SBC Politics beyond Beth Moore (or will Southern Baptists save evangelicalism?)

I was listening to the Quick to Listen interview with Thomas Kidd about his new book, Who is An Evangelical, and heard a startling advertisement. Just about 32 minutes into the discussion, I heard Truett Seminary, the Southern Baptist institution for training ministers at Baylor University, plug its programs. Although the seminary describes itself as “orthodox” and “evangelical,” in that order, it also trains women to be pastors. The advertisement was explicit about that part of Truett’s endeavor. Here‘s an excerpt from a piece on Truett’s female alums:

Another reality for many Baptist women called to preach is whether to remain inside the Baptist denomination or to move to a denomination more open to female pastors. As Lillian enters her final semester at Truett, she is considering another denomination. As the daughter of a Baptist preacher and a Baptist all her life, this is a difficult decision to make. But Lillian is a woman in her fifties who has been divorced and she has to accept the fact that there may not be a place for her in Baptist life. She says, “I have already been turned down by one church as their music minister, because I was divorced. Being a woman and talking about preaching makes most people uncomfortable so I have to be careful what I say.” Lillian believes she is called to preach, not to divide churches. She loves the church and the people of God and believes that she will be a good pastor. Although the future is unclear, she resolves to remain hopeful, positive, and faithful to her call.

Leah also faced changing denominations, but says that she could not move because she is committed to Baptist beliefs and core ideas. She says, “…I see myself committing to this and so at the same time calling churches to committed to calling women, because I am not giving up on the Baptist church and the Baptist church doesn’t not need to be giving up on women either.”

Now, see if you can follow the bouncing balls.

Kidd has written a book about Protestants who have been generally opposed ordaining women. Evangelicals typically affirm traditional family values and roles for women (though that is not a big part of his book). Kidd is also a regular blogger at The Gospel Coalition which is firmly in the complementarian camp. The editors at Christianity Today who interviewed Kidd, at least one of them, is in a mainline Protestant denomination that ordains women. And the podcast is being sponsored by a Southern Baptist seminary that supports the ordination of women.

To add to potential confusion, maybe you younger readers have the visual dexterity, Kidd is going to teach part-time in the graduate programs at Midwestern Baptist Seminary, a school that admits women to the M.Div. but does not train them to preach:

Purpose: The Master of Divinity degree, Women’s Ministry concentration, cultivates a Christian lifestyle, offers instruction in classical theological disciplines, and develops theoretical understanding and practical skill related to women’s ministry.

Objectives: In addition to the Master of Divinity degree objectives, students graduating with the M.Div., Women’s Ministry concentration will be able to do the following:

Demonstrate understanding of the biblical and theological foundations of women’s ministry in the local church.

Demonstrate increased skill in the practice and leadership of women’s ministries in the local church.

In fact, women at MBTS take courses not in preaching but teaching.

If you want an additional shell to follow, consider that Ed Stetzer went from Lifeway Christian Resources to Wheaton College. Lifeway is the publisher for the SBC but also controlled by conservatives, the ones who are inerrantists and generally oppose female pastors. The moderates in the SBC look to Smyth & Helwys as their publisher for theology and biblical commentary. Wheaton College has many faculty in denominations that ordain women and even has had some female professors who are ordained to preach.

So, go ahead, try and correlate Southern Baptist conservatives with evangelicals. I dare you. See if it makes any sense for evangelical (what used to be a Yankee word in the SBC) institutions to establish closer ties with Southern Baptists except for increasing readership, audiences, enrollments, and subscriptions.

It makes you wonder about looking to conservatives in the SBC for leadership in evangelical circles if only because the Convention may be as soupy as evangelicalism. Look at what Trump has done to turn Southern Baptist conservatives from supporting Republicans to dabbling with progressives. Withdrawing support from the GOP is fine. It’s a free country. But it took Trump to do that?

