What Kind of Christian is John Fea?

John Fea responds to my post that wondered about his ongoing criticism of David Barton, Donald Trump, and the evangelicals who support the POTUS. As convenient as social media is (are?) for carrying on discussions, this one may be bordering on excess.

The nub of the disagreement seems to be the degree to which Christianity should inform judgments about secular politics (I sure hope John agrees that the U.S. is a secular government — it sure isn’t Throne and Altar Christendom). But even behind this question is one about Christianity itself. What kind of religion is Christianity and what are its political aspects?

John’s own religious convictions seem to veer. In one case, he objects to my raising the question of virtue signaling, that by opposing the “right” kinds of bad things, he shows he is not that “kind” of evangelical.

Hart implies that my convictions are not really convictions, but a clever ploy to show people that I am “not that kind of evangelical.” I will try not to be offended. And yes, Hart is correct. Indeed, some of my evangelical readers do understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton U. I also think that many of my non-evangelical readers and non-Christian readers who may not have understood the difference between these schools have learned from reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home that the world of evangelical higher education is more diverse than they originally assumed. But I also get new readers every day. If my experience is any indication, many folks out there still don’t understand the difference between Messiah College and Liberty University or David Barton University. I hope my blog will teach people that evangelicals are not all the same when it comes to their approach to higher education or politics.

If John has to try not to be offended, I must have offended. My bad. But don’t Christians generally worry about posturing, pride, self-righteousness? Not much these days. And that could be a problem with a certain kind of Christianity, no matter how right in its public interventions, that comes across and being more moral than others. Jesus warned about public piety in the Sermon on the Mount. As a self-acknowledged Christian, should not John be thankful for someone who warns him about the dangers of moral preening?

But John retaliates kind of by locating me in the religious backwaters of Reformed Protestantism:

I should also add that The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not a Reformed Christian blog, a paleo-conservative blog, or a denominational (Orthodox Presbyterian Church) blog. In this sense, it is different than Old Life.

He is broad while Old Life is narrow. But then, even though I am narrowly Reformed (agreed), he faults me also for being secular.

I realize that the kind of approach to government I am espousing here is different from the kind of secularism Hart has written about in his book A Secular Faith: Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State. According to one synopsis of the book, Hart believes that “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” (This, I might add, is the same kind of thinking put forth by court evangelicals such as Robert Jeffress).

In the end, I think Hart’s warning about mixing church and state is important. You should read A Secular Faith. I read it, enjoyed it, and learned much from it. I also agreed with much of it. I just don’t go as far as Hart in my secularism. This apparently makes me a Christian nationalist.

John does not try to make sense of being narrowly Reformed in church life and broadly secular in politics. His Christianity simply faults me for either being too narrow on religion or too secular on politics. This makes me wonder if John has thought much about two-kingdom theology, whether from Lutheran, Reformed, or Roman Catholic sources. If he had 2k in his tool kit, he might understand that his own evangelical approach to national politics very much follows the play book of neo-evangelical leaders from the 1940s, who followed the national politics (though with revivals thrown in) of the mainline churches. In both cases, ecumenicity, not being narrow in religion, was a way to build coalitions across denominations that would preserve or build (depending on the timing) a Christian America. Now of course, America is a good thing. But to look at the church or Christianity through the lens of its capacity to help the nation is one more instance of immanentizing the eschaton. In other words, you make Christianity (a global faith) narrow on nationalist grounds.

By the way, John’s quote of the synopsis of A Secular Faith — “the only role of government is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices” — is actually off. The summary of the book from Booklist included this: “That is Augustine’s distinction of the holy city of God from the secular city of man. Christians are perforce citizens of both, but their only specifically Christian obligation concerning secular citizenship is to ensure that the laws do not injure faith and its practices.” John’s quote of the synopsis does allow him to link me to Jeffress. But again, if he knew 2k, he’d be scratching his head over that comparison. Still this tie typifies the way many evangelicals read 2k: if you aren’t with them, you’re on the fringes, either sectarian or secular.

When John moves beyond tit-for-tat, he explains his understanding of government and Christianity’s place in America:

I believe that government has a responsibility to promote the common good. It should, among other things, protect the dignity of human life, encourage families, promote justice, care for the poor, and protect its citizens and their human rights. I also believe in something akin to the Catholic view of subsidiarity. This means that many of these moral responsibilities are best handled locally. This is why I am very sympathetic to “place”-based thinking and find the arguments put forth by James Davison Hunter in his book To Change the World to be compelling.

