Ruth Graham has a typically excellent piece on how “[White] Evangelicals Are Extremely Excited About Kanye’s Jesus Is King.”
The excitement she describes isn’t centered around the salvation of Kanye West’s immortal soul. This is not a “joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth” kind of thing. It’s more of a pep-rally for Our Team, which exists always and only in a zero-sum competition with Their Team.
Graham collects some of the effusive praise over the new album, little of which even mentions the religious substance of West’s earnest bid for the Urban Hillsong niche. It’s all about the culture war and about the partisan politics of the Civil Rights Era backlash that has fueled that culture war for the past half century. After all, as Graham notes, Kanye’s “conversion” isn’t really news: “West has arguably been a ‘Christian rapper’ for years; ‘Jesus Walks‘ is 15 years old.”
That’s true, but 15 years ago white evangelicals hated Kanye West because he criticized George W. Bush for his careless failure to stand by Black Americans dying in New Orleans. That meant Kanye wasn’t on Our Team in the partisan game of the culture war. He was scoring points for Their Team, and that was unforgivable.
It would take more than a Gospel album to change white evangelical opinions of Kanye West, no matter how explicitly Jesus-y that album might be. Because white evangelicals don’t care about Gospel albums. They never got “extremely excited” when Al Green or Aretha or Mavis Staples put out albums of church music because Gospel was the wrong kind of church music. Gospel is far too stony-the-road-we-trod for white evangelicals to be comfortable with it, let alone “extremely excited” by it.
Gospel music is actually a threat to white evangelicals and to white evangelicalism. It’s music for Their Team — music that helped to inspire and to sustain the very thing that late 20th and 21st-century white evangelicalism exists to obliterate: the Civil Rights Movement.
But Jesus Is King is fine because it’s not a Gospel album. It’s a “Worship” album — a product of and for the kind of hip Southern California white evangelical mega-church that Kanye’s in-laws introduced him to. Musically, it may have more than the usual amount of Gospel flavor, but it’s still a white evangelical Worship album.
This bit from Graham’s article explains the distinction:
West has plenty of ties to the circle of young, stylish pastors in Justin Bieber’s social circle; one of them performed his lavish wedding in 2014. But he has chosen a theologically rigorous Calvinist pastor as his latest spiritual mentor. The Rev. Adam Tyson is pastor of a small church outside Los Angeles and has close ties to the Master’s Seminary, known for its conservative theology. (Its students and teaching faculty are all male; one of the Duggar sisters’ husbands is a current student.) Over the last several months, Tyson has been on the road with West and has conducted Bible studies with West and his team in Wyoming. …But West’s new faith goes beyond theology to cultural affinity. One song on Jesus Is King reads as an ode to Chick-fil-A. West has spoken about kicking an addiction to pornography, and he has also said he sometimes asked people working on the album to fast or to avoid premarital sex. Other interviews have revealed his hopes that his wife would dress more modestly, and his new discomfort with letting his 6-year-old daughter wear makeup. Reporting on the evangelical community’s reconsideration of West in the summer, Christianity Today quoted one writer saying, “Kanye seems to feel much more like an insider to Christianity now.”
And yes, there’s the politics, too. Last fall, West visited the Oval Office and told President Donald Trump that wearing a red MAGA that made him “feel like Superman.” West called Trump supporter Jerry Falwell Jr. recently about performing at Liberty University. And anti-abortion groups including the Susan B. Anthony List and Live Action picked up on a radio interview this week in which West lambasted Democrats for taking advantage of black voters even though the party was “making us abort our children.”
(Fact check: Democrats are not making anyone abort their children.)
Note that Graham’s three-part description of Kanye’s newfound white evangelical membership — “conservative theology,” “cultural affinity,” “politics” — is far removed from strictly religious or theological attempts to define white evangelicalism. That trilateral description is a far cry from Bebbington’s quadrilateral.
But more importantly please note that it’s fundamentally misleading to regard Graham’s three aspects of white evangelicalism as separate or separable things. That “conservative theology” is not some ancient apostolic tradition or some orthodoxy that traces back even to the Reformers. It’s just the anti-feminist, anti-Civil Rights, anti-1960s, white Christian nationalist goulash served up by John MacArthur’s sketchy vanity-project seminary. Such “conservative” theologies are indistinguishable from “cultural affinity.” And both of those are simply expressions and manifestations of bare-knuckle partisan politics in America.