And yet, because of their size and their presence in evangelical institutions like Christianity Today, Wheaton College, and The Gospel Coalition, Southern Baptists, no matter the previous identification with Republicans and their opposition to female preachers, are in a position to dominate an evangelical world that has no obvious successor to Billy Graham and the institutions that grew up around his endeavors.

Maybe the solution is Beth Moore. Maybe she can transcends all the parties and unite moderates and conservatives in the SBC along with evangelicals. Maybe she is the next Billy Graham. That way, if you like her, as George Marsden had it about Graham, you can be an evangelical.

Celebrity Bible Teacher Culture

Some are worried about the culture of Christian patriarchy that allows John MacArthur to disparage Bible teachers like Beth Moore. But as the Christianity Today feature story on the Southern Baptist celebrity teacher indicated, Moore also inhabits a culture that protects her from criticism (not to mention pastoral oversight). It is also a culture that is distant from the one inhabited by evangelicals with Ph.D.’s:

It was not easy to get there. Just as Moore’s stories are at once personal and private, Moore in person is intensely friendly—and closely protected by assistants who allow very few media interviews. After several interview requests from CT, her assistants allocated one hour to discuss her latest book and ask a few questions about her personal life. Each question had to be submitted and approved beforehand, I was told, or Moore would not do the interview. Follow-up interview requests were declined. I was permitted to see the ground level of her ministry, where workers package and ship study materials. But Moore’s third-floor office, where she writes in the company of her dog, was off limits.

Living Proof Ministries is relatively small compared with the ministries of women of similar notoriety. Its total revenue in 2008, $3.8 million, is dwarfed by Joyce Meyer Ministries’ ($112 million) and Kay Arthur’s Precept Ministries’ ($12.9 million) in the same year. (Meyer’s ministry says its top priorities are evangelism and social outreach; Arthur’s ministry mainly supplies resources for women to study die Bible inductively on their own; Moore’s ministry is grounded in her unique gift of teaching.) Living Proof employs only 16 people, including Moore’s two daughters and son-in-law.

“I think she does a really good job of sharing but not sharing too much,” Amanda Jones, 30, says of her mother. “There have been a few times where we thought, Oh we shared a little too much there, so we’re going to try to reel it back in.” Jones’s own posts on the Living Proof blog, which sometimes include pictures of her two children, are vetted by ministry staff.

Her mother’s openness about her struggles—and those of her family—is what makes her appealing to so many women, Jones says. And such references—like Moore discussing in 2001’s Feathers from My Nest her daughter Melissa’s eating disorder—are not causes for concern, says Jones. “I don’t ever sit there ; and shake and feel afraid that she’s going to ° share something crazy about our family that I ° don’t want anyone to know,” she says. “I feel 5 comfortable with her judgment on what to share and what to keep private.”

Moore describes herself as “fiercely and unapologetically private” about the topic of adopting a son for seven years and then returning him to his birth mother. Other than sharing his name (Michael), she offers few details in her talks, books, and interviews, other than to say that the boy had developed “alarming behaviors” and that his birth mother had “resurfaced, strongly desiring to reclaim her son” (Things Pondered). “I find myself wanting to say to my reader, who has become like a friend through the years, ‘May I share this without being expected to share much more?'” she wrote in Feathers from My Nest. She called the experience “complicated,” but says she references the story in her public ministry because other women may have had similar experiences that left them brokenhearted.

“It was an immensely painful time in my life, but if on the other side of it, God’s Word and his Spirit equip me to be able to turn around and minister to a woman, then it’s of value,” Moore tells CT. “We all deal with feelings of failure. It ranks right up there.”

