Some Good Stuff About Evangelicals

Evangelicals serving

I recently published a piece at the magazine of the National Association of Evangelicals titled “Hope, Humility, and History: How Evangelicals Have Been an Influence for Good.”  Here is a taste:

Evangelicals have been taking some hard hits lately. Some are even abandoning the label because it has become too associated with a political agenda. As a historian who has written and thought deeply about the relationship between evangelical Christianity and American life, I am fully aware that for every positive contribution evangelicalism has made to American culture, we can point to another way in which evangelicalism, sadly, has been at the forefront of some of the nation’s darkest moments.

It is imperative that evangelicals study their past and come to terms with it. This requires us to lament the moments in which we have failed and celebrate the moments when the good news of the gospel has changed lives, set people on a course for eternity with God, and led them to act in ways that are good and just. Throughout history, evangelicals have contributed to society in positive ways when we have emphasized hope over fear and humility over the pursuit of power.

Read the rest here.

*Christianity Today* Editor Weighs-In on the John MacArthur Social Justice Statement

Good Samaritan

We blogged about MacArthur and his statement here.  Here is a taste of CT editor Mark Galli’s response to the statement:

Anyone involved in social justice ministries is subject to the loss of the transcendent. As Charles Taylor so effectively argued in A Secular Age, we live today in a time that is defined by what he calls “the immanent frame.” At the risk of oversimplifying, this means living as if this world is all there is. This world is reality; the world beyond it is a matter of personal opinion or speculation. In other ages, the world beyond this—the supernatural, the spiritual, the transcendent—was simply assumed and was clearly believed to be the most real.

This is one reason many Christians are more confident making definitive pronouncements about social concerns (the “immanent”) and hesitate to speak boldly about theological concerns (the transcendent). We live in an era dominated by the immanent framing of things, and it takes concerted effort to remember that, as important and vital as our world is, it is but a shadow of the reality beyond us and the reality we will enjoy in the kingdom of heaven.

Social justice activism by its very nature lives day to day within the immanent frame. It is concerned about the horizontal: how states and institutions treat people and how people treat one another. The Christian might be initially motivated by uniquely Christian ideals to engage in social justice efforts, as well she should, but as history shows, it doesn’t take much before the immanent frame starts to frame everything.

So what exactly is the transcendent dimension of social justice for the evangelical Christian? This is something we’ve been arguing about as a movement for some decades. But I would put it this way: The ultimate goal of social justice is the same as the ultimate goal of all our activity for Jesus—whether that be encouraging Bible reading and prayer, loving our next door neighbor, practicing business as mission, or a hundred other things—that all might come to know and love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. If our social justice doesn’t have this end in view, I believe we will soon become nothing but the Democratic or Republican parties at prayer.

Amen.  Thanks, Mark.

Read the entire piece here.

Michael Gerson and John MacArthur on “Social Justice”

MacArthur

In case you haven’t been following this, John MacArthur, a pastor of a large megachurch in California, has issued a “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.”  Here is my summary of the statement:

  • The Bible is inerrant and intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are inconsistent with biblical teaching.
  •  All human beings are created in the image of God.  As a result, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, or sex neither “negates or contributes” to an individual’s worth.
  • Christians must pursue justice. Society is responsible for correcting injustices “imposed through cultural prejudice.”  Christians cannot “live justly in the world under any principles other than the biblical standard of righteousness.”
  • Obligations that do not “arise from God’s commandments” cannot be “legitimately imposed on Christians as prescriptions for righteous living.”
  • All human beings, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, or sex, are sinners in need of salvation.  This also applies to “systems” and “institutions.”  People must repent of individual sins and “one’s ethnicity” does not “establish a connection to any particular sin.”
  • The pursuit of justice is important, but only a belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ, including his virgin birth, atoning death, and bodily resurrection, will save one’s soul.
  • Those who embrace the Gospel are all equal before God regardless of “age, ethnicity, or sex.
  • The church should proclaim the Gospel, teach “sound doctrine,” and administer the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).  It should not be involved in “political or social activism.”
  • Marriage is between a man and a woman.  Homosexuality is sin.  Singleness is a “noble” calling.  “Gay Christian” is not a “legitimate biblical category.”
  • Complementarianism.  God has “designed men and women with distinct traits and to fulfill distinct roles.”
  • “Race” is not a “biblical category.”  It is a “social construct that often has been used to classify groups of people in terms of inferiority and superiority.” Christians should not segregate themselves into racial groups or regard “racial identity above, or even equal to, their identity in Christ.”  Any teaching that “encourages racial groups to view themselves as privileged oppressors or entitled victims of oppression” is unbiblical.
  • Deficiencies in culture must be overcome “through conversion and the training of both mind and heart through biblical truth.”
  • Racism is sin and must be condemned “by all who would honor the image of God in all people.”   “Racial sin” can “subtly or overtly manifest itself as racial animosity or racial vainglory.” “Systemic racism” is incompatible with evangelical belief.  Lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) are not as vital “to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of the scriptures.” Such lectures “inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.”

I was actually surprised by just how much I agreed with in this statement.  (I expected to agree with none of it, but some of it is pretty good evangelical theology).

But the statement is also ignorant of the historic and current state of race-relations in the United States and the role that white men and women played in propagating racism.  It fails to show any empathy for people of color who lived through such discrimination.  (A reference to “weeping with those who weep” in the “race/ethnicity” section is little more than a throw-away line).  As one evangelical commentator noted, “this document could have been signed by the antebellum slaveowners.”