But when morality fails at the local level, such moral failures must be dealt with by higher governmental authorities. For example, I believe that the intervention of the federal government in the integration of schools during the era of the Civil Rights Movement was absolutely necessary. Local governments and white churches in the South failed on this front. Moral intervention was necessary. I use the term “sin” to explain understand what was going on in these racist Southern communities. Others may not use such theological language and prefer to call it “unAmerican” or simply “immoral.” But whatever we call it, I think we can still agree on the fact that what was happening in the Jim Crow South was morally problematic and the federal government needed to act. I hope Hart feels the same way. If he does, I wonder what set of ideas informs his views on this.

Here John identifies Christianity with morality. Not good. Christianity does point out sin through the moral law. But Christianity actually provides a remedy. Without the remedy, Jesus and the atonement, the moral law is just one big pain in the neck (for the lost, at least). A policy that enacts something that seems like Christian morality is not itself Christian without also including the gospel. This may be the biggest disagreement between John and me. He is willing apparently to regard mere morality as Christian. That means taking to the lost all the imperatives to be righteous without any way to do so. Christian morality, without the gospel, scares the bejeebers out of me (and I don’t think I’m lost), which is another reason for being wary of seeming self-righteous. Who can stand in that great day by appealing to Christian morality? What good is Christianity for America if it doesn’t lead to faith in Christ?

Another larger problem goes with looking to Christianity for moral authority or certainty. This is an old theme at Old Life, but how do you follow the second table of the Ten Commandments — many of which encourage the policies that John thinks government should pursue — without also taking into account those about idolatry, blasphemy, and keeping the Lord’s Day holy. I don’t see how you set yourself up as a follower of Christ while disregarding some of your Lord’s directives?

The kicker is that John admits he could support a president quoting Muslim sources to uphold American ideas:

I think much of what Obama celebrates in Pope Francis’s ideas is compatible with American values. If Obama quoted a Muslim thinker who spoke in a way compatible with American values I would say the same thing.

So is America the norm? Is it Christianity? Or is it John Fea’s moral compass?

John concludes by admitting:

I am opposed to Trump for both Christian and non-Christian reasons and sometimes those reasons converge.

I appreciate the candor but I wonder why John doesn’t see that he here identifies with every other evangelical — from Barton to Jeffress — who merge their political and religions convictions to support a specific political candidate or to argue for their favorite era of U.S. history. Because John converges them in a superior way to Barton and Jeffress, is that what makes his views on politics more Christian, more scholarly, more American?

John is willing to live with the label of Christian nationalist if it preserves him from the greater error of secularism. What I think he should consider is that converging religion and politics is how we got Barton and Jeffress. If John wants to stop that kind of Christian nationalism, he should preferably embrace two-kingdom theology. If not that, at least explain why his version of convergence is better than the court evangelicals, or why he is a better Christian.

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Shooting Fish in a Barrel

John Fea is back (it’s been a while) with an explanation of why he energetically criticizes the David Bartons and Robert Jeffresses of the evangelical world:

My approach to critiquing Jeffress, the Christian Right, and the court evangelicals is structural in nature. It is fitting with my vocation as a historian. Theologians and pastors are probably better equipped to make a direct biblical case for why Jeffress’s Christian nationalism is idolatry and harmful to the witness of the Gospel. Greg Boyd, Richard, Hughes, John Wilsey, and others have already made such a case. I encourage you to read their books. But early American historians are best equipped at taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of Christian nationalist politics.

So yes, I do get “bent out of shape.” Maybe I am obsessed. Somebody has to be. We need good American history more than ever. Christian historians have a public role to play in such a time as this.

My problem with this at one level is that John does not seem to acknowledge the optics or signaling. If he criticizes these evangelicals, then his readers will know that he is not that kind of evangelical — though I think his readers are way smarter than that and that no one confuses Messiah College with David Barton U. (or even Liberty U.).

But the bigger objection is that John only goes after evangelicals when they do this and not the entire enchilada of American Protestantism. To read John’s blog, you might receive the impression that only the Religious Right has engaged in a crass Christian nationalism (as if a refined Christian nationalism exists). But what about when mainline Protestants engage in the kind of civil religion that evangelicals advance?

