Monsters and the End of Evangelicalism, Part 2

In my 2008 study of Evangelicals vs. Liberals: The Clash of Christian Cultures in the Pacific Northwest, I mapped what I thought was a strong and even permanent Evangelical Civic Gospel. This Civic Gospel had six interlocking strands that I developed from my research, reading and thinking about American evangelicalism: 1) Conversion to Christ will address and resolve all social problems; 2) the U.S. Government should be in the business of protecting the American religious (Christian) heritage; 3) the United States was founded as a Christian nation; 4) it is hard to be a political liberal and a Christian at the same time; 5) the United States should promote democracy around the world, and finally 6) American Christians should support economic, religious and political liberty and, by extension, the Iraq War.

The Bush Administration was a remarkable embodiment of all these features. President Bush exclaimed that his conversion to Christ “changed him”; the United States, in Bush’s language, following 911, was on a “crusade” not only to kill those who had “hit us” but to spread economic, religious and political freedom across the world. Evil was identified and force was used to destroy it. With a kind of missionary zeal America went to war, backed by a Christian civic ideology and secure in its own purpose that its cause was just and its heart was right with Christ.

In 2011, my graduate student Randy Thompson and I published a history of how this American Christian ideology was a logical extension of a century long “social gospel” that moved through Walter Rauschenbusch, Woodrow Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and up to Barack Obama. Through the twentieth century the ever expanding might of American military force has secured America’s economic interests and sought to extend the “promise” of democracy, open markets, religious freedom and a dream of Pax Americana. We made the argument that neo-conservativism was not a recent product but an extension of what is often called the progressive social gospel of the early twentieth century. See, “From the Social Gospel to Neoconservativism: Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy.” Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion. Volume 7, Article 6: pp. 1-41. http://www.religjournal.com/.

David E. Fitch, in The End of Evangelicalism, identifies the contradictions and consequences of this American Civic Gospel, “’The Christian nation,’ together with the ‘the inerrant Bible’ and ‘the decision [for Christ],’ has worked to shape us as a dispassionate, exclusivist, and duplicitous people.” Fitch spares no one, and if evangelicals actually were reading or listening to him, they would repent in dust and ashes. But Fitch doesn’t finally go far enough, Americans, whether religious or otherwise, have not only been duplicitous but our actions have been morally questionable at best. First, a recent and well-documented record of torture (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/16/world/us-practiced-torture-after-9-11-nonpartisan-review-concludes.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0); second, a continuing use of drones to assassinate not only ‘enemies’ but American citizens, and third, a growing environmental crisis that is a direct result of our economic activities (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/12/observer-editorial-carbon-dioxide-levels-highs). As Fitch says about evangelical ideology, we have an empty politic indeed.

Fitch argues that “the irruptions of the Real” reveal the inner contradictions and problems that lie at the very heart of ideology, and, in this case, the Evangelical Civic Gospel. We know from sources as trustworthy as the evangelical historian Mark Noll that America did not start and never has been a Christian nation (see Noll’s The Search for Christian America); the separation of church and state was fundamental to our constitution; Christian conversion, without robust discipleship, solves no social problems; many liberals do claim to follow Christ—it is no more impossible to be a liberal and a Christian than it is to be a conservative and a Christian, and finally, we now know that promoting economic, religious and political liberty abroad through violence, not only has unintended consequences on nation’s abroad but even more so on our own national health. In the classic words of John Quincy Adams, penned in 1821, “America’s glory is not dominion, but liberty… she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

As Fitch rightly warns, the monsters are in ourselves, and when we project them on to others, not only do we do violence to the other but in the end we destroy ourselves. Doing the hard work of self-examination is never easy, and I applaud Fitch and other evangelicals who are doing this important labor. To be sure, I want to be clear that there are monsters in liberalism as well—whether religious or secular—and I will explore these ideological forces in blogs to come.

  • Shido

    The monsters are real.

  • tedseeber

    What is the difference between a neoconservative an a liberal? One is a sexual libertine, the other is a fiscal libertine.

    Neither are compatible with traditional pre-Martin Luther Christianity.

    • Joykins

      I’m interested in pre-Martin Luther Christianity’s take on post-Bretton Woods fiscal policy.

      • tedseeber

        Then I would suggest starting with Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, and going on from there.

        Basically generally against. When you actually get to the post-Bretton Woods Popes, you get suggestions like complete forgiveness of third world debt and first world nations helping to build third world markets.

        But the real question is the dignity of the individual, which seems to have peaked with feudalism in the 1200s. By the time Pope Leo XIII was writing in the 1890s, the soul-crushing industrial revolution had happened, and the best he could do was argue against communism and for a living wage.

        Distributists such as GK Chesterton and Dorothy Day fleshed that out into a new economic system- but it never left the confines of the Catholic Worker Houses and the old English Villages, and likely never will.

        Back to fiscal policy though- usury is a sin and has been for well over 3000 years of both Catholic and Jewish teaching. Need I say more?

        • Joykins

          These are all post-Luther sources. And let’s not get into the sort of fiscal policy that sells indulgences to finance the church building projects.

          “the dignity of the individual, which seems to have peaked with feudalism in the 1200s” — I don’t think the serfs would have seen it that way.

