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

Wright

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two final thoughts on Perry’s statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire piece here.

The Faith of Franklin Delano Roosevelt

FDROver at Religion & Politics, Eric C. Miller interviews James Bratt about John Woolverton’s A Christian and a Democrat: A Religious Biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  When Woolverton died in 2014, Bratt finished the book.  Here is a taste of the interview:

Religion & Politics: Your work on this book was somewhat atypical. How did you end up finishing it? What was your process?

James D. Bratt: The editing process was actually kind of fun. Professor Woolverton had done such an excellent job of research in the archives and secondary literature that I didn’t have to worry about correcting or supplementing things. Only one addition was required—the brief chapter on FDR’s death, funeral, and burial rites. The folks at Eerdmans said that readers expect biographies to end with this sort of wrap, and so I supplied it.

For the rest, the job involved trimming and reorganizing the manuscript so as to bring out the main theme of each chapter in clear focus and efficient development. It’s probably easier to do this with someone else’s writing than with your own because you’re looking down at a landscape from some height rather than having hacked out a path thru the thicket in the first place. So I just ploughed along, chapter by chapter.

My copy editors were sharp and kind and saved a number of errors. The most difficult part here was tracking down quotations that had come untethered from footnotes in my editing process. (A couple different word-processing programs had been involved along the way, and weren’t always compatible with the new system into which I integrated everything.) This did set me off sleuthing through FDR’s published speeches and personal correspondence, which is a very revealing road into the nuts and bolts of a person’s life and mind. I managed to track down every reference but one, which felt like quite an achievement, and I got in better touch with FDR as a person along the way.

R&P: Readers are likely familiar with Roosevelt the Democrat. What kind of a Christian was he?

JDB: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a lifelong Episcopalian. He was taken to St. James’ Church in Hyde Park, [New York], as a lad, even though he didn’t much care for it at the time. His father was on the vestry, and Franklin himself became a member of the vestry in adulthood. He was loyal to his church, he knew the liturgy and revered the music, and he cared much more about the ceremonial aspects than about the theology. He loved the social ethics most of all.

His attachment to the liberal branch of Episcopalianism was solidified during the years that he spent studying at the Groton School in Massachusetts, under the famous headmaster Endicott Peabody. Groton at that time was one of the heartlands of the Social Gospel movement. So I think you could say that he was a liturgical Episcopalian and a Social Gospel Christian.

Read the rest here.

Bruni: Democratic Presidential Candidates Ignore Religion at Their Own Risk

 

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Joe Biden goes to church

 

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni thinks that the Democratic candidates’ “reticence about religion is excessive and unwise.”  Here is a taste of his piece “Is God Skipping the Democratic Primary?“:

If many Republican candidates travel far out of their way, toward the bogs of histrionics and hypocrisy, to recruit the Almighty into electoral service, many Democrats steer clear of religion. That’s partly understandable, even admirable: In light of the rightful separation of church and state, they don’t want to be seen as spotlighting or peddling any one creed.

But it’s not necessary, and it’s not smart.

President Trump and his Republican allies are poised to paint Democrats as unhinged lefties not only in terms of health care and taxes but also in terms of cultural issues, including abortion and L.G.B.T.Q. rights.

And some Democratic presidential candidates are already playing into their hands. Beto O’Rourke, for example, recently seemed to call for religious groups that don’t support marriage equality to lose their tax-exempt status, an outlier position that the president immediately seized on and railed against. (O’Rourke’s aides later insisted that he was misunderstood.)

Democrats would make it harder for Trump to vilify them as enemies of so-called traditional values if they talked a bit more about spirituality and religion — including, if applicable, their own.

Read the entire piece here.

The GOP is Trying to Win the Amish Vote for Trump

Amish vote

Over at The Washington Post, Julie Zauzmer reports on the “Amish PAC,” an attempt by Republican operatives to get the Pennsylvania Amish to vote for Donald Trump.  Here is a taste:

Amish PAC aims to win more votes for Trump in 2020 in a state both the president and the Democrats are desperate to win. Amish people tend to align strongly on policy with Republicans, who share their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But making voters out of the Amish, who forgo technology like television and the Internet and who believe fiercely in the separation of their religious community from government intrusion, may be a steep goal.

On a farm where eight Amish children in their traditional clothing were playing baseball, a young woman said sternly of those who would ask the Amish to vote: “We don’t really appreciate that.”

