The Liberty University *Falkirk Center” shows its theocratic tendencies

The Falkirk Center at Liberty University published a very revealing tweet over the weekend:

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My response:

P.S. They also misspelled Roosevelt and “its” in the second tweet in this screenshot. Both of these tweets were deleted, but several of the good folks on Twitter captured screen shots and passed them along.

“Patriot Churches” call masks “face diapers”

For more than a decade, I have been chronicling how many white evangelicals have a hard time distinguishing between Christianity and nationalism. I wrote a book about this in 2011 and it was a major theme of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Over at The Washington Post, Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports on “patriotic churches.” I understand that these churches exist, but in my view
“patriotic church” is an oxymoron.

Here is a taste:

This is a Patriot Church, part of an evolving network of nondenominational start-up congregations that say they want to take the country back for God. While most White conservative Christian churches might only touch on politics around election time and otherwise choose to keep the focus during worship on God, politics and religion are inseparable here. The Tennessee congregation is one of three Patriot Churches that formed in September. The other two are near Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and in Spokane, Wash., and Peters says he is talking with several more pastors of existing churches who want to join them.

The 50 or so people in attendance may identify as born-again or just as generic “Bible-loving” Christians. Peters’s flock is not affiliated with a specific denomination, but it does have a distinct identity. The Patriot Churches belong to what religion experts describe as a loosely organized Christian nationalist movement that has flourished under President Trump. In just four years, he has helped reshape the landscape of American Christianity by elevating Christians once considered fringe, including Messianic Jews, preachers of the prosperity gospel and self-styled prophets. At times, this made for some strange bedfellows, but the common thread among them is a sense of being under siege and a belief that America has been and should remain a Christian nation.

From his lectern during the worship service, Peters rails against perceived attacks on First Amendment freedoms, decrying government mandates and calling masks “face diapers.”

Read the rest here.

Mike Pence visits First Baptist-Dallas for “Freedom Sunday.” He and Robert Jeffress show us what idolatry looks like.

We have written about this annual service before. Check out posts here and here and here and here and here and here and here.

In case you don’t have time to watch, allow me to give you a rundown:

9:44: Robert Jeffress and Mike Pence enter the room wearing masks. He stops at the entry to the sanctuary and accepts a standing ovation from the audience.

10:20: The band and orchestra play a patriotic medley of songs, including “This Land is Your Land” (no reference is made to the radicalism of the song :-)) and “It’s a Grand Old Flag.”

13:00: The choir plays “America the Beautiful.” A voice comes across the speakers saying “Let the words of patriots remind us of our blessings. They warn us of the consequences of taking liberty for granted.”

17:00: The congregation and choir sings the Star-Spangled Banner. Future historians who study this service will not miss the fact that today’s singing of the national anthem has nothing to do with Christianity and everything to do with our current debates over whether athletes and others should “take a knee” during  its playing.

19:00: The master of ceremonies says, “This morning we come to celebrate the freedom that we have in America through Christ Jesus.” Think about that statement for a moment. Is he saying that Jesus died so Americans could be free? Perhaps it was just a mistake.

19:15: The orchestra plays the theme songs of all four major branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. Veterans in the audience are invited to stand and wave their American flags when the anthem of the branch in which they served is played. This is one of the most revealing parts of the service. Even if such patriotic celebrations were appropriate during a Sunday morning service, Independence Day is not a military holiday–we have Memorial Day and Veterans Day for that. Independence Day is a time to remember our shared values and the times we have fallen short of those values. It is a time to remember the story of America–the triumphs and the failures. Yes, we can honor soldiers, but we must also remember reformers–Garrison, Anthony, Stanton, Stowe, Dix, Addams, Debs, Du Bois, Day, Fuller, King, Mott, Nation, Parks, Tubman, Steffens, Sinclair, Gilman, Lewis, Robeson, Guthrie, Baker, Robinson, Ali, the Grimke sisters, Weld, Mann, and many, many others. I wonder what Frederick Douglass, the author of “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?,” would have thought of this service.

24:50: All new attendees get a copy of Jeffress’s book Praying for America.