          • tedseeber

            A serf is far more dignified than any modern factory worker- and far more free.

        • rvs

          Thomas Wilson’s A Discourse upon Usury by way of Dialogue and Orations (1572) provides a fascinating early Protestant/proto-Anglican rejection of usury. Some critics think that Shakespeare had a careful look at Wilson before he wrote The Merchant of Venice, which also fleshes out some of the more troubling aspects of what has become normal in Western capitalism (debt anxiety, robber baron validation, etc.).

          • tedseeber

            I’ll have to read that. Should be in Gutenberg, right?

          • rvs

            I notice that Tawney’s influential “introduction” to Wilson’s Discourse is free online, but I’m having trouble finding the actual Discourse. I got it through Early English Books Online–to which many research universities subscribe. We discover in Tawney a profound introduction to the economic complexities of sixteenth-century life.

            Thank you for blogging on this fascinating topic. I am often astonished by how happily some of my evangelical friends promote a kind of grim capitalism that would utterly horrify most of the church fathers.

          • tedseeber

            I’m a Catholic American- to differentiate myself from American Catholics, 98% of whom voted for the Lesser Evil in the last presidential election.

            I don’t blame the moral blindness of Americans on the Church at all- and not even evangelicals. Freemasonic freedom is at the center of our national mythos; it is almost inevitable that anybody not thinking deeply enough about their religion is going to be either a sexual libertine or a fiscal libertine- and of course, a few both, but they’re usually atheists.

        • Donalbain

          Guh? What? The dignity of the individual peaked at the time when people could be bought and sold along with the land their social betters owned? Wow.

          • tedseeber

            What does it matter who the owner was, if the serf *always* had access to the land regardless of who the owner was?

          • Donalbain

            OK. Being OWNED doesn’t matter. Being unable to leave the land doesn’t matter. Nice to know. Sorry I bothered you.

          • tedseeber

            What matters is being deprived of life- which while it did not happen under serfdom except for capital crimes, did happen quite often under American Chatel Slavery 600 years later.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Reading Part 2 reminded me of the well-intentioned Christian meddling into politics debacle called Prohibition. And this reminds me of repeated attempts by secular meddlers looking to get rid of one pest by importing another as predator and greatly damaging the delicate ecological balance, and left with a much larger headache. For me, there is no place in politics for the Christian; it is a worldly entanglement that damages the soul and the country, Living the gospel will have political consequences but no political intent.

  • Bob Wheeler

    As an Evangelical I would have to say that your “Evangelical Civic Gospel” is a little bit of a caricature. Most Evangelicals associate only two issues with biblical morality: abortion and homosexuality. A subset of Evangelicals may also feel strongly about support for Israel. Before Roe v. Wade most Evangelicals tended to be relatively apathetic about politics, and were later driven into the Republican Party because of the Democratic Party’s inflexibility on abortion. Most Evangelicals are at least generally aware of the tremendous social and cultural changes that have taken place over the past several decades, and this has led to the feeling that America has abandoned its “Christian heritage.” (It is true that in the 1950′s most Americans thought they were “Christians.”). But none of this means that the foreign policy of the Bush administration is irrevocably linked with Evangelicalism.

    • James Wellman

      Well, that’s a great point, however, this was not a caricature, it was a concept based on my research; and I really try not to make stuff up when I’m doing research! I hate to say, but read my book, Evangelical vs. Liberal, and based on my extensive interviews, it became very clear that most evangelicals agreed with this Civic Gospel, and this was based on the PNW evangelicals–I think its even truer in the South and Midwest.

      • Bob Wheeler

        I haven’t read your book, and I certainly don’t question your research. I guess maybe I’m reacting against making a connection between evangelical theology and a particular political viewpoint. Jesus and the disciples obviously weren’t American Patriots! And they probably would not have endorsed certain aspects of our political and economic system. It is one thing to support these things as an American citizen — they are part of our heritage; but it is another thing to claim that they are specifically Christian, which, of course, is a stretch. So I wonder if what the results of your research indicates is a kind of coincidence. Evangelicals hold to conservative positions on certain social issues, so they tend to vote Republican, which makes them susceptible to propaganda from Rush Limbaugh. But there is no direct logical connection between evangelical theology and Rush!

        • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

          I don’t really think we can somehow hive religion off from cutlure… there is no pure Christianity… and there is a logic to civil religion, when state and church come together they use each other to gain power, and this involved violence, always… mainliners did it for awhile, now evangelicals are trying it out, we’ll see. Maybe the Quakers and Mennonites have the right idea! Stay separated, otherwise, all hell breaks loose!

          • Bob Wheeler

            I guess I am more sympathetic to the Mennonite viewpoint here. If you think about the original “Modernist / Fundamentalist” controversy, the Modernists insisted that Christianity must be adapted to the culture — that it must change over time in order to remain culturally relevant. The Fundamentalists replied that Christianity is a revealed religion — that as such it stands above the culture and in its “fundamentals” must never change. So shouldn’t Evangelicals act as a kind of prophetic voice in modern American society, striving to be biblically faithful on whatever issue presents itself?


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