In short, for Moore privacy is as important to authenticity as honesty is. Being the same person onstage and at home means acknowledging the existence and general shape of her struggles—but she works to leave her fans at the door of her home. It’s one of the key lessons she practices with husband Keith Moore, who recently retired from the home-service business he owned with his father. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Why Women Want Moore,” Christianity Today, August 2010)

Interpreting the Hebrew Bible at Harvard Divinity School

Word of Walter Kim’s appointment as the president of the National Association of Evangelicals could have an upside if Dr. Kim studied with Harvard’s Jon Levenson. The pastor at Trinity PCA in Charlottesville completed a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, which would put him in the vicinity of Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, is one of the foremost voices in the study of Hebrew Scriptures. Heck, even Pete Enns studied with Levenson.

The positive influence from Levinson on Kim could be interpreting the Old Testament and not letting it become a proof text for social justice. Consider the following:

Liberation theology has long had a problem with Jewish particularism. Consider the liberationists’ penchant for interpreting the poor and oppressed as the beneficiaries of one of their favorite biblical events, the Exodus. That the God of Israel is especially concerned with the vulnerable and eager to protect them is exceedingly easy to document from the many biblical passages that enjoin Israel to show special solicitude for the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the (landless) Levite and that depict God as their special protector. Nor is it out of bounds to argue that such concern plays a role in the biblical account of the Exodus.

The problem is that what links the beneficiaries of God’s intervention in the Exodus is something very different: descent from a common ancestor. Those delivered from Pharaoh and his regime are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and it is explicitly God’s memory of his covenant with the patriarchs that galvanizes him into action in Egypt. Had the motivation instead been concern for the poor and oppressed, the story would have taken a very different shape. Not just Israel but all the slaves of Egypt would have been freed, and slavery, explicitly allowed in biblical law (including the possibility of lifetime enslavement in the case of foreign bondsmen), would have been abolished.

When the poor and oppressed replace the people Israel as the beneficiaries of the Exodus, an idea, or social norm, has replaced a flesh-and-blood people. It then becomes possible for any group that can be made to fit into that idea or to benefit from that social norm to be the new Jews. This is the replacement theology secularized, or supersessionism without the church—and it swiftly opens the door for the old anti-Judaism to reappear in a post-Christian culture—not in the mouths of theocratic reactionaries but in those of free-thinking progressives.

Imagine what that kind rigor would do to one of Kim’s colleagues’ handling of seeking the welfare of the city.

The Politics of Scholarship on Evangelicalism

John Turner provides relief for those tired of the complaint about evangelical hypocrisy in voting for Donald Trump:

American evangelicals, white and otherwise, are far more interested in charity and evangelism than they are in politics. As Kidd comments, “charitable action is a more constant attribute of evangelicals than Republican political engagement is.” He then concludes, “we should not define evangelicalism by the 81 percent.” Rather, “being an evangelical entails certain beliefs, practices, and spiritual experiences.” For Kidd, voting for Donald Trump is tangential rather than central to the reality of most American evangelicals.

Two thoughts. 81%! Kidd suggests that pundits and scholars are hampered by definitional confusion about the definition of evangelical. Pollsters count many people as evangelical who would not define themselves that way. Still, 81%! I think Fitzgerald is correct. It’s not just that most nominal evangelicals voted Trump. Most committed, church-going white evangelicals did so as well. In fact, the more frequently people attended church, the more likely they were to vote Trump. This is one reason I attend a Presbyterian church. There’s no midweek worship, and you can be in and out in a shade more than an hour on Sundays. This inoculates me against Trump-voting. I won’t spend more time in church until after he leaves office, just in case. Hopefully he’ll be gone by the end of January 2020, and I can safely worship more frequently.

At the same time, I think we as historians err if we define evangelicalism – or our interests in evangelicalism – by that political statistic. Evangelicalism is not a political movement. Most churches that one might reasonably categorize as evangelical are not especially political, let alone hyper-partisan. Rather, those evangelical churches focus on weekly worship, small-group Bible studies, support for missions, and all sorts of other activities that rarely catch the attention of pundits.

Evangelicalism is primarily a phenomenon of religion. That makes sense.

But what did the emergence of the religious right during the Reagan era do to the scholarship on evangelicalism? And would anyone care about evangelicalism (if such a thing exists en mass) if not for politics?

