How Liberal Protestantism Happens (and it’s even worse when it claims to be conservative)

When you ask the church to do something that it can’t, you have a problem.

Here is the premise for Mark Tooley’s brief for churches building community: Matt Yglesias.

Left leaning commentator Matthew Yglesias, who’s Jewish, tweeted today: “Think I’m becoming a Straussian/Putnamist who instrumentally wants to get everyone to go to church again.” Columnist Ross Douthat, who’s Catholic, responded: “Be the change you seek.” Yglesias retorted: “Not gonna sell out the chosen people like that! But I’m gonna go neocon and root for the Christians vs the post-Christians.”

Tooley then goes on about how much Protestant churches civilized America:

Churches and denominations were central to building America’s democratic ethos. They civilized and socialized the early frontier. They created a wider civil society supporting politics, education, charity and community building. Regular church goers have never been a majority in America. But churches as institutions were foundations and pillars of wider society that benefitted all. Typically savvy non religious people have recognized their centrality to American culture and civic life.

He even defends civil religion:

What critics of civil religion fail to see is that Christianity has a duty to society to help create the language and architecture for constructive civil life that benefits all. Christianity wants all to be fed, clothed, housed, provided health care, treated with dignity, given security, and equipped with the political tools to live harmoniously in peace. Christians seek the common good for all society, not just what directly benefits themselves. But this promotion of the common good certainly benefits Christians and itself witnesses to the power, grandeur and truth of the Gospel.

This is out of the playbook of Tim Keller on the church and social capital.

Tooley thinks that evangelicals and secularists fail to see the value that churches add to civil society:

Nondenominational Christianity and evangelicalism often lack this long history and self-understanding as cultural stewards. They often focus more exclusively on individual faith and spiritual needs sometimes from a consumerist perspective. Sometimes their adherents see themselves more as a tribe or a subculture than as parcel to wider society with wider responsibilities.

That could be the reason for some. But for others, the problem is that the social mission of the church is not only hard to find in Peter or Paul or Jesus (is that bar too high?), but also that when Protestants were best at creating social capital, they forgot about Jesus and the world to come. That’s why Machen was important. He saw what the social purpose of the church was doing to stuff like doctrine, preaching, evangelism, and missions.

The rejection of the Christian hope is not always definite or conscious; sometimes the liberal preacher tries to maintain a belief in the immortality of the soul. But the real basis of the belief in immortality has been given up by the rejection of the New Testament account of the resurrection of Christ. And, practically, the liberal preacher has very little to say about the other world. This world is really the center of all his thoughts; religion itself, and even God, are made merely a means for the betterment of conditions upon this earth.

Thus religion has become a mere function of the community or of the state. So it is looked upon by the men of the present day. Even hard-headed business men and politicians have become convinced that religion is needed. But it is thought to be needed merely as a means to an end. We have tried to get along without religion, it is said, but the experiment was a failure, and now religion must be called in to help. (Christianity and Liberalism)

How does Tooley think the mainline churches went off the rails? Some conservatives believe it happened because pastors let this world become as important as the world to come, not to mention that talking about otherworldliness with members of Congress and professors at Yale produces cringe.

But if you want to see Tooley’s argument salvage a Protestant liberal as a conservative, look at Geoffrey Kabaservice’s rendering of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who according to the New York Times combined the social gospel with 1960s activism (at Riverside Church, “an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament”).  But liberal Protestantism can become conservative when it supplies social glue:

In doctrinal terms, Coffin was indeed a conservative, even an orthodox one. He retained the traditional Protestant liturgy, from the opening prayer to the confession to the benediction, resisting the wave of reform that swept over most denominations in the 1960s. His congregation sung the powerful old New England hymns. . . . The civil rights and antiwar activism of the 1960s seemed part of a much older American history when set to the hymn’s ominous, rolling cadences and the spine-tingling words of McGeorge Bundy’s ancestor, the nineteenth-century poet James Russell Lowell: “once to every man and nation / Comes the moment to decide, / In the strife of truth with falsehood, / For the good or evil side; / Some great cause goes by forever / ‘Twixt that darkness and that light.”