25:30: Jeffress takes the platform. He informs us that Ben Carson, Greg Abbott and John Cornyn are in attendance. They get a standing ovation.

28:00: Ben Carson gets up to speak. He thanks Jeffress for his work as a court evangelical and the “wonderful commentaries that make sense that you give on the news.” Carson then starts talking about Alexis De Tocqueville’s early 19th-century visit to America and the role the churches played in carrying forth  the ideals of the American Revolution. Carson does not mention that he is standing in a pulpit where ministers like W.A. Criswell preached that racial segregation is biblical.

After he references Tocqeuville, Carson moves easily into a bunch of Christian nationalist lingo.  Following this, he starts making indirect references to monuments: “Do we want to bury our history, do we want to bury our heritage, or do we want to learn from it?” Again, the crowd applauds. Carson adds, “we cannot succumb to the purveyors of division and hatred.” Yes, this is an African-American member of Donald Trump’s cabinet talking about how we shouldn’t fall prey to disunity. Carson works for a president who two hours earlier retweeted a video of a guy yelling “white power.”

35:00: The scripture for this day of patriotism is Psalm 33:6-12: It concludes: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance.” This is a perfect verse for what Jeffress wants to accomplish in this service. A promise to Israel is used as a promise to the United States. America is God’s new chosen people.

35:30ff: Praise songs. Jeffress wants everyone to know that this isn’t just a patriotic service. That would be too secular. No, this is a service that brings spiritual faith and patriotism into a syncretic mix of Christian nationalism.

44:40: The choir sings a rousing rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

50:00: Jeffress gives a shout-out to Donald Trump. He calls him “the most resilient, the most courageous, the most faith-friendly president in the history of America.” Trump gets a standing ovation. This idolatry is not unlike what happened in January at the Evangelicals for Trump rally in Miami, an event that prompted this piece. (Compare Jeffress’s service with this morning’s message from Dru Dodson, an evangelical pastor in Arkansas  and a former classmate of mine at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School).

Jeffress introduces Pence. He then claims that by choosing Pence as his vice-president, Trump followed the example of Abraham Lincoln. No, I’m sorry Bob, Trump has not assembled a “team of rivals.” More like a team of flatterers.

He then moves into a Trump campaign speech. Finally, he encourages Pence to run for president in 2024. Everyone stands-up and gives Pence another standing ovation. Then they start chanting USA! USA! USA!” This is idolatry. It is not Christianity.

57:50: Pence wastes no time mixing the Bible and American ideals. He starts with Galatians 5:1 “It is for freedom that Christ set us free….” This was a very popular verse among revolutionary-era patriotic clergy–men who also used their pulpits to twist scripture to make it fit their political agenda. Galatians 5:1 is not about political freedom. Read it.

58:45: Pence says that Trump “has been a great champion of everything we are celebrating here this morning.”

59:54: Pence says that since the “cornerstone was laid” at the founding of First Baptist Church in Dallas, the people have understood “that the foundation of America is freedom. And the foundation of freedom, is faith.” See my remarks above about the real history of this church. Pence may want to be careful using the word “freedom” in conjunction with First Baptist–Dallas.

1:00:00:  Pence’s speech is full of applause lines, especially when he mentions Trump’s name. This is a political rally on the Lord’s Day. It is actually worse, much worse, than the Miami event. Here is what I wrote about that day:

I am used to this kind of thing from Trump, but I was stunned when I witnessed evangelical Christians — those who identify with the “good news” of Jesus Christ —raising their hands in a posture of worship as Trump talked about socialism and gun rights.

I watched my fellow evangelicals rising to their feet and pumping their fists when Trump said he would win reelection in 2020.

Trump spent the evening mocking his enemies, trafficking in half-truths in order to instill fear in people whom God commands to “fear not,” and proving that he is incapable of expressing anything close to Christian humility.

His evangelical supporters loved every minute of it. That night, Christians who claim to be citizens of the Kingdom of God went to church, cheered the depraved words of a president and warmly embraced his offer of political power. Such a display by evangelicals is unprecedented in American history.

I usually get angry when members of my tribe worship at the feet of Trump. This time, I just felt sad.