The statement often reads like an early 20th-century fundamentalist critique of the Social Gospel.  It  assumes that the pursuing “a biblical standard of righteousness” has nothing to do with engaging social sins.

Michael Gerson has commented on MacArthur’s statement in his recent Washington Post column.  Here is a taste:

By way of background, it seems that this statement was created in outraged response to another group of evangelicals — the Gospel Coalition — that held a conference on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. MacArthur clearly wants to paint the participants — including prominent pastors Tim Keller, Russell Moore, Thabiti Anyabwile and John Piper — as liberals at risk of heresy.

Where to start a response? First, there is the matter of judgment. MacArthur surveys the evangelical movement in 2018 — increasingly discredited by rank hypocrisy and close ties to an angry, ethno-nationalist political movement — and concludes that its main problem is too much … social justice. It is a sad case of complete spiritual blindness.

Second, there is a matter of history. Elsewhere MacArthur complains that evangelicals have a “newfound obsession” with social justice. This could only be claimed by someone who knows nothing of the evangelical story. In the 19th century, northern evangelicalism was generally viewed as inseparable from social activism. Evangelist Charles Finney insisted that “the loss of interest in benevolent enterprises” was usually evidence of a “backslidden heart.” Among these enterprises Finney listed good government, temperance reform, the abolition of slavery and relief for the poor. “The Gospel,” preached abolitionist Gilbert Haven in 1863, “is not confined to a repentance and faith that have no connection with social or civil duties. The Evangel of Christ is an all-embracing theme.”

But most damaging is the MacArthur statement’s position on racial matters. What could a group of largely white evangelicals, many of them southerners, possibly mean by criticizing “racial vainglory”? Is it vanity to praise the unbroken spirit of Africans in America during more than four centuries of vicious oppression, which was often blessed by elements of the Christian church? Is it vanity to recognize the redemptive role played by African-American Christianity in calling our nation to the highest ideals of its founding?

Read the rest of Gerson’s column here.

Here are few more comments:

  • Thirteen men are listed as “initial signers” of the document.  Except for MacArthur, I do not recognize any of their names.  In fact, I hesitated to even write about this story.  It is a fringe element of evangelicalism.  I was surprised Gerson devoted a column to it.
  • At the time I am writing this, nearly 7000 people have signed this statement, most of them are men.
  • Back in the 1980s, MacArthur was a champion of something called “Lordship Salvation.”  This was the idea that saving faith should be accompanied by the “saved” person making Jesus “the Lord of his or her life.”  In other words, a true convert will manifest his or her newfound salvation in good works (presumably acts of social justice would be part of these “good works”).  MacArthur was challenging the idea of so-called “cheap grace” or, more officially, “Free Grace Theology.”  This was the idea, popularized by some professors at Dallas Theological Seminary, that a person was saved by believing in the Gospel alone.  In this view, one could accept Jesus as “Savior” without making him “Lord,” or pursuing a life of discipleship.  Those who embrace Free Grace Theology believe that good works are essential to the Christian life, but only intellectual assent or belief will save one’s soul from hell.  The defenders of this view taught that Lordship Salvation, as championed by MacArthur in a book titled The Gospel According to Jesus, was a form of “salvation by works.”  So how does MacArthur reconcile his belief in “Lordship Salvation” with his rejection of social justice?  Isn’t the pursuit of social justice part of pursuing a life of discipleship?  (Wow–I haven’t thought about this stuff in a while!)

The Southern Baptists are Making Resolutions Again

SBC

Over at EthicsDaily.com, Zach Dawes has a piece on a resolution that will go up for consideration this summer at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This all reminds me of the time Glenn Beck fans called me at work to attack me for believing in social justice and then compared me to Hitler, Louis Farrakhan, and Woodrow Wilson.  (Yes, you read that correctly).

Here is a taste of Dawes’s piece:

I remember well when Glenn Beck first spoke out against social justice.

In a March 2010 radio broadcast, Beck urged listeners, “I beg you look for the words social justice or economic justice on your church website. If you find it, run as fast as you can.”

Eight years later, a Southern Baptist pastor in Texas has called social justice “evil” in a resolution submitted for consideration by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Resolutions Committee at the meeting this summer.

The resolution, which cites Beck and Jerry Falwell Jr. as “authoritative voices” warning about the dangers of social justice, says “eco-justice, economic justice, racial justice and global justice” are variations that also should be rejected.

Among other things, it asserts that social justice “seeks to stoke discontentment,” “is based on the anti-biblical and destructive concepts of Marxist ideology” and “should be considered evil in that it is a vehicle to promote abortion, homosexuality, gender confusion and a host of other ideas that are antithetical to the gospel.”

Also notable is a critique of Russell Moore, who leads the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, for his social justice writings and projects.

Read the entire piece here.

Witnessing and Winning

King prayingCheck out Ruth Braunstein‘s piece at The Immanent Frame: “Good troublemakers.”  It is an interesting piece on humility and the “prophetic voice.”

She writes:

American history has been punctuated by the actions of modern prophets who have called society to account for its sins, which, they have argued, constituted a breach of Americans’ covenant with God. Some of these men and women are remembered as cranks or retrograde theocrats, while others have been enshrined as champions of democracy and human rights. Yet even those who fall in the latter camp were often viewed in their time as crazies, troublemakers, and extremists, crying out in the wilderness, speaking truth to power, however unpopular it made them. They persisted because they believed they were called to do so—by God.