If social ministry can turn Coffin into a conservative, even doctrinally orthodox Protestant, Tooley has some work to do.

Here’s maybe not the but a thing: civil society does not depend on Christians. Believers often make good neighbors, though you’d never know from evangelical scholars these days. Invariably, Christians take out the trash, support Little League, donate books to the public library’s book sale fund raiser, approve of taxes to support police and fire departments. They also vote, which can be an anti-democratic form of social behavior if the ballot goes for the wrong candidate. If civil society has declined in America, it is not because of churches or their members. Rotary, the Elks, and Odd Fellows have also faded in the fabric of American society. For a host of reasons, Americans don’t join a host of voluntary organizations any more. One hunch is the social world that the internet has created. Another factor may be the outgrown size of national politics in the attention of journalists, teachers, and even radio talk show hosts.

But even if the path to a health America went through the social capital generated by churches, the question remains: is this what Scripture teaches?

Rush Ten Years Ago

Lots of people are writing about Rush Limbaugh now that he is dead. Bill (aka Wilfred) wrote about Rush a decade ago for Commentary magazine and pretty much capture the phenomenon that was The Rush Limbaugh Show. He describes a dynamic that made Donald Trump attractive and that continues to polarize the people who live in the United States:

Talk radio is, implicitly, talk-back radio—a medium tuned into during times of frustration, exasperation, even desperation, by people who do not find that their thoughts, sentiments, values, and loyalties are fairly or even minimally represented in the “official” media. Such feelings may be justified or unjustified, wholesome or noxious; but in any event they are likely to fester and curdle in the absence of some outlet in which they can be expressed. Talk radio is a place where people can go to hear opinions freely expressed that they will not hear elsewhere, and where they can come away with a sense of confirmation that they are not alone, are not crazy, and are not wrong to think and feel such things. The existence of such frustrations and fears are the sine qua non of talk radio; it would not exist without them.

In other words, will Scott Simon at NPR ever recognize why he never gets under the skin of his regular listeners? He can imagine — and only imagine — how his coverage might sound to Trump voters. But have journalists like him ever challenged the assumptions and prejudices of elites in business, entertainment, federal agencies, and the academy? Is that even possible?

So, some Americans looked to talk radio:

The critics may be correct that the flourishing of talk radio is a sign of something wrong in our culture. But they mistake the effect for the cause. Talk radio is not the cause, but the corrective. In our own time, and in the person of Rush Limbaugh, along with others of his talk-radio brethren, a problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and
self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.

McClay wrote that ten years ago.

Follow the Parents

Sometimes I wonder if journalists who cover the virus actually believe the narrative that leads to panic (which means they are as gullible as the fear-driven Trump voters) or are cynically reporting in a way to generate clicks and listens. A few weeks ago, Scott Simon, the master of journalistic empathy, revealed that journalists may actually prefer strong parents to reporters who question authority.

NPR’s Scott Simon talks with Dr. Curtis Chan, Deputy Health Officer for San Mateo County, CA about the county’s decision NOT to issue a stay-at-home order, as neighboring counties have.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST: Nearly 3,000 Americans are dying each day now from COVID-19. Hospital beds are full. ICU units are overwhelmed. Mayors and governors are saying stay home. Five counties near San Francisco and the city of Berkeley are in shutdown, but not San Mateo County. We’re joined now by Dr. Curtis Chan, who is deputy health officer for San Mateo County. Dr. Chan, thanks so much for being with us.

CURTIS CHAN: Nice to be here.

SIMON: Why has San Mateo decided to do something different?

CHAN: San Mateo County is following the federal guidelines and state guidelines, including the ones that were just released explaining that we should be staying at home once ICU capacity is below 15%. And we intend to follow that. You know, we also looked at our data. And we said, who is not staying home? Who’s causing the most transmissions? And we wanted to have targeted interventions for those people who are not staying at home and those people who are causing transmissions.

SIMON: Well, what does the data show?

