It’s the thought that counts

Evangelicals may not like President Trump the man, but they surely like President Trump the champion — their champion. All this became agonizingly clear in the recent Politico interview with Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council.

What’s remarkable in the interview is the abandonment of a Christian idealism for the realism of politics, the kingdom of this world.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

What happened to turning the other cheek? I ask.

“You know, you only have two cheeks,” Perkins says. “Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on.”

Franklin Graham adds his own take on Evangelicals and the President

“I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values, he does have a concern to protect Christians—whether it’s here at home or around the world—and I appreciate the fact that he protects religious liberty and freedom.”

What Graham and others are doing is to place an imagined outcome — the thought — in place of the actual performance.

 

Tony Perkins: Trump Gets ‘a Mulligan’ on Life, Stormy Daniels
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Start planning for the post-Trump era.

When the Evangelical Church provides such support, it can seem fair  to state (of the CRC)

WE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO VOTED FOR THIS POTUS.

Well, maybe.

Yet there’s a big difference between going 80% for the President the way Evangelicals have gone, and 55%, the more common margin for religiously observant generally (including the mainline!). But the voting support may not be the real problem.

As the President exemplifies in person the man of appetite, the sort regularly denounced in Scripture, the critical stance for the church is to be less concerned with the President per se, than with how we offer critique. The so-called Realist stance corrodes our long-term credibility, where we exchange our moral credibility for political “wisdom”. This latter stance is always seductive since it also seems to be the path of power, of shrewdness. And yet,   the Gospel is not about “Realism” so much as it is about the possibility of hope, that is, with the work of the Spirit.

Last, are we (the CRC) those people who voted for this POTUS? There’s evidence that we are not, or at least not fully on board. Few actually voted for the President, but instead cast votes for the possibility of movement on the further limiting of abortion, or on the hope of a judiciary that can serve as a bulwark, etc.  This is understandable at least in terms of “the least of two bad alternatives” or “get what you can.” Understandable. But a year later we need to reckon with other data: the corruption of this administration, the violation of norms etc., pose a long-term challenge for a Christian response – it’s not just policies that we may (or may not)object to, but a cultural revitalization. Looking ahead to a post-Trump era and our neighbor’s doubts about us, we will have plenty on our plate. And until then, we will also need to speak.

Why “Pro-Life”?

Some long thoughts in response to two posts by the always interesting Matthew Loftus:

If Anything is Pro-Life, Nothing Is
pro-life, anti-abortion, and a consistent ethic of anything

 

There is a much stronger case to be made for the term Pro-Life than what has been argued in this and the earlier post.

Even when considered in its narrower fashion, as you have it (against the lawful yet immoral intentional killing of innocent people), “pro-life” has always understood the problem of abortion more systemically. The reasons that drive women to make this choice are often anchored in economic insecurity, lack of proper medical care, fear, hopelessness, and on occasion a moral carelessness. To say that one is “Pro-Life” is to make a claim about the woman, that she is more than the act of will, but that her life is conditioned by a host of difficulties, difficulties that if properly addressed change the calculation about the decision to end the pregnancy. In a final form, Pro-Life thinks in terms of prevention not proscription: the day after abortion is banned women will still seek abortions; unless one addresses the conditions driving the decision to abort, the law is inadequate, after the fact.

Secondly, Pro-Life is a far healthier platform than the nominalist, proscriptive approach when it comes to the changing world of bio-technology. The landscape we now face (e.g. the consideration of CRISPR technology) is radically different if faintly forecast at the time of Roe v Wade (see Leroy Augenstein’s Come Let Us Play God, 1969). Our fertility science has outrun the conventional framing of anti-abortion with cloning, in vitro fertilization, and the shift to chemical as opposed to surgical abortions. One can see the inadequacy of current approaches with the confusion over hormonal contraceptives generally, and over Plan B in particular. The questions about the boundary of life and of what it means to be human will only increase with advanced technology — we need some way of thinking holistically and redemptively about these challenges, and that I submit, is the term “Pro-Life.”

Third, there is a practical, political reason for preferring the term “Pro Life” as opposed to the more functional “anti-abortion.” Evangelicals in particular need some way of separating themselves from the partisanship of the present day, all the more when it comes to social policy and the contentiousness of issues surrounding abortion. The terms of common good and of anti-abortion prove inadequate since both reference one or the other side. Where Evangelicals desire to contribute to the public discussion on left as well as right, let alone to make critical distinctions on the right as well as the left — they need a third place to stand, a place that is their own. Pro-Life again offers such a space. It offers the possibility of engagement and critique that is holistic, systemic, and critically, that is technologically alert.

In this final framing, Pro-Life provides the robust framing for “doing good to all,” for coordinating and informing our actions. I believe that properly understood, “Pro-Life” is less a position on abortion (though that), than a way for Evangelicals to properly speak of what others mean by “common good.” It is less a stalking horse for proscription than an invitation to flourishing, a window to the Kingdom.

Dodging the Trump bullet

Neil Carlson cites this NYT article to observe

party identification and religious identification can both reflect pro- or anti-Trump selection bias. People who used to be “independent” and “no particular religion” may now say they’re Republican evangelicals, because that brand is associated with Trump’s iconoclastic populist nativism. And vice versa. The more we repeat the “81% of evangelicals voted Trump” figure, the more we reinforce the brand and create further self-fulfilling prophecies about support and opposition.

Speaking practically, this shifting of brands means that an institution like the CRC must be especially on its toes. How does it position itself within its communities as a non-Trump entity? (Not anti-Trump, but as a counter). The Trump party is going to end soon enough and will definitely be giving Evangelicals a morning-after headache of the worst sort. The trickiness is of course, that by conviction the US wing of the church sides broadly with the Evangelicals and has a record of voting that inclines that way. But separate we must if we are to have any morning-after credibility, particularly with our vision of reaching a broader set of communities.

Finding Trump, Missing Jesus

Sometimes the pain of politics gets us, robs us. One plaintive cry from Facebook

I have been questioning Christianity since Trump took office. A lot of church members supported him (to my complete surprise) and I just couldn’t understand. I stopped going to church and I am now starting to question my faith, which makes me sad. I wonder “am I believing in something for good reasons or am I just following”. At first it just gave me pause for church but now has me questioning my faith. Does anyone have any advice?

Yes the faith map is so discouraging sometimes, especially if you are accustomed to gathering with conservative Christians of the Evangelical variety. So to break on politics means that you also give up a community that has in some sense nurtured you or given you a sense of place. Part of the underlying fear is that if you go to one of those “other” churches you will find an expressed faith that is not as vibrant, the thing that holds you currently with the church.

 
Spiritual communities give some needed resources in this time. First, there is simply the solace of friendship arising from a common task (not to dis the political, but in politics we tend to think instrumentally, that we are only as good as we give. the best spiritual gatherings have a sort of baked-in acceptance, as you are, where you are.) A second reason to consider a spiritual community is because the critique of this Trumpian time has such spiritual qualities, the turning away from others for the exaltation of self, say. The unwillingness to work for the common good. The shrinkage — the absence! — of compassion. Churches and other spiritual communities have some pretty deep wells that can help here.
 
And I do hear how alone you are in this. There are others of us out there, and we very much want you to know how embraced you are. Peace.

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