Christianity and Evangelicalism

Christianity and Evangelicalism April 19, 2018

As prominent evangelical leaders gather this week at Wheaton, IL, to discuss how the Trump era “has unleashed [a] ‘grotesque caricature’ of their faith,” historian James Bratt of Calvin College joins us today at the Anxious Bench to weigh in with some thoughts on Christianity and Evangelicalism, and the death (and resurrection) of a movement.

I recently attended a conference at Notre Dame honoring the career of Mark Noll. As one of the most accomplished scholars of American religious history, as well as a person of deep faith, consummate integrity, and easy humor—and genuine humility to top it off—Mark is more than worthy of honor, and the participants made sure he received it, with remarks that were by turn analytic, humorous, and touching. Mark being Mark, however, the program was full of robust scholarship and featured rising younger scholars as well as the old lions.

The panelists attended to American religious history in its various eras as well as in the comparative global perspective at which Mark has been a notable pioneer. Things got most interesting for me in the concluding panel, which riffed off of what is probably Mark’s most famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). The scandal, Mark famously opined back then, was that there wasn’t much of one—an evangelical mind, that is. The panelists weighed in on the extent

to which that situation has since been corrected, but in the process veered off into attempts to define just what is, and what is not, “evangelical.”

To me that inevitable but tiresome digression cost an opportunity to think about what might be the bombshell book equivalent to Mark’s Scandal for our own moment. I’d pick addressing the elephant in the room and asking—in the face of consistent polling that shows white “evangelicals” to be supporting Donald Trump at just about the 80% mark by which they favored him in the 2016 presidential election—what future evangelicalism has in the United States. And, more broadly yet fundamentally, what sort of religion white “evangelicalism” might be.

A number of the younger panelists raised this concern during the conference, and a host of commentators religious and secular have bruited the matter ever since Trump descended his hotel’s golden escalator onto the American political scene three years ago. My historian’s input is to suggest that we not just consult current opinion polls or attend to the evangelical leaders who have either advanced or decried the brand’s association with the man. Instead, let’s return to a foundational text from the evangelical past—indeed, the text which helped define the present-day movement’s Fundamentalist parent in the eyes of its devotees and outside observers alike. I mean J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

J. Gresham Machen, wikipedia

In that book Machen argued that the “orthodox” and “liberal” parties then warring for the future of American Protestantism were not, as the second party claimed, carrying on a family feud within the big tent of Christianity. Rather, he insisted, they represented two entirely different religions. The orthodox side held to the historic, apostolic faith; the liberals were parading a combination of philosophical naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism behind the garments of Christian terminology. Their pose was dishonest and dishonorable, Machen continued, and the sooner they dropped it, the better for all concerned. At least then the real issues could be discussed more intelligently and profitably.

So, my modest proposal. Let the next bombshell book on the subject take a hint from Machen and be entitled Christianity and Evangelicalism. Its author could be more charitable than Machen (one could hardly be less) and treat white evangelicalism as not a totally different religion contrary to Christianity but as a deeply corrupted version of the faith whose name it claims. A totally depraved version, my Calvinist theology would put it: that is, tainted in every part and as a whole and unable to cleanse itself by its own power, but requiring a supernatural redemption via a miraculous intervention, registering as a conversion. That depravity, in turn, opens the question of whence it arose, of what might be the original sin in which it is rooted. Is it misogyny, racism, militarism, imperialism, materialism, xenophobia, collective narcissism, arrogant entitlement, abject fear, self-righteousness, sacred nationalism? Or something deeper yet that unites all of the above? Certainly, these traits are manifest, proudly and without apology, in the Trumpian White House and policy initiatives. And just as certainly, the 80% of white evangelicals who hold fast to Donald Trump have signed on to them with little—well, sometimes, just a little—embarrassment. Just as certainly still, the list and the behavior of the figurehead who embodies them, are all far, very far, from the kingdom of heaven. The results are toxic to the evangelical brand in particular and to the prospects of religion in public life in general.