Confidence in one’s convictions is necessary under such conditions. Yet this same moral righteousness can also lead people to stop listening to others, to become so confident they have all the answers that they become unwilling to admit they may be wrong. Even if these prophets privately harbored doubts about their calling, once they decided to “follow the prophets,” as Nora put it, this involved playing a role. And performing prophecy means performing certainty.

Public performances of moral certainty (like many forms of protest, religious and otherwise) stand in tension with prevailing visions of how democratic citizens should interact with one another across their differences. These visions emphasize intellectual, orepistemic, humility, embodied in practices like public debate, deliberation, and negotiation, which convey an openness to the possibility that one could learn something new by listening to people whose views differ from one’s own.

Today, as political arrogance, partisan polarization, and information tribalism threaten to engulf our public life, it is crucial that we recover the political skills, spaces, and practices that encourage greater humility. This is not only necessary to strengthen democracy; it can also be an effective strategy for achieving practical goals. Indeed, even many activists who are driven by strong moral convictions believe they can achieve more by being pragmatic rather than prophetic—they wish to “win and not just ‘witness.’”

Read the rest here.

World Relief: The RAISE Act “Diminishes U.S.”

World Relief

On Thursday, the evangelical relief organization World Relief issued a statement criticizing the RAISE Act, Donald Trump’s latest proposal to reform immigration.  Read it here.

A taste:

BALTIMORE, MD – World Relief calls on Congress to support immigration reform but raises concerns about the RAISE Act believing it will create significant hardships for immigrant families while limiting the U.S. response to the global refugee crisis.

“We must consider not just the economic capital but social capital that immigrants bring when they come to the United States,” said Tim Breene, CEO of World Relief. “The notion of severely limiting legal immigration goes against the historic American values of freedom and opportunity. We’re pro-security, pro-economy, pro-family. This bill, however, significantly hampers the reunification of families in the United States which are the building blocks of our society. We must recognize that families are critical to the flourishing of any society and make every effort to reunite families in order for immigrants to find full stability and flourishing once in the United States. Any efforts to undermine immigrant family unity ultimately undermines their ability to thrive,” continued Breene.

Known as the RAISE Act (Reforming American Immigration for a Stronger Economy), the bill would limit green cards for family reunification to about 50% of those allowed today and eliminate the Diversity Visa Lottery. The bill purports to return immigration to historic levels; however, given the increase in the population of the United States, the bill actually reduces immigration to 0.14%, which is far below our historic average level immigration at 0.45%, as averaged over 150 years, according to the Cato Institute. In addition, according to the American Action Forum, while the bill purports to facilitate economic growth, this act will result in a sharp decrease in the labor force most leading economists believe is needed to increase our economic production.

The bill proposes to limit refugee admissions into the United States to 50,000 per year and replaces the current process of Presidential Determination in which the President sets the refugee ceiling after consultations with Congress. “Limiting the refugee admissions ceiling permanently to 50,000 abdicates our responsibility to those fleeing violence and persecution. Setting a statutory limit inhibits the flexibility required to determine the refugee ceiling based on global refugee trends and U.S. foreign policy interests,” said Emily Gray, Senior Vice President of U.S. Ministries at World Relief. Nearly 70% of the refugee resettlement work of World Relief is in reuniting families. “The refugee resettlement program is a vital public-private partnership through which World Relief has welcomed over 250,000 refugees since its inception in 1980, in partnership with the local church.”

“We hope this bill will initiate conversations in Congress to enact immigration reform that recognizes the many contributions that immigrants have made to our nation and that promotes U.S. leadership in protecting the lives of the most vulnerable,” continued Tim Breene. “We support bipartisan efforts to reform the broken immigration system that goes beyond border protection alone and addresses the current problems of our immigration system, by looking at root causes of immigration, developing workable solutions and providing dignified relief to the millions of immigrants who are contributing to our communities.”

Read the rest here.

Will the Church Show Up in the Age of Trump?

Budget

I recently heard Senator John McCain say that Donald Trump’s recent budget proposal, amply titled “America First: A Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” will be dead on arrival in the Senate.

But what if Trump’s budget, which cuts over $1 trillion in safety net programs, did go into effect?  Marv Knox, the editor of The Baptist Standard, is interested in this question.

Here is a taste of his recent editorial:

Three scenarios

Christians who touted their faith as a reason for backing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign have put God on trial, with two ways to win and one way to lose.

Win Scenario 1: Trump is correct, and his budget works.

His plan doesn’t merely balance the budget, but also wildly stimulates the economy, brings coal back in vogue, reopens industrial jobs and ensures near-zero unemployment with good-paying jobs. People don’t need a safety net, because they’re getting by on their own.

Beyond that, they feel better about themselves—“great,” even—because they’re working and making their way. Christians helped Trump win; life is good; God is great.

Win Scenario 2: Trump is not correct, but the church saves the day.

The federal safety net shreds, but the church shows up on time. Christian benevolences of all kinds flourish. The church feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, houses the homeless. Christians provide so much money to their hospitals and health clinics, even people who cannot afford insurance can receive highly specialized and expensive cancer treatment, surgery and every other medical need.

Christians sacrificed to take care of others, who thrived because of their loving benevolence. God gets the glory for their gracious spirits. America experiences a revival it has not seen in many generations.

Lose Scenario 1: Trump is not correct, and the church fails to show up.

The federal safety shreds, just as the president has planned. Meals on Wheels collapses. Parents can’t find work, and so they not only can’t bring home a paycheck, but they can’t meet the president’s stringent requirements for supplemental assistance. Their children go hungry. Their older cousins can’t continue their education because they can’t get student loans. Other calamity ensues.