Consider President Obama’s remarks while welcoming Pope Francis:

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concern. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and as societies, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God.

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. That means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart – from the refugee who flees war torn lands, to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, those who have suffered, and those who seek redemption. . . .

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true and right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together, in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope!”

Maybe you agree with President Obama’s policies and Pope Francis’ teaching. But what is this “we” and “our” of which POTUS speaks? How is that anything but a mixing of Rome’s religion with America’s political norms?

And what about FDR’s “speech” that informed citizens of America’s involvement in the D-Day operations (June 6, 1944) — get this — in the form of a prayer?

My fellow Americans: Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.

And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.

Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.

They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom. . . .

Wow!

No matter how big Jeffress’ congregation is and no matter how many Americans Barton may reach with his materials, neither can hold a candle to the kind of resources POTUS brings to bear on the nation and the world. Can Barton or Jeffress make war? I don’t think so.

So why not go after the nationalism that informs American officials who actually use force legitimately and send American soldiers to battle?

Why not also cease treating President Trump as if he is unworthy of presiding over a righteous nation? If Trump’s critics actually had a different moral standard rather than an expectation that POTUS should conform to Christian morality, they might become less indignant. Plenty of reasons to oppose Trump without Christian ones.

The Parachurch with the Mind of a Superpower

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton said of the United States it was a “nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring in part to the difficulty he had finding an adult beverage, Prohibition being the law of the land thanks to the support of both modernist and fundamentalist Protestants.

Seldom noticed is that American evangelicals think they are the center of world Christianity. Consider this report on what the recent presidential election says about evangelicalism:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it, or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”

But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that, in many cases,actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the Access Hollywood tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians, and, as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

The story links to reactions from historians (and other academics) who study evangelicalism and so you would think might be aware of different ways of evaluating born-again Protestantism, such as global Christianity:

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield, and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree, and in whatever ways, Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed, or currently contributes, to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Ever since Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, global Christianity has become “hot.” Scholars have been amazed at the growth of evangelicalism in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia for starters. Jenkins even argued that by 2050 Christianity in the global North (Europe and North America) would be in the rear view mirror of the churches in the global South.

But when it comes to politics, American evangelicals put the born-again in evangelical Protestantism. What do Canadian, British, Swiss, Nigerian, Australian, Costa Rican evangelicals think about Donald Trump? Did the election divide evangelicals outside the United States? I surely doubt it. But no one really knows because American journalists only follow the cues of American evangelicals.

So why do American evangelicals think that their religious identity hangs in the balance thanks to what happens in the nation’s electoral politics? (The short answer is that U.S. evangelicals, like their mainline predecessors are Christian nationalists and have trouble separating national from religious identity.) Especially when the evangelical academy is supposed to aware of the non-American church among the people of color around the world (and celebrates those Christians when the campaign season is over), all of a sudden the future of evangelicalism depends on white Protestants’ votes in U.S. elections? It’s hard to think of a faith more parochial, nationalist, and introverted.

And yet, somehow the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, intolerant, and mean nationalists.

Evangelicals need to get out more. They need to go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and hear reports from fraternal delegates who minister in churches in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Scotland, and Switzerland. If they did, maybe their understanding of the church would be more like the one that prevails in the OPC — a communion that transcends national boundaries but ministers in a low key way (if you aren’t all that impressed with word and sacrament) chiefly in a particular nation. As near as I can reckon, neither SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage nor the 2016 presidential election is threatening to divide our little, off the radar, church.

That proves once again the Old Life maxim: the higher your estimate of the nation, the weaker your ecclesiology (or vice versa).

The 2K Temptation

Ed Stetzer seems unable to resist:

Evangelical is not a synonym for Republican.

It’s a definition of people who believe in values like the cross, the gospel, and sharing that news (euangelion) with others. That’s often described by the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which includes biblicism, crucicentrism (focused on the cross), conversionism (the people need to be born again), and activism (works that flow from new life).

I get the temptation to want to narrow what the term means because we feel little connection with others who also use it. But facts are our friends, and labels mean something specific, even if the parameters are broad. We can hold Evangelical beliefs and see some things—like politics—in different ways.

