A few months ago, I left a comment on the well-read blog of a friend (and hero) – and got into a little bit of trouble.
I suggested that the neo-reformed movement – the “Young, Restless, and Reformed” that emerged a decade or so ago and have consolidated most notably into The Gospel Coalition, segments of the PCA, Southern Seminary and segments of the SBC, and Mark Driscoll’s Acts 29 network – is giving rise to a new religious right in the U.S.
I was immediately, and gently, corrected by my friend, who was seeking to build a bridge between anabaptist missional people and neo-reformed people – a worthy pursuit, to be sure. He felt the language of “religious right” was too harsh in describing what the neo-reformed are on about. Then, several neo-reformed folks jumped in too, saying that statements like mine make them feel “unsafe” and that they were super offended.
Anyway, one of the NR dudes taking maximum extreme umbrage was a Gospel Coalition blogger and Reformed Baptist author/pastor from my home state of VT. He has an interesting public persona, in that he is quite aggressive toward non-reformed leaders and theology in his writing and tweeting but also quite good at playing victim whenever someone offers a valid critique of his position. He’ll troll Joel Osteen, mock progressive Christians, favorably quote misogynists on his blog, and post Spurgeon lines calling his opponents “cowards,” among other things. In other words, he fouls hard but also likes to flop.
At first, I thought I might leave this theory alone and move on, but recently I’ve seen even more evidence that my “religious right” scenario is probably…right.
And the oversensitive pushback from these influential NR leaders likely just confirms the validity of the point I’m proposing. See, it has been a mainstay of the neo-reformed perspective to officially eschew political preoccupation in favor of “the gospel” and staying “gospel-centered.” That is, where the moral majority and religious right that emerged in the 80′s seemed to equate evangelism with political influence (taking America back for God) and legislation on moral/religious issues, the neo-reformed have promoted evangelism through the message of the gospel apart from political action. But, as the movement is settling into more institutional forms and some of its leaders are getting into their forties and older, I am seeing a return to the political emphasis – even if the presentation is more coy and political action is more of an “implication.” That is, I am seeing neo-reformed gospel-centrality becoming something of a means to a conservative political end – getting Americans saved in order to get America back to the values which are reflective of “true” Christianity.
And I should add that there’s no need for oversensitivity here, nor avoidance of this reality. Neo-reformed folks, if you are moving conservative evangelicalism back into political action, just be honest about it. That will help the conversation more than all the faux umbrage.
The catalyzing force behind what appears to be the rise of a new religious right from among the neo-reformed ranks is, of course, marriage equality legislation. Like abortion legislation before it, this will, as the aforementioned pastor likes to put it, “separate the men from the boys” among those who claim conservative (true) Christian faith. Who will be willing to continue standing against gay marriage – in the pulpit and in the polls? This will reveal who is “with us” and who is “against us.”
In other words, the neo-reformed movement has increasingly championed the notion that unity among evangelicals under the banner of conservative politics is desperately needed in order to stem the tide of moral and religious decline in America. And this, clearly, not just in evangelism but also in the political activity which results from conversion. By coalescing the conservative Christian identity under the essentially political issue of gay marriage (and, perhaps secondarily, “religious freedom”), gospel-centrality becomes a spiritual container for a fundamentally political identity; because ultimately what validates you as among the fold is your stance on these legislative issues.
One evidence of this was the infamous tweet by Mark Driscoll during President Obama’s recent inauguration, to the tune that Obama does not believe the Bible he’s swearing on, nor have any true knowledge of the God in its pages. While many took this as some kind of strong statement of the true gospel, really it had nothing to do with the gospel, as we know little about Obama’s particular understanding of what the gospel is. Instead, it was a decidedly political statement: Because the President is notoriously pro-choice and now pro-marriage equality, he is, therefore, a nonbeliever and, barring political conversion, an enemy of God.
Another evidence of this was the influx of articles and posts that occurred during Holy Week on The Gospel Coalition website about the Supreme Court marriage equality hearing that was underway (and the downright glut of articles on this topic both before and since). On every grid of the front page, there were prominent articles about the hearing, such that any articles about the most important week on the Christian calendar – and the truths historically crucial and precious to Christian identity – were overpowered to virtual nonexistence. It was more important at that moment for TGC to keep Christians apprised of political events so they would go on standing for the new essential of the faith – opposition to gay marriage. (During that week, Tim Keller even posted a retraction on the site that week for giving the impression in a talk that Christians could be pro legal marriage for gays and also hold to traditional sexuality!)