Meanwhile, the church continues its current course. Less than 20 percent of members tithe, and congregations spend most of the money they take in on themselves, particularly buildings and staff. Food pantries and clothes closets can’t keep up with burgeoning need. Health clinics meet only a fraction of the demand. Expensive care from hospitals is out of the question.

Hurting people—the chronically ill, children, the elderly, even veterans—suffer without alleviation, either from the government or from the church. They can do math, and they realize 81 percent of evangelicals put the president in office. And now their safety net is gone. They can see the landscape, and they don’t see nearly enough congregations even trying to knit a new one. You can understand why they blame God. Either way they look at it—politically or religiously—Christian people did them in.

If 20th-century American history is any indication, Knox’s “Lose Scenario #3” is most likely.  Don’t get me wrong, the Christian church did some amazing work of benevolence in the last century and its members continue to do this work today.  But the church’s influence, particularly among evangelicals, has not kept up with the need.

There are a lot of reasons for this.  We could point to the evangelical rejection of the so-called “social gospel.”  We could point to the fact that most white evangelicals see no real disconnect between the pursuit of the American Dream and the pressing social needs of the world.  Similarly we could point to the way evangelicals have too often baptized capitalism.  I am sure there are others.  We are all guilty.

I hope Christians take Knox’s call seriously.  I appreciate his piece and I agree with it. But as a student of history, I realize that the church will need to make a bold break with the recent past if it wants to live without a government safety net.  And Knox is right about one more thing–it will take a revival.  The last time evangelicals displayed social action fitting with the call of the Gospel was during the Second Great Awakening.

Should Colleges Be Producing Citizens?

parmer

Parmer Hall, Messiah College

An organization of conservative academics and intellectuals known as the National Association of Scholars (NAS) recently released a 525-page report titled “Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics.”  It is a critique of what the NAS describes as the “New Civics.”  The report focuses on this approach to civic education at four western universities in the United States.

Here is a taste of the abstract:

A new movement in American higher education aims to transform the teaching of civics. This report is a study of what that movement is, where it came from, and why Americans should be concerned.

What we call the “New Civics” redefines civics as progressive political activism. Rooted in the radical program of the 1960s’ New Left, the New Civics presents itself as an up-to-date version of volunteerism and good works. Though camouflaged with soft rhetoric, the New Civics, properly understood, is an effort to repurpose higher education.

The New Civics seeks above all to make students into enthusiastic supporters of the New Left’s dream of “fundamentally transforming” America. The transformation includes de-carbonizing the economy, massively redistributing wealth, intensifying identity group grievance, curtailing the free market, expanding government bureaucracy, elevating international “norms” over American Constitutional law, and disparaging our common history and ideals. New Civics advocates argue among themselves which of these transformations should take precedence, but they agree that America must be transformed by “systemic change” from an unjust, oppressive society to a society that embodies social justice.

The New Civics hopes to accomplish this by teaching students that a good citizen is a radical activist, and it puts political activism at the center of everything that students do in college, including academic study, extra-curricular pursuits, and off-campus ventures.

New Civics builds on “service-learning,” which is an effort to divert students from the classroom to vocational training as community activists. By rebranding itself as “civic engagement,” service learning succeeded in capturing nearly all the funding that formerly supported the old civics. In practice this means that instead of teaching college students the foundations of law, liberty, and self-government, colleges teach students how to organize protests, occupy buildings, and stage demonstrations. These are indeed forms of “civic engagement,” but they are far from being a genuine substitute for learning how to be a full participant in our republic.

New Civics has still further ambitions. Its proponents want to build it into every college class regardless of subject. The effort continues without so far drawing much critical attention from the public. This report aims to change that.

Pretty standard conservative stuff.

After reading this report, literary scholar and public intellectual Stanley Fish turned to the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and published a piece titled “Citizen Formation Is Not Our Job.”  He has mixed feelings about what the NAS has produced.

Here is a taste of Fish’s piece:

...I have felt for some time that the integrity of academic work has been under pressure from forces that would politicize it, either from the outside in the form of external constituencies eager to have colleges and universities reflect their agendas, or from the inside in the form of student protests aimed at getting colleges and universities to toe their preferred ideological line. The NAS report stands squarely against the second form of politicization (as do I), but participates fully in the first. Consider the following key and representative sentence: “We view the liberal arts, properly understood, as fostering intellectual freedom, the search for truth, and the promotion of virtuous citizenship.” Fostering intellectual freedom? Yes! Search for truth? Yes! Promotion of virtuous citizenship? No! Promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because, like the programs the report derides, it is a political goal.

A simple question makes my point. What is the content of “virtuous”? The answer will vary with the varying views of what obligations citizenship brings with it. For the authors of the NAS report, virtuous citizenship means love of country and “a commitment to our form of self-government.” For the faculty and students who practice civic engagement, virtuous citizenship means a radical questioning of our forms of government and a resolve to restructure them so that they reflect (insofar as possible) the ideal of social justice. This difference is obviously political and amounts to a quarrel between opposing views of what form of citizenship universities should foster. But because my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect — I find both parties off base because they are in their different ways deforming the educational enterprise by bending it to a partisan purpose.

