Bill Clinton: In Red, White, and Especially Blue

This is how objections to presidential immorality sounded twenty-one years ago (from the October 1998 edition of the Nicotine Theological Journal):

Of the several disadvantages of growing up in a fundamentalist home, one was the ability of my father to detect off-color humor a mile away. (Sure, the promoters of family values would see this as a virtue. But, then again, they are the ones responsible for the Family Channel where firm parental guidance is little different from parental naivete.) I can remember those rare nights when for some reason my brother had been sufficiently well-behaved to merit staying up late – it also needs to be added that it was Friday night. And then around 11:30 we would gain access into the sophisticated adult world of “The Tonight Show” and hear the urbane (to us) humor of Johnny Carson. We would listen to Fred McMahon announce the evening’s guests and cherish the prospects of seeing Buddy Rich or Don Rickles.

BUT WE KNEW ONE OBSTACLE lay in the way of our making it past midnight. It was Carson’s monologue. If Johnny went blue – the showbiz vernacular for telling dirty jokes – then we knew dad would get up from his recliner and turn the TV off, thus forcing an abrupt end to the quality time around the tube. Sometimes Carson’s allusions to parts of the female anatomy would be tame enough to keep our father in his seat – he no doubt enjoyed Carson and wanted to see the same guests that we did. (By the way, it helped if dad fell asleep. But there would be hell to pay if he woke up to a dirty joke. And could you be really sure that he was asleep?) But in those cases where the jokes were only a shade blue, the pressure I felt was even greater than if Carson had gone ahead and told a crude one-liner. I couldn’t stand not knowing when my father would turn off the TV. And so, in some cases I would be the one to make the first move. It wasn’t because I objected to the humor, nor was it even a case of trying to protect my innocent dad from the dirty jokes that I had come to hear at school (often repeated from “The Tonight Show”). Instead, it was simply a desire to end my misery. I could not bear hearing off color jokes in my dad’s presence. If I laughed I would certainly disappoint if not anger him. If I didn’t then why bother watching?

MEMORIES OF MY YOUTHFUL late night discomfort have come back to me over the past eight months, first as a trickle, and now as a virtual geyser, as the sordid and tawdry details of our President and his intern have absorbed the nation and its media. Through it all I know that my aging fundamentalist parents sit glued to the TV, not because they are so interested in Bill Clinton’s sex life (though as registered Republicans these incidents have no doubt confirmed their prejudices). Rather, it is their habit to watch at least ninety minutes of news each night, first the local variety at 6:00, then the national edition at 6:30 – I think they still watch Peter Jennings, who has had his own intern problems, because their local news of choice comes from the ABC affiliate and they don’t have remote control. Then, they finish off the day with a dose of local news at 11:00, complete with that evening’s murders, fires, and woes of the Major League Baseball’s closest franchise.

THROUGH IT ALL, MY DEAR, devout conservative independent Baptist parents have had to hear about parts of the human body and sexual positions that had Johnny Carson ever mentioned my dad would have likely not only turned off the TV, but put it out by the curb for the next trash pick-up. I feel this obligation to go home at certain times of the evening so I can be there to turn off my parents’ TV. Many people have talked about how parents are going to explain the President’s actions to their children. But what about former fundamentalists like me? Who is going to explain it to our parents? I want to protect my parents from the evening news which is now pornographic. They don’t need to know about oral sex or stained cocktail dresses. Their lives, innocent though they may have been, would have been complete without such carnal knowledge. And this is the source of my complaint against our President. His sexual life is his business, though I can see its repercussions for the body politic and his ability to govern. But do my parents have to know? Couldn’t he have thought about all those fundamentalists out there who had never dreamed that sexual desire could take such bodily form?

Now, part of the problem may be mine. I could be suffering from the same naivete that Hamlet exhibited when he denied that his mother was a sexual creature. In other words, I may think my parents so sexually innocent that I can’t conceive of their sexual intimacy, let alone the fact that they did produce two sons. They both grew up on farms and probably know a lot more about sex than I can ever fathom. Still, if they felt the obligation to protect me from Johnny going blue, I feel a similar responsibility to protect them from Bill Clinton, who should be turning red.