Read the entire piece at USA TODAY.

1:12:00ff: Pence offers a David Barton-inspired history lesson. This is the stuff I tried to correct in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

1:19:31: Like he is prone to do, Pence ends by mixing 2 Chronicles 7:14 with American history. “If his people are called by his name will humble themselves and pray, he will do what he has always done through the long and storied history of this nation. He’ll here from heaven and he’ll heal this land.” Another huge ovation.

1:23:00 Pence ends by telling the story of his conversion at a music festival at Asbury Theological Seminary. It is moving. I have no doubt that Pence is describing a very real spiritual experience. But in this speech he is taking what seems like a work of God in his life and using it in the context of a political rally. Most evangelicals would say a hearty “amen” to most of Pence’s personal testimony, but his words are not spoken in a vacuum. They are uttered in the context of his previous remarks in this service. They are spoken in the context of the Donald Trump administration, a corrupt presidency that he has helped to enable.

1:27:00: Jeffress comes back to invite people to accept Jesus as Savior. Viewers online can click on a button that says, “I prayed the prayer with Dr. Jeffress.” Later in the day, Jeffress tweeted:

Did these men and women commit to Christ or Christian nationalism? If my mail is any indication, some of my readers will be upset that I just asked this question. But it needs to be asked.

1:36:00: The service ends with the waving of American flags and the singing of “God Bless America.”

1:38:00: As the people exit, the orchestra plays more patriotic music and the audience is encourage to keep waving flags.

The fusion of God and country has been around since the birth of the republic, but it is hard to find a more blatant manifestation of this convergence than what we saw this morning in Dallas.

Trump cheered. Jesus wept.

ADDENDUM (Sunday, June 28, 2020, 11:15pm):

The White House is calling Pence’s visit a “rally.” That says it all. First Baptist Church–Dallas let the Trump administration use the church to hold a campaign rally on the Lord’s Day. In case it gets changed, the title of this post at Whitehouse.gov is “Remarks by Vice President Pence at the Celebrate Freedom Rally–Dallas, Texas.”

Pence Rally at First Baptist

 

*Salon* Covers “Christians Against Christian Nationalism”

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Check out journalist Paul Rosenberg’s piece at Salon on this statement.  Here is a taste:

The statement was released along with brief additional statements from 19 prominent endorsers, six of them Baptists, but—true to its Baptist origins—it’s not conceived as a top-down organization. “This is a grassroots movement, spreading through word of mouth and social media,” Tyler told Salon. “We had signers from all 50 states and more than three dozen denominations in the first eight hours of the campaign,” she said, with a total of more than 10,000 additional signatories in just over a week. “Anyone who self-identifies as Christian is invited and welcome to join us,” she said. “Our goal is not just to gather signatures, but to start conversations about what Christian nationalism is and how it shows up in our society today.”

To help further that conversation, BJC launched the above-mentioned podcast series, and EthicsDaily.com, a partner in the project, has published a series of opinion pieces from signatories.

Rosenberg also drew on some of my own writing on this subject:

On his blog, evangelical historian John Fea, who signed the statement, pushed back against critics who claimed there was no such thing as Christian nationalism, a subject he’s written a whole book on. “Christian nationalism not only exists, but it is a view of church and state that drives a significant part of the Donald Trump presidency,” Fea wrote. “As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, some of the fastest-growing evangelical groups in the United States embrace Christian nationalism.”

Read the entire piece here.

What Does Colin Kaepernick and Nike Have to Do With a Christian College?

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The Chronicle of Higher Education is reporting that the College of the Ozarks will no longer use Nike athletic gear after the sports apparel company revealed an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick.  Here is a taste:

Nike’s new ad campaign includes a close-up photo of Kaepernick’s face with the sentence, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

As a result, the College of the Ozarks, a small Christian institution in rural Missouri, announced that it would get rid of all athletic uniforms that had been purchased from Nike and anything else that displays the Nike “swoosh” logo, according to a news release.

The college revised its sports contracts in October 2017, adding a stipulation that all participating coaches and players “show respect for the American flag and national anthem,” the release said.

“If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them,” the college’s president, Jerry C. Davis, said in a written statement. “We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform.”