Yet the picture is more mixed than this. To repeat, evangelicalism counts as a profoundly corrupted Christianity but not simply, or not yet, a non- or anti-Christian religion as Machen characterized Protestant liberalism a century ago. White evangelicals can point to Jesus’ criteria (in Matthew 25) for deciding who are the sheep and who are the goats at the final assay and say that they do indeed attend to the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, etc. The contradiction, of course, is that these efforts via voluntary charities rub up against public policies that would abandon the sick, depriv

e the hungry of food, and throw more and more people—people of color especially—into prison. The current situation thus exposes more clearly than ever the fateful political ideology that white evangelicals have come more and more to follow over the 20th century. They have followed now it to the point of paying allegiance, seemingly unbreakable allegiance, to the most egregious goat ever to occupy the Oval Office.

The first task of Christianity and Evangelicalism would thus be to explain how and why the latter has come to be a noxious version of the former. A lot of the empirical work toward that end has been done. I suggest adding some historical comparison by way of another classic text, Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955). Besides appearing about halfway between Machen’s book and Noll’s, its analytic frame and treasury of polling data show a socio-cultural corruption of Christianity in the 1950s’ supposedly halcyon days of a great and pious America, only this time among Catholics and the Protestant “mainline” too. How else could a near majority of self-identified “Christians” not be able to name one of the four gospels? How else—this is my particular favorite—could American Christians, when asked to rate the most important event in world history, put Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a tie for fourteenth place alongside the invention of the x-ray and the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk? Herberg, Jewish himself, was profoundly worried about this gap between professed and operative religion. We are no less, and can find in his portrait of the idols of the tribe that stood between the two some clear culprits explaining the great gap of our day.

The second, and harder, task of Christianity and Evangelicalism, would be to suggest some steps by which the latter could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some evangelicals to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.

The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again. No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, right with the founder of Christianity. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.

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  • norman ravitch

    According to Harold Bloom, a distinguished scholar of religion and literature at Yale, evangelical Christianity is Gnosticism more than authentic Christianity.

  • Salvatore Luiso

    I’m sure the author knows that there are a significant number of white evangelicals who have never supported Trump, and some who have opposed him. Yes, 81% of white evangelical voters voted for him. That leaves 19% who did not. It also says nothing about the number of white evangelicals who, rather than vote for Trump or Clinton, did not vote at all. I would like to know: :of the total number of white evangelicals adults in November 2016, what percentage wanted to vote but did not because they could not in good conscience support either Trump or Clinton?

    Among the 81% who did vote for him, the motives for their vote varies. Some thought he was a good candidate. More, I think, thought that he was not a good candidate, but that Clinton was a worse one. To this day, some simply see him as a good president, while others grade him on a curve. I suggest that an academic study be conducted of people who identify as white evangelicals which analyzes who they are and the complexities of their views on Trump.

    Has there ever been a version of Christianity which was not “totally depraved”? Which is not to say that some have been more sanctified than others: but that none have been _totally_ sanctified.

    Regarding the supposed contradiction involving sheep and goats: It is easy to understand if one knows that many white evangelicals believe that government programs to help the poor are a waste of money, which either do no good, or even do more harm than good. Why do they believe this? In part because they hear it from Fox News and right-wing radio. Also, some have been taught that according to the Bible, God has ordained government for the purpose of administering justice and the Church for the purpose of administering mercy. Thus they believe it is contrary to God’s will for a government to administer mercy–for example, through a welfare program.

    I do not understand this sentence: “We are no less, and can find in his portrait of the idols of the tribe that stood between the two some clear culprits explaining the great gap of our day”.

    Lastly: I hope that, like Nebuchadnezzar, President Trump comes to his senses and humbly acknowledges, honors, praises, and extols God, “the King of heaven, all whose works _are_ truth, and his ways judgment: and those that walk in pride he is able to abase” (Daniel 4:37).

  • John Turner

    I think you could whip this into a book proposal very quickly, Kristin!

  • Kristin Du Mez

    Yes, but to clarify, this is a guest post by James Bratt! Will see what I can do to convince him…

  • John Turner

    Sorry — I became so engrossed by the post that I forgot that rather salient point!