While she skillfully snapped lima bean pods off the bushes at her farm, another woman said about voting: “My husband never did; I never did.”

The same answer at market stall after market stall, where Amish farmers sell their wares: Never voted. Never wanted to vote.

But Ben Walters, who co-founded Amish PAC, says the tide is turning. He heard from more Amish people willing to vote in 2018 than in 2016; in 2020, he thinks, the numbers will be still higher. “Their votes would be so important, and there’s a lot of them,” he said. “Since 2016, every single year, it gets a little bit easier. We’re seeing more and more signs of progress. I think behaviors are finally changing”…

At Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Kyle Kopko and Steven Nolt — two of the foremost experts on the Amish — are studying the results of the PAC’s efforts. Nolt said he is skeptical the PAC can make much of a dent. “For a group like the Amish PAC, the key is — to what extent could a group like Amish PAC take that civic identity that’s here, and leverage that into registering to vote and actually voting?” he said. “There’s not a prohibition, [but] there would be a fairly strong, strong religious and cultural bias against [voting.]”

Read the entire piece here.

Steven Nolt probably knows more about the Amish than anyone else alive.  If he thinks that this effort will not “make much of a dent” it is likely that this effort will not make much of a dent.

Jim Wallis: “Trump is operating in the spirit of the anti-Christ”

Wallis with politicians

Jim Wallis with John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama

Jim Wallis, the progressive evangelical leader of Sojourners, recently said in an interview with Publishers Weekly that Donald Trump “is operating in the spirit of anti-Christ.” (Wallis was discussing the themes of his new book Christ in Crisis : Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus).

I like Jim Wallis. I have never met him, but over the past two decades I have heard him speak at Messiah College.  I agree with him on many social issues and I share his evangelical faith.  I have written for Sojourners magazine.

At times, however, I think Wallis falls into the trap of mixing religion and politics.  Too often he wants to merely replace the power of the Christian Right with the power of the Christian Left.  I tend to follow University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter on this point.  Check out his chapter on the evangelical left in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  A taste:

When [Wallis] accuses Falwell and Robertson of being “theocrats who desire their religious agenda to be enforced through the power of the state,’ he established the criteria by which he and other politically progressive Christians are judged the same.  In its commitment to social change through politics and politically oriented social movements, in its conflation of the public with the political, in its own selective use of scripture to justify political interests, and in its confusion  of theology with national interests and identity, the Christian  Left (not least the Evangelical Left) imitates the Christian Right.  The message is obviously different, their organizational scale and popular appeal are different, and their access to media outlets are different, but in their framework, method, and style of engagement , politically progressive Christians are very similar to their politically conservative counterparts.

There is another point of similarity.  It is found in their relationship with the party system and the Democratic Party in particular.  With all sincerity, they aspire to broaden and deepen the values people bring to the political process.  But influence is never unidirectional in any relationship.  Given the resources of the Democratic Party and the special interests that drive it, there is little question that progressive Christianity is instrumentalized (or used as a means to an end) by the Democratic Party in its quest for power, just as conservative Christianity has been used for quite some time by the Republican Party. (p.147-148).

Over at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz, a historian of progressive evangelicals, shows us that Wallis’s strong criticism of Trump is fitting with much of his career as an evangelical activist.  Here is a taste of his piece:

It’s hard not to notice similarities in style between these radical evangelicals and the religious right. Both groups blurred lines between faith and politics. Indeed, this was precisely the point—to tie the sacred to the temporal so closely that the two were indistinguishable. Did Wallis and his comrades, who moved so contentiously into politics nearly a decade before the Reagan revolution, prefigure the political style of the religious right?

That’s probably going too far, but it does seem clear that Wallis’s most recent invocation of the anti-Christ is not a promotional ploy. It is an authentic and deeply grounded application of a profoundly felt theology that has been with him since the 1960s. It’s an attempt, as he notes in his twelfth book Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus, to ensure that “one’s identity in Christ precedes every other identity.”

Wallis’s rise to prominence was smoothed by his willingness to tamp down Manichean language. But during times of crisis—Watergate in the early 1970s, the rise of the religious right and the Reagan Revolution in the 1980s, and the Iraq War debacle and Islamophobia in the early 2000s—this more radical strain resurfaces. As Trump and white evangelicalism combine and self-destruct, there’s no question that we’re in another such moment now.