CHAN: As for the specific cases going up, what we’ve seen in the last four weeks, it’s primarily amongst young adults between 20 to 30 years old. And those were the rates of highest rise. And we’re already in the very restrictive purple tier in California. And we didn’t think that immediately having health officer orders was going to be the strategy that would change behaviors immediately.

SIMON: Well, why not? I mean, why not issue the order and use that as, if nothing else, dramatic emphasis to make your point?

CHAN: Yeah. I think it’s an approach of harm reduction and thinking about people’s mental state. We’ve seen from the CDC reports that young people are the ones who are experiencing a tremendous amount of anxiety and stress and depression. And many of them are accustomed to social gatherings. And they’ve been continuing to social gather despite our health officer orders previously.

SIMON: You know, you’re stating some very good scientific facts, but I still don’t understand what makes you then shy away from some kind of stay-at-home order. I mean, I say this as a father. Help me translate it. It strikes me that in some ways you’re saying, look; if you tell people you must stay at home, this young group, this young demographic we’re trying to reach will do just the opposite.

CHAN: Well, the first thing is that it’s not enforceable. If we could actually enforce this and it was statewide or across the region or the country, I would think it’s a great idea. But I think, you know, it’s going to be counterproductive because it’s going to drive behaviors underground. And we think that there would be resentment that they can’t socially gather, let’s say, outside. But we don’t have the enforcement to prevent people from gathering inside, and there could be, you know, 10 young people or eight young people. So we think it’s a tremendously good idea. And those are our public health recommendations. But we didn’t have that as a legal order that suggests that it’s going to be enforced by law enforcement officials.

The reporter’s tell: “you’re stating some very good scientific facts, but I still don’t understand what makes you then shy away from some kind of stay-at-home order. I mean, I say this as a father.”

The Public Health official’s honesty: “the first thing is that it’s not enforceable. If we could actually enforce this and it was statewide or across the region or the country, I would think it’s a great idea. But I think, you know, it’s going to be counterproductive because it’s going to drive behaviors underground.”

Imagine that. Balancing science, human nature, and possibility.

Luther on Protests (violent, verbal, or peaceful)

In light of the point derived from Luther that justice requires peace (“No Peace, No Justice“), along comes Luther’s reflections on Psalm 37 (“Fret not yourself because of evil-doers; be not envious of wrong-doers”):

The 37th psalm is a psalm of comfort that teaches and exhorts us to have patience in the world and warns us, especially, against envy. For it is vexing and painful to the ‘Weak in faith when things go so well for the godless and the opposite happens to those who fear God. It is a great spiritual virtue when-seeing the great misdeeds of the peasants, the townspeople, the nobility, the princes, and every one who has any power-one yet exerts himself not to blaspheme or inwardly wish this and that curse on them. Moreover, he still suffers and sees that all things go well for them and they remain unpunished. Indeed, they are praised and honored, while the God-fearing are miserable, despised, hated, begrudged, obstructed, vexed, and persecuted.

The message is: Learn to have endurance. Take your heart to God and do not let yourself be vexed. Do not become envious, or curse, or with evil to fall, or murmur, or look at them with hatred. Let these people go and commend them to God, who will surely find all things out. The psalm teaches this and comforts us in a variety of ways with abundant promises, with examples, with warnings. For it is a great and difficult art to manifest such patient longsuffering, when reason and all the heathen count envy as virtue. For it appears as though it were just and fair to envy and begrudge the ungodly for their wantonness, their good fortune, and their riches.

This works so many ways. It should caution those woke Christians who rush to join the ranks of all those condemning all manner of imperfection. It should also provide counsel for Christian political conservatives who think the American republic is about to sink.