Townsend Levitt

The Sweet Spot of Reformedish Kingdom Theology (or why 2k looks R)

At World Magazine, Scott Allen knows that the Social Gospel and contemporary Social Justice Gospel are problems:

Advocates of the social gospel believed the church should be engaged in the culture, fighting against injustice and working to uplift the impoverished and downtrodden—all admirable goals. The problem was they unwittingly allowed secular assumptions to inform their theology of cultural engagement. Their profoundly un-Biblical mindset is nicely captured in this quote from social gospel advocate, journalist Horace Greeley:

“The heart of man is not depraved … his passions do not prompt to wrong doing, and do not therefore by their actions, produce evil. Evil flows only from social [inequality]. Give [people] full scope, free play, a perfect and complete development, and universal happiness must be the result. … Create a new form of Society in which this shall be possible … then you will have the perfect Society; then you will have the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Similar problems bedevil today’s social justice warriors.

Today, evangelical advocates of social justice similarly want to fight against injustice and engage in the culture. But like the earlier social gospel advocates, they too have unwittingly allowed their theology of justice to be contaminated, this time by un-Biblical postmodern and neo-Marxist ideas, leading a group of evangelicals to come together in opposition to this view.

The conflict has been simmering for some time but is now out in the open with the release of the Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel supported by John MacArthur, Douglas Wilson, Voddie Baucham, and others.

The statement’s authors are concerned that the social justice movement in the broader culture has crept into the church. Social justice is the preferred descriptor of a movement on the far left that even left-leaning culture watchers such as Jonathan Haidt, Camille Paglia, and Jordan Peterson now identify as a pseudo-religion. This false religion now dominates the humanities departments of universities in the United States, as well as the entertainment and media industries, and increasingly the board rooms of major corporations like Google and Nike. It works hand in glove with the sexual revolution, as it shares the same ideological roots in Romanticism, postmodernism, and Marxism. It has no place for such essential Biblical virtues as grace, mercy, and forgiveness, replacing these with grievance, offense, incivility, and retribution. Its branches are political correctness, identity politics, multiculturalism, and intersectionality. It is incompatible with the United States’ constitutional, republican form of government, and such fundamental goods as due process. Its bitter fruit is the breakdown of civil society.

So what about letting the church be the church or looking to the spirituality of the church as an alternative? Not gonna happen.

Rather than calling the church back to an orthodox Biblical approach to justice and cultural engagement, Johnson and others like him appear to be making the same mistakes as the earlier fundamentalists. They are calling into question the importance of cultural engagement and justice ministry as a distraction and a second-tier activity. The problem with social justice is not its passion to engage the culture and fight for justice. The problem is all the un-Biblical ideology that comes packed in the social justice Trojan horse.

We should not repeat this tragic mistake again. The crying need today, as it was in the early 20th century, is to recover a Biblical, orthodox approach to justice and cultural engagement championed by Wilberforce, Carey, and Carmichael. Un-Biblical ideas have to be exposed and rejected, replaced by a uniquely Christian and Biblical approach to social and cultural transformation that is gospel-centered, and known for its grace, forgiveness, and civility. One that treats all people as unique individuals, not mouthpieces of identity groups. One that understands that evil is rooted in fallen human hearts, and not in capitalism, white supremacy, or the patriarchy. One that sees people as free, responsible, accountable moral agents and not as victims or oppressors.

Nowhere does Allen actually make a biblical case for cultural engagement, apparently the key notion for maintaining the church’s influence. Of course, the best way to read and study the Bible is not by going to a Bible-on-line website and doing a word search. But this is our world. And a quick search for “engage” at the ESV website (I know, awfully close to Gospel Allies’ bunkers) yields only three results, one of which includes the end of Philippians 1:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For cit has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

What if being culturally engaged was not about being on the right side of social and political reforms, with the banner of Christ held high, but about suffering through and enduring an evil age (Gal 1:4). I understand that when Jesus said, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19), he sounded a tad fundamentalist. But if Jesus can sound that way, why can’t those who profess to follow him?

Rod Reading Tim

Rod Dreher doesn’t detect much daylight between the Benedict Option and Tim Keller even though I’ve tried to describe it. Here’s Keller (from Rod) on the West:

The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace’s needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul’s courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won’t be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Here’s Rod’s rendering:

Does it surprise you that I agree with this? I’m still looking for ways in which Tim Keller and I substantively disagree on cultural engagement. If you know of any, please let me know — I’m serious about that. What I emphasize in The Benedict Option is that if we Christians are going to do that in a hostile, post-Christian public square, we have no choice but to take a step back from the public square to deepen our knowledge of the faith, our prayer lives, and our moral and spiritual discipline.