Read the entire piece here.

Christians and Politics: Power, the Liberal Arts, and People of Faith

Lee University campusI will be at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee this weekend to give a plenary talk at the Lee Symposium: Conversation on Faith and the Liberal Arts.  This year’s theme is “Christians and Politics: Power, the Liberal Arts, and People of Faith.”

Here is the program:

Christians and Politics: Power, the Liberal Arts, and People of Faith

Lee University, October 4-5, 2019

Friday, October 4

2:00 pm

Registration

3:00 pm

Welcome and Opening Remarks

3:30 pm

Presenter: John Fea, Messiah College

Responder: Lisa Clark Diller, Southern Adventist University

5:45 pm

Dinner

7:00 pm

Presenter: Ana Shippey, Lee University

Responder: Richard Follett, Covenant College

Saturday, October 5

9:00 am

Presenter: Wilfred McClay, University of Oklahoma

Responder: David Broersma, Lee University

11:00 am

Presenter: Christa Bennett, Community Well

Responder: Mark Scully, Lee University

1:00 pm

Lunch

2:00 pm

“Summing Up: What Have We Heard?”

Presenter: Jason Ward, Lee University

 

The Politics of the “Chosen One”

Trump inauguration

My daughter was quick to tell me that “Antichrist” was trending on Twitter today.  Then I got a call from Emily McFarland  Miller, a reporter for Religion News Service, to talk about the meaning of words like “Antichrist” and “Chosen One.”  Here is a taste of Miller’s piece (co-authored with Jack Jenkins and Yonat Shimron):

Somebody had to take on China on trade, Trump told reporters Wednesday.

“I am the chosen one,” he said, glancing heavenward with outstretched hands.

Supporters have excused that comment as a joke.

Others used words like “blasphemy” and “idolatry.”

Bass tweeted that the phrase refers to Isaiah 42:1: “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.” Christians understand the Bible verse as a prophecy referring to Jesus.

“The chosen one” isn’t necessarily a biblical concept, said John Fea, professor of American history at Messiah College. It also has been used to refer to everyone from basketball star Lebron James to fictional wizard Harry Potter.

But in the context it’s difficult to ignore, Fea said.

“The phrase ‘chosen one’ is probably part Christianity, part science fiction, part myth, part fantasy, part Harry Potter,” Fea said. “But at the same time, there is embedded within that phrase this idea that God chooses certain people — and evangelicals will believe this — that God chooses certain people for particular moments in time to serve his purposes.”

Read the entire piece here.

Will Trump-Supporting Evangelicals Learn Anything from the Graham-Nixon Relationship?

Graham and Nixon

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump,  I wrote:

[Billy] Graham’s relationship with Richard Nixon brought him closer to the world of presidential politics than he had ever been before.  The two stayed in close contact during the years following Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in the election of 1960 and the evangelist continued to speak positively about the politician in public venues.  In a 1964 interview in McCall’s magazine, Graham expressed his bafflement that he often heard people say  “I just don’t like Nixon.”  According to Graham, the former vice president was “one of the warmest and most likeable men I have ever known.”  Nixon claimed that Graham encouraged him  him to run for president again in 1968, and Graham, in turn, suggested that Nixon’s second change at the nation’s highest political office was part of God’s providential plan.  During Nixon’s years in the White House (1969-1974) , Graham made regular visits to the president, served as an unofficial surrogage (without formally endorsing him), advised Nixon on policy decision, and publicly thanked God for his presidency.  [Historian Steven] Miller goes as far to suggest that there were times when “Graham’s [religious] services or appearances seemed to double as Nixon rallies.”  Nixon used Graham to win evangelical votes, especially in the South. where Nixon needed the votes of white southern Christians–his so-called “Southern strategy”–and Graham believed that Nixon was a moral statesman, God’s man to lead a Christian nation.

