Slipping Into Darkness

Read on conservative side of the Religious Right and one can catch a whiff of an anti-democratic spirit, a longing for something other. Is just the patriarchal longing by another name? Is something else at work?

On her Facebook page, Kristin Kobes DuMez ponders this in light of a new article at Sojo (currently paywalled) by David Gushee, “The Trump Prophecy.”

This is something I kept seeing in my research that caught me off guard—the lack of support for democracy in conservative evangelical circles. When you believe in a patriarchal, authoritarian chain of command, democracy doesn’t make sense. Plus, for presuppositionalists, why would you want corrupt ideas holding sway? The question I struggled with is how influential/pervasive these ideas are within evangelicalism more broadly. More prevalent than I one thought.

So I don’t see this as an after-the-fact turn to justify support for Trump.

This emerging taste for hierarchy is certainly culturally different from the traditional culure of the Plain Folk, or the Scots-Irish that have so nurtured the Religious Right, which in turn leads me to wonder if this perhaps is a continuing capture by (conservative) Catholic social teaching? On Right to Life, the Catholics won the narrative, so Evangelicals started talking about “Natural Law” and likewise got up in arms supposed abortifacients (even got Calvin to sputter about Plan B as I recall). Also look for the use of subsidiarity by Evangelical political thinkers. In this framework, Trad Catholics lean away from representative democracy so it’s not surprising that the ties to representative government also get loosened.

As an aside, we can note the use of “Natural Law” as a sort of catchall in the desegregation debate. C.f. G.T. Gillespie, “Segregation is one of Nature’s Universal Laws” in Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Zondervan 2019. p. 133. Further, the authoritarian turn may also be an instance of what Michael Lind describes as Southern Bourbonism politics with its aristo-oligarchic, Big House style authoritarianism; another dark shadow of the Cotton Kingdom.

The authoritarian turn also destabilizes Evangelical theology. The suspicion that is built into the Reformation and especially its Baptist wing gets dulled. To reverse the James II “no bishop, no king” we instead have “king, so bishop.” And to the degree the authoritarian is shadow of the Cotton Kingdom, it becomes a white box, a substitution of the Evangelical proclamation of good news for all into a good news (only) for some.

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Yes?No? Maybe?

Brian Keepers revisits what it means to be Evangelical. Are we? Aren’t we? Sometimes? It is a confusing thing, he notes,

it’s got to be about more than just loyalty to the past. That wouldn’t be reason enough to stay with the label. Mouw would agree. As I consider why I’m still self-identifying as an evangelical, it is also because I believe in the heart of evangelicalism.

The model for the evangelicalism he’s seeking is one he takes from Richard Mouw, a manner of approach, “a kind of evangelicalism that is both convicted yet humble, robust and generous, open-hearted and curious, faithful to the past’s legacy but always restless and willing to be self-critical.”

As noted, being evangelical is almost entirely contextual or social: in some places I will be read as an “evangelical” because of my beliefs; elsewhere I can be vaguely progressive because of my politics. To the extent that Evangelical has a meaning, it points to a community, both the one that shaped us — a community of memory if you will, and the present social community — a society. One may belong to one and not the other, or to both.

Among the Dutch, the term, even the idea is a bit more complicated. The Evangelical were those who left e.g. PJ Zondervan, or Calvary Undenom and RBC both out of then Calvary Reformed): they were “methodists” then “fundamentalists,” then ‘thank-G– I’m not one of them’ they’re from Iowa (Wisconsin, or Ottawa County).’

Given that the personal nature turns the question into a sort of navel-gazing and a consideration of who belongs, words from John come to mind. Peter wonders “what about him (the other guy over there — John)?” And Jesus’ words are to work on our own business, “You are to follow me.” (John 21:21-22). I wouldn’t worry about Evangelical as much as I would worry about the following part. There’s plenty to be done.

Keepers, Brian. "Is It Time to  Let Go of the Label 'Evangelical?'". Reformed Journal:The Twelve. April 8, 2019.

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.

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

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.