When progressive evangelicals held the national stage

George_McGovern,_c_1972

George McGovern

Over at Sojourners, American religious historian Randall Balmer traces the history of progressive evangelicalism in the 1970s. Here is a taste of “Before the Religious Right, Progressive Evangelicals Gained the National Spotlight“:

Richard Nixon’s promise of a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam, which boosted him to presidency in 1968, turned out to entail expanding the war to Cambodia in the spring of 1970, thereby prompting protests across the nation and the shooting of four students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University on May 4, 1970. Nevertheless, Nixon rallied his “silent majority” in advance of the 1972 presidential election, and he entered the campaign with decided advantages.

The Democratic nominee was George McGovern, senator from South Dakota who grew up in the parsonage of a Wesleyan Methodist minister and who himself studied for the ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary before going on to earn the Ph.D. from Northwestern University. McGovern, a decorated war hero in World War II, brought his campaign to Wheaton College’s Edman Chapel on the morning of October 11, 1972.

I was a first-year student at Trinity College, and I persuaded several of my classmates to skip our daily chapel and accompany me to Wheaton. I shall never forget the scene. Students paraded around the chapel with Nixon campaign banners. McGovern opened by saying that he had wanted to attend Wheaton, but his family couldn’t afford it. He went on to explain that his understanding of justice and social responsibility was derived from the Bible. By the end of his remarks, McGovern had won a respectful hearing from many of the students.

Nevertheless, Billy Graham had endorsed Nixon, and white evangelicals followed the evangelist’s lead.

Read the entire piece here.

For more on this history, I recommend three books:

Balmer, Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter

David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism

Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice

Mark Lempke, My Brother’s Keeper: George McGovern and Progressive Christianity

We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever

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From ‘The Seven Liberal Arts.’ Francesco Pesellino. 1422-1457 Florence, Italy. 

Here is a taste of my recent piece at Sojourners:

A nurse can learn how to insert an IV tube in a patient’s arm, but how will he develop the fortitude to enter a room filled with people suffering from infectious diseases? A medical doctor may know how to operate on a patient or prescribe medicine, but how does she decide who dies and who lives when ventilators and other essential equipment are at a minimum? A politician may know how to win elections, but where does he find the inner strength to offer hope in anxious and uncertain times? A successful businessman understands how to make money, but where does she learn to serve the common good during a pandemic? Engineers build things, but what motivates them to volunteer their expertise in the construction of a make-shift hospital? How do we sift through the array of COVID-19 information that endlessly crosses our screens? How do we know who to trust?

Some might say that the study of American history, sociology, religion, literature, ethics, statistics, physics, or musicology is irrelevant when people are dying from this terrible virus. This is one of those subjects where Christians and unbelievers share common ground. They tell us that this is a time for practical skills, not abstract theories, or academic luxuries. But such a view is wrong. We need the liberal arts now more than ever. Those who study these subjects, and wrestle with the questions they raise, are pursuing a high and useful calling. If the United States is going to get through this pandemic, and if the church is going to lead the way in a responsible fashion, we need more Christians who can remind us what is good, what is beautiful, what is heroic, what is just, and what is true.

Read the entire piece here.

Evangelicals, This is How Republics Fail

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My latest piece at Sojourners. (Readers of this blog will note that it is adapted from a few posts that originally appeared here).

A taste:

The United States is not a Christian nation. Nor was it founded as such. The Founding Fathers argued over politics and policy just like we do, but they were united in the belief that republics fail without virtue. They believed people must always exercise what they called “political jealousy.” A jealous citizen kept a principled watch on government leaders to guard against vice and corruption. Political jealousy served as a unifying force, a common ideology of resistance to tyranny grounded in a shared morality. By keeping our heads in the sand as Trump proves he is incapable of living according to the most basic standards of decency, evangelicals neglect to do their part in sustaining our republic.

We have failed to be good citizens. We have become complicit in the president’s nativism, racism, xenophobia, narcissism, and fearmongering. Sadly, Trump-supporting evangelicals have now lost much of their moral authority to speak out on matters related to government corruption, pornography, sex and violence in movies and television shows, racial reconciliation, school bullying, and the decline in civil discourse.