  • Andrew Lohr

    What are the politics of Jesus? He personally gave his life, or let it be taken–so His followers may put up with a lot of taking (if drafted for one mile, go two)–but the takers, Pilate, and Caiphas and Judas, tho (unbeknownst to themselves) carrying out God’s plan, were not following Jesus, were not exhibiting Godliness. But they claimed to be taking for the public good: to prevent a riot and an antimessianic genocide. Still they weren’t His followers. So we Christians should be very generous personally. But is giving away what belongs to others true, Christian generosity? The rich man–and it’s the rich and powerful who decide what of others’ to give away–in Nathan’s parable did so, and was no hero.

    I see Jesus as rather libertarian: a free man in a not very free world who for liberty set us free; who chose to give his life, rather than set up a bureaucracy to redistribute righteousness from Him to us; and whose resurrection peacefully yet revolutionarily overturned the verdict of the only superpower du jour. Furthermore the Bible’s lists of jobs for government to do are very short lists (I Tim 2, Rom 13), and God’s advice to the Israelite constitutional convention in I Sam 8 would make modern politicians’ hair stand on end. Is your God big enough to challenge eminent domain (“Little Pink House” movie, and “The Castle”) and tax rates of 10% or more?

    How should Christians, how should evangelicals, vote? I voted for Mike Snow. The Democrats would’ve enlarged government and reduced liberty, and their candidate struck me as having no better personal morality than Mr Trump, tho different vices, pharisee vs publican. (Recall which Jesus preferred and vice versa). Trump’s politics differ less, tho plenty, from those of Jesus than hers. I don’t condone Mr Trump’s adultery, it’s a sin to repent of or be damned, and may he repent; but God called for David and Herod (and other royal sexual sinners) to repent, not resign.

  • Is that so?

    Machen is mild. Try Dorothee Sölle on Christofascism.

    But the proposal is not only wrong, it is precisely the original sin that keeps being repeated by professional religionists. There is no essential, pure “Christianity” that one can assume and arrogate to oneself in order to delineate and historicize the heretics. This is what the reformation/breakup of the christianitas and ensuing wars of religion did over and over. The invention of atheism as a polemical category for one’s Christian opponents convinced exactly zero protestants and catholics they were atheists but eventually generated an imaginable alternative to their dogmatomachy. To say real Christians over here, Evangelicals over there — sheep and goats — is to adopt a polemical genre that is only good for smashing a bigger, older idol and forcing people on to new ones. (At best.)

    Evangelicalism is Christianity. Nazi churches are Christianity. Christianity has always been already subverted, and somehow we know this and remain complicit. How? Why? Dig there.

    European souls seared by cataclysm have been more attuned to this ineradicable institutional problem and take a much longer view – Ellul, Charbonneau, Illich, Dostoevsky are just a few to come to mind. Read Hannah Arendt against Carl Ferdinand Howard Henry Heinrich (Carl F. Henry), as contemporaries and German immigrants, in a nation of immigrants with gradations of whiteness where every church was defined by race, ethnicity, language, and class. One responded to the western cataclysm by “thinking without a bannister” and the other by insisting the Christian mind must be remade in distinctly fundamentalist, anti-modernist, anti-socialist modes. For Henry the gospel, as he interpreted it, was not-ideology. Everything else was ideology. Evangelicals and their Reformed friends know this as worldviewism, which Barth rightly castigated as an ideological, pneumatological closure to providence.

    George Steiner many times expressed well if not originally the view that western history is a series of cataclysmic repudiations of the burden of transcendence by those who find themselves chosen to carry it. The Abrahamic faiths are all a succession of coping responses to the trauma of being forced to admit our miserable failure at realizing a vision of self and other as equal images of the divine. When the trauma-responses accrete into cultures and a civilization, a rejection of the burden at its heart will lead to murder on a massive scale. Could this be any more obvious?

    Machen, Henry, Evangelicalism — yes they are all finally and in their motives about an attempt to rewrite faith and “Christian culture” as preserving a place for privilege and hierarchy, in which white heterosexual protestant men image God more than all others. The challenges they and their followers ignored and rejected from the high point of european protestantism — Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann and Barth — produced an immature, muddled, and spiritually sick Evangelical Americanism that starts from the assumption that whatever it fears most must be most false.