But Graham would quickly learn that Richard Nixon was one man in Graham’s presence and quite another when operating in the cutthroat world of presidential politics.  During the Watergate scandal, Graham stood by the president.  During the 1972 election campaign, he chided Nixon’s opponent, South Dakota senator George McGovern, for saying that the Nixon administration was up to something sinister.  In one letter to President Nixon, Graham quoted Psalm 35:11-12, where the psalmist writes: “They accuse me of things I have never heard about.  I do them good, but they return me harm.”  [Historian Grant] Wacker says that Graham “continued to defend Nixon long after most Americans smelled a rate.”  In December 1973 , the evangelist told Nixon that he had “complete confidence” in his “personal integrity.”  When transcripts of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations (which included Nixon’s strongly anti-Semitic language) proved that the president was ultimately responsible for the Watergate break-in, Graham seemed more concerned about Nixon’s profanity on the tapes than the fact that the president was using his power to cover up his crimes.  When Graham read excerpts of the tapes in The New York Times, he claimed to feel “physically sick.”  Years later, Graham admitted that his relationship with the disgraced former president had “muffled those inner monitors that had warned me for years to stay out of partisan politics” and, as Wacker notes, “he urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake.”

There are a lot of similarities between Graham’s relationship with Nixon and the court evangelicals‘ relationship with Donald Trump.  Have the court evangelicals learned anything from Billy Graham?  Over at The Washington Post, Anja Maria-Bassimir and Elesha Coffman offer a revealing look into the way evangelical magazines responded to Graham’s relationship with Nixon during the Watergate scandal.  Here is a taste:

While Graham enjoyed private chats in the Nixon White House and urged his fellow citizens to rally around the flag at Honor America Day, another prominent evangelical, then-Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.), warned that a bad graft between religion and politics was turning gangrenous. “We would always rather hide our wounds than heal them,” he said at the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast in Chicago in May 1973. “It is always more comfortable to believe in the symbols of righteousness than to acknowledge the reality of evil. This is especially true in our national political life. And we have become adroit at manipulating religious impulses in our land to sanctify this political life.”

People in power, such as Hatfield, had to work even harder to resist such craven impulses. He noted: “When we are given a position of leadership, it becomes almost second nature to avoid admitting that we may be wrong. Confession becomes equated with weakness. The urge toward self-vindication becomes enormous, almost overpowering. A politician faces this temptation in a very special way, for somehow it has become a political maxim never to admit that one is wrong. Now, that may be wise politics. But it’s terrible Christianity.” These sentiments earned Hatfield a place on Nixon’s infamous “enemies list” and a concerned letter from Graham, according to the book “Lonely Walk.”

As revelations about the Watergate break-in and subsequent coverup accumulated in 1973 and 1974, many evangelicals vacillated between Hatfield’s warnings and Graham’s reassurances. At first, only Hatfield’s allies in the small but vocal evangelical left sounded the alarm. Hatfield’s speech echoed the rhetoric of his friend Jim Wallis, who regularly hit these ominous notes in his radical magazine, the Post-American (later renamed Sojourners). Then, the far-from-radical magazine Eternity chimed in, as columnist Joseph Bayly wrote: “Whether we like it or not, a major problem we face as evangelical Christians today is the identification in the popular mind of the religious position we represent with the Nixon administration and its actions. We are ‘middle America,’ the group sector that gave President Nixon his ‘mandate.’ We are the war party, the white backlash (if not racist) party, the Watergate scandal party.”

Finally, the more staid Christianity Today — the magazine founded by Billy Graham — came around. It had printed Hatfield’s speech in June 1973, but also Graham’s “mistakes and blunders” comments several months later. Appearing reluctant, in June 1974, an editorial argued for Nixon’s impeachment. Authors acknowledged that “evangelicals can point to some in their ranks whose private or public conduct is disgraceful, perhaps even worse than that displayed by the Watergate participants.” Ten years later, Graham told the magazine: “I came close to identifying the American way of life with the kingdom of God.” He said he had learned his lesson. And near the end of his life, he said: “I also would have steered clear of politics.”

Read the entire piece here.

Mainline Protestants for Trump

Bethel Lutheran Church ELCA, Willmar

When it comes to Christians supporting the Trump presidency, evangelicals get all the attention.  But as Chris Gehrz notes in his recent Anxious Bench post, mainline Protestants are not immune to Trump love.  I don’t know of any “court mainliners,” but it seems like a pro-Trump sentiment is alive and well among Lutherans.  Here is a taste:

Consider the largest Protestant denomination in my part of the country: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). At its annual meeting earlier this month, the ELCA not only passed statements condemning patriarchy and white supremacy, but made national news for declaring itself a “sanctuary church body.” Hundreds of delegates joined Lutheran activists in marching a mile to the Milwaukee office of the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where they held a prayer vigil and posted 9.5 theses on care for refugees and other immigrants. “We put the protest back in Protestant,” proclaimed some of the signs held by protestors. (And I don’t think they meant it like one of our blogging neighbors does.)

