Posts Tagged ‘evangelicals’

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.








How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.

What Happened to Evangelicals

July 28, 2016

I have been thinking a lot about this quite remarkable fact: according to polls the great majority of self-identifying “evangelicals” support a presidential candidate whose world view seems to be borrowed from Nietzche. (This article by Peter Wehner does an excellent job summarizing Trump’s approach.)

Most of my life I’ve been very happy to call myself an evangelical. Without my permission, though, the word has taken on a different definition. To some it now means “right wing bigot,” but I don’t think that’s fair. It’s more accurate to say evangelical now means “Republican.”

In the days of the Solid South, before Lyndon Johnson’s voting rights bill spoiled the party, people spoke of a “yellow dog Democrat.” That referred to Democrats who would “vote for a yellow dog before they would vote for a Republican.” Given that evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump, I think it’s fair to call them “yellow dog Republicans.”

How did this come to be? How did a largely non-political movement that emphasized Christian conversion and the Bible come to be so closely tied to a political party? The answer begins with one word: abortion. Though it took a while for evangelicals to join Catholics in opposing the permissions of Roe v. Wade, they eventually did so with fervor. The plight of the unborn captured hearts very much as the plight of slaves did before the Civil War. Most people were happy to brush these lives aside, but once slaves or unborn babies got into someone’s moral conscience they found them impossible to forget. In both cases, Christian faith was the primary gateway into this moral conclusion.

Evangelical opposition to abortion was not initially political, but pretty soon the two parties aligned their positions for and against abortion. From that point on, it was difficult for an evangelical to vote for a Democrat.

Whether you agree or disagree with the evangelical view on abortion, I don’t see how you can avoid seeing it as a principled stand. So when you think of Donald Trump (whose concern for abortion or any other moral issue is squishy) you have to ask: how did evangelicals get from a principled stand that aligned them with a political party, to a stand for a political party that has abandoned all principles?

The logic works this way: Trump is running as a Republican; we have every hope he will support Republican positions on social issues (probably because they do not matter very much to him). Thus, opposing abortion and defending traditional marriage involves holding your nose and voting for Trump. (I am willing to ignore evidence suggesting that some evangelicals are actually enthused about Trump for less attractive reasons.)

Politics often involves such compromises. Ask the supporters of Bernie Sanders who are asked to vote for Hillary Clinton. I can’t fault anybody for making their voting decisions on the basis of such calculations. At the same time, there must be some line we will not cross. Jesus was offered the kingdoms of the world, you may recall, for a mere token of support. He declined the offer. I can’t imagine holding my nose tight enough to eliminate the stench of Donald Trump.

Which makes all the more egregious the eager and specifically religious support for him from some Christian leaders.

When I was growing up, Christian pastors didn’t endorse candidates. They drew a line between themselves and politics; it was considered unseemly for pastors to fall into political advocacy, as it mingled a political mindset—full of compromises–with the purity of the gospel.

For evangelicals, those days are long gone. A political endorsement might possibly be acceptable if it favored a candidate whose character measured up to evangelical moral standards. But when the candidate is Donald Trump, the endorsement tells the world that evangelicals are no longer people of conscience whose lives are dominated by the message of the gospel. We have become a political interest group, and there is no limit to the compromises we will make for a share of power.

Clash of creeds?

June 10, 2014

I’m confused.

The story, summarized in today’s New York Times, can be told as a simple tale. The most obvious story line–at least obvious to me–is the Orwellian fable of liberal universities banning religious groups from campus in order to protect diversity. That is surely the practical impact of new policies coming into play at both public and private schools. The universities demand that all student groups sign a pledge not to discriminate in any way, including religiously. The Christian groups say they welcome everybody but must have Christians in leadership. So the universities say, sorry, you’ve got to go, we can’t allow discrimination.

Another story line, though, puts the universities in a nobler light. It sees Christian groups that discriminate against gays. They want to have the privileges that go with recognition by a university, but they also want to stay stuck in their medieval conceptions of sexuality. The university has crossed that river and won’t go back. So, Christians can hold their opinions but they can’t hold university privileges.

This story has been playing out at many schools over the last decade. Most of the time it has stayed out of the headlines. At different schools it’s been resolved in different ways. Harvard notably resolved it in favor of letting the Christians stick to their principles. But more and more universities seem to be trending in the other direction.

Though it is a low profile story–I don’t think Fox News has yet exploited it–it’s symptomatic of a larger cultural debate and potentially significant.

I’m confused, though. It’s hard to put your finger on what the issue is for either side. Why do universities have to cast the issue as one of discrimination? Why couldn’t they see it as a matter of qualifications? In order to be an officer in the organization you must have certain qualifications, one of which is religious belief. Nobody is discriminated against; anybody can choose to hold those beliefs.

And that question works the other way: why can’t the Christian groups pledge that they don’t discriminate? Is this all about semantics?

I don’t think it’s just semantics. I suspect that hiding somewhere down in the depths of this dispute is a question of creeds. Can a group on a university (read: civilized society) be creedal? That is to say, can membership depend on your submission to a written statement of truth? For all kinds of reasons, creeds are at odds with the modern university–and with modern culture.

Even deeper down, I suspect, is a clash of competing creeds. Because of course the modern university does subscribe to a creed. Some of the creed is written down, usually in very bland language. (“Openness, spirit of inquiry, diversity, etc.”) A lot of it isn’t written down, but it’s pretty well established. And Christians who claim to find their truth in an ancient book are not entirely in harmony with that creed.

