Evangelical Survival: It’s just business

In Sunday’s NYT, Ross Douthat offers an interesting take on the relationship of the business community and the Trump administration. Business seems to be ok albeit with a catastrophically dysfunctional presidency, or in Dothan’s words,  “a White House that can’t hit a target with a Super Soaker from six inches away.

There is historical evidence for this proposition, in the sense that the link between political and economic crises is more uncertain than direct. … If Trump is impotent or if he’s impeached, there is precedent for the markets simply shrugging, for the economy to keep chugging right along.

Indeed, if anything, it is the assumption that the administration will not make good on its more outrageous proposed economic plans, such as its tariffs, massive spending, or the reworking of a tax code to make a new set of losers and winners. That is, there’s a bet on the lack of linkage, in essence, on the continued gridlock and dysfunction.

This same lesson might apply to the Evangelical community as well. Like the business community, the Evangelicals are better off if the Trump administration does not get its act together. They have a vested interest in the dysfunction — certainly an odd place for white evangelicals to take.

The Evangelical community faces a twin challenge: of all the religious communities, theirs is the one that is actually shrinking in public acceptance, in part given their overwhelming support for the Trump presidency. In this condition, a Trump administration that has its act together, that acts on policy, poses greater risk to Evangelical standing, than the administration’s incompetency. The latter remains the fault of the participants — supporters always can hope for more. However, were the administration to be successful on some of its goals, say stripping people of healthcare, or massive deportations, or military conflict with Iran or China then the Evangelical would be at risk; they become tied to the policy.

Thus the paradox, the Evangelical can get most of what it really wants — more restrictive abortion measures, more flexibility in the public square, better relations in schools — without tying into the larger policy proposals. Just like the business community, it does not need the larger policy proposals, and in fact may actually consider those policies counter productive to its own interests.

And the dysfunction offers one more important point for Evangelicals: the very dysfunction, the incompetency offers easy occasions for expressions of regret. In doing so, one does not risk the core values, while at the same time one can also open a distance between Evangelical conviction and the corruption of the current regime.

 

Lost Opportunity

The ability of Evangelicals to tap popular trends has always been ambiguous. At once it makes faith available to many, and yet it always threatens to careen of track, to make faith less transcendent and more cultural. The movement needs its prophets.

Sharon Hodde Miller has been thinking about this in particular, and tapping into Walter Breuggeman, as in this quote

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3)

Evangelicals and the Loss of Prophetic Imagination

Wild at Heart?

In Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical MasculinityKristin du  Mez points to the obvious connection of the Evangelical church to a militant masculinity.

a masculinity that has enshrined patriarchal authority, condoned a callous display of power at home and abroad, and functioned as a linchpin in the political and social worldviews of conservative white evangelicals. In the end, many evangelicals did not vote for Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.

She notes the usual players, James Dobson, Promise Keepers, and of course John Eldredge’s Wild at HeartPerhaps what is missing however are the external cultural trends (Evangelicals are nothing if  not culturally alert). Culturally, the early turn to masculine narratives follows two other important trends. First, there was the emergence of families among the Baby Boomers — this is what fuels Dobson’s initial impact, why he gained such a voice across the church (we forget how big the early Focus on the Family programs really were, how they were even used by non-evangelical churches). Second, there is the role of Robert Bly and “mythopoetic men’s movement” (ah, drum circles!).

What is striking about the Evangelical-Trump alliance which she details.

Trump’s testosterone-fueled masculinity, … aligns remarkably well with that long championed by evangelicals. What makes a strong leader? A virile (white) man. And what of his vulgarity? Infidelity? Bombast? Even sexual assault? Well, boys will be boys.

However the longing for a strong leader represents something of an idealization. It is not the pursuit of masculinity, of being a guy doing guy things, but of an ideal. Trump then represents more the absence of something than the thing itself, what we “want” or we miss rather than as an exemplar. This is the hidden ambiguity, of masculine identity as ideal over against the reality of the day-to-day life in cubicle land; Mark Driscoll v. Rick Warren.

A Great American Tradition

Far from the blowhard, Donald Trump represents something of a throwback to older, Protestant ideas. At least so says Carmen Fowler DeFarge. She’s no conservative but she’s on to something here.  Trump’s appeal lies somewhere other than in the ideological, it’s more American — it’s the gospel of positive thinking that has been knitted into our cultural fabric, from the Transcendentalists forward.

Still, DeFarge notes, Evangelicals don’t seem to care.

Trump’s “Evangelical” supporters are the Christmas-church-going, Protestant work-ethic, Manifest Destiny believing, can-do capitalists. They are in every denomination and none. They think of themselves as Christians but they see no real need to have every aspect of their lives aligned with an arcane morality. Trump is tapping into the spirit and power of positive thinking that pervades the teachings of modern cultural evangelists like Oprah Winfrey and Joel Osteen.

Trump never comes right out and says that he’s running on a “Protestant work ethic/Spirit of Capitalism” platform, but that’s the infrastructure undergirding his mammoth personality. … The reason he gets away with so many things that are considered non-politically correct is that he’s saying so many other things that ring the deeply ingrained “Protestant work ethic/Spirit of Capitalism” bell that Max Weber identified more than 100 years ago.

Read more at http://www.christianpost.com/news/trump-the-power-of-positive-thinking-and-american-evangelicalism-143903/#2sejo27wvvB8JJIB.99

Chesterton, is that you?