Yes, the vast majority of White Evangelicals decided that Donald Trump was a better choice. Evangelicals of color mostly made a different choice. There are complex reasons for each. It does not help to dismiss them, and I won’t.

But I will remind everyone that being an Evangelical is about the gospel, not about a lever in a voting booth.

But if evangelicals contented themselves with the gospel (as if that’s so hard except for the obedience boy lurking inside all of us), that would mean saying no to the cultural transformation (read Christian nationalism) temptation. Because evangelicals (and most Western Christians for that matter) have refused to give in to 2K, they (along with Ed Stetzer) need to confront their American selves:

The influence of political tactics is not confined to campaign dynamics. It affects how we are formed as people. Instead of our values influencing our politics, our political circumstances are shaping our values. As partisan citizens, we explain away the flaws of the candidate we support, and buy nearly any outlandish theory about the candidate we oppose. We even change what we believe to fit the moment.

C. S. Lewis understood the temptation to seek personal meaning in politics. His essay “Membership” is most instructive in this regard. “A sick society,” Lewis writes, “must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about his digestion.” However, “if either comes to regard it as the natural food of the mind—if either forgets that we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else—then what was undertaken for the sake of health has become itself a new and deadly disease.”

Our culture, and many people in our churches, are sick with that new and deadly disease. Politics is causing great spiritual harm in Americans lives, and a big reason for that is Americans are going to politics to have their spiritual needs met. This is the meaning of rising polarization and the cause of our zero-sum mentality. Politics does a poor job of meeting spiritual needs. But if it will get your vote, politicians will attempt to fill the spiritual void nonetheless.

When you grow up in the greatest nation on God’s green earth, believe with President Obama that you are on the right side of history, and have the rest of the world looking to your government (either to help or leave), it is hard to turn away from the power that Paul said Jews sought and be content with the cross.

For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:21-29 ESV)

As White and Christian As Ever

Some think the United States is becoming less white and less Christian:

These racial and ethnic changes are dramatic, but they only partially account for the sense of dislocation many whites feel. In order to understand the magnitude of the shift, it’s important to also assess white Christian America’s waning cultural influence. It’s impossible to grasp the depth of many white Americans’ anxieties and fears—or comprehend recent phenomena like the rise of the Tea Party or Donald Trump in American politics, the zealous tone of the final battles over gay rights, or the racial tensions that have spiked over the last few years—without understanding that, along with its population, America’s religious and cultural landscape is being fundamentally altered. . . .

It’s true that mainline numbers dropped earlier and more sharply—from 24 percent of the population in 1988 to 14 percent in 2012, at which time their numbers stabilized. But beginning in 2008, white evangelical Protestant numbers began to falter as well. White evangelical Protestants comprised 22 percent of the population in 1988 and still commanded 21 percent of the population in 2008, but their share of religious America has now slipped to 18 percent.

Meanwhile, some can’t help but notice that the Democrats and Republicans have nominated white Protestants:

Too little noted, Protestant America has managed to nominate two Protestant candidates for president. As Clausewitz famously observed, “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means.” My corollary, from which most Americans might prefer to avert their eyes: “Politics is simply a continuation of religious intercourse, with the addition of other means.”

While almost ignored it is a telling and, perhaps, a defining aspect of the 2016 election. In his imperfect but authentic way, Donald Trump is reflecting certain of the Calvinist values underlying his beautiful Presbyterian faith. Hillary Clinton is reflecting, in her own imperfect but authentic way, the values of her beautiful Methodist faith.

If you’re not convinced that America is still white and Christian, then you haven’t tried out the apologists’ argument that Roman Catholicism hasn’t changed.

Support for 2K is Growing (and it’s hardly rrrradical)

From the moderate regions of mid-western evangelicalism:

This conflation of the church and the nation characterizes the rest of the book. In defining (and I would say, exaggerating) the cultural influence of evangelist George Whitefield, Metaxas says that Whitefield’s preaching had the effect of turning colonists into Americans. To be an American (not a Christian, but an American), was to accept certain religious truths about one’s status in God’s eyes. As Metaxas concludes in summing up Whitefield’s significance, “the Gospel of Christ . . . created an American people.” Strange, I somehow thought that Jesus promised to build his Church on that foundation, but I guess he meant the United States.

