Political Dealing: The Crisis of Evangelicalism

Political Dealing: The Crisis of Evangelicalism April 20, 2018

This speech was given by Fuller Seminary President Dr. Mark Labberton at a private meeting of evangelical leaders held at Wheaton College in Chicago, Illinois, on April 16, 2018. The following has been edited from his notes for clarity and to give context to excerpts that have been disseminated elsewhere.

“What draws us together here—and in hope—is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  God’s great love and mercy poured out for the sake of the world is deeper, wider, stronger, and wiser than any possible threat or danger, competition or distraction.  Our common confession that “Jesus is Lord” names the central testimony of our faith, even as it also names that to which no one and nothing else compares: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.  

What also draws us here is our deep affection and gratitude for our evangelical family.  As one who was converted to Christ as an adult, my cradle identity was not evangelicalism.  But as one born into Christ, the thoughtful, faithful, humble evangelicalism I stumbled into has been and is my heartland.  It is where I grew up in faith and where I have found a capaciousness of mind and spirit, and a zeal for mission that tells me I am home.

This gathering is not an occasion for celebration of evangelicalism, however. This gathering emerges instead from worry, sorrow, anger, and bewilderment—whether we are Democrats or Republicans.  Christians in both parties found the others’ candidate patently unacceptable, leading to fierce division. Many felt cornered without a genuine choice when the issues represented are complex and fear is justified. This is not the first or last time the body of Christ has gathered in lament.  When evangelical leaders like us gather, it is often with a spirit of optimistic hope, known for “pressing on” in the work of the gospel. For me, this is not a time of pressing on. I feel a personal urgency to stop, to pray, to listen, to confess, and to repent and want to call us to do the same.

Only the Spirit “who is in the world to convict us of sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) can bring us to clarity about the crisis we face.  As I have sought that conviction, here is what I have come to believe: The central crisis facing us is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been betrayed and shamed by an evangelicalism that has violated its own moral and spiritual integrity.

This is not a crisis imposed from outside the household of faith, but from within.  The core of the crisis is not specifically about Trump, or Hillary, or Obama, or the electoral college, or Comey, or Mueller, or abortion, or LGBTQIA+ debates, or Supreme Court appointees. Instead the crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake. Now on public display is an indisputable collusion between prominent evangelicalism and many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power. The wind and the rain and the floods have come, and, as Jesus said, they will reveal our foundation.  In this moment for evangelicalism, what the storms have exposed is a foundation not of solid rock but of sand.

This is not a crisis taking place at the level of language. This is not about who owns or defines the term “evangelical,” and whether one does—or does not—choose to identify as such.  It is legitimate and important to debate if and how the term “evangelical” can currently be used in the United States to mean anything more than white, theologically and politically conservative. But that is not itself the crisis. The crisis is not at the level of our lexicon, but of our lives and a failure to embody the gospel we preach.  We may debate whether the word “evangelical” can or should be redeemed. But what we must deal with is the current bankruptcy many associate with evangelical life.

This is not a crisis unfolding at the level of group allegiance, denomination, or affiliation.  The varied reality that is American evangelicalism is evidenced in this room.  We have no formal hierarchy, leadership, or structure and form no single organization, but are sorted and divided today as we have been—for better and worse—for much of our history.  Some might wish for a clearer distinction between those who call themselves fundamentalist and those who call themselves evangelical. We might look to varying traditions or geographies to explain our division. These distinctions matter but can easily devolve into scapegoating or blaming, diverting us from our vocation as witness to God’s love for a multifaceted world.

This is not a recent crisis but a historic one.  We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.  We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.

Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world.  Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.

In order to be concrete about this, let me choose what I believe to be the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself:

First is the issue of power.  

Our primary confession that “Jesus is Lord” is a statement about power.  “The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16).  This is our hope and confidence, and as those who seek to live in the kingdom of God, we profess that Jesus is Lord and all other power must be reframed in light of this reality. The Apostle Paul says it this way:  “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5–8).