One difference right off the bat is that Keller is not pessimistic about the contemporary world, the way Rod is. That’s why it had to come as a surprise when Princeton Seminary thought Keller was too conservative and should not receive the Kuyper Prize.

Yet, Keller has other readers. Rod quotes one:

I’m somewhat favorably disposed to Tim Keller’s ministry, and even attended his church for a season. But that movement is likely to head off in its own direction. The current alliances that make up evangelicalism were forged in an era before liquid modernity. There is no reason why we should expect those alliances to continue to make sense in the very different social context that we face today. And we have to avoid the trap of conflating Christian orthodoxy with practical Christian wisdom. Families raising kids need something very different from a church community than what I need, as a 30-something professional who travels 50% of the time, usually in Asia….

Liquid modernity poses a certain challenge to Western rules-based cultures. Things change faster than our ability to develop rules to address certain situations. And that places a degree of stress on existing institutions, requiring them to be thicker than they were in the past. But it’s hard for institutions to be both thick and broad. For thickness to work, there has to be a high degree of overlap in people’s life situations. Demographic differences matter more.

I’m actually an advocate of an evangelical break-up. I believe that the Benedict Option is necessary. But the Benedict Option is going to look very different for different people. My fear is that evangelicalism ends up targeting the largest market, middle-class white suburbanites with kids, and castigated everyone else as a sinner. One need not look to hard for criticisms of Tim Keller’s efforts to reach out to people like me. And it disappoints me that Keller is largely silent in the face of those criticisms. If Christianity is to survive in an age of liquid modernity, it’s going to take more than suburban mega-churches.

Another difference then is that Rod thinks modernity is a force that hurts Christianity while Keller, like Pope Francis, tries to come along side moderns.

Still one more reader of Keller that Rod should enter into his Redeemer NYC spreadsheet:

Over the past decade or so, evangelical millennials like myself and my peers (and possibly even you), could be found across the country, repenting of our former fundamentalist ways.

We’ve put away our moralistic understanding of Christianity. We’ve reclaimed what is essential: Jesus, and his gospel. We’ve tossed aside our simplistic, and less than nuanced answers to those who criticize our faith and worldview.

Aided by an Internet-powered, Information Age, we have set out to re-engage culture in a fresh new way, following Tim Keller and Russell Moore on one end of the spectrum, or Rob Bell and Rachel Held Evans on the other.

As those who will soon lead the church, we are convinced that we are called to a new vision of cultural engagement and mission. . . .

Therefore, we’ve raised our sensitivity to xenophobic nationalism, misogyny, gay-bashing, microaggressions, and anti-intellectualism. For us, being uninformed and un-’woke’ is shameful and most harmful to our Christian witness.

Instead, we have taken up the mission to winsomely engage the brightest of thinkers in order that they might believe, and to prophetically rebuke the most narrow-minded of evangelicals in order that they might think.

We see far too little cultural influencers operating out of a biblical framework. And we’ve seen too many of our friends leave the faith due to overly simplistic, unsatisfying, and stale apologetic answers to their genuine contemporary questions.

We want to articulate, in a Keller-esque fashion, an attractive “third way,” between the liberals and the conservatives, between the irreligious and the religious. And in doing so, we hope to find a better place to stand, where we are neither apostates nor anti-intellectuals, neither prodigals nor older brothers.

So we continue to study Scripture and affirm its absolute authority, while still paying close attention to contemporary culture, the media, and the academy, seeking common grace insights from them, and wrestling with how to interpret and make sense of their findings.

We heed Peter’s exhortation that we be prepared to make a defense to all, while reminding ourselves of James’ admonition to be quick to listen, and slow to speak, even when it comes to a secular culture such as ours.

We don’t settle for just being Christians, but we seek to be informed, knowledgeable, and sensitive Christians. And by God’s grace, we sometimes do find a way forward, a third way, in which we actually become “believers who think,” equipped to interact with “thinkers” who don’t believe.

And discovering a “third way” feels good. It’s the rewarding feeling of progress, and confidence — confidence in the fact that we’ve found more thoughtful and persuasive answers than the ones our Sunday School teachers gave us 20 years ago. But it’s also the feeling of transcendence, and if we’re not careful, arrogant superiority.