Although Metaxas focuses on the colonial and Revolutionary eras, he does allow Abraham Lincoln to join the conversation as well, and as it turns out, Lincoln agreed John Winthrop that the United States has a “holy calling” to be an example to the world. Minimally encumbered by evidence, Metaxas notes that Lincoln understood that “America had been called by God,” and that “to be chosen by God—as the Jews had been chosen by God, . . . and as the messiah had been chosen by God,” was a “profound and sacred and even terrifying obligation.” I’m not sure which is scarier: the analogy of the United States to Israel—God’s new chosen people—or the analogy of the United States to Christ.

The latter reminds me of a trenchant observation in Hugh Heclo’s fine book Christianity and American Democracy: “If America is the redeemer of nations and time, then America is the Christ of history,” Heclo writes. “This notion may be inadvertent, but it is blasphemy all the same.”

And from the topsy-turvy world of unraveling Europe:

It seems as though many church leaders think that we have the right, the knowledge and the ability to use our position to advance particular political positions, which we equate with the Kingdom of God. This is across the spectrum, from liberal to evangelical, from low church to Catholic – it has been disturbing to see just how many church leaders seem to think that speaking a prophetic word means speaking a political word, even use the same political codes that the secular world use. And even more astonishing is how the Internet makes constitutional, financial and political experts of us all. ‘It’s only advisory’, ‘the Scottish Parliament has the power to block’, ‘£100 billion will be wiped of the markets’, ‘thousands will be killed in Northern Ireland’….and these are some of milder prophecies. I don’t have any problem with church leaders advocating political positions in public as private citizens (I often do it myself), but we have no right to commit our churches to those positions, nor to equate them as being part of the Christian message.

And 2k doesn’t even force you to identify one kingdom with God the Father and the other with God the Son.

Genius!

What If Historical Inquiry Isn't Comforting

Kevin DeYoung has a pretty positive spin on John Witherspoon’s commitment to Protestant unity without lapsing into doctrinal indifferentism:

Although he remained staunchly committed to and invested in Presbyterianism his whole life, Witherspoon was not a man of narrow party spirit. In his Treatise on Regeneration (1764), Witherspoon noted, “I am fully convinced, that many of very different parties and denominations are building upon the one ‘foundation laid in Zion’ for a sinner’s hope, and that their distance and alienation from one another in affection, is very much to be regretted.”[9] In his farewell sermon in Paisley, Witherspoon warned against “going too much into controversy” and developing “a litigious and wrangling disposition” that would lead Christians—and here he is quick to add the qualification “I mean real Christians”—into “innumerable little parties and factions.”[10] He longed for the day when the “unhappy divisions” among “protestants in general” would be “abolished” and those truly centered on Christ crucified would “be no longer ranked in parties and marshaled under names” but only strive with each other to see “who shall love our Redeemer most, and who shall serve him with the greatest zeal.”[11]

This ecumenical streak in Witherspoon was not borne out of doctrinal indifferentism. His desire for unity, for example, did not encompass Socinians, Pelagians, Catholics or any other group holding religious views he deemed antithetical to true biblical Christianity.[12] Witherspoon had no patience for the latitudinarian kind of unity he found among his colleagues in the Moderate Party.[13] In conjunction with the publication of his St. Giles’ sermon before the SSPCK (1758), Witherspoon penned a robust defense for pointing out error entitled “An Inquiry into the Scripture Meaning of Charity.”[14] With characteristic verve, Witherspoon attacked the increasingly popular notion among enlightened clergy that “charity was a far more important and valuable bond among Christians than exact agreement on particular points of doctrine.”[15] For Witherspoon, Christian unity was not rooted in downplaying doctrinal distinctives (least of all among those who could not be counted true believers), but in stressing the theological similarities that existed among born again Christians from a variety of denominations. “No man, indeed,” Witherspoon wrote, “deny it to be just, that every one should endeavor to support that plan of the discipline and government of the church of Christ, and even the minutest parts of it, which appear to him to be founded upon the word of God. But still sound doctrine is more to be esteemed than any form.”[16]

This is a plausible reading of some of the material, though Witherspoon remains a mystery to many who have studied him — Mark Noll is still puzzled why Witherspoon threw out Edwards’ idealist philosophy when he started as president of the College of New Jersey. Explaining Witherspoon can be almost as difficult as reading Pope Francis’ tea leaves.