Marci Linson, vice president for patriotic activities and dean of admissions, said that “Nike is free to campaign as it sees fit, as the college is free, and honor-bound by its mission and goals, to ensure that it respects our country and those who truly served and sacrificed.”

First, what does it say about the College of the Ozarks that it has a “vice-president for patriotic activities?”

This is not the first time the College of Ozarks has made news for its God and country convictions.   In October 2017, we wrote about the college’s course on “patriotic education and fitness.”  We also wrote about the school’s refusal to engage in intercollegiate athletics against schools that “disrespect the flag.”  David Barton, the Christian nationalist and GOP activist who uses the past to promote his agenda, has described College of the Ozarks as a “safe college.”

I am curious how the  “God and country” program at the College of the Ozarks affects faculty members.  Is a faculty member’s job in jeopardy if they support, based on Christian conviction, “taking a knee” at a football game?  What if a professor argues that patriotism should not play such a strong role at a Christian college?

Fox News Radio Host: “Apparently… There are Some So-Called Evangelical Christians Who Have a Problem With Patriotic Church Services”

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Listen to Todd Starnes of Fox News and court evangelical Robert Jeffress talk about patriotic worship services.

A preview:

  • Starnes takes a shot at the critics of patriot worship services by calling them “so-called evangelical Christians.”
  • They criticize Michelle Boorstein’s recent Washington Post piece on patriotic sermons.
  • They take some shots at The Gospel Coalition, a group of theologically conservative evangelical Calvinists.  Starnes makes the Gospel Coalition sound like they are some kind of left-wing progressive group.
  • They call Christianity Today and The Washington Post “fake news.”
  • They continue to peddle the false notion that America was founded as a Christian nation.

To be fair, Jeffress does make a good point about anti-Trump evangelicals when he says “they can’t reconcile [President Trump] with their faith.”

Does anyone else see a realignment taking place in American evangelicalism?

*Christianity Today*: America is a “Great and Terrible Nation”

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Mark Galli, the editor in chief of Christianity Today, makes it abundantly clear that America was not founded as a Christian nation.  Here is a taste of his July 4th editorial:

The point is this: Can we in any way, shape, or form say that America was founded on Christian principles when its very existence and prosperity were set on a foundation of unimaginable cruelty to millions of other human beings?

This is not to say that America has practiced unparalleled evil in world history. Every nation has sins it needs to repent of. The irony of American history is that a nation founded on subjugation and cruelty nonetheless became a land of freedom and opportunity for millions. It has been and continues to be a beacon of light for refugees across the world. Our economic and justice systems, for all their flaws, make it possible for people to prosper in ways unimaginable in most of the world today. And yes, a few prophetic Christians in their day spoke up about the injustices perpetrated on Native Americans and blacks. And nearly all Americans today deeply regret how we have treated Native Americans, blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and a host of other ethnic and cultural minorities in the past, and most of us rightly continue to deplore injustice in any form—whether it be toward ethnic and racial minorities or (to name one especially grievous injustice) developing children killed before birth.

In short, the United States is a nation like all others, in some ways blessed by God, in some ways standing under God’s judgment. And so it shall be until the Lord returns.

On this and every Independence Day, we can thank God for the many blessings we enjoy, undeserved as they are. We can also repent of the ways we have denied the very values we proclaim in our founding documents and in our Pledge of Allegiance, in which we hold out the ideal of a nation that practices “liberty and justice for all.”

Read the entire piece here.

Did Your Church Have Patriotic Worship on Sunday?

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Did your church have a patriotic service yesterday?  Did you sing any patriotic songs?  My church did not.  I came in a few minutes late, but I don’t think the 4th of July was ever mentioned.  This does not mean that the leaders of my church are unpatriotic.  It means that they probably realize it is a bad idea to mix civil religion in the form of patriotic celebrations with Christian worship.

Over at The Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein has a nice piece on the debate over whether to bring patriotism into church.  The piece quotes my recent History News Network piece on the topic.

Here is a taste:

In 2016, LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 61 percent of Protestant pastors agreed that it was “important for July Fourth worship services to incorporate patriotic elements to celebrate America. Fifty-three percent of pastors in that survey agreed that their congregation “sometimes seems to love America more than God.”