I left this discussion with my friend wondering: Am I being too hard on evangelicals? Perhaps. But this is my tribe. I have chosen, for better or for worse, to save my strongest criticism for my own people.

The political problems in our community run deeper than just our failure to speak with a prophetic voice. Donald Trump will be gone one day. But the political playbook that evangelicals follow will not go away unless we decide to burn it and start over. There is a very good chance that this playbook will lead evangelicals into the arms of another immoral tyrant who promises conservative Supreme Court justices and offers platitudes about religious liberty.

We need a new political playbook. We need to replace our lust for political power with heavy doses of humility. We must forge a new kind of politics defined, at its very core, by human dignity. It is imperative that we teach our children and grandchildren a way of engaging the world that offers it a glimpse of a coming kingdom defined by love, justice, mercy, and compassion. We need to offer hope, not fear.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Evangelicalism Dead? If So, What Should We Call “followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition?”

Wallis Jim

Jim Wallis, founders of Sojourners

Randall Balmer thinks evangelicalism died on November 8,. 2016.  I appeared with him last Spring at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and he made the same assertion.

If evangelicalism is dead, what shall we call “followers of Jesus in the evangelical tradition?”

Here is Balmer at Sojourners:

Since the 2016 election stripped evangelicalism of all claims to moral credibility, what are those of us who formerly claimed that label to do? Some have suggested Followers of Jesus, which has the virtue of simplicity. Others favor exvangelicals, which may be a tad too cute; besides, I resist defining myself in negative terms. Red Letter Christians is a worthy choice (and, if memory serves, I’m a charter member), but it’s a term that needs explanation these days, and there’s a perception that, however loosely configured, it’s an organization, not a movement.

I propose instead Sojourners Christians, which is a bit more generic. This is not an attempt to elevate or to reify this magazine, but since its earliest days as the Post-American, Sojourners has taken seriously Jesus’ mandate to be peacemakers, to welcome the stranger and care for the least of these. In addition, Sojourners has matured to take into its orbit Catholic spirituality, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the best of the peace church and the black church tradition. Even mainline Protestantism finds a place in the Sojourners spectrum, although many of us remain properly wary of its vanilla, anything-goes ethic.

If I were younger, more ambitious, and technologically savvy, I’d set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account for Sojourners Christians. If this idea has any merit, I’ll leave that to others. In the meantime, and for the foreseeable future, I shall refer to myself as a Sojourners Christian.

I respect Randy’s decision to search for a new name.  Indeed, the Christian Right has tarnished the Gospel by mixing it with a power politics.  But I think I am still with Ron Sider on this one.  The word “evangelical,” the “good news” of the Gospel, is too good to surrender to a political movement like the Christian Right.  Let’s try to steal the word back.  I have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a book, and a speaking schedule that, among other things, is trying to do this.

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.

My Latest Piece at *Sojourners*: Pence’s Visit to the Southern Baptist Convention

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Here is a taste:

In the last several months, the #MeToo movement has found its way to one of the largest Protestant denominations in America — the Southern Baptist Convention. While this year’s annual meeting did address issues related to Paige Patterson, the former SBC Theological Seminary president, and how women are treated in the church, the SBC leadership also decided to welcome Mike Pence, who represents a presidential administration with a long track record of degrading women in public, to their meeting. 

In May, over 3000 SBC women sent an open letter to the Board of Trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary demanding the firing of Paige Patterson.

As one of the primary architects of the denomination’s “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s, Patterson is a living legend in the SBC. But over the course of the last few months, the world that Paige Patterson created collapsed around him. 

Patterson’s indiscretions are now widely known. He made inappropriate comments about teenage girls, he told a female victim of sexual assault not to report the incident to the police, and in 2015, when a Southwestern student told Patterson that she had been raped, he said he would meet with the student alone, so he could “break her down.”

