Many months ago, James White announced that he was going to dialogue with a Muslim Imam in a church hall one weekday evening. Tickets could be reserved ahead of time. The event would be free, but the organizers wanted to have a sense of how many, and who, they could expect. Both Muslims and Christians applied for tickets and filled up the hall.
Muslim-Christian dialogue and debate is White’s specialty. He speaks Arabic, knows the Koran backward and forward, and is able to deftly, and intelligently get to the heart of the difference between these two religions.
Twitter, of course, because the event was publicized, spun out of control. White was accused of being a lover of Islam and betraying all Christians everywhere. From Twitter the remnant Christian blogosphere took up the cause, handing it fully and finally to Christian talk radio. One evening I found myself listening to the censorious tones of Janet Mefferd denouncing James White. He was, she said, compromising the gospel. He had no business participating in such an event in a church building. It sent entirely the wrong message about Islam.
In fact, Mefford contended, Islam is one of the most menacing forces currently bent on destroying America and the West. White’s partner in dialogue, she insisted, had a “track record of espousing a radical form of Islamic supremacism” and “an ideology that is a threat not only to Christians but,” and this is the telling line, “to our very way of life.” At the very least White should not debate and talk with this particular Imam until that person had proven himself to have no desire to destroy this great nation.
That’s interesting, I thought. Perhaps the event should have been held in a neutral location. But as Mefford spread her vitriol out in every direction, dismissing outright White’s stated desire of winning Muslims to Christ through the clear proclamation of the gospel, I was curious to hear her address the issue of Islam in America in a more general way. And America’s place in the world. And border control. And the wall.
Which is where we are. If you are an Evangelical in America today, whatever the word might mean to you, it won’t be very long before you’re talking politics, tangling your political inclinations together with your theological ones, partaking of recriminatory Twitter “conversations” with other Evangelicals. Theology and politics pour forth in equal measures. Immigration is jumbled against justification. The spirituality of the president hangs as a cloud over questions of evangelism and ecclesiology. If you’re talking theology, it will only be a minute and a half before you’re talking politics.
This reality has had a slow but persistent dawning. R. Marie Griffith, in her comprehensive, albeit one-sided tome, Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, examines the deep divisions endured by Christians over a tumultuous century. She painstakingly documents how Protestants and Catholics, both on the left and the right, consistently enjoined theological war in the arena of politics. The left, though Griffith doesn’t exactly admit this, doggedly advanced progressive social goals, transforming the American consciousness over a century from vaguely “Christian” to “sex positive” and “affirming.” Beginning with Margaret Sanger and ending up with Gene Robinson, Griffith describes a relentless assault by progressive Christianity on the moral and theological foundations of the church, and by extension the culture, an assault that, in the end, won.
And what of the conservative Christian in each feverish decade? Chapter by chapter Griffith illuminates the theological and political confusion of conservatives. Always on the defensive, often flat-footed, and in the case of post- Civil War racism, just plain wrong, the Christian Right floundered. Eventually the withering assault of progressivism saw the dissipation of the moral bedrock of American life. And somewhere along the way, conservative Evangelicals traded trust in the gospel for a heavy and fearful reliance on politics and cultural engagement.
It all culminated in 2016, cataclysmically, with the enthusiastic, prophetically christened election of Donald Trump. A century of frustrated, exhausted loss in every realm—cultural and political–a majority of Evangelicals* chucked it all and went with a candidate who, two decades earlier, they would have abhorred.
At what point along the way did the conversation stop being Christian and just become political? I don’t want to say definitively, but I expect it might have been when Donald Trump claimed to be “the best Christian” as he did in an interview during the campaign. As a lifelong Presbyterian, nobody loved the Bible more than he did, so he said. This nakedly political appeal to the Christian Right, who was fed up anyway, seemed to soothe and pacify enough consciences that the election could be blamed on the “evangelical vote,” and became the fault of all Christians everywhere, even the ones who didn’t vote for Mr. Trump and weren’t taken in. But what choice did anyone have? The other candidate, whom Griffith breathlessly lyricized as a lifelong and faithful Methodist, just as cynically employed the language of the Evangelical.
The church faces many extraordinary crises in this perilous age. But chief among them has to be the abyssal worldly divisions between political left and political right finally and fully worming themselves into an ever-fracturing Evangelicalism. For every Christian, no matter the conversation, no matter the hour and the day, the very gospel is at stake. Whether you are anxious about issues of race, or anxious about the security of the border, or anxious about abortion and judges, or anxious about the safety of women, or anxious about what appalling thing Mr. Trump will say next, every issue collides with every other issue. One misstep, however small, especially on Twitter, guarantees you will never sleep again, at least until someone else draws the ire of the mob.
This moment is so dangerous not because one segment of American Christians has twisted the gospel together with politics, but because both sides have. On the one hand, the flag bedecks the Christian Trump fanatic. On the other, a bundle of hashtags festoons the Christian #NeverTrumper. Both sides claim to have God on their side. Both are convinced the other side has betrayed the very gospel of Jesus Christ.
James White’s run-in with Janet Mefferd illustrated for me tragedy of this moment. Neither the right nor the left has a true, full-hearted trust in the Christian gospel to do what it promises—save some. Indeed, the purposes for which Christ came do not seem to compel Christians depressed and anxious about their place in this country and America’s place in the world. The gospel is first and foremost about the human person so embracing death and sin that God himself had to come and provide a rescue. The problem isn’t Rome or Islam. The problem is the individual sinner. The problem is each person rushing headlong towards the gates of hell. Public morality is the admittedly desirous outcome of a society that embraces the gospel. But it isn’t the goal, nor the promise.
Relinquishing a vision of a city on a hill, a nation called by God to bless the world, a moral and prosperous people united by a common language and outlook, seems impossibly hard. Surely our rights to speak and assemble together are necessary for the spread of the gospel. Surely the malign approach of Islam, conjoined to a worldview so unraveled, so sexually free that no woman or child can ever feel safe again is not God’s will for this nation.
And so, in a remarkably short time, a church that once sent missionaries into every corner of the globe—missionaries who went to the uttermost in relative poverty, in obscurity, without technology, without acclaim, risking their lives and their futures to bring the Good News to the lost of the world—that church is now crouching in the corner, anxious and worried about the economy, about this temporal sphere, about respect, about “our way of life.”
The only solution to our great ills is to do what White did that evening. He stood up and unabashedly proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ to a room full of perishing people. Christians have to do this, day in day out, in every forum, in every space, in every context, trusting that God is sovereign, that he is trustworthy, that his kingdom will come on his terms and in his timing. Nations rise and fall, but the Word of God is forever.
*In my own mind I maintain sharp distinction between those who held their nose and voted for Mr. Trump in the usual unhappy circumstance of having to pick between two terrible candidates, and those who threw their full affections behind this man, claiming that he was called and chosen by God, and continues not be able to do anything wrong. These two kinds of votes are not the same to my way of thinking.