In 1978, when Ernest R. Sandeen and Frederick Hale compiled an annotated bibliography on religious history, American Religion and Philosophy, evangelicalism did not even register an entry in the subject index, and the title index contained only four books or articles. By the early 1990s, when Butler felt he was drowning in a sea of born-again historiography, evangelicalism not only claimed more space in standard reference works but had grown to need its own. In 1990, Joel Carpenter and Edith Blumhofer produced the first bibliography exclusively on evangelicalism, Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism: A Guide to the Sources; and Norris Magnuson enlarged the corpus with American Evangelicalism: An Annotated Bibliography (1990), which he supplemented in 1996 with a second volume, American Evangelicalism II: First Bibliographical Supplement, 1990–1996. Reference works may not be the best guide to a subject’s popularity, but they do help to confirm that, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, evangelical Christianity went from merely a footnote in the fundamentalist controversy to a threat to the preeminence of mainline Protestantism.

The new scholarship on evangelicalism is clearly related to the surge of born-again involvement in electoral politics. Had the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons not emerged throughout the 1980s and 1990s as politically powerful, most non-evangelical academics would have had few reasons to care about the development and legacy of revivals, biblical inerrancy, the second coming of Christ, or the events of the first chapter of Genesis. Christine Heyrman conceded in Southern Cross (1997) that “Evangelicalism’s complex beginnings in the early South would probably claim the curiosity of only a small circle of historians were it not for the fact that this legacy now shapes the character of conservative Protestant churches in every region of the United States.” Despite the boost the Protestant Right gave to students of evangelicalism, born-again historians have remained remarkably silent on politics, let alone evangelicalism’s assumed default political perspective, conservatism.

So as much as I want to agree with Turner, I continue to think that the world of evangelical higher learning and scholarship would not exist if not for a wider public wanting to know something about the politics of those odd people with Jesus in their bosoms.

There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

The Heart is Desperately Wicked, Who Can “Really” Know It?

For Justin Taylor at a webpage the purports to do “history,” this exchange rises to the level of true knowledge about human motivation — in this case, why American Protestants fought for independence:

“Captain Preston,” he asked, “what made you go to the Concord fight?”

“What did I go for?” the old man replied, subtly rephrasing the historian’s question to drain away its determinism.

The interviewer tried again, “. . . Were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?”

“I never saw any stamps,” Preston answered, “and I always understood that none were sold.”

“Well, what about the tea tax?”

“Tea tax? I never drank a drop of the stuff. The boys threw it all overboard.”

“I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?”

“I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms, and hymns and the almanacs.”

“Well, then, what was the matter?”

“Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free, and we meant to be free always. They didn’t mean we should.”

Taylor adds:

Historical causation is notoriously complex. Yet sometimes we forget that a historical actor’s motivation can be surprisingly simple. As those interested in correctly interpreting the past, we should never stop our investigation with the self-perception or motivation of those involved in the events. But we should often start there.

But if you listen to someone who is trying to make sense of his own life, like Glenn Loury is while writing his memoirs, you might actually wonder if any of us can make sense of our motivations. It is one of the reasons we have friends, spouses, pastors, and even therapists — to learn that sometimes what we thought we were up to was actually done for different reasons. Most of us delude ourselves much of the time. It is part of being a sinner.

I suspect what caught Taylor’s eye was the soldier’s reference to the Bible, and other religious texts and ignorance of English political theory. I wonder, though, why Taylor would not question a devout Christian was so willing to take up arms without political reasons. I remain unconvinced that the Bible teaches rebellion. That’s why you need 2k, to find reasons to do things about which the Bible is silent or not conclusive.

Constantine as Mr. Rogers

Remember when Presbyterians used to confess this about the civil magistrate?

