Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 3

Last temptation

Click here for previous installments of this series.  Click here to read Gerson’s article in The Atlantic.

Here is Gerson on the history of American Protestant fundamentalism:

Moreover, in making their case on cultural decay and decline, evangelicals have, in some highly visible cases, chosen the wrong nightmares. Most notable, they made a crucial error in picking evolution as a main point of contention with modernity. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” William Jennings Bryan argued. “If evolution wins … Christianity goes—not suddenly, of course, but gradually, for the two cannot stand together.” Many people of his background believed this. But their resistance was futile, for one incontrovertible reason: Evolution is a fact. It is objectively true based on overwhelming evidence. By denying this, evangelicals made their entire view of reality suspect. They were insisting, in effect, that the Christian faith requires a flight from reason.

This was foolish and unnecessary. There is no meaningful theological difference between creation by divine intervention and creation by natural selection; both are consistent with belief in a purposeful universe, and with serious interpretation of biblical texts. Evangelicals have placed an entirely superfluous stumbling block before their neighbors and children, encouraging every young person who loves science to reject Christianity.

What if Bryan and others of his generation had chosen to object to eugenics rather than evolution, to social Darwinism rather than Darwinism? The textbook at issue in the Scopes case, after all, was titled A Civic Biology, and it urged sterilization for the mentally impaired. “Epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness,” the text read, “are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity.” What if this had been the focus of Bryan’s objection? Mencken doubtless would still have mocked. But the moral and theological priorities of evangelical Christianity would have turned out differently. And evangelical fears would have been eventually justified by America’s shameful history of eugenics, and by the more rigorous application of the practice abroad. Instead, Bryan chose evolution—and in the end, the cause of human dignity was not served by the obscuring of human origins.

The consequences, especially for younger generations, are considerable. According to a recent survey by Barna, a Christian research firm, more than half of churchgoing Christian teens believe that “the church seems to reject much of what science tells us about the world.” This may be one reason that, in America, the youngest age cohorts are the least religiously affiliated, which will change the nation’s baseline of religiosity over time. More than a third of Millennials say they are unaffiliated with any faith, up 10 points since 2007. Count this as an ironic achievement of religious conservatives: an overall decline in identification with religion itself.

Of course we can’t be sure what would have happened if fundamentalists decided to wage war against eugenics or social Darwinism, but this is interesting to think about.  Historians talk a lot about “contingency,” the idea that the past can be understood by choices that people make.  What would evangelicalism look like today if the fundamentalists decided to focus on race?

Gerson does some interesting historical thinking here.

More to come.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 2

Last temptation

Read Part 1 of this series here.  Read Gerson’s Atlantic piece here.

Anyone who reads my work knows that I am a big fan of George Marsden‘s essay “Human Depravity: A Neglected Explanatory Category” in Wilfred McClay’s ed., Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past (Eerdmans, 2007).  In this essay, Marsden writes: “Of all traditional Christian teachings the doctrine of original sin or of pervasive human depravity has the most empirical verification.  The modern world, rather than undercutting this doctrine, seems to increasingly confirm it.”

In Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past, I argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are created in God’s image and thus have value, worth, and dignity.  More specifically, the Christian faith teaches that all human beings–past and present–are important because Jesus Christ died for their sins.  People have dignity because they are eligible for redemption.  For Christians, history should drive us to hope in the eschatological culmination of our redemption. It should instill in us a longing for a time when there will be no more sin and suffering.

Sin, the imago Dei, and the Christian understanding of hope and redemption inform my work as a historian.  When I do my work I should not be surprised that human beings are flawed and do horrible things.  I should also not be surprised when men and women perform acts that might be described as heroic or just.  Such acts bear witness to the fact that they are created in God’s image.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have sinned.  They have failed to live according to New Testament standards.  The most serious and devout evangelicals have lived-out their faith in acts of mercy, justice, and love.  Yes and yes.

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Gerson needs to be careful about asking us to return to an evangelical golden age when all born-again and revived Christians were truly living-out the justice-oriented message of Jesus.  His historical analysis in this piece is only half right.  But having said that, I am willing to give him a pass since there is only so much one can do in an essay format.  As I said in my first post in this series, “The Last Temptation” is a very good piece.

More to come.

Thoughts on Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation”: Part 1

Last temptation

I have finally found time to read Michael Gerson’s Atlantic essay on evangelicals and Trump.  It is titled “The Last Temptation.”  It is good piece.  Very good.  In fact, much of it is very similar to my argument in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpVery similar.  (In one recent Washington Post piece, Gerson even used the phrase “court evangelicals.” I wonder where he got that?) 🙂

Like Gerson, I have come to the conclusion, after much soul searching in the wake of November 8, 2016, that the word “evangelical” is worth defending.   I still believe in all the things that the word stands for–the “good news” of the Gospel, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need to engage with the world from the perspective of these beliefs.

I appreciate Gerson’s autobiographical reflections about his evangelical upbringing.  I also spent some of the most formative years of my life within evangelicalism.  But unlike Gerson, I was not a cradle evangelical.  I converted as a teenager.   While I am fully on board with Mark Noll’s assessment of evangelical thinking in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I can fully say that my conversion is what actually led me to pursue an intellectual life and instilled me with a sense of vocation that continues to animate my work.  My Catholic upbringing played an important role in my moral formation, and I will always be a fellow traveler with my Catholic brothers and sisters,  but it was evangelicalism that brought meaning and purpose to my life.   It still does–at least on the good days.

I know that many former evangelicals read this blog.  I understand that they are angry and bitter and critical.  I see it in their posts and comments and published pieces.  I saw it in the way they responded to the death of Billy Graham.  I get it.  I don’t know how folks can live with such anger and bitterness, but I get it.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a lot of issues with evangelicalism.  I have had my own moments of anger and bitterness.  But I see those disagreements, to borrow from Noll, as “lovers quarrels.”

More to come.