A director of a service-learning institute quoted in the report declares that “The crux of the debate is whether education should provide students with the skills and knowledge base necessary to fit into the existing social structure or prepare them to engage in social transformation.” The right answer is “neither of the above.” Neither social transformation nor unabashed patriotism is an appropriate goal of the classroom experience. The report declares that the proponents of civic engagement “cannot distinguish education from progressive activism.” The NAS cannot distinguish education from conservative activism…

I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy. I agree that while volunteerism is in general a good thing, it is not an academic good thing and those who take it up should not receive academic credit for doing so. I agree that students “should possess a basic understanding of their government” and that colleges and universities should play a part in providing that understanding. I don’t agree that the content of that understanding should be dictated by government officials, and I find it odd that an essay claiming to defend traditional liberal education against the incursion of politics ends by inviting the politicians in. One might say that the cure is worse than the disease, but that would not be quite right: The cure is the disease.

Those familiar with Fish know that he has been making this argument for a long time.  It is best formulated in his book Save the World on Your Own Time Earlier this month at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association he made a similar case.

I largely agree with Fish’s critique of the so-called “New Civics” and the NAS report. As I have written before, my understanding of liberal arts education is probably best captured in this conversation between Robert George and Cornell West.  The purpose of liberal arts education, in other words, is the pursuit of truth and the “examined life.”

My views here have been no doubt shaped by fifteen years of working as a bit of an outsider at a college that privileges a Christian view of the “New Civics” rooted in historic Anabaptism. Anabaptists are very good at service and justice, but they have never been on the front lines of cultivating intellectual life. (There are, of course, exceptions.  I know this because I work with some of those exceptions).

Moreover, the college where I teach has a lot of students who have been raised in evangelicalism.  Many of these students have already learned some basic things about how to be activists.  They have participated in youth group service projects and mission trips and they want to “change the world.”  But because of what historian Mark Noll has described as the “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” they have not learned how to cultivate an “examined life.”  Few of them see learning for learning’s sake–the worship of God with their minds–as a legitimate part of their life of faith.  It is my job to expose them to this way of encountering God and suggest to them that it is a vital part of their responsibility as a Christian.  The Anabaptist and evangelical ethos of my college does not make this easy.  (I discussed this in a chapter I wrote for this book).

But where I differ with Fish (and I am not even sure we differ) is best captured in a few lines from his Chronicle piece.

Fish says: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship — at least not as part of a design; the fostering might well occur as an unintended side-effect.”  I would rephrase Fish’s sentence this way: “my position is that the university should not foster any form of citizenship–at least not as part of a design, but citizenship should result as an intended side-effect.”  (I should add that I think such an approach fits squarely within my understanding of the Christian liberal arts, but that discussion will have to wait for another post).

Fish also says: “I agree that colleges and universities should teach civic literacy rather than civic advocacy.”  I would only add that civic literacy–and this includes historical thinking, not just facts–should result in some form of civic responsibility.

As I argued in my 2013  book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Pastthe study of history (and all of the humanities) teaches us empathy, humility, and even love. It relieves us of our narcissism.  It teaches us hospitality.   It challenges us to pursue truth. These kinds of virtues go beyond mere civic literacy and, when applied in an individual life or community, extend well beyond any particular political or social agenda.

Nicholas Wolterstorff on Empathy

Earlier this week I argued that Khizir Khan (in response to Donald Trump) has brought “empathy” into public discourse.  As I have said several times here already, I am glad to see this.  One of our readers, John Mulholland, the founder of the “Redemption of Reason” initiative at the University of Chicago, brought to my attention a powerful lecture on this subject by philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff.

You can watch it here:

Wolterstorff argues that empathy requires an imaginative encounter with others. It demands a level of “proximity” to people who are different or who are suffering injustice or pain or some other emotion.  But if one cannot cultivate empathy through human proximity to the “other,” then literature (he uses Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an example here), drama, or film can cultivate this essential virtue.  As I argued in Why Study History?, the study of the past through primary sources can also produce this kind of empathy.

Wolterstorff speaks about empathy in deeply moral terms and connects it with the larger purpose of justice.  He seems to suggest that our empathy should be primarily focused on the oppressed or the suffering.  But as a historian I think empathy (as in “walking in one’s shoes”) must be applied to any person–oppressed,oppressor, or just an ordinary life–that we encounter in the past.  If history is going to educate (lead us “outward”) then empathy cannot be separated from our efforts to understand all of the human actors we study. We need to make sense of them as products of their own worlds, not ours.

Wolterstorff seems to agree with David Brooks when he says “the person who lacks the capacity for empathy is a sociopath.”  He thinks that most people are capable of empathy, but their capacity for empathy is somehow “blocked” by what he describes as “hardened hearts.”

According to Wolterstroff, empathy is “blocked” in several ways:

  1. People with “hardened hearts” have learned to dehumanize others and are thus incapable of empathizing with them.
  2. People with “hardened hearts” often suggest that the plight of victims is of their own making (i.e. the poor are lazy, etc…) and they thus don’t deserve empathy.
  3. People with “hardened hearts” have embraced a “visionary ideal” that they are working for some “great good” that can only be achieved by looking past the suffering or humanity of others. (“Make America Great Again?”)
  4. People with “hardened hearts” feel loyal to one’s own people and do not need to empathize with others because others are threats to their community.
  5. People with “hardened hearts” are often afraid that showing empathy to others will lead to the acknowledgment of one’s own complicity in the plight of others, which, in turn, would require a drastic change of life that most people can’t handle.

Watch the entire video to see how Wolterstorff connects empathy to justice.

Ben Carson, Bear Killings, Welfare, and Faith

I got in late last night and missed Dr. Ben Carson’s appearance on the CNN GOP Town Hall. Earlier today I finally got a chance to see Carson’s answer to a question about faith and the welfare state. It has been making the rounds on social media:

I want to commend Jessica Fuller for this question.  It is the best question on faith and politics that I have heard asked in this primary season.  (And that includes the media and the moderators of debates).