The Board of Trustees at Southwestern eventually removed Patterson from his post. He is now gone, but the problem of authoritarian and misogynistic Southern Baptist leaders remains. The Patterson case exposed the dark side of the SBC and its conservative resurgence, prompting one seminary president to declare that the “wrath of God” is now being poured out on the convention. 

Read the rest here.

Jim Wallis on the Wheaton Consultation on Evangelicalism

Wallis Jim

John Kasich was invited, but did not attend.  Mark Noll was there.  So was Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners and one of the primary architects of the evangelical left.

In his most recent piece at the Sojourners website, Wallis sees some continuity between the issues addressed at the Wheaton consultation and the issues addressed at some of the earliest gatherings of the so-called “evangelical left.”  He does not see progress.

A taste:

That was 45 years ago. Reading it again at the Wheaton meeting was heartbreaking — realizing how far in the wrong direction “evangelicalism” has now gone, so diminished and distorted. In my tradition, we would call that spiritual “backsliding.” Read the declaration now — all of it — and see how much we have gone backwards.

Also take a look at the list of signers back in 1973. We were “young evangelicals,” including black evangelicals, the first evangelical feminists, some global evangelical leaders, but also some of the leading establishment white evangelical leaders at the time — including some who were invoked at the Wheaton meeting last week, like the founding editor of Christianity Today Carl F. H. Henry. As the final editor of the Chicago Declaration, I can attest that Henry and I we went back and forth on every “jot and title” as those who knew him would expect! This was a multiracial and intergenerational statement unanimously agreed to after two days of retreat together. We all felt it was work that God had done.

At the time, the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern” gained great attention in the evangelical world, schools, and seminaries, and it was a big news story. And until 1980, we were called the “young evangelicals” in a “new evangelical” movement.

So what happened?

Read the entire piece here.  Then go get some historical context by reading two books:

Brantley Gasaway, Progressive Evangelicals and the Pursuit of Social Justice and David Swartz, Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.

Trump Evangelicals Line-Up Behind Scott Pruitt

Pruitt

Scott Pruitt’s ethical problems are abundant.  Here is how Aaron Weaver describes them in his recent piece at Sojourners:

A $50-a-night condo deal from a lobbyist pal. More than $100,000 for first class airfare and $40,000 on a soundproof phone booth. A twenty person 24-hour protective detail and emergency sirens en route to a French restaurant. Travel costs closing in on $3 million. Big raises for top aides and demotions for officials who dare question the spending habits of their boss and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt.

Yet many evangelicals are standing by him, including Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.

Here is another taste of Weaver’s piece:

The evangelical leaders called Pruitt “well qualified” to head the EPA and said he deserved “the full support of the United States Senate in his confirmation.” These evangelicals aimed to counter the claims of climate change denialism leveled against their Southern Baptist brother, insisting that he had been “misrepresented as denying ‘settled science.’” Pruitt had just called for “a continuing debate” on the impact and extent of climate change, they said.

With this public defense of Pruitt, these evangelicals were continuing down a path started more than a decade ago as awareness about the urgent global challenge of climate change was increasing within evangelicalism. In 2006, a coalition of well known evangelical pastors and professors calling themselves the Evangelical Climate Initiative released a declaration urging environmental concern and imploring Congress to adopt legislation to curb carbon emissions. Shortly after, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a statement warning that climate change was “threatening to become a wedge issue to divide the evangelical community” and distract its members from “the priority of the Great Commission.”

Read the rest here.

 

 

Jim Wallis Lets It Rip

Wallis

Here is Jim Wallis‘s latest take on the Trump evangelicals at Sojourners:

Since he likes to put his name in ALL CAPS, we will put their name in ALL CAPS too. TRUMP EVANGELICALS are destroying the “evangel” — the “good news” of Jesus Christ.

“Evangelical” is a word that now needs to be defined carefully, given how much it has been distorted and corrupted by both the media and the behavior of white evangelicals. The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is now at stake — as is the integrity of Christian faith for at least a generation to come.

