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?

What is Going on in the World of (Evangelical) College Wrestling?

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Liberty University wrestling coach Jesse Castro

Dozens of matches took place between the three daily mat cleanings. No social distancing among participants and spectators. No communication with the Center for Disease Control. A Liberty University coach claiming the coronavirus is “overhyped.”

Bill Trollinger, a historian at the University of Dayton, is on the case at his blog, Righting America:

Unsurprisingly, Giunta and other tournament officials maintained no communication with the Center for Disease Control (CDC). But it is not difficult to imagine what the CDC would have had to say to them.

While the Dallas Morning News reporter failed to point this out, the NCWA is an organization with a strong evangelical flavor. One of its programs is the 6:12 Project, the name coming from Ephesians 6:12:  

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 

Not only does the 6:12 Project encourage wrestling teams to come up with community service projects, but it also, through a link on its website, provides member teams with BeliefMap, described as an “advanced debate simulator” that prepares Christians to successfully convince unbelievers not only that God exists, but that 

We are all guilty of sin (lying, stealing, lusting etc.) and, in virtue of His holiness, God’s wrathful final destruction of evil and evildoers is coming soon. There is only one way to be saved from it: you must throw yourself at the mercy of God, and freely accept Jesus’s cleansing of you and transformation of you into a sinless person for heavenly living.

As reported by the Dallas Morning News, executive director Giunta explained that he chose not to cancel the NCWA tournament because he thinks a lot of the response to the escalating pandemic “is driven by fear,” and “we’re going to operate on faith rather than fear.” 

Then there is coach Jesse Castro, whose Liberty University wrestling team came away with top honors at the tournament. Echoing his boss (Jerry Falwell Jr.), Castro said that he thinks the coronavirus is being “overhyped” by Democrats as a way to impeach Donald Trump:

Call me a conspiratorist [sic] or whatever. Is that to minimize what’s going on? Absolutely not. But you cannot view this from a prism without being political to some degree. It’s too obvious.

Read the entire piece here.

Does “End-Time Apathy” Explain Why So Many Evangelicals Don’t Care About the Environment?

The Gospel of Climate ChangeIf Jesus is coming back at any moment to “rapture” his church, why should evangelicals care about the environment? As religious studies scholar Robin Globus Veldman writes, this theory has been “widely accepted” by environmentalists to explain evangelical apathy about climate change.  But is it true?  Veldman is the author of The Gospel of Climate Skepticism: Why Evangelical Christians Oppose Action on Climate Change.  Here is a taste of her interview with Eric C. Miller at Religion & Politics:

Religion & Politics: This book offers an extended examination of what you have called the “end-time apathy hypothesis.” What is that, exactly?

Robin Globus Veldman: The basic idea is that evangelicals don’t care about the environment because they think that Jesus will return soon. It has been widely accepted, especially among environmentalists, but had never been empirically investigated. It was always just kind of thrown out there. E.O. Wilson, Al Gore, and Bill Moyers, for example, have all talked about the potential for end-time beliefs to discourage concern about climate change. As Moyers says, why care about the earth when you and yours are about to be rescued in the Rapture? But I wanted to treat it as a hypothesis because no one had actually examined it. Though I could have approached evangelical attitudes on climate from the angle of politics or theology or anti-science prejudices, this struck me as a more productive research question. There seemed to be a lot of lay interest, and it was something that I was curious about too. So that’s where I started.

R&P: Is the hypothesis correct?

RGV: My argument is that it’s onto something, but it’s not the best way to conceptualize what’s going on. End-time beliefs are a very important part of modern evangelicals’ religious worldview. They are a key element of the faith, and they play a central role in a lot of evangelical culture. But I found that end-time beliefs are deeply enmeshed in a larger matrix of influences from which they can’t be separated. They can’t be considered in isolation. I spend the rest of the book mapping that matrix.

R&P: The hypothesis relies on an end-times eschatology known as premillennialism, and you divide your subjects into “hot” and “cool” millennialist camps. What is this distinction and why is it important?

RGV: One of the tricky things about this research is that it required a deep dive into evangelical eschatology—the study of end times—and that required learning some jargon, especially as it concerns two key ideas. Premillennialism refers to the belief that Jesus will return to earth before the millennium, which is understood as a thousand-year period of righteousness over which Christ will preside. Postmillennialism, by contrast, refers to the belief that Jesus will return after a thousand-year period. Premillennialism suggests that the condition of life on earth will deteriorate until Christ returns, while postmillennialism suggests that it should improve. This is how evangelical theologians divide the different beliefs about the end times.

