Path to a Dead End

One of the tragedies of the present age is the calcification of the Evangelical Church. Once a vital movement able to nurture diverse voices and promote ideas in the broader culture; once risking to talk about race now has come to be seen as one more cultural group, even a sect.

How did this happen? Many focus on histories and politics, but the underlying question is that of sociology, and yes of time.

Analyses of the Evangelical community stumble when they overlook the composite nature of this community. In 1976, there would have been four interacting communities, which together make up what we call Evangelicalism: the Fundamentalist South with its emphasis on eschatalogy and a separationist ecclesiology (Bible churches, the SBC); the Segregationist South, drawn from the PCUS now PCA community, the home of the segregationist academies (Randall Ballmer thinks of them as the origin of the Christian Right, well maybe); the Sunbelt Evangelicals, extending from Orange County to Dallas, less segregationist but militantly anti-communist, deeply engaged with conservative economics (SBC, Nazarene originally; the deep backers of Reagan); and the Northern protestant conservatives – often immigrant – see the split in the LCMS 1969, whose issues were the Bible but did not share believer baptism model of Sunbelt or Segregationist South.

Between abortion and Reagan they found common cause, but I don’t think we can see them as solely political in nature. The real power is cultural; the question is not history so much as sociology. In the 80s and 90s, these were the churches of the suburbs, the big boxes which developed a model of Christian life that focused on the family (and especially fathers — this the work of Kristin DuMez) at the same time that a certain anxieties swept through the Boomer generation as they raised their children. The characteristic nature of the suburbs of the day were white and moving upscale (e.g. Saddleback, Willow Creek); the churches reflect this as do their Christian schools. This cultural location opens a gap between Evangelicals and the urban and/or minority churches; it also made these same churches less attractive in the changing diverse nature of the new suburbs.

All this came to a halt with the changing nature of suburbanization (Tim Keller not withstanding), and the political choices in 2002-2004, a change well documented in such books as Amy Sullivan’s Party Faithful. Then add to the deindustrialization of the Midwest which tore the heart out of many small towns, The result is a cultural community that was largely outward facing in 1980-2002, turned inward, a defensive crouch, and with it the old reactions also took hold. As the northern wing shrank and the Sunbelt shifted the elements of Evangelicalism that remained standing were those of the South, meanwhile the kids leave town.

James Bratt, The Shadow of 2016. Reformed Journal: The Twelve. January 10, 2019.

Advertisements

Coming to America?

At Calvin in Common, Clayton Libolt is concerned with a variant of the Christian Right, the Dominion theology with its vision of a thoroughly Christian America, a state where biblical norms are explicitly enacted. The theology was developed by R. J. Rushdoony in the middle of the century and has taken root in some parts of conservative Protestantism. Well, and Texas. While the explicit teaching sounds whacky, there is also a softer side, with its appeals to “creation order” — could  this be the creeping future for America and more specifically for the Christian Reformed Church? Libolt captures the question in a quote from  from David Brockman in the Texas Observer:
To be clear, I’m not saying that religion has no place in the public square. Far from it: religious persons have just as much right as anyone else to advocate laws and policies that line up with their beliefs and values. Government officials, however, are in a different position. No, they don’t have to “walk away from what they believe,” as Patrick puts it. Their religious beliefs can inform their personal morality in office — don’t lie, don’t steal, and so on — and give them comfort and hope or motivate them to serve others. But they can’t make policy based on those beliefs. Government officials have a duty to uphold the Constitution, not to enact their personal religious convictions. They are obliged to serve all of the people, not just members of the officials’ own religious community.
I am a lot more blasé about this. The so-called “soft-dominionism” looks an awful lot like American religious nationalism, a perennial theme at least since the post-WWII era and its emergence in plain folk culture of Orange County. The SoCal origin (home of Rushdoony, too) explain the sort of fundamentalism Mark Noll identifies in Paul’s post, although Christian nationalism was, at least in origin, engaged in the great ideological war against Communism.
Thus, I am more inclined to ask Joe Stalin’s question, “so how many divisions have they got?” In terms of practical politics, the Religious Right does nothing without an alliance with Catholics, and here the dominionist political theology falters. Our “soft doiminionists” and their followers are simply useful idiots for the harsh, hard-right agenda of the economic rightists. Sure, they can have their prayer meeting with the President, even lay hands on him, but the real social agenda will advance and pretty much betray the believers. Oddly, though, such betrayal will likely only intensify their politically idiosyncratic views.
Even in Texas, I suspect the internal contradictions doom dominioinism, even of the soft variety. As dominionism shares the same sort of political architecture of conservative Islam, it is difficult to privilege Christian communities without also empowering Muslim ones. Thus the soft dominionist must either be revealed as a hard liner — a political dead end – or confront the Islamophobia of the supporting religious community.  The Muslim protests in Texas have already shown how far THAT would go. In the end, I rather think the religious communities will forgo the full Christian freedom schtick if it means granting power to their Muslim neighbors.
And can we so easily dismiss, the “gosh, I’d like to” demurral (I’d love to support you, but the Bible…)? At present, we need something like this appeal to conscience if we are to rid ourselves of this President; well-meaning Republicans will have to find that backbone and say in effect, “gosh I’d like to go along, but….” Think of how one starts moving folk like Sen Ben Sasse.

Abortion and the Rise of the Religious Right

Allison Vander Broek picks at one of the puzzles of the Christian Right, viz. it’s relation to the anti-abortion movement. Did the Christian Right really arise as a reaction to Roe v. Wade, as the common internal narrative would have it? Or should we follow along after Randall Balmer, and think of the Christian Right as emerging out of the reaction to the civil rights movement, and particularly the emergence of the white Christian schools? Vander Broek notes the absence of evangelical engagement on the question of abortion (something Balmer does as well) and proceeds to ask a couple of questions,

Why did evangelical leaders create and perpetuate the narrative that abortion is what spurred them to political activism? … Why might American evangelicals craft an origin story that’s so off base from reality?… Could it be that it’s a much more heroic tale that evangelicals got into politics to defend babies rather than to oppose desegregation?

