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The Polarisation and Turbulence within the Evangelical Movement

The Polarisation and Turbulence within the Evangelical Movement October 28, 2021

The evangelical movement is a favourite target for liberal atheists like myself, partly because it is an easy target – people believing either silly or heinous things. Or both. You only have to look at Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland.

However, in the wake of the rise of populism and Trumpism, evangelicals appear to have become even more right-wing and conservative and even more emboldened to say insane things and act like modern fascist incarnations.

This polarisation has manifested itself in the evangelical movement starting to turn on itself. I would advise people read the recent and excellent The Atlantic piece by Peter Wehner, “The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart“.

The article starts out by detailing how three (conservative) elders were not given the 75% vote to be installed, something that should have been quite routine, due to the campaigning actions of a growing group of ultra-rightist church members:

Platt, who is theologically conservative, had been accused in the months before the vote by a small but zealous group within his church of “wokeness” and being “left of center,” of pushing a “social justice” agenda and promoting critical race theory, and of attempting to “purge conservative members.” A Facebook page and a right-wing website have targeted Platt and his leadership. For his part, Platt, speaking to his congregation, described an email that was circulated claiming, “MBC is no longer McLean Bible Church, that it’s now Melanin Bible Church.”

What happened at McLean Bible Church is happening all over the evangelical world. Influential figures such as the theologian Russell Moore and the Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention; both were targeted by right-wing elements within the SBC. The Christian Post, an online evangelical newspaper, published an op-ed by one of its contributors criticizing religious conservatives like Platt, Russell Moore, Beth Moore, and Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, as “progressive Christian figures” who “commonly champion leftist ideology.” In a matter of months, four pastors resigned from Bethlehem Baptist Church, a flagship church in Minneapolis. One of those pastors, Bryan Pickering, cited mistreatment by elders, domineering leadership, bullying, and “spiritual abuse and a toxic culture.” Political conflicts are hardly the whole reason for the turmoil, but according to news accounts, they played a significant role, particularly on matters having to do with race.

“Nearly everyone tells me there is at the very least a small group in nearly every evangelical church complaining and agitating against teaching or policies that aren’t sufficiently conservative or anti-woke,” a pastor and prominent figure within the evangelical world told me. (Like others with whom I spoke about this topic, he requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.) “It’s everywhere.”

The question is, is this sort of behaviour a growing problem, a new problem? Yes, there have always been extreme factions, but are they now more numerous and more emboldened by a leader (Trump) and his arguably white ethno-nationalist administration, and by the news media outlets that have propped them up?

Michael O. Emerson, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told me that he and his research team have spent the past three years studying race and Christianity. “The divisions and conflicts we found are intense, easily more intense than I have seen in my 25 years of studying the topic,” he told me. What this adds up to, he said, is “an emerging day of reckoning within churches.”

Whilst problems for churches have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, there is no doubt that the fractures were already evident and widening.

The root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized. The result is not only wounding the nation; it’s having a devastating impact on the Christian faith.

Ever since the rise of the neocons in the 60s and 70s, the “church” has been a fairly overtly political place seeing separation of church and state regulations straining under pressure to keep them in check.

As the article explains, the separation is made all the more difficult as key political ideologies and positions have been seen to be religious and theological positions as well. (Caveat, I will be talking much about the right of moderate to the extremes of the evangelical movement on the understanding that not everyone falls into these categories.)

The culture wars are a great example of this. It is the woke left, so the narrative from the right goes, that is trying to take the Christ out of, and wage war on, Christmas. Sexuality, trans, even big government all become areas of Christian politics. And when you think you have God on your side, you fight all the harder, and use all of the mechanisms under the influence of the religious network across the country to aid your campaign.

This has been brewing for decades, but Trump and FOX, with Newsmax and OAN nipping at their heels, have fuelled this even greater populist tidal wave of an assault on the liberal left in the great culture war.

“When Trump was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers,’ it crossed a line,” Marsden said. “Tribal instincts seem to have become overwhelming.” The dominance of political religion over professed religion is seen in how, for many, the loyalty to Trump became a blind allegiance. The result is that many Christian followers of Trump “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs, and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.”

But where does it go from here? Do we get the popcorn and sit back to watch the ride? The thing is, the evangelical movements still represents inordinate power within the institutions and communities across America.

Tim Schultz, the president of the 1st Amendment Partnership and an advocate for religious freedom, told me that evangelicalism was due a reckoning. “It has been held together by political orientation and sociology more than by common theology,” he said. The twin crises of the summer of 2020—COVID and a heightened awareness of enduring racial injustices—exposed this long-unnoticed truth.

Some of the most distinctive features of the evangelical movement may have left it particularly vulnerable to this form of politicization. Among religious believers, evangelicals are some of the most anti-institutional, Timothy J. Keller, the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, in Manhattan, told me. The evangelical movement flourished in this relatively anti-institutional country at a particularly anti-institutional time. Evangelical ministries and churches fit the “spirit of the age,” growing rapidly in the 1970s, and retaining more of their members even as many mainline denominations declined.