But when I went into the field and started speaking with people, I found that these categories did not map cleanly onto actually existing beliefs. Since most people who hold these viewpoints have not studied them in-depth or gone to seminary or anything, they don’t have this sort of erudite understanding. Instead, the clearest distinction that I saw in terms of how to categorize people was between what I call “hot” and “cool” millennialists. Hot millennialists are people who are really excited about the end times. They think that Jesus is coming back soon, they’re paying attention to signs, and the possibility gives them a feeling of hope. Cool millennialists are people who believe in Christ’s return but do not believe that it can be predicted with accuracy, and so are less directly motivated by the anticipation. As one gentleman told me, “We live like he’s coming today, but plan like he’s coming tomorrow.” This is by far the more common view, which ends up being very significant for attitudes on climate change because the end-time apathy hypothesis imagines a large constituency of hot millennialists. But these are far fewer, and I ran into a very small number of people who seemed to be enthusiastic about climate change as a harbinger of the end. If the hypothesis were correct, you’d expect to see a lot more of that sort of energy.

Read the rest here.

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.

What Are the Court Evangelicals Saying About the Coronavirus?

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According to Ruth Graham’s piece at Slate, they feel pretty calm about.  Here is a taste:

In the 2015 book Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola Are Only the Beginning, Robert Jeffress described a world on the brink of chaos. “Never in my lifetime have I sensed so much unrest in the air,” the Dallas pastor wrote. “Will an Ebola epidemic or an outbreak of some other super virus spread across America?” But today, as an actual “super virus” advances across the United States, Jeffress seems to be feeling much more sanguine. “I do predict this will be under control in the not too distant future,” Jeffress told me on Thursday. “I would encourage any Christian to take sensible precautions without being overrun with anxiety.”

Jeffress, one of Donald Trump’s most full-throated evangelical supporters, plans to preach a sermon on the coronavirus this Sunday at his church, First Baptist Dallas. Its title is “Is the Coronavirus a Judgment From God?” Jeffress strongly suggested to me that the answer is no: “Many times illness is just a consequence of living in the fallen world.” In other words, the virus is nothing to fear nor anything to draw theological or political conclusions from.

Graham asked me to weigh-in:

Few other prominent pastors would speak from the pulpit in such blunt political terms. But that doesn’t mean their politics aren’t influencing their theology. “It’s hard not to think of this as a political story,” said historian John Fea, who has written about white evangelicals’ loyalty to the president. Fea suggested that some Trump-supporting pastors and prophets may be taking their cues from both the president and from Fox News, even if they don’t see it that way. The president himself has gone out of his way to minimize concerns about the virus. In an interview with Sean Hannity this week, Trump said he had a “hunch” that the coronavirus death rate is actually significantly lower than the WHO’s estimate of 3.4 percent. “Personally, I would say the number is way under 1 percent,” the president said. At a Pennsylvania town hall on Fox News on Thursday night, he said that widespread travel cancellations might be good for the economy, since “people are now staying in the United States.”

Read the entire piece here.

Where is this “we have nothing to fear” and “trust God” mentality when it comes to the demographic and cultural changes that they think are undermining their Christian nation?

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

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“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.

Darryl Hart Reviews *Believe Me*

Believe Me 3dDarryl Hart reviews Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump alongside Peter Wehner’s The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.  I must have missed this review when it appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of the traditionalist conservative quarterly Modern Age.  Apparently the Intercollegiate Studies Institute saw fit to republish the review at its website.

Anyone who follows Hart on twitter (@oldlife) knows that he is a regular critic of my blog, public writing, and views on Donald Trump, but I at least appreciate his willingness to engage with my ideas.

The only place where I would quibble with Hart’s understanding of my argument is when he writes about my “credentials.”  Hart writes:

Recent books by John Fea and Peter Wehner…are remarkably useful for understanding how broad swaths of American Protestants assess not simply the presidency of Donald Trump but the history and character of the United States. Both authors are laymen in evangelical churches and have no professional standing as church officials. But both writers are also experts in professions that encourage members to make judgments about American politics and society. Fea teaches U.S. history at Messiah College, an evangelical liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, and Wehner has been a staffer in three Republican presidential administrations and is now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

These credentials distinguish Fea and Wehner from the ordinary evangelical in the pew. At the same time, both authors vehemently critique President Trump and the evangelicals who voted for him on grounds that rely little on the expertise that comes with historical inquiry or political experience. Instead, they rely on the moralistic squint that born-again Protestants have made a trademark of Christian devotion.