Beware, of course, that if you follow such advice you may be on the receiving end of those who think you are just like the German Lutherans who did not rise up and overthrow the Nazis. If that happens, remember “No peace, no justice”:

The office of vengeance has not been given to [us]. Later he will talk about the law of the gospel, which calls us to turn the other cheek, but that is not his point here. Luther’s point here about nonviolence does not rest on a Christian account of pacifism, but rather on natural law: civil society requires that some rule while others are ruled. Even if rulers are morally unjust, subjects have no right to rebel, which is tantamount to pretending that they themselves must rule. Such a pretension violates order, or “justice” in the Platonic sense of “everyone doing his own job.” Luther puts it this way: “The fact that the rulers are wicked and unjust does not excuse disorder and rebellion, for the punishing of wickedness is not the responsibility of everyone, but of the worldly rulers who bear the sword.” Order has priority over justice.

Selah

When COVID-19 Is Symptomatic (not symptomic)

What if most people, such as the president of Harvard, get sick and it’s no big deal? Even with autoimmune condition:

Harvard President Larry Bacow announced in an email to the Harvard community on March 24 that he and his wife, Adele Fleet Bacow, had been exposed to the spreading coronavirus. More than a week after they began working from home and limiting their outside contacts, both started experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19. Now recovered, he shared their experience with the Gazette.

Q&A
Larry Bacow
GAZETTE: How are you and Adele feeling?

BACOW: We are feeling much better. We were very fortunate. We never experienced any of the respiratory problems that sent so many people to the hospital. For us, this felt a lot like the flu. Not fun, but certainly not life-threatening, at least in our case.

GAZETTE: What were your symptoms?

BACOW: We both started off with a cough and then that progressed to having a fever and chills. I also had whole-body muscle aches. Everything hurt. I felt like I was 120 years old almost overnight. And then lethargy — just how you feel when you have the flu.

GAZETTE: What was going through your mind when you learned you had both tested positive?

BACOW: Well, we’d been very, very careful, and I was a little bit surprised, in truth, because Adele and I had not seen anyone except each other for close to 10 days before we started experiencing symptoms. We were completely isolated in the house. One reason we had taken such precautions is because I live with an autoimmune condition that makes me very susceptible to any kind of infection. In fact, some people questioned why I actually got tested. It’s because I’m immunosuppressed. So I was at risk. And when we tested positive I thought, “This is going to be interesting.”

I was also worried about being able to discharge my responsibilities. When I was at Tufts, I had gotten quite ill in 2004 when my autoimmune condition was first diagnosed, and I had had to take a month off of work. I realized that I needed to look after my own health. I wasn’t good to anybody if I wasn’t healthy. But beyond that, I realized I also had to give others permission to take the time they needed to recover if they got sick. So when I tested positive, I tried to model the behavior I would hope to see in others by being a good patient and doing what I was supposed to do.

Have the Protesters (and city officials) Seen The Wire?

From All the Pieces Matter:

Kwame Patterson: The looting and stuff, that helps nothing. The first thing we do is we loot or own community. They marched down in Fells Point, but it wasn’t looting in Fells Point. Police don’t care about you looting in the hood. That’s the hood. They don’t care about that

It’s the same thing when the LA riots happened It’s like, “y’all looting in the area where y’all live at. That’s stupid. Go to Beverly Hills if you want to prove a point.” Because they ain’t going to let you come to Beverly Hills. They gonna shut you down quick. You looting in Englewood, Compton, they just standing out there watching They just making sure they don’t get too crazy. They just stand out there. But come to Beverly Hills and start looting like that, they gonna shut it down quick, and that’s just what it is. So if you’re going to do that, not that I’m condoning it,, do it where it matters. Thats’s why I’ve never been a big fan of the rioting stuff, because I think it’s stupid. I feel like when they do that, they’re not really about the cause. (311-12)

Ed Burns: Baltimore’s an interesting city. The majority’s African American, and yet, there’s been no programs coming out of Baltimore that would be cutting-edge, new ways of looking at things.

In fact, we adapt programs from Boston and Kansas City, towns that are totally unlike Baltimore They come here and they fall flat on their face. The reason is because this is a very cheap little town, parochial. We don’t think big. We don’t think outside the box Then you’ve got Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, which are the two big employers here, and nothing’s coming out of them, so it’s the same old crap over and over and over again, same old approach….