The word “evangelical” has its origin in the word “evangel” from Luke 4:16, in which Jesus first announced his mission at Nazareth by saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor [the word here for “good news” in the original Aramaic language is evangel]. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

That is the word from which we get the words “evangelism” and “evangelical.” But there is hardly a text in Scripture that would be less associated with the word “evangelical” in the United States today. Or as the president of an evangelical seminary said to me recently, “Evangelicalism (and he meant white evangelicalism) is destroying the evangel.”

If we take that text seriously, as evangelicals are supposed to do with biblical texts, and if we believe that Jesus is Lord, we see clearly that the contrast between the evangel and white evangelicals — with their message to the poor, immigrants and refugees, women, and other vulnerable people — is very stark.

TRUMP EVANGELICALS have so completely and uncritically offered their faithful allegiance to the man in the White House that they have compromised the gospel of Jesus Christ — whose values the president’s life has stood antithetically against. The result in the way the country now views evangelicals, and white Christians in general, has been devastating to the integrity of faith in America and caused great confusion around the world. Another direct result of this election and the response of white evangelicals to it has been the mass exodus of African-American Christians from white and multi-racial churches and creating the biggest racial divide in the churches since the civil rights movement.

Read the rest here.

Wallis is writing in support of the “Reclaiming Jesus Declaration.”

Thanks “Everyday Grace” Blog

Cruz speaking

Tom Corcoran, a former evangelical missionary who also blogs, has written an interesting post about my recent piece at Christianity Today on Ted Cruz.  I am glad to see that there are fellow evangelicals out there who find my take on Cruz to be compelling.

Here is a taste of Corcoran’s post, “Try Winning the Argument.”

A couple of days ago I read this article on the Christianity Today website by evangelical professor John Fea analyzing “The Theology of Ted Cruz.”  If you listen to Cruz’s speeches you will quickly notice that they are drenched in a form of evangelicalism that emphasizes a crusade to take back America….

I believe that Fea’s assessment runs pretty close to true, although the dominion theology Cruz spouts is not exactly new.  However, I expected (as did Fea) that many Cruz supporters who share his views would be unhappy.  They were.  Many of the irate responses called for all sorts of mayhem, both divine and human to fall on Fea. This is pretty much par for the course on the internet today.  If you say anything meaningful the trolls will scream and it is only too bad that there are so many Christian trolls.

Yet in some ways one of the most thoughtful responses was the most distressing.  Stan Guthrie, an editor at large for Christianity Today and a big Cruz supporter took exception.  His points were, in many ways, as thoughtful as Fea’s article was and they could have been the basis of a good discussion.  But Guthrie prefaced his remarks with this:

“On the one hand, this is clearly labeled an opinion piece and is within the bounds of evangelical discussion (though the author’s past advocacy for Obama and affiliation with the liberal Sojourners should have been noted).”

While he graciously allows that Fea’s article was “within the bounds of evangelical discussion” he then qualifies that remark by casting doubts on Fea on two levels.  First, he happens to agree with President Obama on some things (Guthrie links to such an incident.)  The message is simple – anyone who agrees with Obama onanything should not be trusted.  I spent some time on Fea’s website and found that he is quick to both agree and disagree with Obama on issues whenever he feels.  He is hardly an Obama cheerleader.  The implication however is that, if you are a real evangelical, you must always oppose the President on everything.

The second complaint is that, even though he says he is an evangelical, Fea has an “affiliation with the liberal Sojourners.”  Just what is that nefarious affiliation?  As it turns out he recently wrote one article for his own website and allowed Sojourners to reprint it on their website.   He also, several years ago, wrote another article for their magazine.  By this standard Fea also has an affiliation with Fox News and Christianity Today.  Even Jim Wallis, the founder of Sojourners, has an affiliation with CT.

Guthrie’s message is clear – don’t trust anyone who differs with his version of reformed evangelicalism.  Even as he engages Fea in debate he shouts for his readers to discount Fea’s tainted judgement.  Guthrie is saying we can’t trust Fea because once in a while he agrees with people we don’t like….

Read the entire post here.