The context of 2018 may be new — rapidly changing religious and racial demographics in the United States, growing secularism, the explosion of Web-based faith — but debates about how churches handle July 4 began surfacing early in American history.

Catherine Brekus, a Harvard University historian of U.S. religion, noted that in the early 1800s, Methodists opposed Fourth of July celebrations on the grounds that they were not Christian. By the 1850s in Cleveland, Protestant ministers “usually took the lead in organizing 4th of July activities, and speeches were given in churches. After the 1850’s, ministers still gave benedictions, but the ceremonies were usually held outdoors, and commercial leaders and businesses were prominently involved,” she wrote in an email, noting historical accounts.

John Fea, a U.S. historian from Messiah College who just published a book about Christian nationalism, wrote in June for the History News Network about why activities such as July 4 services are being debated anew:

“Ever since the founding of the republic, a significant number of Americans have supposed that the United States is exceptional because it has a special place in God’s unfolding plan for the world. Since the early 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by Puritans, evangelicals have relished their perceived status as God’s new Israel — His chosen people. America, they argued, is in a covenant relationship with God,” he wrote. Today, the anxiety about how to be Christian and American is high because history is being reexamined.

“The United States Constitution never mentions God or Christianity but does forbid religious tests for office. The First Amendment rejects a state-sponsored church and celebrates the free-exercise of religion. This is hardly the kind of stuff by which Christian nations are made.”

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelicals, American History and Support for Donald Trump

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The ideas and proposals I put forth in the last section of this piece I just published with History News Network are very important to me.    Thanks for considering them and sharing the piece with those who may need to read it.  I had hoped to publish this with a Christian, evangelical or conservative media outlet, but could not find any takers.  I am thankful to Rick Shenkman for running it.

A taste:

If the Christian Right, and by extension the 81% of evangelical voters who use its political playbook, are operating on such a weak historical foundation, why doesn’t someone correct their faulty views and dubious claims?

We do.

We have. 

But countering bad history with good history is not as easy as it sounds. David Barton and his fellow Christian nationalist purveyors of the past are well-funded by Christian conservatives who know that the views of the past they are peddling serve their political agenda. Barton has demonized Christian intellectuals and historians as sheep in wolves’ clothing. They may call themselves Christians on Sunday morning, but, according to Barton, their “world view” has been shaped by the secular universities where they earned their Ph.Ds. Thanks to Barton, many conservative evangelicals do not trust academic and professional historians—even academic and professional historians with whom they share a pew on Sunday mornings.

Read the entire piece here.

Tony Perkins Praises Pence Speech at the Southern Baptist Convention and Confuses God and Country…Again

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We have already weighed-in on Wednesday’s Pence speech.

Here is court evangelical Tony Perkins on the speech:

As [Pence] touched on the country’s divided times, several in the room probably thought about the division right there in that room. Just yesterday, one SBC messenger made a motion to disinvite the vice president, insisting that, “By associating publicly with any administration, we send a mixed message to our members, suggesting that to be faithful to the gospel, we ought to align with a particular administration.”

Fortunately, wisdom prevailed, soundly defeating the ill-conceived resolution. But it is a clear indication that there are some within the church that are either too ill-informed or too focused on the headlines to understand the difference between influencing and being influenced, or – as Jesus described in John 17 – being in the world but not of it. We can’t influence if we retreat. We don’t have to agree with everything this president has said or done, and we don’t, but it is foolish and even detrimental to persecuted believers around the world to fail to acknowledge that this administration is being used to set the table for the church to do its work unhindered. The vice president, Mike Pence, is an unabashed believer who’s championing their cause in the White House. Look at the doors this administration is opening for religious liberty and free speech. Now is not the time for shutting doors – now’s the time to rush through and seize this moment of opportunity.

Read the entire piece here.

Wow! There is a lot to unpack in Perkins’s post.