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments; or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven: yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God. (Confession of Faith 23.3)

Of course, imagining Donald Trump presiding over the General Assembly of the PCA might prompt chuckles (moderating debate with Roberts’ Rules, winding up the woke commissioners, Trump supporters’ embarrassment). But even giving “good” presidents this kind of power is precisely why American Presbyterians revised the Confession (at least one reason). The Congregationalist, Barack Obama moderating a General Assembly? The United Methodist, George W. Bush? The Roman Catholic, John F. Kennedy? I don’t think so!

But even in a secular United States, Americans have trouble abandoning the idea of a president’s moral authority. Even those who believe in total depravity struggle with expecting too much of POTUS. Here’s one fairly recent foray into the topic of presidents’ morality at National Public Radio. Surprise, it started with St. Abe:

While Americans often take the idea of the president as a moral leader for granted, Barbara Perry, a presidential historian in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, says she has traced this concept back to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The North and South were divided in the middle of the Civil War, and Lincoln sought to bring the country together by pointing to our common heritage, Perry says.

“He points to the fact that our common heritage is that our forefathers came upon this continent and created a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Perry tells NPR’s Audie Cornish. “To me it is the ultimate presidential speech of unification, grief, calming — but also uplifting and inspirational.”

What exactly is moral about social unity, grief over soldiers’ deaths, calm reassurance, uplift, and inspiration? That’s a pretty low bar (not low enough for Trump).

“The president is not always successful in the persuasion, in terms of policy outcomes,” Perry says, “but if he can be successful in at least calming and soothing the nation and showing us a way forward — that someday perhaps we will reach the policy point, as we did with President Kennedy and the ’64 Civil Rights Act — he will have been successful.”

So what, ultimately, is the responsibility of a president in critical moments? Perry says the president primarily serves to comfort the American people in times of crisis. We look to the president as a father figure.

“The president is the very first symbol of American government that children comprehend,” she says. “The president, especially in the modern era, comes into our homes — first by radio, then television, now through all sorts of electronic gadgetry — and so we think of him as part of our life. And that’s why it’s so important for him to model the proper behavior for us.”

The only way this makes sense for Christians is to have two standards, one for Christians, another for citizens. The United States relies on conduct that is outwardly moral in some sense. But that is a far cry from the Confession:

Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands, and of good use both to themselves and others; yet because they proceed not from a heart purified by faith, nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word, nor to a right end, the glory of God; they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God. (Confession of Faith, 13.7)

A president’s moral authority, accordingly, should proceed from true faith, obedience to God’s word, and an aim to give God the glory.

And yet, we have many Americans who expect presidents to be moral at a time when Christians have been “engaged” in politics in a direct way for at least a generation. You might think that a Christian perspective would reduce expectations for a presidential morality. It is exactly the reverse. Many American who have made a living by flouting conventional standards (think Hollywood celebrities) now have no trouble echoing Jerry Falwell, Sr.

If only Mencken were alive to see this show.

The Death of Evangelicalism

At the end of her longish piece on evangelicals and politics in Texas, Elizabeth Bruenig asks this:

Is there a way to reverse hostilities between the two cultures in a way that might provoke a truce? It is hard to see. Is it even possible to return to a style of evangelical politics that favored “family values” candidates and a Billy Graham-like engagement with the world, all with an eye toward revival and persuasion? It is hard to imagine.

Or was a truly evangelical politics — with an eye toward cultural transformation — less effective than the defensive evangelical politics of today, which seems focused on achieving protective accommodations against a broader, more liberal national culture? Was the former always destined to collapse into the latter? And will the evangelical politics of the post-Bush era continue to favor the rise of figures such as Trump, who are willing to dispense with any hint of personal Christian virtue while promising to pause the decline of evangelical fortunes — whatever it takes? And if hostilities can’t be reduced and a detente can’t be reached, are the evangelicals who foretell the apocalypse really wrong?