But what Kevin needs to keep in mind is what Witherspoon’s politics and civil religion might have done to facilitate doctrinal indifferentism. In his widely circulated sermon on behalf of independence, the Scotsman said this:

. . . he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy to God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country. Do not suppose, my brethren, that I mean to recommend a furious and angry zeal for the circumstantials of religion, or the contentions of one sect with another about their peculiar distinctions. I do not wish you to oppose any body’s religion, but every body’s wickedness. Perhaps there are few surer marks of the reality of religion, than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a true holy person of a different denomination, than to an irregular liver of his own. It is therefore your duty in this important and critical season to exert yourselves, every one in his proper sphere, to stem the tide of prevailing vice, to promote the knowledge of God, the reverence of his name and worship, and obedience to his laws.

One way of reading that is that Witherspoon felt more in common with a Methodist who lived an upright life than a Presbyterian who insisted on perseverance of the saints. The kicker here is that Witherspoon aligns such a pursuit of holiness with the American cause, thereby enlisting a form of moralistic Protestantism on the side of patriotism and nationalism.

Witherspoon is not necessarily to blame for crafting a recipe that liberated a devotion that supported American independence from the “circumstantials” of Presbyterianism. He had help — lots of it. But since we live at a time where unsexy America promotes both Christian morality and American exceptionalism to the detriment of sound moral theology and ecclesiology, I do tend to conclude that in Witherspoon we have the seeds of Protestant liberalism and its Christian Right progeny.

Everywhere you turn in history, you step on Sideshow Bob’s rakes.

Christian Homeland

Thomas Wolfe wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, a book that I once started but could not finish even after visiting the Wolfe home in Asheville, NC. If Christians could go home again, where would it be? The Garden of Eden? The sword-wielding angels guarding the place would make that difficult. Judah? Adding Protestant Christian claims to the difficulties in Palestine sure seems unwise. Plus, Protestants never had much of a presence in Jerusalem or Israel (except vicariously if Christendom and the Crusades do anything for you). The Netherlands? Scotland? England? Massachusetts Bay? The U.S.? Protestants have lots of vested interests in certain national identities. But most of us, no matter how Kuyperian, neo-Puritian, Covenanter, or exceptionalist would concede that none of these so-called Protestant nations are really the center of God’s redemptive plans (the way that Eden and Israel were).

In other words, we’re all in exile because Jesus has gone to prepare a home for his people.

But some Protestants still regard Israel as a “holy” land in the way they understand Israeli-Palestinian relations. I certainly understand why Western powers would have wanted to secure a homeland for Jews, especially after World War II. But why place the nation of Israel, established with some kind of Zionist sentiments, smack dab in the middle of an ethnically and religiously hostile territory? Might a better place have been Newfoundland or Montana? Just create a Jewish state somewhere in North America. (And by the way, if American diplomats these days find a 2-state solution attractive, why not a 2-state option in 1861? If you look at maps of Israel, the Confederate States of America’s borders looked a whole lot more secure than the situation that John Kerry faces.)

And then, what happens if the only biblical holy land is heaven? Bill Smith points the way:

Does the Israeli state have a right to the territory allotted to the tribes of Israel by Joshua? If you are a dispensationalist, you do think that, because you believe that the Jews are God’s people, that there is a future for Israel distinct from the church, and that the Old Testament land belongs to Israel by divine right. You believe that the human race is divided both as believers and unbelievers and as Jews and Gentiles. We live in a parenthesis (the Church Age) which will be followed by God’s implementation of his original plan for Israel and the fulfillment of his ancient promises to Israel.

My question to those who are not dispensationalists is, Why do you respond to the actions of the Israelis on dispensationalist assumptions? That is, Why do you respond to the conflicts in Palestine as though you believe a geographical land belongs to ethnic Jews and the modern Jewish state? Or, Why do you instinctively support what the Israeli state does as though it has a special status that trumps every other consideration?

In other words, it seems to me that the right way to view the national claims and geographical aspirations of ethnic Jews is to view them the same as we would any other group of people in the world. It is to view these claims and aspirations as we would if (as is the case) ethnic Jews do not have a Biblical claim to land in the Middle East. The modern state of Israel is no different from any other nation as to its rights and obligations.