Trump or Clinton—may have been distasteful to them then. But in 2019, their taste for Trump is heightening, even without a singular evil liberal personality yet serving as his foil.

To be sure, not all evangelicals are jumping on board. Christianity Today editor Mark Galli, prolific blogger and historian John FeaAtlantic writer Peter Wehner, Liberty student Rebecca Olsen, academician-activists Ron Sider and Richard Mouw, and many others have offered a steady stream of criticism.

These and other bracing rebukes of co-religionists who voted for Trump, however, have not done much to stanch support for the president. The divide between cosmopolitan evangelicals and populist evangelicals is too entrenched. In one of the most sobering scholarly articles I’ve ever read, James Guth shows that the “Populism Syndrome”—marked by “nationalism,” “authoritarianism,” “rough politics,” and “compromise bad”—is disproportionately practiced by evangelicals. Guth writes, “Populist Syndrome scores are a better predictor of a Trump vote among Evangelicals in 2016 than are party identification and ideology combined.” He continues, “White Evangelicals share with Trump a multitude of attitudes, including his hostility toward immigrants, his Islamophobia, his racism and nativism, as well as his political style, with its nasty politics and assertion of strong, solitary leadership.”

And he adds this:

But if you were only hanging out in the faculty lounge at an evangelical college or with humanitarians at an evangelical NGO in Phnom Penh, there’s a good chance you were shocked by the 81 percent. The election exposed the many evangelicalisms that have been there all along.

And this:

But they are reinforcing their cosmopolitan script with a selective historiography that does not reflect the full sweep of evangelical identities. Abolitionists never really represented the mainstream of evangelicalism. There were always more slaveholders and white Jacksonian patriarchs in the nineteenth century than Tappan brothers and Grimke sisters who championed social justice causes. Though some evangelical leaders have sought to refine the term in ways that minimized support for Donald Trump, they do not speak for most rank-and-file evangelicals. There continues to exist a vast subterranean populism that upsets establishment vanities.

Read the entire piece here.

“I’ve worked hard at trying to get rank-and-file evangelicals to rethink their support of this president.  And some have changed their minds.  I know this because they have told me.   But these are just anecdotes. In the end, Swartz is right.

But at least I took a shot.

I have been a longtime advocate of detached scholarship.  I made the case for this kind of scholarship in Why Study History?  But I also argued in that book that there are times when a scholar must use his or her knowledge, expertise, and resources in service to the church.  While other Christian scholars sat on the sidelines and offered detached analysis that they hoped would have a trickle-down effect, I jumped headfirst into the fray.  I don’t regret it one bit.

I continue to be inspired by the recent words of historian Carlo Ginzburg:

I must say that I don’t like sermons. If there is anything I can do, as a historian, from an analytical point of view, it is very good. It’s part of my job. But the situation is evolving in a way that I may have to get a little more involved. Yesterday, I was asked to comment on the screening of a film on immigration and I accepted. Would I have said yes five or ten years ago? The context is changing… Even if the idea of the committed intellectual is not something I particularly like.

Moreover, I have never understood myself as a “cosmopolitan.” (Swartz seems to place me in this camp). In fact, I once wrote a book and a Journal of American History article problematizing “cosmopolitan” as a form of identity.  I have also made the case, in Believe Me and elsewhere, that the kind of evangelical populism Swartz writes about has been around for a long, long time.  No “cosmopolitan script with a selective historiography” here.

Finally, I don’t spend much time in the faculty lounge at Messiah College (although I probably should–fellowship is good), I have never been to Phnom Penh, and I have no experience with NGOs.

So how should I respond to Swartz’s piece?  I can’t speak for the other “evangelical cosmopolitans” Swartz mentions, but I will persist in trying to get evangelicals to see that their propensity for fear, political power, and nostalgia is not healthy.  Someone has to keep saying it or else Trump’s words, behavior, actions, and policies will become normalized.