In much of the last century, American evangelicalism has had a complex relationship with power.  On one hand, it has felt itself marginalized and repudiated, defeated and silenced. On the other, it has often seemed to seek—even fawn over—worldly power, mimicking in the church forms of power evident in our culture. (I remember being at a conference where it was announced we should all be back after dinner for “an evening of star-studded worship.”) An evangelical dance with political power has been going on from the time of Billy Graham, through the Moral Majority and the religious right, to the Tea Party, and most recently with the white evangelical vote—the result being, as honorary Chairman of the Lausanne Movement Doug Birdsall has said, “When you Google ‘evangelical,’ you get Trump.”

This points to an evangelical crisis over so many issues of power: racial, political, economic, cultural, right against left, Republican against Democrat, rich against poor, white against black, men against women, and so on. But winning power was the goal of Judas, not Jesus. A Faustian pact between evangelicals and power—even when claimed on behalf of the kingdom—cannot be entered in the name of Jesus Christ without betraying the abdication of power inherent in the incarnation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son . . . .” (John 3:16)

Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.  Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power.  The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.

Second is the issue of race.

The Bible knows all people to be fully human, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, knit together in our mother’s womb. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, not just those who arrive as poor, hard-working immigrants fleeing violence or those wasting away in private prisons.  All are dead and in Christ made alive, and the evidence of the resurrection is that the peculiar body of God’s people, a new humanity of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are to be the evidence of a resurrected God. This is the glory of creation and new creation.

Those of us who are white evangelicals must acknowledge that our story is intertwined with, and often responsible for, much of the violence and oppression around racial injustice in our American story.  The stories of Native American, African American, Latino/a, or Asian peoples in the history of the United States cannot be told truthfully without naming the role of white evangelicals who testified to a God of redemption but whose theological, political, social, and economic choices contributed to suffering and injustice.  Stories of devastation are often absent from a happier white evangelical narrative of promised-land life, or buried in a sanitized story that claims that past injustice is not relevant for people of color today—despite the fact that nearly all people of color experience racism and its implications every day around the nation, including those in this room today.    

This unreckoned-with reality of white evangelical racism permeates American life, and its tinderbox was lit on fire by the rhetoric of our national life in recent years—whether in reference to Ferguson, or Charlottesville, or “shithole countries” deemed without value. White history narrates the story of America’s heroes, and white evangelical history views those “good guys” as the providence of a good and faithful God.  When some white evangelicals triumphantly pronounce that we now have “the best president the religious right ever had,” the crisis it underscores to millions of people of color is not an indictment of our President as much as it is an indictment of white evangelicalism and a racist gospel

Third is the issue of nationalism.

One of Israel’s particular temptations was to suppose that because the God of Israel was great, the people of Israel must be great, too.  No wonder God needed to remind them, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples . . .” (Deut 7:7).  In the greatness of the God of Israel we are reminded of a national life to be centered not in its own greatness, or as the right of its people, but fixed in gratitude and faithfulness and humility before God and, from the New Testament, in service to the God who gave his Son out of love for the world.

By dramatic contrast, nationalism gives pride of place to ourselves, to regional or national assertions of primacy and the quest for power and success, control and dominance, legitimizing violence and pressing for victory.  Nationalism reveals that we have mis-ordered worship. Religiously motivated nationalism simply turns God into our “godling,” a deity subject to our bidding.

In the complex world of global politics and economics, religion and militarism, markets and globalization, nationhood is part of the shifting landscape of human powers and forces.  In a Christian hierarchy of kingdom values, nationhood has a legitimate place, but not a central or a top-tier one—and never one that displaces the authority of God.

For white evangelicals to embrace a platform and advocacy that promotes, prioritizes, and defends America above all and over all is to embrace an idolatry that has only ever proven disastrous.  Respect for nationhood, including borders and immigration, the rule of law, both internally and among the field of nations, are surely legitimate and defensible values. However, identification with the use of demeaning rhetoric toward other nations, not least nations of color that are facing the challenges of poverty and war, is not only confusing but violating to the dignity, value, and truth of the gospel. It is, as well, violating to the people we otherwise claim to see, serve, join, and love—nations to which, ironically, American evangelicals annually send millions of dollars for mission and evangelism.  A legitimate debate about immigration laws and practices is surely necessary, as difficult as it may be. But that debate is distorted if it begins with nationalistic assumptions.