Anyone who has read Believe Me knows that the book is filled with American history.  So while I have never understood my book as a work of history, I think my training in American history has indeed contributed to my moral critique.

Read the review here.

The *Believe Me* Book Tour Comes to Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren

Church of Brethren

I had a great visit yesterday with an adult education class at Mechanicsburg (PA) Church of the Brethren.  The class is reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump and it was a privilege to be present to answer questions and talk more about the book.

We spent a lot of time exploring theological, political, and historical factors that led so many evangelical to support Trump in 2016, but we also talked about a vision for Christian politics defined by hope, humility, and an informed understanding of American history.  Class members had questions about abortion, “end times” theology, environmentalism, the 2020 election, and how to think more Christianly about political engagement.

As Christian political scientist Glenn Tinder explains, politics requires “attentiveness” and “availability.”  Attentive people are aware of what others are “doing, suffering, [and] saying.” But they also make themselves available.  They see the needs of the world and ask: “Is there anything I can do about it?”  If we think about politics this way, then churches are always engaged in political activity.  And if churches are always engaged in political activity, then it also has a responsibility to think deeply about how to exercise such engagement in accordance with scripture.

Thanks to Warren Eshbach for the invitation.

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.

A History of the Jerks

The Jerks

Image accessed at douglaswiniarski.com

No, this is not a political post.

Over at The Panorama, University of Richmond religion professor Douglas Winiarski writes about the jerks, a “fascinating spirit possession phenomenon” often associated with certain forms of evangelical Christianity.  It looks like this short piece draws from Winiarski’s recent William and Mary Quarterly article,”Seized by the Jerks: Shakers, Spirit Possession, and the Great Revival.” Winiarski also wrote about the jerks in an August 2019 piece at the Uncommon Sense blog.

Here is a taste of his piece at The Panorama:

It was long after sunset on a brisk fall evening in 1804 when Joseph Brown drew the reins on his horse near the summit of Cumberland Mountain and settled in for the night. He had been riding all day along Avery’s Trace to attend a treaty meeting with the Cherokees at the Tellico Blockhouse in East Tennessee. Slipping down from his saddle to prepare a small meal of corn for himself and his mount, Brown paused in prayer. Suddenly his body began convulsing uncontrollably. Brown had been “taken with the Jirks,” the latest and most extraordinary of the somatic exercises that exploded across the trans-Appalachian west during the Great Revival (1799–1805). He continued to experience them over the next five decades until his death in 1868.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the jerks recently. They’re a fascinating spirit possession phenomenon that complicates our understanding of the origins of the southern Bible Belt. Once dismissed an bizarre curiosity in the history of evangelicalism, the jerks and other bodily exercises of the Great Revival loom especially large in the controversies that precipitated what Nathan Hatch famously called the Democratization of American Christianity—a landmark study that turns thirty this year. Jerkers like Joseph Brown pose a special problem for historians of the early republic. After all, his first experience with jerking occurred on the road to a treaty council in which the Federal Government sought to dispossess the Cherokee of their homelands. Was there a connection between frontier revivalism and western expansion?

Read the rest here.

 

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

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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.

How the Democratic Presidential Candidates Can Win Evangelical Votes

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Pete Buttigieg at Jimmy Carter’s church in Plains, Georgia

Here is a taste of Elana Schor’s Associated Press piece “Democrats’ challenge: Courting evangelicals in the Trump era“:

 

President Donald Trump’s strong white evangelical support poses a challenge to Democrats: how to connect with a group of Christian voters whose longtime GOP lean makes them compelling antagonists in a polarized era.

Former President Barack Obama reached out to evangelicals in notable fashion during his White House bids, tapping well-known pastor Rick Warren to appear at his first inauguration and vowing to safeguard religious liberty as he launched a coalition of faith voters in 2012. While Obama’s efforts paid some dividends, Trump has complicated that task this year for Democrats who are balancing an appeal to religious voters with opposition to the sitting president’s agenda on issues important to evangelicals.