Thinking Christians engaged with the world. That may not have been Paul’s advice to Timothy but it’s a page right out of Harry Emerson Fosdick:

Already all of us must have heard about the people who call themselves the Fundamentalists. Their apparent intention is to drive out of the evangelical churches men and women of liberal opinions. I speak of them the more freely because there are no two denominations more affected by them than the Baptist and the Presbyterian. We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives. All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists. The best conservatives can often give lessons to the liberals in true liberality of spirit, but the Fundamentalist program is essentially illiberal and intolerant.

The Fundamentalists see, and they see truly, that in this last generation there have been strange new movements in Christian thought. A great mass of new knowledge has come into man’s possession—new knowledge about the physical universe, its origin, its forces, its laws; new knowledge about human history and in particular about the ways in which the ancient peoples used to think in matters of religion and the methods by which they phrased and explained their spiritual experiences; and new knowledge, also, about other religions and the strangely similar ways in which men’s faiths and religious practices have developed everywhere. . . .

Now, there are multitudes of reverent Christians who have been unable to keep this new knowledge in one compartment of their minds and the Christian faith in another. They have been sure that all truth comes from the one God and is His revelation. Not, therefore, from irreverence or caprice or destructive zeal but for the sake of intellectual and spiritual integrity, that they might really love the Lord their God, not only with all their heart and soul and strength but with all their mind, they have been trying to see this new knowledge in terms of the Christian faith and to see the Christian faith in terms of this new knowledge.

For anyone who detects an example of the genetic fallacy, please write a note to Pastor Tim and ask him to explain how he avoids the errors that modernists like Fosdick committed.

Why Never Trumpers Need the Falwells

Because they are both fundamentalists of the double-separatist variety.

Here’s something for John Fea to consider (as he passes on advice to the new White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders):

There is a moral argument, I suppose, for men and women who chose to go into this administration to serve in Cabinet-level or sub-Cabinet positions out of a sense of obligation to the country. (The better argument is that working in this administration inevitably leads to enabling wrongdoing and horrible policy decisions, but I understand the rationale of those who disagree with me.) However, there is no moral argument for going directly into the president’s senior/political staff, which in this administration means defending indefensible conduct, denying reality and encouraging others to lie in defense of the administration. You cannot serve in a dishonorable White House honorably.

Now substitute mainline Protestant churches (read modernist) for Cabinet and president in that quotation and you have the same argument that prompted Bob Jones to reject Billy Graham’s — get this — crusades when in 1957 the revivalist started cooperating with mainline churches. It was the same rationale that led the OPC to reject the leadership of the National Association of Evangelicals for including in its membership ministers, laity, and congregations that belonged to the mainline churches. That was double-separatism then, and historians like John Fea who know a thing or two about fundamentalism have argued that such institutional purity lacked Christian charity and was even ornery.

But if applied to the secular realm, such double-separatism makes perfect sense.

Pardon me for thinking evangelical historians are not up to their A-game with Trump. Is it because they’ve gone soft on Russia?

Jesuits Make Stuff Up

So you thought the evil Steve Bannon was objectionable for his ties to rad-trad Roman Catholics:

Before becoming White House chief strategist, Bannon — who is Catholic — was the executive chairman of Breitbart News, which he called a “platform for the alt-right.” That’s a movement associated with white nationalism.

During a visit to Rome a few years ago, Bannon struck up a friendship with the American Cardinal Raymond Burke, a traditionalist who has emerged as one of Pope Francis’ most vocal critics.

Bannon hired Thomas Williams, an American former priest, as Breitbart’s Rome correspondent. Williams belonged to the conservative Legion of Christ, which was roiled by scandal when it was revealed its founder had been a pedophile.

Well, silly you. Turns out according to the Argentinian edition (thanks to Rorate Caeli) of La Civiltà Cattolica, “the journal considered the official voice of the Vatican, and its diplomatic department (the Secretariat of State)” — wait, the Vatican is still doing state craft? — that Bannon is really an intellectual descendant of Protestant fundamentalism:

Pastor Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001) is the father of so-called “Christian reconstructionism” (or “dominionist theology”) that had a great influence on the theopolitical vision of Christian fundamentalism. This is the doctrine that feeds political organizations and networks such as the Council for National Policy and the thoughts of their exponents such as Steve Bannon, currently chief strategist at the White House and supporter of an apocalyptic geopolitics.

“The first thing we have to do is give a voice to our Churches,” some say. The real meaning of this type of expression is the desire for some influence in the political and parliamentary sphere and in the juridical and educational areas so that public norms can be subjected to religious morals.

