A Call for American Evangelical Leaders to Confront Evangelicalism’s Lunatic Fringe
Every religious movement that grows sufficiently large has a lunatic fringe; extremists attach themselves to religious (and other) movements to gain respectability and a “voice”—to influence the movement and others through it. Then, inevitably, critics of the movement accuse it of fostering lunatics and identify the latter with the center of the movement itself.
This is self-evident to anyone who studies religious (and other) movements. It’s relatively easy to notice and identify the lunatics, the extremists, attempting to attach themselves to movements—especially insofar as those movements gain a certain momentum socially and culturally.
A “movement” is different from an “organization.” An organization has a center and boundaries; a movement has a center without boundaries. American evangelicalism is a distinct movement with a relatively identifiable center. I have argued here and elsewhere that it is fracturing; the center is not holding. Still, it remains real in perception (especially to the pseudo-journalists of the mass media and its critics) which gives it a kind of reality.
Gradually, over the past thirty to forty years, “the public mind” has come to identify American evangelicalism with the movement’s extremists, its lunatic fringe, who have pushed themselves forward as self-appointed spokespersons for “evangelicals” in general. Television talk show hosts, popular (uninformed) journalists, critics of Christianity with platforms (blogging, writing, speaking) have tended to identify American evangelicalism with one particular wing of the movement—what I call neo-fundamentalists (because their real religious ethos is more akin to the fundamentalist movement that arose in the first half of the 20th century than to the postfundamentalist evangelical movement that coalesced around Billy Graham in the second half of the century). Many of these neo-fundamentalists, who call themselves “conservative evangelicals,” have adopted a triumphalist political agenda of using the power of politics to enforce their vision of Christianity on a pluralistic public.
Among these neo-fundamentalist evangelicals are some out-and-out lunatics. I don’t use that word in a technical sense—if it has one. I use it in the popular sense, the one most people think of now, of extremists who would be dangerous if their beliefs were to gain traction, momentum, real influence in the social realm—including especially politics. I do not mean they are literally insane in any DSM-5 sense. They may be religiously and politically delusional, but they are not literally mentally ill (so their extremism cannot be dismissed that way).
Even most American Christians, especially relatively educated and enlightened ones, those whose main “compass” is driven by Jesus and the New Testament and who are reasonable people even if others strongly disagree with their beliefs, reject the ideologically-driven proposals of these “evangelical lunatics” on the movement’s extremist fringe.
In my considered and hopefully informed opinion, for whatever it’s worth, I identify two main groups gaining real traction and influence by manipulating their claim to be “evangelical Christians”—even if that claim amounts primarily to allowing the media to so label them and then build on that bestowed identity.
The first I have written about here several times and include its ideology and spiritual-theological program in my book Counterfeit Christianity (Abingdon, 2015): the so-called “Word Faith” “Prosperity Gospel” of “Health and Wealth” that turns Christianity into a get-rich through prayer scheme. The second I have not written about as much; it is variously called “Christian Reconstructionism” and “Dominion Theology.” (Yes, I realize these are not exactly the same thing, but for my purposes here their similarities are strong enough to lump them together.)
Rarely do advocates of this theology name themselves by these labels (viz., “Christian Reconstructionists” or “believers in Dominion Theology”). Sometimes they wrongly call themselves “Theonomists”—a less objectionable term that can mean many other things. (Liberal theologian Paul Tillich, for example, promoted “cultural theonomy” without ever hinting at establishment of a theocracy.)
There are many degrees of Christian Reconstructionism and Dominion Theology. These ideologies and political visions can be detected, though, in the subtleties of some preachers’ (and others’) visions for the future of America. “Take back America for God” is an imperative I always suspect of being inspired by some kind of Christian Reconstructionism or Dominion Theology—even where the people making it are not directly influenced by the ideology’s books, blogs and sermons.
This lunatic fringe of American evangelical Christianity is often popularly identified, especially by Christianity’s critics, as a natural extension of evangelicalism itself. And, unfortunately, many evangelical Christians I know (some of them are relatives!), express strong sympathies with it—even if they do not identify themselves with any of its many organizational expressions. Many of the latter tend to think that being an “American evangelical” would naturally lead a person to their theocratic vision for future America.
Most unfortunately, in my opinion, some American evangelical pastors, even some who stand in the pulpits of denominations associated with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), are worming their way into the political process by holding innocent-sounding “rallies” and “banquets” and other kinds of events to whom they invite candidates for public office. I suspect most of the candidates who attend these events know little to nothing about the Reconstructionist/Dominionist theologies of these pastors. They are just glad to get a forum for promoting their candidacies. However, should one such candidate gain political power through the organizers’ help they will be called upon to move the American legal system in their direction.
What should be done about these evangelical extremists? First, evangelical “movers and shakers” need to publically distance themselves from them, even reject them as what Luther called “false brethren.” They are not “us.” They are hangers on of evangelicalism whose motives and goals are different from authentic evangelical Christianity. Second, if they belong to a denomination, their denominational leaders need to use whatever means are available to expel them. Third, when one of them holds an event (such as a recent one in the city where I was born in the Upper Midwest and where some of the first presidential caucuses will be held in the nominating process), evangelical pastors in that areas need to come together publicly to denounce their ideology. (I hesitate to call it a “theology” as it seems more driven by power motives than by true interest in God.) Fourth, evangelical Christian opinion-shapers need to use their platforms to proclaim to America and to the world that “they are not us.”