Much has recently been made about the “deconstruction” of Christianity, particularly conservative Christianity. Most of this has been seen lately in a spat of new books recognized by David Gushee as representative of this desire to deconstruct American evangelicalism. Those books are:
Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez
The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr
The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
Taking America Back for God by Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry
Worldview Theory, Whiteness, and the Future of Evangelical Faith by Jacob Alan Cook
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. It is the opinion of one scholar. But I think it is a good list that helps us recognize that a significant population of Christians or perhaps exevangelicals want this material. These authors are not writing in a vacuum. They are servicing a large enough segment of the market to sell a lot of these books. I predict we will see a lot more of them.
It is not my intention to critique these, or other books, at this time. To be fair, I have not read most of those books, and it is bad form to offer critique for books one has not read. I will rely on others’ comments about their work and the interactions seen on social media between those in the deconstruction movement and their detractors to provide me with the information for the task at hand. That task is not whether the arguments offered in those books are sound, but rather the social place this deconstruction movement occupies now and where I think it is going. Based on recent research I just published, I hope the discussion of where it is going will bring some sunlight into the ongoing debate between those in this deconstruction movement and the rest of the Christian body. For simplicity’s sake, I will call them deconstructionists from this point forward with no attempt to assess the morality or wisdom of such deconstruction.
On the other side are those who feel threatened, or at least angered, at deconstructionists. When I hear them complain about the deconstructionists, it is generally about moving away from a traditional faith. It is not hard to imagine why many Christian traditionalists are disturbed by some of the deconstructionists’ critiques of conservative Christianity’s social and political patterns. Their desire to presevere a traditionist faith as they have known it runs right into the passion of deconstructionists to remake that faith. So for the sake of simplicity, I am just going to call them traditionalists from this point forward with no attempt to assess the morality or wisdom of their defense of traditionalism.
I find myself in the middle of this struggle. This struggle becomes apparent when I look at the two social events that helped shape this argument. That first event was the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. When that took place, many of my younger and racial minority Christian friends were dismayed at the support of white Evangelicals of this deeply problematic figure. It did not take a genius to see that many of them would leave evangelism behind in light of his election. While there are always believers who question Christian traditions, the level of disaffection grew tremendously during Trump’s election. I have little doubt that this social event spurred most of this deconstruction movement.
On the question of whether Christians should support Trump, I am squarely on team no support. In 2016 I placed an article in a very conservative Christian internet periodical asking Christians not to support Trump. After his election, I continued to warn my fellow Christians about the folly of nearly blindly supporting Trump. I also gladly contributed to a book on the problems of Christians supporting Trump. I do not go as far as some of Trump’s detractors calling him a Nazi or never admitting when he may be right (stopped watch and all that). I fear that will take me in the direction of dehumanization that I do not want to go. But it is fair to say that I have publicly made it clear that Christians must detach themselves from him and his presidency. In this way, I am sympathetic to many of the concerns of the deconstructionist.
The other big social event is the movement of this country towards a post-Christian reality. In that post-Christian reality, we have seen an increase of Christianophobia or irrational hatred and fear of Christians. Deconstructionists tend to look at the post-Christian society as merely the loss of privilege for Christians. Thus, a post-Christian society will bring a new era of equality as Christians will not have disproportionate power relative to those of other faiths or no faith. Traditionalists tend to see the post-Christian society as one where those who hate Christians will gain and use their social power to treat Christians as second-class citizens. In light of these different interpretations of a post-Christian reality, one can see how the deconstructionists envision themselves as playing a natural role in the evolution towards a society where Christian dominance can be checked, while traditionalists see the coming post-Christian society as one where Christians are going to have to stick together.