Rushdoony’s doctrine maintains a theocratic necessity: submit the state to the Bible with a logic that is no different from the one that inspires Islamic fundamentalism. At heart, the narrative of terror shapes the world-views of jihadists and the new crusaders and is imbibed from wells that are not too far apart. We must not forget that the theopolitics spread by Isis is based on the same cult of an apocalypse that needs to be brought about as soon as possible. So, it is not just accidental that George W. Bush was seen as a “great crusader” by Osama bin Laden.

That’s one way to gain favorable ratings with the editors of the New York Times and Washington Post. But it sure seems a stretch. Is this what has become of the Great Roman Catholic intellectual tradition? Maybe only Pretty Good?

United Statesist Christianity

We need a new name for Christianity in the United States. The contributors to this podcast at Christianity Today are still lamenting the turnout of white evangelicals for Donald Trump and so one of them called for more attention to what it means to be evangelical. Are you kidding? We’ve had almost four decades of scholarship on evangelicalism, and at least three of chanting the integration of faith and learning, and we still don’t know what evangelical is? Please.

Then comes the objection to calling Lee Stroebel, whose new film is drawing attention to the Bill Hybels-spawned apologist, a fundamentalist.

A note or two about Strobel, the legal-affairs journalist. He did his undergraduate degree at a top j-school, the University of Missouri, and then went to Yale University to get his law degree. That gives some clues as to his approach to research and writing.

Strobel converted to Christianity in 1981 and, after a few years, went into ministry – becoming a “teaching pastor” at the world famous Willow Creek Community Church in the Chicago suburbs.

Now, WIllow Creek – led by the Rev. Bill Hybels – has for decades been known as, literally, a globel hub for the “seeker friendly” school of mainstream (some would say somewhat “progressive”) evangelicalism. Hybels, of course, became a major news-media figure in the 1990s through his writings and his role as one of the “spiritual advisors” and private pastors to President Bill Clinton.

Willow Creek is not a fundamentalist church.

From there, Strobel went west and for several years served as a writer in residence and teaching pastor at Saddleback Community Church, founded and led by the Rev. Rick “The Purpose Driven Life” Warren. In addition to writing one of the bestselling books in the history of Planet Earth, Warren has also received quite a bit of news-media attention through his high-profile dialogues with President Barack Obama, both during Obama’s first White House campaign and in the years afterwards.

Saddleback is not a fundamentalist church.

Fair points. I don’t think Stroebel is a fundamentalist either. But evangelical is increasingly meaningless even among Protestants who haven’t read (hades!, heard of) Deconstructing Evangelicalism.

So why not simply identify Christianity in the United States according to the degree to which its adherents adapt their faith (or pick and choose) to national norms? (Do remember that in 1899 Leo XIII identified Americanism as a heresy.) Once upon a time, Protestants came to North American and tried to transmit the version of Protestantism (works for Roman Catholics and Jews also) they brought to a New World setting. Some confessional Protestants still do this and triangulate their ministry in the U.S. according to precedents set in Europe whether at the time of the Reformation or when specific episodes upset national churches (think Scotland, England, Netherlands, Germany). Presbyterians in NAPARC still live with a foot (or – ahem – toe nail) in Old World Protestantism even as they have repudiated (except for the Covenanters) the political structures that animated their European predecessors.

But then along came awakenings and parachurch associations and increasingly Protestantism in the U.S. was known less for the fingerprints of its European origins than for those innovators (Whitefield and Moody) or structures (American Bible Society or National Association of Evangelicals) who were as independent of Old World Protestantism as their nation was of the United Kingdom. Once freed from European constraints, American Christianity used markets, earnestness, activism, and relevance as the basis for Christian identity. Evangelicalism was the kinder gentler version of fundamentalism. But neither showed the slightest bit of deference to the churches that came out of the Reformation.

Now, even the labels fundamentalist and evangelical make little difference. The gatekeepers won’t stand at the gate and even if they did the gateway has no wall to make the gate functional. Anyone can be a Christian on their own terms, with celebrities and parachurch agencies gaining the most imitators. But those instances of fame collect no dues, make no demands, and provide no institutional support. It’s like belonging to Red Sox Nation. Wear your bumper sticker. Listen to your Tim Keller sermon (now on sale for $1,500). Got to the next Gospel Coalition conference. You have Jesus in your heart and United Statesist Christianity has lots of proprietors to make your heart burn.