  1. Perkins criticizes pastor Garrett Kell’s resolution to replace Pence’s speech with a time of prayer.  But notice how he does it.  He blames Kell (“one SBC messenger”) for promoting disunity.  Actually, if you read Kell’s resolution, it was steeped in unity–not for the nation, but for the Southern Baptist Convention.  Perkins seems confused.  The SBC meeting in Dallas was not a political event or a God and country rally.  It was a religious event.  It seems to me that “unity” at a religious event should revolve around spiritual things, not politics or nationalism.
  2. Perkins suggests that anyone who opposed Pence’s speech is “too ill-informed or too focused on the headlines to understand the difference between influencing and being influenced.”  In other words, those who opposed Pence’s speech are not smart enough to realize that they are being played by the Left, the media, or (add your favorite bogeyman here).  But let’s remember that the Trump White House asked the SBC if Pence could come and speak.  Is it possible to view this as anything but an attempt to shore-up votes among the evangelical base?  Who got played here?
  3. Perkins has the audacity to quote John 17, a passage in which Jesus prays for unity in his church.  Again, he confuses Jesus’s prayer for unity among fellow Christians with national unity.  Jesus was not praying for national unity.  He was not praying for unity in the United States.
  4. Perkins’s piece would make a great primary source for students to read in an American religious history course.  It provides an amazing example of the way that the Christian Right conflates the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of America.  Politics don’t “set the table” for the church.  God sets the table.  Perkins sees everything in political terms.  He also talks about “seizing opportunities,” a clear reference to the 2018 election.

Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress’s “Freedom Sunday” is Coming

It’s that time of year again.  Time for Robert Jeffress, the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas and a prominent court evangelical, to hold his annual “Freedom Sunday.”  This year’s celebration of God and country will take place on June 24.  Last year’s celebration got a lot of attention.

Robert Wilonsky writes about the city of Dallas for the Dallas Morning News.  He took the above picture while sitting in traffic.  And then he wrote an article about Jeffress at the Morning News.  Here is a taste:

The newly planted billboard touts a “Freedom Sunday” worship service June 24 at the downtown church and hosted by the man who serves as one of President Donald Trump’s main spiritual advisers — a job that appears to be part propagandistpart contortionist. According to a video Jeffress prepared for Freedom Sunday, there will be “inspiring patriotic worship” and “a salute to our armed forces,” followed by the Fox News’ commentator’s “special message” advertised on that billboard. 

There will be indoor fireworks, too, which is not how they concluded the Last Supper. And first-time visitors to First Baptist will receive a copy of Jeffress’ book Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, a grim piece of work about “the coming collapse of our nation,” according to Mike Huckabee’s foreword.

Consider this your semi-regular reminder that Jeffress, Fox News’ go-to religious authority, is among this city’s most divisive voices. Nothing he says shocks me anymore. I mean, this is a preacher — a follower of Christ — who actually said, “America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background.” 

Which is the opposite of Hebrews 13:1. And, I think, the rest of the Bible. 

Read the rest here.

“[Fea finds] any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.”

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I am patriotic!  I really am!  I own flags and I even have a  “Patriot’s Bible!”

Check out Jon Ward‘s recent piece at Yahoo News on court evangelical Eric Metaxas.  In addition to Ward’s profile, he also posted a series of e-mails he exchanged with Metaxas.  Those e-mails include Metaxas’s responses to several of Ward’s questions.

Here is one of the questions Ward posted to Metaxas:

Have you engaged much with John Fea’s critique of your book? He makes a persuasive argument that you have airbrushed the American founding into an airbrushed version that exaggerates the role of Christianity as the sole source of virtue (not one of several), that exaggerates the extent to which there was religious liberty at the founding (Seamus Hasson’s “Right to Be Wrong” is best I’ve read on this topic), and treats the American experiment as more of a miracle detached from anything before it than it was. Fea writes that America built on the democratic principles at play in British life, which is something of a subtle point, but an interesting one which tempers exuberance over American exceptionalism as some kind of divinely ordered miracle. He also believes you give the Great Awakening too much credit for how it influenced American politics. The greater point is that Fea thinks you make a common mistake of many evangelicals, that of confusing America with the kingdom of God. This is a complex and nuanced point. A firm rootedness in one’s citizenship in heaven should not produce passivity or fatalism about one’s community or nation here on earth. But the critique of culture warriors often is that they cling too tightly to worldly outcomes because the two categories (kingdom of God and America) have become almost unintelligibly mixed or combined. Do you think you have done this in any way?