Perhaps the clearest and most recent example of this is the promotion for Mark Driscoll’s forthcoming book, A Call to Resurgence. From all appearances, this book will likely outline the precise theory I’m presenting here: that true Christians in America must unite around the values which would eventually lead to overturning these particular legislative issues. In a recent talk on the subject, Driscoll bemoaned the loss of “Christendom” which he defined as the time when it was necessary to have Christian faith in order to have prominence and respect in American culture. And the time when we had strong, traditional marriage and family values. He outlined that “civil religion” is not a good solution to this, as those who claim to be Christian lack authentic faith that really sticks to its guns on these values. But he mainly defined civil religion in terms of liberals who claim to be Christians. The goal for Driscoll, again, seems to be to return to the time when conservative Christians were respected, prominent, and powerful through legislating values commensurate with true Christian faith.
This is the new religious right.
And the reason that the neo-reformed will give rise to this movement is because of their influence among conservative evangelicals. They are the strongest theological voice. Even charismatics and more mainstream or seeker-type churches and movements are taking their theological cues from the neo-reformed. There is, indeed, a resurgence happening here, and it will move the whole of conservative Christianity to a coalescing around these legislative issues and political action as the definitive proof of true faith/conversion.
Another way of saying this is that from a marketing standpoint, a brand must always assess its ultimate goal and purpose. While the neo-reformed resoundingly say that their ultimate goal and purpose is the glory of God through the salvation of sinners by means of the gospel, a good marketing consultant would ask, To what current end? In other words, what’s the tangible goal of salvation for the movement? More people in churches? Well, yes. Changing the surrounding culture? Yes, that too. By promoting conservative values? Well, yeah… And seeing the government reflect these values by electing candidates who hold them? Yes, exactly.
This is the new religious right.
The Anabaptist Rebuttal
While I believe it’s important for neo-anabaptist type folks and neo-reformed type folks to find areas of common ground, to respect each other’s faith as valid, and to be civil and loving towards each other, I strongly question the notion that there is some kind of “greater goal” underneath which we ought to collaborate, if indeed the political climate is as I perceive it. In other words, if the rallying cry of the neo-reformed stream is broad-scale opposition to gay marriage legislation and other American political issues, it is fundamentally at odds with the heart of anabaptism. And, if I am hearing correctly that neo-reformed folks are understanding “post-Christendom” as a regrettable condition of an American culture that has rejected Christian values, and that returning Christendom is indeed preferable if not imperative (a call to resurgence!), then this may indeed be the ana-anabaptism.
The anabaptist rebuttal to this religious right ethos (even in its current gospel-clothed, theological incarnation) is that Christendom is always a bad thing. Always. It is never the bygone glory days to which we must return – it is the regrettable condition of an ungodly marriage between Christianity and the state, Christianity and government power, Christianity and corrupt coercive agendas. As such, the anabaptist impulse tears the mask off the empty politic of evangelicalism which primarily sees protecting its conservative territory as the ultimate goal instead of joining God in his mission to reconcile everyone, especially those on the fringes and the margins. In fact, the ideology to which the new religious right is so devoted militates against the welcome of the gospel, which inherently subverts the political barriers of coercion and violence – the master signifiers of “in” vs. “out” – in order to bring near the rejected and the despised.
If I am right about the new religious right – and I probably am – then we are currently in a space not too dissimilar from the original anabaptist protest (though thankfully with far less violence). It is the protest that the church must separate from the state in order to be salt and light for the world. It is the protest that political agendas of exclusion meant to preserve long-held power and influence are anathema to the gospel that is reconciling all, not counting anyone’s sins against them, imploding the strongholds of religious self-justification.
A church that separates from state-based religion in this way will find itself immersed on the ground in the realities of relationship, through which the Holy Spirit will work out the story of redemption in our time. An actual incarnational presence will begin to uniquely address the deeply encultured injustices, abuses, and absurdities which have harmed so many in years past, bringing renewal and revival to a church in crisis. Both contextualized expression and counter-cultural reform will take shape in neighborhood parishes submitted to the work of Jesus in this way. And the coercive, colonizing tendencies of religious right thinking will be subverted by this separation.
I do believe we’ve arrived at a tipping point where this anabaptist rebuttal must be stated clearly and without apology, that the church may move forward in North America. And it doesn’t require anabaptist card-carrying; it just requires the ethos. It just requires the church function as a society apart, not a means to an American political end.
And so, I guess, here I stand.
I can do no other.
Alright, I want you to weigh in. Neo-reformed folks – object! clarify! explain! Non-reformed folks – add! sharpen! tweak! contradict! All – bring it on!