Matthew Lee Anderson has a bone to pick with Donald Miller (he of Blue Like Jazz) over this quo

Personalities like Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Kipling are gone now in the Christian world. Or at least they are unknown. Christian thinking is dominated by Americans who choose simplicity over reason. We like thinkers who pick an enemy and attack them. Lost is the humor, a winsome nature and even a robust intellectualism. The same figures who demand “thought” are hardly thinking at all, and instead attack those who do because they won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.

It may be Anderson’s own work on Chesterton, or something more hidden, but perhaps there’s more.

 it strikes me as, well, surprising that Miller is commending Chesterton so highly to us.  Especially given that in the same paragraph he chastises those inclined to exhort people toward thoughtfulness for attacking people because they “won’t submit to their linear, black-and-white view of life.”  Such titans are gone indeed, but Miller’s own approach isn’t going to bring them back.

This strikes me far more as an argument with a shadow that haunts Anderson’s path. Frankly, Miller’s purpose seemed much lighter than the reaction it provoked. This was not advanced as an argument so much as an introduction to a video, where Miller explained why he found it interesting (and why a reader might, as well).

That this should be read as a sort of casual introduction is further underscored by the commonplace nature of the observation as to evangelical polemicists. Simplistic, bombastic, lacking humor — maybe it’s the Reformed circles, but that critique sees to come with the territory. And one doesn’t have to look far to find the casualties. What  is more, such critics invariably do clothe themselves with the posture of a Chesterton or some other Valiant-for-Truth type.

Miller writes, Anderson aims to guard the walls, or at least fight a rear guard action as a later comment reveals.

Or consider this bit, which Miller has recently sent out and which fits Chesterton’s way of doing things about as well as wearing a Led Zeppelin t-shirt to the LA Phil:
The fundamentalists want me to trust their truth. But I don’t. I look for truth. They sell confidence. Truth won’t make me proud.
… Miller’s exactly right that the truth won’t make us proud, but he’s exactly wrong that it won’t make us confident.

Here, Anderson mistakes Miller’s purpose.  When polemics are  framed as a one-way conversation then the speech easily turns to externals of the message, a sort of nominalism that easily decays into externals, hence one sells confidence. It’s partisanship. By contrast, what good apologists like Chesterton or Lewis do is to open up a space for the other by wit and graciousness. Our thoughts, our words, our lives must all finally co-inhere.

Evangelicals and Abortion

Ed Kilgore has a useful note about the Evangelical love of the anti-abortion position, one he finds a bit at odds with the character of evangelical thinking itself, as he explains

It’s always fascinated me that by contrast American conservative evangelical Protestants have come to be if anything more extremist on abortion than Catholics (certainly in terms of rank-and-file opinion) without any of these factors: they do not regard Church traditions as dispositive, have been lukewarm or hostile to “natural law” as a foundation for doctrine,

He goes on to link to a very interesting article in Religious Dispatches by Jonathan Dudley. Broadly the history seems right, but then…

Speaking from the Evangelical side of the aisle, the article misses some of the major aspects of Evangelical support for anti-abortion. While Evangelicals of the South certainly framed it through their battles on civil rights (there’s a long, long history their among the S Presbyterians especially, now in Presbyterian Church of America), in the Upper Midwest, the Evangelicals were often members of immigrant based churches. Their reaction was shaped far more by the cultural battles over the ERA. There is also within these communities a large consensus on the justice side of the issue — these communions were one of the homes for the Pro-Life Democrats.

Also, within these communions, Francis Schaffer did have a pull, not because of this last film, but because of a generation of work in Europe. Many young Evangelicals found in him the first person who seemed to possess a cultural engagement. Whatever his flaws, at L’Abri he pioneered a vision of Evangelical thinking that inspired a number of evangelical and non-evangelical scholars. His film had impact because of his previous brand, as it were.

Among northern Evangelicals (well, at least in here in Michigan), the decisive push to a more radical position takes place in 1988 and Pat Robertson’s primary run. This was the contest that showed the political potency of the Right to Life, from that point on, that was the beat that the Evangelical Right had to move to (also note that the Evangelical Left, prominent in the late 70s had collapsed — another story).

Finally, we should probably also noted the impact of the change in abortion itself, from surgical to medical, and with it a shift to earlier abortions. The violence of the abortion methods in the 80s played a role in fueling the Evangelical stance. In that light, the Evangelical adoption of the metaphysical fundamentalism of the Catholics represents more a political alignment, and a lessening of the community’s early horror at the practice and with it, a concern for justice.

Just say no?

It’s probably because of the Oscar season, but John Fitzgerald grouses about the Evangelical approach to culture.

It’s foolish to imagine everything is equal when it comes to pop culture. But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.

It is perhaps unfair to park this solely at the feet of the evangelical, though, inviting targets that they sometimes can be. Christian practice through the ages has shown a fairly consistent theme of suspicion about popular entertainments, from the early church’s rejection of the circuses to the Puritan rejection of Christmas, to the very sober-mindedness of the 19th C Presbyterians and Methodists. This is not a new thing.

That said, Evangelicals today often have a more ambiguous relationship to pop or mass culture, generally a “cultural-lite” sort of approach. Like the easy embrace of pop culture, this approach still accepts the fundamentals of the cultural context. This is a kind of Constantinianism. What we could use more of is the nurturing of alternate viewpoints, coupled with the robust interrogation of culture in our theology and our practice.