I am partially sympathetic here with Carson.  It is the responsibility of Christians to care for the poor at the local level through voluntary societies such as churches.

But we also live in a broken world.  Sometimes voluntary societies fail. Sometimes the church fails.

Think about the Jim Crow South.  Where was the white church during segregation?  If you read Martin Luther King Jr’s. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or David Chappell’s treatment of the Civil Rights movement in Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow you have to come to grips with the fact that the white church did not do its job. And because it didn’t do its job, the government had to step in and desegregate.  (This is also part of Mark Noll’s argument in God and Race in American Politics: A Short History).

I wonder if the same thing can be said for poverty in America.  Would we need welfare programs if Christians were doing their job?  I’m not sure, but it is certainly something to think about.

I also wonder why caring for the poor always has to be framed in a “big government” vs. “civil society” way.  Yes, the welfare system needs reform.  But why can’t government also be involved in this kind of work?  Carson rattles off a bunch of problems with welfare.  But there are also stories of success.

And then there are the historical problems with Carson’s comments..

First, Carson is right about the Constitution.  The Constitution doesn’t say that it is the government’s job to take care of the poor.  In fact, I am not sure the Constitution says anything about taking care of the poor.

Second, I am sure that the kind of moral community Carson is talking about here was present in the “old days of America.” I have even written about it. (Although I failed to mention the bear-attacks).

But one also has to be cautious when suggesting that back in the good old days everyone cared for one another and there was no self-interest.  It is easy to romanticize this kind of community.  Carson is very nostalgic for a world that only partially existed.

Third,  Carson’s reference to Woodrow Wilson and progressivism comes straight out of the Glenn Beck playbook. In fact, when Beck and his writers attacked me a few years ago I had to deal with rabid Beck fans leaving messages on my office answering machine accusing me of being “Woodrow Wilson.” For Beck, Wilson’s racism is not a problem.  He is a problem for his “big-government” solutions to social issues.

But putting all the blame on Wilson and the Progressive Era fails to recognize that one of the brightest moments in American history–Lincoln freeing the slaves and the Radical Republican Reconstruction plan to bring racial equality to the South in the wake of the Civil War– was an example of an active federal government try legislating morality.

Pope Francis Continues to Defy Political Categories

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Back in September when Pope Francis visited the United States I wrote a piece for Fox News titled “Pope Francis is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat or Republican.  He is a Catholic.”  Here is a taste of what I argued:

Pundits and commentators insist on trying to comprehend Francis’s message in political terms.  This is a wrongheaded approach. The Pope is not liberal or conservative.  He is not a Democrat or Republican.  He is a Catholic. And whatever he says about politics, culture, or the economy stems from this identity.

Our propensity for trying to place the Pope in a political box says more about our culture than it does about the social views of the Catholic Church. Francis’s visit has called attention to the tired, unimaginative, and intellectually stale way that we Americans think about public life. Americans are captive to ideological categories like “Left: and “Right.” They are captive to political parties that allow little original thought that does not conform to rigid and limited platforms. 

Pope Francis continues to defy categories.  On February 17th he will hold a mass at the Mexico-Texas border for the purpose of showing his solidarity with immigrants.

Yesterday, in a historic meeting in Cuba with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill,  Pope Francis joined the Patriarch in issuing a declaration of unity that defended religious liberty for those cast to the “margins of public life” by “aggressive secularist ideology.” It condemned “unrelenting consumerism” and its negative effects on the poor and the planet.  It proclaimed marriage as a “faithful love between a man and a woman” and lamented “other forms of cohabitation” that have “been placed on the same level as this union.” And it called on people to “respect the inalienable right to life” and the “millions” who are denied the very right to be born into the world.”

Could Francis support any candidate in the current race for the presidency?  I don’t see how it would be possible.  None of the candidates–Democrat or Republican– could affirm all of Catholic social teaching.

Gehrz: Evangelicals Must Reject Islamophobia

Chris Gehrz is very upset (and rightly so) about the Islamophobia currently on display in the evangelical community.  Here is a taste of his recent post at The Pietist Schoolman:

I’m not an evangelical who retreats from the label “evangelical.” But the results of a survey released today by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) have me feeling embarrassed and angry about my branch of the Christian family.
In the 2015 edition of its annual American Values Survey, PRRI asked about a number of topics, but coming a day after multiple Republican candidates proposed that Christian and Muslim refugees be treated differently as they seek asylum in the U.S., this finding stood out:
73% of evangelicals agree that the “values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”
Now, a majority of Americans (56%) feel this way, as do majorities in every Christian group. (Non-Christians and nonreligious are more likely to disagree than agree with the statement, and black and Hispanic Americans are evenly divided.) But that 73% number is ten points higher than the next most Islamophobic group (white mainline Protestants).
I don’t want to make too much of any single survey of American religion. There’s been plenty written lately about the problems with such polling. But the PRRI result seems consistent with what other surveys have found — e.g., last month LifeWay found that evangelical pastors (unlike their mainline counterparts) are increasingly likely to believe that Islam is inherently violent. And as historian Thomas Kidd has previously pointed out, American evangelical anxiety about Islam is as old as the Republic itself
I almost don’t know where to start, I’m so appalled by that 73% number.
Probably the best place is to question how much evangelicals or any other Christians ought to worry about sustaining “American values and way of life.” Insofar as there’s such a thing as “national values” and they’re consistent with the values of he who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” then sure, try to uphold them. But this just makes me more concerned about evangelical susceptibility to different kinds of secularization.
But even setting that to the side for the moment… Is it impossible for evangelicals to accept that the values of ISIS are not identical to the “values of Islam”? That hundreds of millions of Muslims living as citizens in pluralistic democracies around the world are as horrified by the mass murder of innocents as any Christian? That any religion — including our own — contains multitudes? (I’ll be teaching on the Holocaust in about three hours, and the role Christians played in it.)…
Fortunately, some evangelical leaders have stood up against Islamophobia. In recent days, Christianity Today has published thoughtful pieces by Ed Stetzer and World Vision U.S. president Rich Stearns (r.). Let’s hope that their voices are heeded more than, say, Franklin Graham’s (“Islam is at war with us — we’ve witnessed its evil face firsthand over and over”).
And there is some generally encouraging news in the survey. For all the recent discussion about *racism on college campuses, it’s probably worth noting that 60% of African Americans and 54% of Hispanics “believe that American culture has mostly changed for the better since the 1950s.”
Strikingly, however, 57% of white Americans say the opposite, leaving PRRI CEO Robert Jones “struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts.” For me, it’s especially troubling to find that evangelicals are the most anxious, fearful group in the survey. Three in five evangelicals claim that “America’s best days are behind us,” while majorities of Catholics, black Protestants, and non-Christians — religious and nonreligious — believe the opposite.
Indeed, I can only interpret evangelical hostility to Islam in light of a larger anxiety, one that’s completely inconsistent with Christian faith and witness. If anyone can live as a people of hope rather than fear, ought it not to be those who claim the Gospel for their name? What kind of evangel are we proclaiming?

Quote of the Day

The Resolutions of the National Association of Evangelicals’ Commission on Evangelical Action, organized early in the NAE’s history, give some measure of what “social action” meant to mainstream evangelical leaders in the early 1960s.  At the commission’s September 1960 meeting, members discussed the top challenges facing American evangelicals:  communism, “the Roman Catholic situation,” IRS pressure on ministers who preached politics from the pulpit, the provision of alcohol to passengers by airlines, and Hollywood’s recent “attacks on evangelical Christianity in such films as “Elmer Gantry” and “Inherit the Wind”

–Molly Worthen, Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism, p. 178

I should add that my students got some good laughs yesterday when they read the line about alcohol and airlines.

Evangelicalism’s Wrong Turn

Fred Clark of Slacktivist blog calls our attention to a passage in Peter G. Heltzel’s Jesus & Justice: Evangelicals, Race & American Politics.  Clark writes: “understand and absorb these five sentences and you can understand the entire history of white evangelicalism in America over the past 50 years:

In 1965 [Carl] Henry sent Frank E. Gaebelein to cover the march in Selma, Alabama. An associate editor of Christianity Today and the founder and headmaster of the Stony Brook School, New York, Gaebelein went to Selma and was so inspired that he wired Henry in Washington, DC, that evangelicals needed to join the march. But Gaebelein’s stories of the Selma march never saw the light of day. The resistance at Christianity Today was coming primarily from two people: J. Howard Pew, the Texas oil man and the financer of Christianity Today, and L. Nelson Bell, Billy Graham’s father-in-law and an editorial adviser at Christianity Today, who still had segregationist views. Pew and Bell did not want Christianity Today to speak out too critically against racism and capitalism, because they thought it would alienate important segments of the magazine’s constituency.

Read Clark’s riff on this paragraph here.

Pope Francis on the Culture of Waste

An excerpt from his book The Church of Mercy: A Vision for the Church posted at the Washington Post “On Faith” blog.

It is no longer the person who commands, but money, money, cash commands. And God our Father gave us the task of protecting the earth — not for money, but for ourselves, for men and women. We have this task!
ChurchOfMercy_TheNevertheless men and women are sacrificed to the idols of profit and consumption: it is the “culture of waste.” If a computer breaks, it is a tragedy; but poverty, the needs and dramas of so many people, end up being considered normal. If on a winter’s night — here on the Via Ottaviano, for example — someone dies, that is not news. If there are children in so many parts of the world who have nothing to eat, that is not news; it seems normal. It cannot be so! And yet these things enter into normality: that some homeless people should freeze to death on the street — this doesn’t make news.
On the contrary, when the stock market drops ten points in some cities, it constitutes a tragedy. Someone who dies is not news, but lowering income by ten points is a tragedy! In this way people are thrown aside as if they were trash.
This “culture of waste” tends to become a common mentality that infects everyone. Human life, the person, is no longer seen as a primary value to be respected and safeguarded, especially if that person is poor or disabled or not yet useful, like the unborn child, or is no longer of any use, like the elderly person. This culture of waste has also made us insensitive to wasting and throwing out excess foodstuffs, which is especially condemnable when, in every part of the world, unfortunately, many individuals and families suffer hunger and malnutrition.

Lilly Fellows Conference Wrap-Up: Educating for Social Justice

As is usually the case, I left the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts National Conference this weekend with a lot of things to think about and a renewed commitment to my vocation as a professor in a church-related college.  This year’s conference host, the University of Scranton, did a fabulous job of showcasing what is great about Jesuit higher education.  Thanks to Gretchen Van Dyke and her staff for a great conference.