The value of making political space for more conservative-leaning evangelicals may be less urgent for Democrats now, amid a grueling primary where the party’s liberal base holds significant sway. But once Democrats choose a nominee, cutting into Trump’s popularity with white evangelicals — not to mention securing votes in minority evangelical communities — could make a pivotal difference come November’s general election.

To that end, multiple Democratic presidential hopefuls have talked about their faith on the campaign trail, weaving it into their approach to issues from health care to economics. Among the most vocal Democrats on that front is former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who asserted his party’s connection to religion last week during its final primary debate before next month’s first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus.

Read the rest here.

Of the candidates left in the Democratic primary race, only Pete Buttigieg occasionally uses Christian language.  This commendable, but it is often hard to separate Buttigieg’s religious language from Democratic Party talking points. He will not win over many white evangelicals this way.

Over the last couple of years I have talked with a lot of Trump-voting evangelicals.  Some go to my church.  Some are in my family.  Many attended one of my events on the Believe Me book tour. Others I have encountered through social media or e-mail.

Based on this anecdotal evidence, I think there are a lot of evangelicals who will vote for Trump again. I’ve even met a few evangelicals who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016, but plan to vote for Trump in 2020 because he delivered on Supreme Court justices, religious liberty (as defined by conservative evangelicals), and Israel.

But I have also met people who voted for Trump in 2016 and are looking for a justification–any justification–to vote for a Democrat in 2020.  These evangelicals might vote for:

  1.  A Democratic candidate who speaks in genuine and sincere ways about reducing the number of abortions in America.  Preferably this would be a candidate who supports the Hyde Amendment.
  2. A Democratic candidate who recognizes the legitimate threats to religious liberty experienced by some Christian institutions.  Such a candidate might endorse something like Fairness for All or embrace something akin to John Inazu‘s “confident pluralism.”

That’s it.

If a candidate will speak proactively on both of these points he or she will steal a small number of evangelical votes away from Trump.  These votes may be all that is needed to defeat him.  But I don’t see it happening. No such candidate exists in the Democratic field.

If a candidate is not willing to part from the Democratic Party platform on these points then I see no political reason for her or him to talk about religion on the campaign trail.  Such a candidate should just take the route Hillary Clinton took in 2016– ignore evangelicals and try to win without them.  Let’s remember that such a strategy almost worked–Clinton won the popular vote by three million.

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

Evangelical-Jewish Relations

NetanyahiRalph Keen is writing for us this week from the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City.  Keen is Arthur J. Schmitt Foundation Chair of Catholic Studies and Professor of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago. In 2018 he was president of the ASCH.

A session on Evangelical-Jewish relations brought new light to the harmonies and tensions between American Jews and pro-Israel Evangelicals. Amy Weiss (College of St. Elizabeth) presented Billy Graham and Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee as partners, not without differences, in the forging of an alliance regarding Israel and the promotion of inter-religious dialogue before 1979 when Baptist claims of Evangelical exclusiveness made it harder for Jews to work with the SBC. Daniel Hummel (UW-Madison) discussed the construction of a Judeo-Christian identity in the wake of the 1982 Lebanon War, arguing that that war prompted a clearer definition of the term by the religious right, one that asserted that freedom of religious practice (specifically that of Christians in Islamic regions) is a human right. Hummel described Jerry Falwell’s trip to Lebanon as a point in the development of American support of Israel. Third, Ian Van Dyke (Notre Dame) unpacked the difficult questions regarding the religious identity of Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, particularly as they arose during the 1989 International Congress of World Evangelization in Manila. Tensions between these two groups triggered questions about who could be considered Christian (as well as whether Messianic Jews were still Jews), in particular given their stances toward Israel. As Heath Carter stated in his comment after these papers, it was evident that there was more conflict within Evangelicalism concerning Judaism and Israel than there was between Evangelicals and Jews.

Who is Leith Anderson?

Leith

He is the most influential evangelical in America that no one has ever heard of.  Check out Emma Green’s interview at The Atlantic with the retiring president of the National Association of Evangelicals.

A taste:

Emma Green: I think people like you have ceded the ground to people like Robert Jeffress. Evangelicalism, in the mind of the public, is very much tilted toward people who are quite politically conservative. Especially in the past few years, more moderate or nonpolitical perspectives like your own have receded into the background. Does that trouble you at all?