At the same time, Keller argues, that anti-institutional tendency makes evangelical communities more prone than others to “insider abuse”—corruption committed by leaders who have almost no guardrails—and “outsider-ism,” in which evangelicals simply refuse to let their church form them or their beliefs. As a result, they are unrooted—and therefore susceptible to political idolization, fanatical ideas, and conspiracy theories.

Evangelical churches are thus prone to polarisation, and to moving to the extremes. The response given to the author Wehner by James Ernest, editor-in-chief of religious publishers Eerdmans, was fascinating. He lays the blame squarely on the churches themselves in not teaching properly, in poor catechism:

“The evangelical Church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.”

Of course, in such an absence, culture catechises. And culture is an unregulated mess of social media, disinformation and misinformation. Facebook and Twitter are the new pulpits, and viral fake news the new Sunday readings.

If a responsible church is teaching more moderate moral lessons for half an hour a week, but the congregation is then being fed on a diet of five hours a day of social media poison, then the responsible churches are fighting an uphill battle.

Instead, many churches choose to swim with the putrid current.

This is a point that is raised in the article, as Alan Jacobs of Baylor University observes:

“People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”

Identity politics is a wide-ranging phenomenon. Politics is now fully an identifier of people – people use it to virtual signal. Long-gone are the days where we used to say, “Er, sorry, we don’t talk about religion or politics.” Or is this a UK thing? Where politics and Christianity have become intermingled, they both become identity markers that people wear proudly on their sleeves.

The right like to moan about virtual signalling, but we all do it, and arguably the right more so. One commenter here cannot stop themselves from writing “Semper fi” at the bottom of every single one of their comments. Why would you do that other than to signal to others the virtue of your own military service? How odd.

Oh, but it’s the woke left who love to virtue signal (See “Religious Symbolism, Semper Fi and Virtue Signalling“).

Anyway, I digress.

The direction of causality is fascinating. Does politics inform religion or does religion inform politics? The data looks to show that religion supervenes on politics, as I discussed here:  “Does Belief in God Drive One’s Politics or Politics Drive One’s Belief in God?

For many Christians, their politics has become more of an identity marker than their faith. They might insist that they are interpreting their politics through the prism of scripture, with the former subordinate to the latter, but in fact scripture and biblical ethics are often distorted to fit their politics.

Scott Dudley, the senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington, refers to this as “our idolatry of politics.” He’s heard of many congregants leaving their church because it didn’t match their politics, he told me, but has never once heard of someone changing their politics because it didn’t match their church’s teaching. He often tells his congregation that if the Bible doesn’t challenge your politics at least occasionally, you’re not really paying attention to the Hebrew scriptures or the New Testament. The reality, however, is that a lot of people, especially in this era, will leave a church if their political views are ever challenged, even around the edges.

“Many people are much more committed to their politics than to what the Bible actually says,” Dudley said.

Churches aren’t so much about Jesus anymore, arguably. Goodness, if they were, they might heed some of what he supposedly said. As, for example, Matthew 19:21 (and a number of other verses) says:

Jesus said to him, “If you want to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

It’s far more likely that congregants now look to churches as more of a clubhouse meeting point for like-minded people. Guns, anti-choice and abortion, them gays, and other conservative talking points drive many of them to such places, looking to cherry-pick Bible verses to post hoc rationalise their politics.

Trump was able to come along and utilise this scenario, to champion these people who had hitherto been urged on by FOX, but hadn’t quite felt comfortable enough to shout their true beliefs from the rafters. Trump gave them voice, with Newsmax and OAN urging them on like almost-bullies in the playground.

“Evangelicals are quick to label their values ‘biblical,’” Du Mez told me. “But how they interpret the scriptures, which parts they decide to emphasize and which parts they decide to ignore, all this is informed by their historical and cultural circumstances.” That’s not simply true of this one community, she added, but of all people of faith. “More than most other Christians, however, conservative evangelicals insist that they are rejecting cultural influences,” she said, “when in fact their faith is profoundly shaped by cultural and political values, by their racial identity and their Christian nationalism.”

Christian nationalism – there it is, and there it grows in threat. It has already won out in certain areas. Texas anyone?

So we see the evangelical church move in more to the extreme where they don’t pick up anyone new, but they do end up shedding the more moderate elements of their movement. I can’t see this being good for their long-term viability, but it does make them an even more dangerous threat to liberal values.

The challenge is the “mere exposure effect” – how advertising works. The more you shout about something, the more reasonable, acceptable, and perhaps desirable it becomes. The more this dangerous element feel emboldened to shout about their egregious opinions, the more the Overton window moves, and the more mainstream and acceptable their views become.

I will leave it here and perhaps return to the article as there is much more discussed and detailed therein.

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