A Report on the Politics of the Evangelical Intelligentsia

Angle Forum

Over at Slate, William Saleton reports on the Faith Angle Forum, a twice-yearly gathering of evangelical intellectuals and journalists who cover religion and politics.  This year, according to Saleton, there was a lot of anxiety in the room stemming from the Donald Trump campaign for President of the United States.

Here is a taste of his piece:

Most of the people who come to Faith Angle are theologically or politically conservative. But they’re not authoritarian. In Monday’s opening presentation, Jamie Smith, a philosopher at Calvin College, dismisses simplistic religion by observing, “As soon as you have cable, fundamentalism is dead.” Michael Cromartie, the conference organizer, punctures sectarianism with a joke: “The problem with theocracy is, everybody wants to be Theo.”

These people oppose Trump for many reasons. They condemn his viciousness. Theyscorn his arrogance. They reject his “nativism, religious prejudice and misogyny.” In side conversations, one conservative journalist says Trump is a menace to the First Amendment, and another excoriates Trump’s “proto-fascism.” During the conference, the Deseret News—whose editor, Paul Edwards, is a regular at Faith Angle—publishes an editorial denouncing Trump’s “hate-filled diatribes against Muslims and undocumented immigrants.” The editorial reminds Mormons that “incitement to mob violence” once targeted and killed their own leaders.Many of the attendees and organizers are evangelical. For them, Trump’s support among self-identified evangelicals is an embarrassment and a puzzle. Smith suggests that many of these voters are only “nominal evangelicals.” They say they’re evangelical because in South Carolina and similar states, that’s what you’re supposed to say. But they don’t live a Christian life or even go to church. According to Cromartie, Trump’s support among putative evangelicals plummets when the sample is narrowed to those who attend church at least once a week.

It sounds as though Smith and Cromartie are just making excuses. But they go further. Smith calls out the “straight-up xenophobia” among Trump’s supporters. “Their religious identity is a stalking horse or code for something else,” he argues. Evangelicalism, Smith suggests, can be used as a fig leaf to “cover your American nationalism.” He accepts pastoral responsibility to confront the underlying prejudice, through “theological correction within the Christian community.”
One thing you’ll learn from a conference like this one, if you didn’t know it already, is that there are thoughtful, responsible people in evangelical circles and in the right-wing media world. These people aren’t yahoos. They don’t even hang out with yahoos. But that’s part of the problem: How can they reach the yahoos when they don’t know them? Smith pokes fun at secular liberals who have no contact with devout Christians, but he seems totally unfamiliar with Trump’s evangelicals. In a side conversation afterward, a conservative writer makes a similar confession: She interviews people at churches, but Trump’s people don’t go to church, so she doesn’t meet them. Liberals, it turns out, aren’t the only elites who are out of touch with today’s angry white voters.Saleton is on the mark here.  It is easy to condemn Trump’s evangelical supporters or write them off as Christians in name only.  But what are evangelicals doing to understand them, empathize with them, and try to meet them with good Christian thinking about politics?  If they don’t go to church, how will Jamie Smith confront their underlying prejudice through “theological correction within the Christian community?”   I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think they need to be asked and answered.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Family Values

narnia1I am sure I will see The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the recent movie made adaption of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series.  I have read the seven-book series to my kids multiple times and, despite depressing reviews like this one, I am sure I will soon be devoting one of the 1 or 2 movies I see a year to this feature. 

With this in mind, I found Laura Miller’s piece in today’s Wall Street Journal to be insightful.  Miller points out that one of the major themes in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader–the idea of child adventurers detached from their families–works decidedly against the evangelical Christian audience that the Walden Media hopes to reach with the film.  She writes:

Without a doubt, the “Chronicles” are infused with Christian ideas, but are they the same sort of ideas that define Christianity to America’s “faith-based community”? Not exactly, and in one crucial department, not at all.

The watchword of America’s socially conservative Christians is “family,” as in “family values” as well as “family entertainment.” It’s an ethos that places the nuclear family, headed by a married heterosexual couple, at its moral center. Marshaled against that stronghold, and aimed particularly at luring children away from their parents’ rightful authority, are the forces of a hostile secular world, full of venal temptations dangled by agenda-pursuing sexual deviants, political radicals and nonbelievers. To defend the family is to defend Christianity and vice-versa.

By this standard, the “Chronicles” as Lewis wrote them are sorely lacking in piety. At the beginning of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” the Pevensie siblings are sent away from their home in London during the Blitz. Attempts to view this separation from their mother and father as traumatic are simply wishful thinking: The children never mention missing their parents (in fact, they barely mention them at all), and once they’ve jettisoned the White Witch from Narnia, they stick around for a decade or so to rule as kings and queens, apparently without even a glimmer of homesickness. Their return to this world is, on their part at least, an accident.

The rest of the “Chronicles” (with one exception) are very much the same: the child characters, while devoted to each other, never spare a thought for their parents or long to be reunited with them. To the contrary, they can imagine nothing better than staying in Narnia for ages. There are no Dorothy Gales in this bunch.