Leith Anderson: It does—in the sense that, to me, evangelicalism is about faith. It’s not about politics. It’s a historic religious movement. And that’s not a popular message, in the midst of polarized politics.

I distinguish between politics and government. I was on President Obama’s advisory council. That was a government function, not a political one. If I were asked to pray at a government event, like a White House Easter breakfast, I would say yes to that. But when I was asked to pray at political conventions, I declined.

Green: Let me push you on that. The NAE is not necessarily a political organization, but politics has certainly been part of its history. George W. Bush spoke to the NAE during his 2004 reelection campaign and said the organization was “doing God’s work.” Ronald Reagan gave his famous 1983 “Evil Empire” speech to the NAE.

Anderson: I was six feet away from him.

Green: Did it not seem clear then that evangelicalism was becoming more of a political movement, or at least that it was being perceived that way?

Anderson: To my knowledge, I’ve never preached a sermon that most people would consider to be political. Actually, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a sermon talk much about politics.

I feel a pressure to portray evangelicals in terms of faith and beliefs. There’s something like 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about the poor and the widow and the orphan and the homeless and the hungry. To me, that transcends politics. That’s what we believe, and that’s what we’ve got to do.

Or immigrants. With all the teachings in the Bible about the way you treat the stranger and the immigrant, have we taken strong positions on immigration reform and Dreamers? Yeah, we have. But I don’t see it driven primarily by current political issues. I see it driven primarily by what the Bible says.

Read the entire piece here.

Are Trump’s Evangelical Critics Elitist? The Pietist Schoolman Reflects on Evangelical Populism

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After Mark Galli published a Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, several pundits accused Galli of betraying the populist roots of American evangelicalism.  Galli, in other words, is an out of touch elitist.

Read court evangelical Johnnie Moore’s recent piece at Religion News Service.

Read Carl Trueman’s recent piece at First Things. (I responded to it here).

Read Matthew Schmitz’s piece at The New York Post.  (I responded to it here).

It is worth noting that these articles have little to do with the merits of Trump’s impeachment.  Nor do they address any problems with Trump’s character that might lead evangelicals to reject the president.  Instead, these articles try to interpret the editorial, and Galli, through the lens of class.  Galli and Christianity Today do not represent ordinary evangelicals.  As a result, we can’t take the editorial seriously.

Chris Gehrz, the Bethel University history professor and author of the blog The Pietist Schoolman, has written a nice piece on evangelical populism that is worth your time. It engages with Moore and Schmitz.
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Here is a taste of “The Problems and Possibilities of Evangelical Populism“:

2. Which populace defines populism?

Donald Trump likes to present himself as a populist, but he has generally been one of the least popular first-term presidents in American history. Even after a recent bump, he’s still 10 points more unfavorable than favorable in Five Thirty Eight‘s composite poll. He’s particularly disliked by certain groups within American society, including women and persons of color.

If evangelical populism is meant to empower ordinary evangelicals, then it had better address the concerns of three of the most important, most often ignored groups within evangelicalism: women (55% of all evangelicals in America), persons of color (22% and growing fast), and non-American evangelicals (the lion’s share of the world total).

Rather than just reflecting the passions of the white men who compose Trump’s base of support, genuine evangelical populists would join CT president Tim Dalrymple in lamenting that evangelicals are “associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more.” They would stop waving aside Trump’s misogyny and ask how much it taps into the sexism too often found within evangelical communities.

Finally, truly evangelical populists would look beyond the American nation to recognize that most evangelicals live elsewhere — often in places already being affected by the climate crisis that the Trump administration and its Christian enablers casually deny. “If we shift our gaze from the U.S. political right,” writes David Fitzpatrick, to look at evangelicals of color in this country and beyond it, “we can see an alternative tradition of evangelicalism that embraces social, economic, environmental and racial justice.”

Read the entire piece here.

Christianity Today CEO Tim Dalrymple Responds to Critics

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Christianity Today plants the flag:

We nevertheless believe the evangelical alliance with this presidency has done damage to our witness here and abroad. The cost has been too high. American evangelicalism is not a Republican PAC. We are a diverse movement that should collaborate with political parties when prudent but always standing apart, at a prophetic distance, to be what Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the conscience of the state.” That is what we believe. This is where we plant our flag. We know we are not alone.

Read it all here.