As religion reporter Emily McFarlan Miller had predicted, the 2019 ELCA assembly offered “a window into the issues important to many progressive Christians across the country.” But how many of the ELCA’s 3.5 million members are actually (politically) progressive?

Consider some of the numbers that political scientist Ryan Burge has been crunching from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which surveys over 64,000 Americans every two years. Not only do 49% of ELCA respondents in the 2018 CCES identify as Republican (vs. 42% as Democrats), but even more approve of Donald Trump: 52% of those Lutherans, 35% strongly. When Burge drilled down to look at religious behavior, he found that ELCA support for Trump was strongest among those who attended church most often and weakest among those who show up just once or twice a year.

Read the entire piece here.

The Church as the “GOP Farm Team”

Liberty U

Over at The Week, Bonnie Kristian has a brief piece chronicling the role that evangelicals are playing in propping-up the Republican Party.  She writes in the wake of this event at Liberty University.  Here is a taste:

That such an event would exist, and that it would be hosted at Liberty, is hardly surprising. But, as I feel I am constantly saying about the intersection of religion and politics in America these days, what does not surprise still should shock. Pastors and Pews may be the natural evolution of the religious right, the logical next step in Republican politicians’ use of church infrastructure for political ends, but that makes it no less worthy of protest.

This is not the point of church.

This is not why we gather together. This is not how we grow the kingdom of heaven. This is not how we incarnate the new reality started at the cross. This is not a way to spread the hope of Christ.

The Republican Party platform is not the Gospel. No politician of any party can, in that sense, offer good news. Seeking political power is not a pastor’s job. And to thus subvert church into a partisan political resource is to make it cease to be the church, to take that third temptation — “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” — where Jesus turned it down. It makes Christianity a means to a far lower end.

Read the entire piece here.

Pete Buttigieg and Proverbs 14:31

Buttigieg 3

Some of you may recall that Pete Buttigieg quoted scripture on Monday night during the Democratic debate.  He said: “So-called conservative senators right now in the Senate are blocking a bill to raise the minimum wage when Scripture says that whoever oppresses the poor taunts their maker.” Buttigieg was quoting from Proverbs 14:31, which says “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.”

Over at Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt asked some evangelical leaders about whether or not Buttigieg used this verse correctly.  Most believed that he did use it correctly, but also could not resist mentioning (or implying) that he is pro-choice and gay.

Here, for example, is Shellnutt on Andrew T. Walker‘s response to Buttigieg:

Andrew T. Walker, senior fellow in Christian ethics at the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), tweeted his opposition to Buttigieg’s line: “It never fails to baffle how progressives can appeal to the Bible to arrive at an exact minimum wage ($15, according to Buttigieg), yet ignore, reject, or plead ambiguity on the Bible’s teaching on marriage and abortion.”

This is a strange response.  I don’t think Buttigieg was using the Bible to “arrive at an exact minimum wage” of $15.  He was simply articulating a biblical principle.

Read Shellnutt’s piece here.

Christians Issue a Statement Against Christian Nationalism

Christian NAtionA group of Christians have written a statement opposing Christian nationalism, or the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and continues to be a Christian nation.  Such a view, as I argued in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introductionhas a long history.  Today this idea drives much of the political agenda of the Christian Right.

Here is the statement, which I have signed:

As Christians, our faith teaches us everyone is created in God’s image and commands us to love one another. As Americans, we value our system of government and the good that can be accomplished in our constitutional democracy. Today, we are concerned about a persistent threat to both our religious communities and our democracy — Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

 As Christians, we are bound to Christ, not by citizenship, but by faith. We believe that:

  • People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

  • Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

  • One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

  • Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

  • Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

  • America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

  • Conflating religious authority with political authority is idolatrous and often leads to oppression of minority and other marginalized groups as well as the spiritual impoverishment of religion.

  • We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Whether we worship at a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple, America has no second-class faiths. All are equal under the U.S. Constitution. As Christians, we must speak in one voice condemning Christian nationalism as a distortion of the gospel of Jesus and a threat to American democracy.

Most of the original endorsers are affiliated in some way with the Christian left: Tony Campolo, Michael Curry, Melissa Rogers, Jim Wallis, and the leaders of several mainline Protestant denominations.