There’s this wonderful line from a theologians named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who got it in his head–he was a German–to leave England in 1944 to come back to confront Hitler. He was [executed] two weeks before the end of the war. He has this line, he says, “if you get on the wrong train, running down the aisle backward is not a solution. You have to get off the train.” We created thee programs back in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, that were the wrong programs. That’s our train, and we tinker with them, but the problem’s way back there and we’re not getting off the train. There’s this whole idea of the war on drugs. I mean, that is our longest war, and that war has more casualties than all together wars combined. . . . We’re not willing to get off of that train because we’ere all experts on the train. We step off the train and now we have to open ourselves up to the problem and rediscover. Now we’re no longer experts. If I had a PhD behind my name or two or three behind my name, I’m not getting off any [bleeping] train. I’ll ride that baby right into retirement. (313-14)

Thinking is a Many Splendored Thing

There is thinking like a historian:

we need to understand the past in all its fullness in order to make sense of the complexity of the human experience. I am largely talking here about the classroom, where I teach American history as if all voices matter. Please don’t get me wrong. Yes, Black lives matter. I am disgusted when I hear the political Right screaming “all lives matter” as a way of avoiding tough conversations on racial injustice, systemic racism, and the experience of African Americans. Responding to the phrase “black lives matter” with the phrase “all lives matter” represents a failure to address the pain and suffering of Black men and women in this particular moment. …

But when I teach history, especially when I do broad sweeps in a survey class, I am charged with telling the story of the United States. In this sense, my students must be exposed to all American lives. They must encounter these lives in their context, and in all their complexity, even if it makes them (and I am talking about white students and students of color here) uncomfortable. We can’t erase the past. We must confront it.

Only once students “understand their subjects thoroughly and empathically, there is a place for moral critique.” Thinking historically is understanding someone else, maybe even being ready to forgive, or withhold judgment.

This could be the gospel compared to the law of thinking like a Christian. When you do that you pretty much go into righteous indignation (as in “they will know we are Christians by what we condemn”):

It does seem that one can be morally correct about a particular social cause, and still respond to such a matter in a manner defined by “pure and unmitigated hate.” I struggle with this on a daily basis as I write about Donald Trump. I have had to do a lot of confessing of sins in the last four years and have tried to distinguish between a legitimate, Christian-based, critique of Trump and his court evangelicals and the kind of angry rhetoric that is not good for my spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others. I have found that prayer–for Donald Trump and his administration, for the evangelical church, and for the best way to strike an appropriate prophetic voice– is often an antidote to this kind of anger. But I’m not always good at it.

Neither of these ways of think is political (Bill McClay on vandalism):

the most disturbing aspect of this episode, which perhaps indicates how deep our societal rot goes, has less to do with the rioters than with those in positions of authority. Rioters and miscreants we will always have, but that is why we have authorities. Ours, however, seem to have utterly abdicated. In city after city, mayors and governors decline to act against vandals, the police stand down, and the devil is allowed to take the hindmost. Corporations fall over themselves to advertise their virtuousness, and give what looks very much like protection money to organizations whose goals are openly subversive of the fundamental American political and social order.

Almost thirty years of integrating faith and learning and Christians still struggle with thought.

Timely, Timeless, and Weekly

After pondering why pastors (and even parachurch leaders) feel the necessity to comment on contemporary affairs — and whether this is connected to civil religion or pious nationalism — I was curious to see what the gospel allies have been writing about the pandemic.

One problem for people who are in the business of teaching and defending enduring truths like those from a book over two millennia old is that commentary on current affairs can be dated oh so quickly, even in a piece that initially seemed so brilliant:

3. What Decisions Do We Need to Make?
[Note this update from Crouch: As of the President and federal health officials’ afternoon press conference on 16 March 2020, this advice, which was intended for leaders making decisions on or immediately after12 March 2020, is obsolete, though still helpful both for modeling how Christians might make such decisions and in helping us comply with existing restrictions (e.g., in places where gatherings of up to ten are allowed). I will not be updating it further. All leaders should obey both the requirements and the requests of public officials at every level.]