And here is Metaxas’s response to Ward:

Mr. Fea’s critiques have not only not persuaded me, they have helped me see more clearly why what I said in my book If You Can Keep It is necessary to communicate to as many Americans as possible at this time in history. If I could give a copy of that book to every American — or at least to every young American — I would do so. Mr. Fea’s misunderstanding on this central issue — one that particularly seems to plague academics — is at the heart of our problems as a culture and as a church.

To mix these very separate categories is a great sin indeed, but such sins must be in the eyes of the beholder. I am afraid Mr. Fea has committed the opposite sin in being so enamored of a certain anti-populist and anti-American narrative — which view is so trendy in the Academy that he should be concerned about having accepted it himself — that he falls into the category of those who find any healthy celebration of patriotism as like unto worshipping the Beast of Revelation.

I am glad Metaxas is familiar with my critique of his book If You Can Keep It and he no longer just sees me as “some guy.”  You can read my critical posts here and decide for yourself.  As you will see from those posts, I don’t think it is a good idea to give a copy of this book to every American. You can also read my 2016 piece on Metaxas at Religion News Service.  I still stand by both pieces.

I also wrote this on August 5, 2016. Here is a taste:

…I get fired up about bad history.  This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.  I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.

I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands.  I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it.  Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”

Now back to the Olympics. I am thinking about staying up late tonight to cheer on the U.S men’s curling team.   I wonder if this counts as “healthy patriotism.” 🙂

Trump’s “God and Country” Language in National Prayer Breakfast Speech

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I offered my take on the speech here. I also contributed to Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s piece at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste:

In some ways, Trump’s speech fit the types of prayer breakfast speeches given by presidents in the past, said John Fea, a professor of history at Messiah College. Trump spoke about the role America has to play to create a more just world, an idea President Barack Obama would have promoted as well.

“There are Christians both on the left and the right who see America as a force for good,” Fea said.

However, Trump went a bit further, he said, where American exceptionalism was implied. “This is something that gets the Christian right … very excited,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Quick Reflections on Trump’s Prayer Breakfast Speech

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G.K. Chesterton once said that America “is a nation with the soul of a church.”  Trump’s prayer breakfast speech this morning was as good as it could be in a nation with the soul of the church.  The speech was infused with the usual themes of civil religion:  “In God We Trust,” “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, “Praise to be to God” on the Washington Monument,” and plenty of references to the Providence of God.  When you combine Christian theology with nationalism it can breed the worst forms of idolatry.  At the same time, American presidents have been doing this for a long time.  Check out Kevin Kruse’s excellent book One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.

Some of my anti-Trump friends will trash the speech.  Fair enough.  But there was nothing about this speech that was unusual or unique to Donald Trump.  A version of this speech could have been delivered by FDR, Ike, JFK, Reagan, or Obama.  It was a straight-forward appeal to American civil religion.

A few quick observations:

  • I am glad that there was no reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger this year.
  • I was unsure if the reference to “we are God’s handiwork” was a reference to individuals or the United States
  • Irony:  Trump said prayer helps families to thrive even as he is tearing families apart with his immigration policies.
  • At the end of the speech Trump said we should follow the founders.  It implies that they were Christians or at least people who cared about peace and justice.  This is not entirely true.  The founders were morally complex people.  We should probably not invoke them in a prayer breakfast.

The Court Evangelicals in Today’s Washington Post

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Here is a taste of my piece “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.”

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.

Read the rest here.

Court Evangelical Jeffress Defends “Make America Great Again” Song

I actually thought the “Make America Great Again” song was pretty catchy.  (It starts at about the 34:00 mark in the video below):

I was, however, surprised at the way Robert Jeffress, the pastor First Baptist Church–Dallas, defended the song against critics who thought it was inappropriate for a church choir.

In a recent interview at The Christian Post, Jeffress said:

There is no difference in singing “Make America Great Again” than there is in singing any other patriotic song, like the “Star Spangled Banner.” This song was sung at a patriotic rally at a concert hall on Saturday night, not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.