But where are the thoughtful moderate and conservative evangelicals?  Where do they disagree?  I read the names of every signer and see very few evangelical names that I recognize.

National Cathedral: “Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous”

national-cathedral-exterior-credit-flickr-user-photophiend

The spiritual leaders of the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. have had enough.  Here is their recent press release titled “Have We No Decency?:  A Response to President Trump:

The escalation of racialized rhetoric from the President of the United States has evoked responses from all sides of the political spectrum. On one side, African American leaders have led the way in rightfully expressing outrage. On the other, those aligned with the President seek to downplay the racial overtones of his attacks, or remain silent.

As faith leaders who serve at Washington National Cathedral ¬– the sacred space where America gathers at moments of national significance – we feel compelled to ask: After two years of President Trump’s words and actions, when will Americans have enough?

As Americans, we have had such moments before, and as a people we have acted. Events of the last week call to mind a similarly dark period in our history:

“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

That was U.S. Army attorney Joseph Welch on June 9, 1954, when he confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy before a live television audience, effectively ending McCarthy’s notorious hold on the nation. Until then, under the guise of ridding the country of Communist infiltration, McCarthy had free rein to say and do whatever he wished. With unbridled speech, he stoked the fears of an anxious nation with lies; destroyed the careers of countless Americans; and bullied into submissive silence anyone who dared criticize him.

In retrospect, it’s clear that Welch’s question was directed less toward McCarthy and more to the nation as a whole. Had Americans had enough? Where was our sense of decency?

We have come to accept a level of insult and abuse in political discourse that violates each person’s sacred identity as a child of God. We have come to accept as normal a steady stream of language and accusations coming from the highest office in the land that plays to racist elements in society.

This week, President Trump crossed another threshold. Not only did he insult a leader in the fight for racial justice and equality for all persons; not only did he savage the nations from which immigrants to this country have come; but now he has condemned the residents of an entire American city. Where will he go from here?

Make no mistake about it, words matter. And, Mr. Trump’s words are dangerous.

These words are more than a “dog-whistle.” When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human “infestation” in America. They serve as a call to action from those people to keep America great by ridding it of such infestation. Violent words lead to violent actions.

When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.

As leaders of faith who believe in the sacredness of every single human being, the time for silence is over. We must boldly stand witness against the bigotry, hatred, intolerance, and xenophobia that is hurled at us, especially when it comes from the highest offices of this nation. We must say that this will not be tolerated. To stay silent in the face of such rhetoric is for us to tacitly condone the violence of these words. We are compelled to take every opportunity to oppose the indecency and dehumanization that is racism, whether it comes to us through words or actions.

There is another moment in our history worth recalling. On January 21, 2017, Washington National Cathedral hosted an interfaith national prayer service, a sacred tradition to honor the peaceful transfer of political power. We prayed for the President and his young Administration to have “wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties that they may serve all people of this nation, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person.”

That remains our prayer today for us all.

The Right Rev. Mariann Edgar BuddeBishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington
The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith
Dean of Washington National Cathedral
The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
Canon Theologian of Washington National Cathedral.

*The Economist* Covers the Growing Rift in the Evangelical Camp

Believe Me 3dEarlier this week I had a great phone conversation with The Economist writer Bruce Clark about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Here is a taste of how how Clark wrote it up:

…Admittedly, evangelicals have never been a monolith. As behoves people who take their spiritual destiny seriously, they argue perpetually about many things: for example over whether the fate of a human soul is predetermined, or how exactly a believer can be redeemed from the “total depravity” which is, in the view of John Calvin (1509-1564), the natural state of humanity. Debates which raged between Europe’s 16th-century reformers are rumbling on in America’s influential seminaries.

But according to a new book, “Believe Me”, by John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, all these theological disagreements are being transcended by a more salient issue: whether or not to support Mr Trump wholeheartedly and therefore overlook his character flaws. These days, by far the most important distinction is between what Mr Fea calls “court evangelicals”, who stridently support the president and are rewarded with access to him, and every other kind of evangelical. As a new coalition lines up to fight next year’s election, some of the battle formations which formed in the 2016 contest are coming back into view, with even sharper spears.