Groups of less than ten people can meet together with minimal risk, provided that
*no one present is sick or has any reason to think they have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2,
*shared surfaces are disinfected before and after the meeting
*everyone washes their hands thoroughly (more than 20 seconds) upon arrival and upon returning to their home
*food and drink are served individually
*as much distance as possible is maintained between members of different households and their belongings.

Another oddity is the tacit admission that Christians are so poorly read that they need to go to a parachurch website for knowledge about a topic that almost everyone is talking about 24/7. Don’t believers actually know where to go for information about the world they share in common with non-believers? Or do they need that knowledge to come from reliable sources (and only Christian sources are reliable)? This piece has good material, but it also comes across paternalistically, like we need to spoon feed this stuff to you kids out there:

The use of the terms endemic, outbreak, epidemic, and pandemic do not denote the severity, or how serious the condition has become. For instance, influenza (flu) is endemic to the United States, though the severity changes from year to year. The severity of the flu in 2019–2020 is classified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as being “high.” According to CDC estimates, from October 1, 2019, through February 15, 2020, there have been 29 million to 41 million flu illnesses, 13 million to 19 million flu medical visits, 280,000 to 500,000 flu hospitalizations, and 16,000 to 41,000 flu deaths.

In contrast, the COVID-19 has (as of February 24, 2020), resulted in 51,838 currently infected patients (40,271 in mild condition; 11,567 in serious condition), 25,271 recovered cases, and 2,698 deaths. It’s currently unclear what level of severity we should expect if COVID-19 becomes a pandemic.

Two other important terms are containment and mitigation. Containment is measures taken to slow the spread of a condition, usually for the purpose of making preparations before it becomes an epidemic or pandemic. As applied to COVID-19, containment has included measures taken to slow the spread of the virus (a somewhat achievable goal) rather than intended to stop the complete spread of the disease (which may not be achievable, at least in the short term). Mitigation is efforts to reduce the severity or seriousness of the condition. In a pandemic, mitigation strategies may include a variety of approaches, from encouraging handwashing to the creation of new vaccines.

So what are Christians to do? Why can’t they have Sundays for a word from the Lord, fellowship of the saints, and rest from this world in anticipation of the eternal rest to come? Machen sure seemed to understand this:

Remember this, at least — the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal, and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as minsters of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give — the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God. (Selected Shorter Writings, 205)

The other six days, let the experts have their say and let the saints figure out — in consultation with friends, parents, cousins, teachers, colleagues — which experts to follow. Is that too secular?

Proportional Meanness

This is inspired by trying to calculate the sweepstakes for Christians criticizing Christians. As much as Calvinists may suffer from a reputation for orneriness, some of the folks on the progressive side of evangelicalism have a pretty low threshold for deviation from progressive evangelical norms.

I suspect most people who write critically about others, in venues other than book reviews, have some sense of the critique’s degree of importance. How much of a threat is the person about whom you are posting or writing a stand-alone article? Part of the calculation behind criticism is actually preventing the spread of error or harm. But another side of it — and does it take only someone who believes in total depravity (or has seen The Wire)? — is what notoriety and even recognition an author might receive writing the piece. If it is an easy dismissal, one where most people agree — like Donald Trump is a moral cretin, then you need to add value to have your criticism taken seriously and distinguish your perspective from the herd. But if it requires some work to see the problem in the person under scrutiny, then what you gain potentially by criticizing is a reputation for being smart or clever — thinking outside the box. In which case, if Jonathan Merritt criticizes Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today magazine, he will need to work fairly hard since Galli has received lots of praise for writing an op-ed in favor of Trump’s impeachment (those were the days!). To take on Galli could hurt your own standing. But if someone writes about the frivolity and potential danger of Joel Osteen, you don’t have to work all that hard.

Then the question will be where you publish. If you want to impress editors in D.C. or New York, chances are you can’t simply contend against religious celebrities who may be very popular but are not very well known or very interesting to cosmopolitan readers. You may want to rail against Osteen, but editors at The Atlantic or New Yorker will be right to ask why should we or our readers care? If you want to write for a rank-and-file conservative Protestant outlet, you may not have to work as hard since editors may have trouble finding good copy. But you also need to be careful that editors or readers of the publication may like the person you are criticizing. If so you need to write your critique in a way that is plausible even to the admirers of the person you intend to correct.