The current administration’s rhetoric may be odious, pejorative, and totalizing against our international neighbors—yet we, too, demonstrate a gospel of fake good news when we ignore any needs or concerns that threaten our self-interests.  In a pluralistic population, debates over such things as immigration policy are legitimate and bound to be contentious. But when it seems that white evangelicals endorse self-interest through political speech that is nationalistic and demeaning to others, our central commitments do not reflect Jesus Christ, but rather a cold, white heart.

The people of God are to follow an enemy-loving God, as exemplified by the life of Jesus.  This is part of the call to our new and peculiar life. This is not meant to dictate national foreign policy, but to hold the people of God to a more severe and demanding standard, calling on our conscience when it comes to foreign policy in relation to the citizens of foreign, militarized, even violent states who are equally loved by God.

Fourth is the issue of economics.  

It is very hard to read the Bible and ignore God’s heart for the poor and the vulnerable.  Built into the faithfulness to which Israel is called are boundaries on personal wealth, stewardship for the common good, and relief and provision for the poor, the alien, and the widow.  Long before free market capitalism had developed, the God of Israel, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, was shown to bend toward mercy, with justice for the poor. It was one of Israel’s most distinctive priorities and practices.  

The life of Jesus underscores these themes throughout his public ministry. The dangers of power and greed, stoked by the biases of money and wealth, distort our lives.  The faithfulness of Christians in our economic and social vision and practice are to be reflective of God who reorders all these to the purposes of the kingdom. The social practices of the church are to demonstrate the presence of God as light and salt in an otherwise dark and savorless world.

American evangelicals have often divided over the significance of life this side of eternity, sometimes understanding the eschaton in ways that marginalize the significance of economics or race.  Yet the gracious magnanimity of God’s heart should be visible by the same magnanimity and grace we taste at the shared table and that is demonstrated toward our neighbor.

When white evangelicals in prominent and wealthy places speak about what is fair and beneficial for society, but then pass laws and tax changes that create more national indebtedness and elevate the top 1% even higher—while cutting services and provisions for children, the disabled, and the poor that are castigated as disgusting “entitlements”—one has to ask how this is reconciled with being followers of Jesus.  The complexities of social support for the vulnerable in our society certainly can and should be debated, but when the instigators of change are serving elite interests and disregarding the 99%, it is very hard to recognize the influence of the gospel narrative on compassion, let alone justice.

Still Evangelical or Yet Evangelical?

Absorbing all this, I am forced to kneel in confession, with trust that “the One who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).  Though I would like to think all this has little to do with me or with my evangelical point of view, I know I am among the guilty. The condemnation of a gospel life poorly lived sticks to me closer than I can see or know. It has significant implications for what it means to be president of an esteemed evangelical theological seminary—one that is highly racially diverse and yet predominantly white-cultured (not least at the senior levels of leadership); that has 70 countries represented in its student body but is still too Western-oriented; that strongly affirms women in ministry and leadership yet falls short in empowering their voices.

What brings me hope is something recorded at the end of the gospel of Matthew.  Matthew 28 contains the great commission and clarion call of our evangelical identity, but often less noted is the sentence just before the commission itself. The text simply says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” It was to fewer than the full 12, and to these not-so-sure believer/doubters, that Jesus gave the Great Commission anyway.  From the start, he called believer/doubters to the task, so perhaps he can also still use American evangelicals as well. Rather than take a defensive posture, may we open ourselves to the repentant and hopeful posture that God will make us yet truly adherents to the “evangel” at the heart of our association. The evangelical mission is God’s from start to finish.

The Lord Jesus Christ gathers us here for real work.  May it be a work of grace that moves us to repentance, leading to personal and systemic change.  May it move us deeper into the life and heart of God.”

Browse Our Archives