The either/or implied in these questions, a religion of transformation, one that would make America great because Christian, versus a religion at odds with the culture but looking for non-mainstream ways of preserving it (the Benedict option as it were), is what the leaders of Big Evangelicalism had not at all considered. The Tim Kellers, Russell Moores, and Al Mohlers of the world really did seem to think that Protestants could find some help or encouragement from cultural engagement with political leaders. They also seemed to think that the rest of the Protestant world was on board. They had no idea that some American Protestants saw engagement as fruitless, and possibly only beneficial for those who had access to the engaged.

The old evangelical “paradigm,” the one that began around 1950, is done. Stick a fork in it. What will emerge is not at all clear. But after Trump as POTUS, it is easier for many to see that the Reagans, Bushes, and Obamas of the political class were no more interested in the cultural engagers than the real-estate tycoon turned POTUS is. The Religious Right’s aims were so many fumes left over from mainline Protestantism’s cultural engagement. It is now time to think about Protestantism on the cultural margins.

To her credit, Bruenig understands that.

Timelines and Bloodlines

It turns out that the shift along racial lines among evangelical and Reformed Protestants is remarkably recent. Some have objected to seeing 2014 as the turning point, but Jemar Tisby seems to provide the smoking gun:

remembering Brown on the five-year anniversary of his killing would be incomplete without acknowledging the impact that this tragedy had on race relations within American evangelicalism.

I know how that day and the subsequent events affected my faith and my relation to those who I once thought of as my spiritual family.

Six days after Brown’s killing, I wrote for the first time publicly about my traumatic encounters with the police.

Every black man I know has harrowing stories of being pulled over, searched, handcuffed or even held at gunpoint. When I encouraged readers to “pause to consider the level and extent of injustice that many blacks have experienced at the hands of law enforcement officers,” the responses disclosed a deep divide.

Tisby goes on to talk about the criticism that he and other African-American evangelicals for questioning police brutality. He then observes:

Black Christians like me and many others began a “quiet exodus” from white evangelical congregations and organizations. We distanced ourselves both relationally and ideologically from a brand of Christianity that
seemed to revel in whiteness.

Now, after this quiet exodus, we find ourselves wandering in a sort of wilderness. Some are rediscovering the black church tradition and moving in that direction for healing and solidarity. Others, often by necessity, have remained in white evangelical spaces but with a new degree of caution. Some of us still don’t have a faith community to call home.

In sum:

Brown and Ferguson highlighted that when it comes to some parts of conservative evangelicalism, whiteness is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Who can judge another’s personal experience? I do not doubt that 2014 was traumatic for Tisby and many African-Americans, though I still don’t see the issue of police brutality as simply indicative of a black-white divide in the United States. In the hyphenated world in which all Christians live, it seems possible to support in general the functions of the police and oppose racism. In other words, opposition to racism should not be synonymous with hostility to law enforcement. I could well imagine, for instance, someone supporting Robert Mueller’s investigation (part of law enforcement) of the 2016 presidential election and detesting racism.

What is a problem, though, is to write a book with a tone of exasperation that white Christians just don’t get it. Not only does Tisby in his book fault white Christians for being tone deaf to race today. He adds that this is the way it has always been. The white church has been racist and always oblivious.

But if it took 2014 for an African-American Christian to see the problem, might not Tisby also have empathy for those who are five years late?

Meanwhile, to John Piper’s credit, his book on racism came out in 2011. He did not need cops in Ferguson, Missouri to see what Tisby saw three years later. Here is how Collin Hansen reviewed Piper’s book:

Tim Keller writes in his foreword that conservative evangelicals “seem to have become more indifferent to the sin of racism during my lifetime” (11). That would indeed be a major problem, since conservative evangelicals have been responsible for so much of the institutional racism of the last 60 or so years. Piper saw racism in the form of Southern segregation. The church of his youth voted in 1962 to ban blacks from attending services. His mother, however, opposed this motion. Piper’s experience explains the burden for writing this book, in which he argues, “Only Jesus can bring the bloodlines of race into the single bloodline of the cross and give us peace” (14). No political platform, lecture series, listening session, or economic program can cure what ails us. Nothing but the blood of Jesus can wash away our sin and make our diverse society whole again. Sadly, white Christians have so often perpetuated racism that we’ve largely lost the moral authority to help our neighbors confront and overcome this sin.