    This critique cannot be written (again) as simply a wrong road taken from the standpoint of someone on the true path. Ezekiel and the other Prophets did not draw a Manichaean line between true Jews and self-hating traitors (though Ahab did) — they offered something more like an immanent critique at times, shouldering the burden of transcendence themselves, stumbling, and falling under the load.

  • Is that so?

    There has been an academic study (that was recently in the news) about why white Evangelicals voted for Trump. Answer: they felt an aggressive white nationalist strongman would help their perceived slipping social position as white conservative Christians.

    Instead of all this whataboutery, can you say why Christians (or anyone) should vote for white nationalism as a lesser evil? Do you think Clinton would have been so damaging to democratic norms, processes, and the rule of law? It sounds like you see Trump as a libertarian but this is not reflected in his budget or personal pocket-lining.

    The obtuse sentence you mention seems to be agreeing with Herberg’s critique of Evangelicalism as a culturally illiterate civic religion. I think it’s also a very poor point. I imagine Nazi Christians were highly literate, like the famed concentration camp staff who read Goethe and listened to Mozart as the ovens roared.

    Bratt wants to have authentic faith and culture that is incapable of philistinism and barbarism. Oddly he says nothing of the influential motes in his own tradition, where the revered Kuyper is seen as a saint. This man who presided over a colonial system (whose national legacy today is a GDP that’s 85% from Dutch Royal Shell) was the theological source for Apartheid. His writing oozes casual racism, misogyny, anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Were he here today he would be voting for Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, supporting the De Vos agenda in the US, and applauding the efforts of white nationalist congressman Steve King — along with his American faith-and-cultural progeny.

  • Is that so?

    Bloom said that of “American Christianity,” but it probably applies most to popular protestantism, i.e. evangelicalism. He has his own construction of gnosticism, which he embraces himself, but for “the American Religion,” which he says is post-Christian, the gnostic element is simply the intense individualism of the main evangelical obsession, conversion. Everyone finds god themselves, whatever god it is they wish to find or have find them.

    As I recall Bloom gets his ideas about gnosticism from Hans Jonas and ultimately Gershom Scholem. I am not sure how well that has all held up among historical scholarship, but it is fascinating simply on its own terms. This was all part of a post-war concern of these German-Jewish intellectuals trying to make sense of what had gone so wrong and why. Evangelical scholars never paid much attention to these thinkers or that question; it is high time they did. I have been reading through Arendt, Jonas, and Steiner slowly for a while, and there is much that is fresher now than the day it was written.

  • Salvatore Luiso

    I think I have read about that study in another article posted here at Patheos–namely, the article entitled “New Study: Trump Support Associated with Christian Nationalism and Anti-Muslim Sentiment” which Dr. Warren Throckmorton posted on his blog around four weeks ago. I think that most of the questions which this study posed are so vague that it is worthless. If you want to know more, I suggest you read the article, and my comments on it which I have posted beneath it. For now I will merely say that too many of the questions can be answered by people who are not Christian nationalists in the same way that Christian nationalist would answer them.

    I do not see Trump as a libertarian. I opposed Trump’s candidacy beginning in 2015, and I continued to oppose it until he was elected. I also opposed Clinton’s candidacy. In 2016, a majority of Americans had a unfavorable opinion of Trump, and a majority had a unfavorable opinion of Clinton. I was one of the many millions who had an unfavorable opinion of both of them.

    Having lived in The Netherlands for years, and knowing Reformed Christians who live there, I have no doubt that if Abraham Kuyper were alive today he would not be voting for Geert Wilders. The Dutch have Christian political parties, and I am sure Kuyper would vote for one of them. The wiser Christians there have always been aware that populists such as Wilders should be rejected. I know relatively little about Kuyper, so I will refrain from commenting on your allegations against him, although I’m sure that people who know more about him than I do would dispute at least a few of them, such as Craig Bartholomew, author of the new book _Contours of the Kuyperian Tradition: A Systematic Introduction_.