I was challenged and informed by the conference’s three plenary speakers.  They all tailored their talks to the conference theme: “Faith and Academic Freedom in Civic Virtue.”  Mark Ravizza‘s talk (you can read my tweets here) focused on his work with students in the University of Santa Clara’s CASA de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador. Ravizza encouraged the faculty and administrators in attendance to develop programs that connect students with human suffering.  He talked about the superficiality of social media and urged us to replace our “civic blindness” with a “fellow feeling” for those in need.

The second plenary address was delivered by Patricia McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University.  McGuire described a major “paradigm shift” at Trinity.  What was originally a women’s liberal arts college known by many as the “Catholic Wellesley” (Nancy Pelosi and Katherine Sebelius are alumnae), has been transformed under McGuire’s leadership into a university committed to educating women in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington D.C.  The goal was to bring the college’s Catholic commitment to social justice and civic engagement to an entirely new constituency. The Trinity student body is now mostly Baptist and African American. The college changed, but the Catholic mission remained the same.

The third plenary speaker was musician and educator Rob Kapilow. He talked about his work in bringing classical music to public audiences who do not normally listen to classical music.  He left the music faculty at Yale to become a music missionary, spreading the gospel of classical music to anyone who would listen.  His commitment to civic engagement and speaking to broad audiences reflected the Jesuit tradition of education for social justice.

Kapilow was great, but Ravizza and McGuire really got me thinking about how we teach social justice in our church-related colleges and universities.  Both educators stressed the need to get students outside of the classroom.  Ravizza’s entire talk centered around his experience in the CASA program. McGuire implied that the primary mission of a Trinity faculty member should be to engage real world problems through internships and external programming.  Even when her faculty does engage in traditional scholarship, it should be for the purpose of solving a social problem that would make the world a more just and humane place.

I can’t argue with any of this.  And as I noted above I found it all quite inspiring.  But I could not help but wonder how historians should respond to these two talks.  Do historians fulfill their missions at church-related schools by promoting study abroad trips, encounters with poverty, or teaching classes devoted to those aspects of history that have a social justice theme?  Or does the discipline of history in and of itself provide the empathy necessary to develop a “fellow feeling” for those who are different than us?  It would seem that whether you study lynching, homelessness, the beliefs of the founding fathers, American conservatism, or everyday life on 19th century Midwestern farms, the study of history–as a discipline–can teach students skills necessary for them to live a civic-minded life.  Why does the social justice or “world changing” dimension of the curriculum always have to happen outside of the classroom?  Granted, real life encounters will most likely be more transformative than intellectual encounters with the dead in a history class, but this does not mean that disciplinary concerns, such as the sharpening of historical thinking skills in a history classroom, cannot also contribute to the mission of a church-related school?  History teaches empathy, understanding people on their own terms, intellectual hospitality, and humility, to name a few of the virtues students learn by studying this subject.  I would think a history classroom, no matter the subject or the “service-learning” dimensions of the class, can instill in students a commitment to civic virtue.  Or at least this is what I argue in several chapters in Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

I am sure that both Ravizza and McGuire would agree with this, but I wish they would have said more about it in their talks.

Ron Sider on Inequality

Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, wonders if “economic inequality of opportunity” is a sin.  Here is a taste of his nuanced answer:

In my book Fixing the Moral Deficit: A Balanced Way to Balance the Budget, I argue that the bible does not promote equality of income or wealth. When laziness and other forms of sin result in less income, inequality is appropriate. When parents rightly pass on an inheritance of skill and wealth to children, some inequality is proper (although we certainly should keep the estate tax!). When the economic rewards of work create incentives for creativity and diligence, some inequality is desirable.

On the other hand, I believe the Bible suggests at least two limits on inequality. For one, the biblical principle of justice demands that every person and family have access to the productive resources so that if they act responsibly, the can earn a decent living and be dignified members of society. Whenever the extremes of wealth and poverty make it difficult or prevent some people from having access to adequate productive resources, then that inequality is unjust, wrong, sinful and must be corrected.

The second limitation on inequality flows from the biblical understanding of sin and power. In our broken world, whenever one group of people acquires excessive unbalanced power, they will almost always use it for their own selfish advantage.

And then Sider provides the sobering statistics, as he did so well in his classic Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  (You may also want to watch this video for some context).

Between 1993 and 2007, more than half of all the increase in income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. Between 2002 and 2007, 66 percent of all increased income went to the richest 1 percent. And in 2009-2010, 93 percent of all the increased income in the U.S. went to the richest 1 percent. The richest 1 percent of Americans own more than the bottom 90 percent.

Over the last three decades, the average annual income of the richest 1 percent has jumped by $700,000 while the average Joe has actually lost ground. The poorest 20 percent had less income in 2009 than they did in 1979. Over 46 million Americans are in poverty.

Today there is much greater inequality and less equality of opportunity in the U.S. than in “aristocratic” Europe.

Then Sider offers some action steps:

There are ways that public policy could move us away from today’s gross inequality and back toward more equality of opportunity. We should maintain effective programs that care for and empower poor people. We should spend enough on minority urban education so that everyone, not just white suburbanites, receive an education that offers vastly expanded equality of opportunity. We should increase taxes somewhat on rich Americans and tax income from dividends and capital gains at the same rate as other income. Yes, we must greatly reduce our ongoing federal budget deficit over the next five years, but we need not — and should not! — do it on the backs of the poor.

And he finally concludes with an answer to the original question:

It is time for evangelical preachers to label today’s gross inequality what it is: SIN. If we believe what the Bible says about God’s concern for the poor; if we believe what the Bible says about justice; then we must denounce the gross inequality of opportunity and income in our country today as blatantly sinful.