Vander Broek decides that the racism narrative is the dominant one, the secret sin of evangelicals. This may be a case of reading our history through lens of the present: the Christian Right drew from several streams.

What Balmer omits is the role of Orange County, where the children of the Okies took on Northern California elites, waging war over several cultural issues, while holding to a virulent anti-communist ethos. This was a movement grounded in the sociology of the sunbelt suburbia, whose issues were not schools but the cultivation of American values. In their emergent mega churches they shaped a politicized faith that elected Ronald Reagan to the governors mansion. Their rise and impact is nicely document in Darren Dochuk’s From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt (Norton: 2010); the flavor of the movement can be caught in None Dare Call It Treason.

A second stream that plays an important role in the evangelical church and in national politics are those immigrant churches of the Upper Midwest. These were organically Republican communities that also incorporated a high degree of religious motivation to their politics. Social issues were important, but often with a slightly more communitarian shape; and while there was a caution about racial issues particularly in urban areas, nonetheless the community maintained an openness to civil rights. These were the churches that self-defined as evangelical and not fundamentalist, a community that maintained numerous academic institutions: Bethel, Calvin, Trinity Evangelical, Wheaton, and others.

And then there are is the southern revivalist stream that Vander Broek and Balmer identify, whose life was shaped by the reaction to the civil rights movement. Even this has a deep root. The southern revivalistic church was a populist phenomena, with the weight of that racial narrative; it shared the rejection of the post Civil War centralized state. This is the seedbed of Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and the nascent Moral Majority.

The genius of the Paul Weyrich was to find the issue that took these three regional movements and organized them to a common political purpose. As Balmer relates

“The new political philosophy must be defined by us [conservatives] in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition,” Weyrich wrote in the mid-1970s. “When political power is achieved, the moral majority will have the opportunity to re-create this great nation.” Weyrich believed that the political possibilities of such a coalition were unlimited. “The leadership, moral philosophy, and workable vehicle are at hand just waiting to be blended and activated,” he wrote. “If the moral majority acts, results could well exceed our wildest dreams.”

This new movement would indeed become powerful, but not all at once. It’s politics grew not only from political strategy but for a host of cultural reasons. It was the long march of a generation, a topic for the next time.

 

Room for Politics?

Jason Ellis brings up an interesting article from Michael Horton and asks

I’d appreciate any critiques of Horton’s line of thought from those who support having an OSJ. IMO: the OSJ is a distraction from the mission of the Church as Christ instituted it as understood by Augustine, Luther and Calvin as cited by Horton, especially in a tradition that emphasizes a distinction between saving and common grace, but I’m trying to be open minded:)

I see the strong two-kingdom style of Horton, but it does seem at odds with the other conservative True Reformed types. Horton’s view appears to leave politics to being politics, that there is nothing a Christian can do for or against the actions of the culture. Not quite a separationist, but certainly in line with the pietistic branch of the CRC. In that light the Office of Social Justice (OSJ) is probably best understood as an extension of Kuyperian thinking, where the Gospel life permeates our cultural living. While there may not be a single way to help the poor, there is a biblical obligation to help the poor. The manner of obedience may vary by culture and setting, but the duty of obedience remains.

For Horton, the Church stands apart from culture, and fulfills its own mandate. Here’s how he puts it:

Through its administration of Gospel preaching, baptism, the Supper, prayer, and discipline, the church is God’s new society inserted into the heart of the secular city as a witness to Christ and the age to come when He will be all in all.

As I tend toward the neo-Anabaptist side of things, with its skepticism about social  construction of Christian engagement (aka Constantinianism), and so prefer seeing issues in terms of principalities and powers, I have a mixed reaction. On one hand, I do applaud his distancing from the conventional Christian Right politics, nonetheless, I would ask Horton whether Horton has effectively abandonned having any word for the culture. How can we engage in a critique from his viewpoint? As a practical matter, I think Horton’s view ends up with a very moralistic reading of society, so that we get programs slapped with Bible verses.

Ecclesiastical entities such as  OSJ arise basically a result of the church’s presence in society. It is especially a result (ironically, from Horton’s side) of the Augustinian emphasis on fall. The heritage of Augustine in the West is that atonement and salvation are seen juridicially, as a matter of justice. If the core issue is that of reconciliation, then the political becomes almost inescapable.

In short, there’s more that God’s people can say to this world.

Lost Egalitarianism

Roberto Saldaña comments

How interesting that he believes that the persons who should lead the crusade to restore our civic virtues are the economic elite. He provides no incentive why anyone in that group should care about this divide because things have been rather swell for them without paying attention to “cultural inequality.”

The failure to explain why elites should help reveals the essential contradiction in Charles Murray’s thought. He approves of the egalitarianism of two generations ago (can it be?!), even as he has been in the employ and the willing abetter of tearing down that equality. The outcomes are basically what his patrons wanted, and in that self-confirming of their own (moral) goodness. The data point to the evident moral quality of the middle and upper middle classes, reinforcing the narrative of personal achievement — a moral meritocracy as it were. Thus the status and virtue become wed, and the underlying warping effects of economic decline are ignored.

The same danger is at work among the Evangelical church, as it too becomes more resolutely middle class and distant from the damage being done on the working class. The rise of secularism among the workers reflects this shift, as well as the alienating turn the Christian Right has had on our politics.