Among those who inhabit the court, Mr Fea discerns three main groups: first, a section of the mainstream religious right whose origins go back to the 1980s; second, a cohort of independent “charismatics” who claim the gifts of the Pentecostal tradition (visions, miracles and direct revelations from God) but do not belong to any established Pentecostal group; and third, advocates of the “prosperity gospel” who resemble the second category but put emphasis on the material rewards which following their particular version of Christianity will bring. What defines all these “courtiers” is an insistence that loyalty to Mr Trump must be unconditional. In their world, the president is presented not just as the least-worst political option whose merits outweigh his flaws, but as a man assigned by God to restore America to its divinely set course, and therefore almost above human criticism.

To get round the problems posed by Mr Trump’s ruthless business career, messy personal life and scatological language, they use several arguments, of which one is a comparison with Persia’s King Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Israel. From the Jewish or Christian point of view, Cyrus was a pagan, not a worshipper of the one God, but he was still an instrument of God’s purpose. Likewise Mr Trump can be regarded as a divinely ordained ruler, regardless of any personal flaws. Indeed, as Mr Fea notes, the more strongly people believe in a divine hand in history, the more open they are to the idea that God can choose anybody at all to serve his inscrutable purpose.

Read the rest here.

David French Elaborates on Evangelical Fear

 

Believe Me 3dWe covered this last week after several folks e-mailed me to ask if I sent David French a copy of Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  Read that post here.

David French and Jon Meacham were on “Morning Joe” this morning:

In this interview, French does say that this fear has been present before 2016.  (I challenged him to think historically in the post to which I linked above).

Both evangelical “fear” and the evangelical pursuit of “power” are mentioned in this interview.  Of course these are the main themes of Believe Me.

Kristen Gillibrand’s Wacky Pro-Choice Theology

Gillibrand

Recently New York Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kristen Gillibrand claimed that laws against abortion are “against Christian faith?”  This should raise a host of red flags for people who know something about Christianity.  Most American evangelicals, who the last time I checked were Christians, oppose abortion.  Roman Catholics also oppose abortion.  The Orthodox Church also opposes the practice.  So do many mainline Protestants.

So why does Gillibrand believe that a pro-life position on abortion is anti-Christian?  She claims that Christianity teaches “free will” and, as a result, laws preventing a women’s choice to abort a baby are not Christian.

Wow.  I just read a draft of this post to my eighteen-year-old daughter and she gave me a puzzled look before saying, “Wait, that’s not how it works.”

Most of the Christian bodies I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post also believe in free will.  Yet they oppose the practice of abortion because a person’s free will is always understood in the context of other principles–like the common good, the preservation of life, and duties to others, including the unborn.  When one becomes a Christian they are called to deny self for the life of others.  There are times when individual choice must be subordinated to larger moral issues.

Please note that this post is not an endorsement of the Alabama bill.  I have argued that overturning Roe v. Wade is not the best way to reduce the number of abortions.  Rather, this post is a plea to politicians to stop doing theology.

Let Me Repeat: Democrats Have Been Appealing to Religion for a Long Time

Obama compassion

Obama talks about his Christian faith at the Messiah College “Compassion Forum” in 2008

I appreciate the Pacific Standard calling attention to religion and the race for the Democratic nomination, but Chayenne Polimedio’s piece makes it sound as Democratic candidates talking about religion is a new thing.  Granted, Hillary Clinton could have done more to make religious appeals, especially to moderate evangelicals, but the religious left has been around for a long time.  I wrote about this here and here.

Here is a taste of Polimedio’s piece:

Democrats seem to have finally caught on to the fact that national elections can be hard to secure with purely secular campaigns. This is a wise observation: Faith plays a large role in the lives of millions of Americans, and religious values drive the voting choices of many of them. In this election cycle, Democratic hopefuls like Pete Buttigieg and Julián Castro, who’ve not only embraced their faith but also made it a pillar of their political platforms, are telling of potentially larger shifts within American society and politics.

This evolution of how faith is discussed in the public realm and who gets to lead that discussion is, in part, due to America’s changing religious identity: The evangelical church is graying and losing members, religious “nones” are on the rise, and growing Latino and Asian populations mean that religion in the United States is becoming less white and more diverse. These are all factors that, at least ostensibly, work in progressives’ favor. In fact, the 2020 election cycle is, in some ways, poised to be one in which the Christian right won’t have a monopoly on the role of religion in public life, with some progressive politicians determined to close the “God Gap” once and for all.

Read the entire piece here.