That seems to leave three layers of calculus: 1) how big or famous is the person you are criticizing? 2) how national or parochial is the publication to which you are submitting your critique? 3) how do you rate in comparison to either the object of criticism or the authors who write regularly for the publication?

If you are a big fish in a small pond and go after an obvious target, say someone like Carl Trueman writing a critical piece of the atheist Sam Harris for New Horizons, then you may have misfired. Who among New Horizons’ readers needs to be schooled in the dangers of atheism.

But if you are a smaller fish in a bigger pond, say a professor at Westminster Seminary writing a critical estimate of Karl Barth for Theology Today, then you need to walk carefully since the editors and readership are inclined to be partial to Barth.

And if you are a big fish writing in a big pond about a little fish, say Stanley Hauerwas writing at First Things about the impoverished theology of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, you probably won’t do it. You would be wasting your own learning on someone outside the ranks of professional theology. And even if the readers of First Things regularly publish what your submit, you may not want to waste your capital on a subject that is of little concern to the editors or readers of the journal. You start to publish too many pieces on thinkers, writers, or pastors that are not in your league, you may drop down from the Premier League to the Football League.

So why is it that evangelicals who are minor figures in the national pantheon of thought leaders and public intellectuals don’t see how large or obvious the subtext is when they hammer away at the religious celebrities that secular or Christian progressives find so easy to mock? It is not even a question of loyalty to your tribe however thin the ties may be within tribal evangelicalism. It is a question of thoughtfulness. If you want to impress your cultural superiors, do you really take on subjects that are virtually defenseless (other than having standing from celebrity)?

On the other side of the relationship, why do secular editors publish criticisms from evangelical journalists and academics of pastors and Protestant celebrities about whom none of their readers actually care? Maybe it is a way of “otherizing” the religious whackos and allowing yourself and your readers the chance to feel superior to the religious unwashed. That’s not terribly clever or difficult, though it likely explains the logic behind click-bait. But why evangelical journalists or academics ever want to be used that way is a mystery. I hope they are washing more than their hands (early and often).

Taking Every Fluid Ounce Captive

Churches have specific associations with bodies of water. This Lutheran Church Missouri Synod writer claims the Mississippi (but I wonder if Mark Twain would let him not to mention what Lutherans in Germany might think about rivers in the United States):

A lot of evangelicals are swimming these days. They’re slipping on their metaphorical fins and masks and churning their way across bodies of water to emerge on the other shore as members of a different faith community. Those that move from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism are said to swim the Tiber; those that become Orthodox swim the Bosporus.

Reasons for their aquatic activities vary. Some like the art and architecture associated with the ancient faiths. Some like the ceremonial aspects–the liturgies, the veneration of icons, the Eucharist. Some like the history that oozes from Catholicism and Orthodoxy, a history that travels through great saints of yesteryear–through Augustine, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nazianzus–but goes largely forgotten in contemporary evangelicalism. . . .

But evangelicals interested in “swimming” to a different tradition should consider traversing a body of water much closer to home: the Mississippi River, on which is located St. Louis, Missouri, and the headquarters of the premier conservative Lutheran church body in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

This raises at least one question: what body of water should Presbyterians identify with for their denominational affiliation?

American Presbyterians would likely claim the Delaware River since the first presbytery and General Assembly met in Philadelphia. But the Chesapeake might also apply since some of the earliest congregations settled by Ulster Presbyterians were in Maryland.

European Presbyterians, if the look to Geneva, probably invoke Lake Geneva.

The Scots likely think about the Firth of Forth (I was thinking it was a Fifth) given the estuary’s proximity to Edinburgh.

The Irish? They may have the hardest time attracting converts if crossing the North Sea is necessary for being a Presbyterian in Northern Ireland. I’m not sure swimming the Belfast Lough is any less challenging.