When it comes to the lost privilege versus second class citizen debate, I am on team second class citizen. How could I not be? I have done the research showing the anti-Christian attitudes are prevalent among whites, the wealthy, and the highly educated. These are some of the most powerful individuals in our society. I have recently argued that notions of Christian as a majority group are archaic in light of a post-Christian world. When college campuses do not consistently enforce rules to restrict Christian student groups, we have a problem with second-class citizenship and not a loss of privilege. The same is true when college professors state that they will engage in religious discrimination in not hiring evangelicals or when an evangelical lay pastor is fired from his job due to his beliefs about homosexuality. I do not talk about Christian persecution in the United States because that brings images that I do not think are appropriate to this time in our country. But I do talk of antichristian bigotry and discrimination and see it as a serious problem in our society. I believe the deconstructionists do not take concerns about such discrimination seriously.
So I am not taking sides in the current argument between the deconstructionists and the traditionalists. But I do want to predict what I think is happening or will happen with a good chunk of the deconstructionists. They are the more interesting group. We all kinda know that the traditionalists are going to fight for those traditions and maintain their overall belief system, with perhaps some minor tweaks. But the action is going to be with the deconstructionist.
A recent book I coauthored looking at conservative and progressive Christians provides the context for this analysis. In that book, we found that conservative Christians defined their moral beliefs by their interpretation of the Bible. In contrast, progressive Christians defined their moral convictions by social justice values such as tolerance and inclusivity. This contrast may be easily represented by a quote we included in the book by a progressive Christian called the Naked Pastor. That quote stated: “The difference between me and you is you use scripture to determine what love means, and I use love to determine what scripture means.” That pithy quote, in many ways, sums up the differences between conservative and progressive Christians.
I find that the controversy over homosexuality is a great way to illustrate this contrast. So what should Christians do with homosexuality? Conservative Christians use the Bible to answer this question. To be sure, it is their interpretation of the Bible, and they do not always agree. Some have a harsher stance than others, but the argument is about what the Bible says. And for most conservative Christians, that interpretation is that engaging in same-sex sexual relations is always a sin, regardless of the weight they decide to put on that sin. This is NOT to say that they do not value tolerance and inclusiveness. They do. But they do subordinate those concerns in relation to their attempts to construct a morality that is “Biblically based.”
On the other hand, progressive Christians use the values of tolerance and inclusion to answer this question. To be sure, their interpretation of those values can vary, and they do not always agree. Some have a stance of tolerance, while others engage in affirmation. Most progressive Christians’ interpretation of tolerance and inclusion leads them to not regard same-sex sexual relations as sin. This is NOT to say that they do not value the Bible. They do. But they subject their interpretation of the Bible to those social justice values.
Once we have an understanding of these differences, then my following claim will make more sense. That claim is that we see in the deconstruction movement a movement of some Christians from conservative Christianity to progressive Christianity. Thus, Christians who previously used the Bible as the foundation for their morality will soon use it as a secondary source. Instead, social justice values of tolerance, empathy, and inclusion will be their primary source of morality.
I am not saying that those engaging in the deconstruction right now have already undergone the movement towards progressive Christianity. Some have, but by no means not all deconstructionists have done so. But at the end of the day, I believe that most who maintain a Christin identity will undergo this process. Already I hear many of them speaking like the progressive Christians interviewed in our research. Some probably will return to conservative Christianity, but I suspect that most will not.
It is possible that conservative Christians will pick up some Trump supporters who were nominal Christians before the coming of Trump as a politician. I suspect that many of those individuals will regress in their religiosity soon after Trump has left the scene. Furthermore, the intellectual loss from losing young, educated members will not be easily made up from an infusion of Trump supporters. Make no mistake about it. This movement is a serious loss for conservative Christians.
I could blame conservative Christians for supporting an amoral politician and alienating many young Christians and Christians of color. After all, I did warn them of the costs of supporting a Saul in the form of Trump. Or I could blame progressive Christians for not taking the challenges of Christianophobia seriously in some of their harsh criticism. It would be easier for other Christians to take their criticism seriously if they showed a modicum of concern of anti-Christian bias. But neither stance changes the reality of what is occurring, which will be a revitalization of progressive Christianity at the expense of conservative Christians.