All the same, there must surely be some way to square this circle on pragmatic grounds. I expect that university administrators feel intensely uncomfortable with reducing diversity in the name of protecting diversity. Banning groups that won’t sign your pledge sounds a little bit McCarthyesque, dontcha think? On the other side, I believe the Christian groups involved in these disputes truly want to be a respected part of a diverse and non-discriminating university community. Somehow both sides have written themselves into a corner, and don’t know how to get out of it.

I should say, lest this be painted in the starkest terms, that the consequences of the university bans are not that great. They generally amount to Christian groups losing the possibility of university funding (which I don’t think most Christian groups receive anyway) and the loss of privileges for booking meeting places. I don’t think there’s any attempt to root out their existence on campus.

But symbolically and culturally, there may be a lot more at stake. Can a liberal, material, post-Christian society find ways to include and accept those who hold to another creed? Can Christians (and other creedal groups) find ways to accommodate their practices to a post-Christian America?

I am not personally optimistic about the status of Christianity in our society for the near future. I think religiously we are likely to look more like Europe than like Africa. But whatever we are becoming (and after the meteoric rise of gay marriage, the future seems to be closer than we thought) we are going to do it in a patently American way. And that way, we haven’t discovered yet.

Ortberg on the Future of Presbyterians

January 23, 2012

Warning: this may be of interest only to Presbyterians.

I was in Orlando last week for a meeting of the (new) Fellowship of Presbyterians. It’s an attempt to rededicate Presbyterian congregations to core biblical purposes. I won’t try to describe the nuts and bolts of that, which are inevitably tedious. I’ll just say that I appreciated the tone set by the leaders. They resolutely did not complain about the current denomination (PCUSA). They emphasized that they were not so interested in escaping a compromised church as in reinvigorating their own sense of mission.

My highlight, by far, was a talk by John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. (Here’s the video.) I recommend it most heartily. I particularly appreciated his evocation of a faith that is thoughtful, courteous, socially and culturally engaged, and loves Jesus. In this, he said, we really do have something important to offer our world.

In this era when “evangelical” often seems to mean simplistic, sloganeering dogmatism, I found it most encouraging to think that the kind of faith I resonate with can have great significance. Ortberg spoke to that well.

Evangelicals and Mitt Romney

December 30, 2011

My friend Pete, who’s been reporting on politics for decades, can’t understand why evangelicals don’t like Romney. I’ve explained to him the deep antipathy evangelicals feel toward Mormons, but to him the groups seem more similar than different. How on earth could evangelicals support Gingrich, a serial adulterer and hypocrite, over Romney, a solid God-and-family man?

I’m not sure I understand it myself. I do know, however, that feelings about Mormons go deep. I predict that if Romney is the Republican nominee, a lot of evangelicals will stay home in November, and very few will campaign enthusiastically for him. As evangelicals comprise much if not most of the Republican base, that’s a major problem. Republicans know it; that’s why they keep flocking to the latest anybody-but-Romney candidate.

But why do evangelicals dislike Mormons so much? It has something to do with envy. Mormons violate all the rules of orthodox Christian theology, and yet they outperform evangelicals on practically every point.

–They are not only pro-marriage and pro-family, they actually have a record of staying married.

–They are squeaky clean on drugs and alcohol, while evangelicals broadcast their concern about addictive substances but have skeletons in every family closet.

–They witness to their faith. Every time evangelicals see those boys with white shirts and ties walking in pairs through their neighborhood, they feel guilty that they aren’t witnessing themselves.

Those are the main point, but there are other reasons for jealousy:

— Mormons don’t have professional clergy. (Evangelicals profess the priesthood of all believers, but in reality are ruled by preachers.)

-Mormons boast an actual tourist magnet in the Salt Lake City temple complex. (Evangelicals love Disney World and have tried unsuccessfully to launch a Christian theme park to match it.)

Add it all up, and the short-haired, clean-cut Mormon boy who goes on a two-year mission trip to Guatemala and comes home to marry his sweetheart, produce babies, and join his dad’s construction company, is the son every evangelical dreams of. They’re living our dream, despite their heretical beliefs.  Most aggravating of all, they are nice.

Some Encouragement in the NYT

August 2, 2011

If you’re a Christian you don’t want to miss Nicholas Kristof’s column in the NYTimes. He writes about John Stott and his impact on evangelicalism; more, he write about his own positive experiences with evangelical Christians on the front lines of fights for justice and against poverty around the world. It’s an encouraging word.

Cape Town Here I Come

October 15, 2010

Saturday I head to Cape Town for the third congress of the Lausanne movement. There will be 4,000 delegates there, evangelical Christian leaders from around the world. Non-westerners should far outnumber westerners, as the delegates were chosen with the Christian populations of their home countries in mind. I’m very much looking forward to the people I meet.

It’s hard to predict whether a large gathering like this will accomplish anything. The first congress, held in 1979, certainly did, though not at all in the way that its organizers had expected. My hopeful thought is that when you get 4,000 believers from very diverse backgrounds together for a week, anything can happen.

That is evidently what the Chinese government thinks. Chinese house churches raised a million dollars to send delegates to the congress, but the government has refused to let them go. NPR had a story about it this morning.

I’ll be posting occasionally on one of the Christianity Today Magazine blogs, And, I hope to post on this blog too. I’ll have to see how much time I have.

Some Kind Words for Evangelicals

February 28, 2010

Don’t miss Nicholas Kristof’s column in the New York Times this morning. (here) He features my friends at World Vision and talks more generally about the growing involvement of evangelicals in relief and development around the world. Kristof also addresses  the hostile attitudes evangelicals and Catholics confront in liberal circles.