Bloodlines opens with a brief recap of racial history in the United States focused on the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and his masterful writing, particularly “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This historical jaunt may indicate Piper anticipates a youthful readership who did not live through these events. Or maybe he believes the race problem is worse than ever. He writes, “There are probably more vicious white supremacists in America today than there were in 1968” (27).

Either way, no one can argue the church has made sufficient progress on race. Sunday mornings remain largely self-segregated. But Piper sells himself short as a credible leader when it comes to racial reconciliation. He and his church have made commendable and costly investments to live out what they profess about the gospel that unites Jews and Gentiles. I would have gladly read much more than a few appendix pages on Bethlehem’s experience of trial and error. We need theology that exalts the work of Jesus, and we also need examples from churches that have enjoyed God’s gracious favor in the form of racial diversity and harmony.

With Keller and Piper alert to the problem of racism in white Protestant circles in 2011, Tisby’s dating of the racial rift is curious. It is hard to believe he was not reading Keller and Piper.

Still Confused about Christian Nationalism

The folks at The Witness used the anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville protests to re-publish the Charlottesville Declaration, an appeal to American churches to repent of and oppose racism. Here is an excerpt:

Now is the time for the Church to again be the moral compass for this nation. Now is the time for a prophetic, Spirit-led remnant to bear credible “word and deed” witness to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As in the generation that preceded us, we especially call upon those born-again disciples who still cherish the authority of Scripture and the enablement of the Spirit. We declare that old time religion is still good enough for us in this new era, religion that provides us a full-orbed Gospel of evangelism and activism. May we be salt and light witnesses against the kingdom of darkness, knowing that we war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)).

To this end, we call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society. Nothing less than a full-throated condemnation can lead to true reconciliation in the Lord’s body.

According to John Fea, Christian nationalism looks something like this:

The most extreme Christian nationalists create political platforms focused on restoring, renewing, and reclaiming America in such a way that privileges evangelical Christianity. Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as “dominionists” because they want to take “dominion” over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family. Christian nationalists of all varieties are marked by their unwillingness or failure to articulate a vision of American life defined by pluralism.

As a political movement, Christian nationalism is defined by a fear that America’s Christian identity is eroding, a belief that the pursuit of political power is the way to “win back” America, and a nostalgia for a Christian nation that probably never existed in the first place.

It looks like the Charlottesville Declaration insists that the United States conform to the gospel. Its drafters and signers also exhibit a fear that the nation’s Christian identity is, if not eroding, not sufficiently evident.

So why don’t those opposed to Christian nationalism also oppose The Witness’ Christian nationalism?

Imagine if this reporter read the Nashville Statement on gay marriage and wrote about a grassroots movement to preserve heteromarriage:

Article 1
WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

Article 2
WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

Article 3
WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

On it goes for eleven more points.

What is worth noticing is that the Nasvhille Statement is not nationalist. It begins by talking about the West, never mentions the United States, and comes in French, Dutch, Japanese, and German versions.

But it is the sort of statement that some who oppose Christian nationalism refused to sign (as did I). Some evangelicals say the statement is “theology for the age of Trump,” others say it’s a “disaster.” But these same critics can’t see any indication of Christian nationalism in a statement that expects the United States to conform to Christian norms on race. I don’t suppose it has anything to do with calculating evangelicalism in relation to Trump. If so, that’s also a Christian version of nationalism since it lets political necessity shape Christian witness.

The lesson seems to be:

It is wrong to say America is a Christian nation when the nation is not Christian.

It is right to say America should be a Christian nation when the nation is not Christian.