Roy Moore, Jerry Falwell, Jr, and the Evangelical Authority Crisis

Roy Moore, Jerry Falwell, Jr, and the Evangelical Authority Crisis November 14, 2017

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In an interview with the Religion News Service about alleged pedophile and Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell said, “It comes down to a question who is more credible in the eyes of the voters — the candidate or the accuser… I believe the judge is telling the truth.” In a recent poll, 37% of Alabama evangelicals said they were now more likely to vote for Roy Moore because of the sexual violence allegations against him. Though many evangelicals are horrified by these circumstances, they are completely in line with evangelical culture’s understanding of truth and authority.

As an evangelical, I was taught that the secular world was inherently deceitful, particularly whenever secular science contradicted something that is written in the Bible. I was taught that secular people believe in moral relativism while Christians believe in absolute truth. Our absolute truth is whatever the Bible says, as interpreted by an authoritative interpreter such as my pastor. The slippery slope to moral relativism starts with believing what makes sense to me based on my observations and logic instead of submitting to the truth proclaimed by an authority figure. I cannot trust my own mind and my own senses because they have been corrupted by Adam and Eve’s fall into sin.

Thus, for evangelicalism, truth is not simply what is; truth is what authority proclaims. There can be no access to truth without established, God-ordained authorities. If everyone “does what is right in his own eyes,” like the Israelites did in Judges when Israel didn’t have a king, then rampant wickedness will be the inevitable result.

We are in the midst of an authority crisis in our culture. I think it’s important to name the crisis as one of authority being called into question rather than morality being upended. The young people today are not any more morally depraved than young people a hundred years ago, though their outlets for moral depravity have certainly evolved and shifted. They just don’t submit unquestioningly to the taboos and conventions of older generations, and because of the rise of the information age, they don’t have to. Their morality is not anchored in the submission to authority that many evangelicals presume is the only legitimate anchor for morality. Moreover, the old white men who were the unquestioned, established authority figures for centuries of Western culture are considered morally suspect by younger generations as a default.

To the degree that many young adults today respect authority, it is the authority of the victim that they respect. People who have been hurt are the ones who are believed. Many older white evangelicals mock and belittle this “victim mentality,” but it’s actually very much a part of our Christian heritage. Jesus’ authority is not derived in the institutional power of the church. He doesn’t have authority because the Anglican Church in Australia can take $1 million out of its offering plates for a homophobic propaganda campaign. He doesn’t have authority because American evangelicals have been a reliable voting bloc for the Republican Party for the past forty years. He has authority over us because we shed his blood on the cross. Consider Revelation 5:1-10.

Then I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals; and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it. And I began to weep bitterly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
    saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
    and they will reign on earth.”

The first Christians who read Revelation were not in the position of established institutional power that Christians are today, centuries after the Roman Empire and the Church became one flesh. They did not join the church out of fear of divine punishment by a God who was in absolute control and complete approval of every colonial brutality of Christian Empire. They joined the church because they were compelled by the blood of the lamb. Jesus’ blood was itself the authority to which they submitted even to the point of having their own blood shed.

Christians today cannot experience the same reality as the first Christians because the church’s authority is now conflated with its institutional power. But there are Christians today who submit themselves to the blood of Jesus rather than the triumphalist hype of the alpha male in the megachurch pulpit. Those who live under the authority of Jesus’ blood are distinguished by how they treat the victims and outsiders in our world. Because they heard Jesus when he said whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me. So their default is to believe those who have been crushed rather than those who are in charge. Jesus said the first will be last and the last will be first in his kingdom. I think we should listen to Jesus.

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