Fair enough.  I was willing to give Jeffress a pass here.  But then he says that the song is okay because it was “not sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning.” Oh boy.  By this logic,  how does Jeffress explain what happened at First Baptist–Dallas on Sunday, June 25, 2017?

Patheos blogger Jonathan Aigner recently wrote about the “Make America Great Song”:

It’s not only their candidate’s campaign slogan, it’s now a part of their gospel…It’s their mantra, their creed, their prayer, and they shout it out with nationalistic fervor. Pledging allegiance to God and to America in the same breath, melding together the Kingdom of God and self, they pray a blasphemous prayer to a red, white, and blue Jesus.”

Frankly, it is hard to see this any other way when the song is interpreted (like any historian would interpret it) in the context of the June 25, 2017 “Freedom Sunday” service and Jeffress’s remarks of introduction for Trump after the song was performed last Saturday night.

The Jeffress interview does not stop there.  He describes his evangelical critics as “gnats”:

They are absolutely nothing but evangelical gnats who are looking for any excuse to nibble at the president. What we do have in President Trump is the president who has done the most to protect religious liberty of any president in America…If you take these critics’ argument to their logical end, then Christians need to quit saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

Actually, some Christians do think that they need to quit saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I am not one of them, but I fully understand why some of my fellow Christians might find this problematic.

And then Jeffress continues:

These evangelical Never Trumpers are incensed because President Trump’s election demonstrated how irrelevant they are to Christians. Christians did not listen to these Never Trumpers, in spite of all their blogs and all of their tweets about President Trump,” Jeffress said. “If anybody listened objectively to what President Trump said Saturday night, it was the most god-honoring, faith-affirming speech I have ever heard any president give at any time in history.

“At any time in history?”  I can think of at least five (and probably more) Obama speeches that were more “faith-affirming” than what Trump said last Saturday night.  But let’s go back even further.  How about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural for starters?

Jeffress is probably correct when he says that Trump’s election demonstrated the irrelevance of the evangelical “Never Trumpers.” What scares me here Jeffress’s attempt to equate the “relevance” or popularity of a particular political view with whether or not such a view is correct or moral.  Do we really want to go there?  Anyone who knows anything about American history will understand what I mean when I ask this question.

Apparently Jeffress’s new moral standard is 81%.

I remain a faithful #19percenter.

Rod Dreher: It’s “grotesque idolatry”

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Rod Dreher, conservative blogger and author of The Benedict Optionunloads on Court Evangelical Robert Jeffress, his First Baptist Church in Dallas, and patriotic worship.

Here is a taste of his blog post at The American Conservative:

I find it impossible to watch that ceremony (I’ve been sitting here in the Miami airport watching much of it) and judge it as anything but grotesque idolatry. Not patriotism, idolatry. It’s idolatry of Donald Trump, and idolatry of the United States of America. It is shocking and repulsive, and there will be heavy consequences for conflating the Gospel of Jesus Christ with burning a double handful of incense to President Trump and the USA.

It is good to love one’s country, and to be grateful to God for it. I do, and I am. But this is something different.

What, exactly, does it mean to call on the church to “lift the torch of freedom all across the land”? It’s cant. It’s kitsch. “Freedom” is not the same thing as righteousness. As St. Augustine taught, sin is disordered love. You can love good things in a disordered way, and fall into sin. Christians whose moral imaginations are formed in this way, what is going to happen to them when the US government — under Donald Trump, or some future president — does something wicked, something that followers of Jesus Christ ought to stand against?

Read the rest here.

A Contrarian’s View of Patriotic Worship Services

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Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?

I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend.  I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience.  Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry.  Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.

If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.

On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.

I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State.  Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:

We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however.  Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag).  Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July.  My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation.  To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message.  Second, idolatry becomes a real problem.  Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst. 

Don’t believe me?  Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately.  Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.”  I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ.  Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.”  While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal.  In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God.  Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.

Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it?  The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach.  It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots).  This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over.  In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity.  Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion.  Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.  Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.

Read the entire post here.