The good thing about United Statesist Christianity is that it allows its adherents to revel in exceptionalism. If America is a great nation, United Statesist Christianity is no less exceptional. Instead of a Pretty Good Awakening, United Statesist Christianity puts the Great back in Great Awakening.

If Only Princeton Seminary had Read Sarah Posner on Tim Keller

They would have spared themselves a lot of grief (though one has to raise questions about Posner’s reasons for opining the way she does). Way back in 2009, the liberal journalist saw through the public relations success of New Calvinism’s favorite urban pastor/apologist:

Counterfeit Gods is an attractive, compact volume that a busy urbanite might tuck in his murse alongside his iPhone. It’s got a “there’s-an-app-for-that” sort of answer for the anxiety of contemporary city living. It’s a handy Jiminy Cricket to set you straight when you might be thinking of having sex with someone you’re not married to, contemplating a risky investment opportunity in the hopes of hitting the jackpot, or staying late at the office instead of having dinner with the family. While you’re at it, you might remind your spouse not to over-schedule the kids, because Jesus doesn’t like that, either.

Imagine: Wall Street casts its eyes upon Saint Timothy instead of Timothy Geithner! Dalton minus the uptight parents! A Manhattan nightlife free from casual sex! Coffee shops and bars purged of political ideology and discourse!

Such “counterfeit gods” ail the suburbs, too, but they are already saturated by big box mega-churches to counteract the false idols of Sam Walton-inspired strip malls and hyper-competitive Saturday morning soccer tournaments for six year-olds. Keller doesn’t bother with them. His schtick is to break into the untapped urban market for potential believers.

It’s hard to see, though, how New York’s wide swaths of spiritual diversity would take to Keller’s air of Christian superiority. For him, the Bible “comprises a single story, telling us how the human race got into its present condition, and how God through Jesus Christ has come and will come to put things right.” See? It’s that simple.

The focus isn’t eternal salvation, but rather remaking the cultural and political world. He offers a way of making sense of what Jerry Falwell-style fundamentalists might call the scourge of secular humanism. Instead of spiritual warfare against these satanic enemies, Keller asks his readers to confront them as biblical figures might have rejected false idols.

Thus, the hovering, over-protective mother might take lessons from Abraham: let God test your love for the children by letting them be free. The man who lusts for someone other than his wife might learn from Jacob’s misguided quest for the more beautiful Rachel. Jacob’s wife, Leah, provides cues for anyone looking for love and sex and transcendence in their romantic lives, rather than through God. The inevitable result of looking for everything in romantic love, Keller maintains, is “bitter disillusionment.”

One would think the Jacob-Leah story might yield some feminist deconstructions. But feminism, apparently, is also idolatry. Every such political ideology, Keller maintains, creates a sort of idolatry of its own. “An ideology,” he writes, “like an idol, is a limited, partial account of reality that is raised to the level of the final word on things.” Keller can’t see, somehow, that our body politic was designed to be secular, and that a religious prescription for its ills—itself portrayed as a final word—is one of the scourges that has, over the last four decades or so, led to the single-minded extremism he decries.

Keller is a favorite of flagship evangelical magazines like Christianity Today and World, but he receives glowing coverage in mainstream outlets as well. “While he hardly shrinks from difficult Christian truths,” observed a 2006 profile in the New York Times, “he sounds different from many of the shrill evangelical voices in the public sphere.” Keller, the piece went on, “shies away from the label evangelical, which is often used to describe theologically conservative Protestant Christians like him, because of the political and fundamentalist connotations that now come with it. He prefers the term orthodox instead, because he believes in the importance of personal conversion or being ‘born again,’ and the full authority of the Bible.”

This assertion—that biblical orthodoxy is somehow apolitical—was put to the test recently when Keller became one of over 100 original signatories to the Manhattan Declaration unveiled on November 20th. Billed as a statement of “religious conscience,” the Manhattan Declaration is something more, something unmistakably fundamentalist and quintessentially political, a regurgitation of the religious right’s assertion that sexual and gender rights are somehow a threat to good Christians’ religious liberty.

Choose Ye This Day

Donald Trump elicits the inner fundamentalist in all Americans. A recent expression is a drive-by blog post at Commonweal on Senator Ben Sasse:

Well, that didn’t take long. Ben Sasse, Nebraska’s energetic, open-minded, publically engaged Republican senator has been Trumpified.

Citizens expected him, as an outspoken and popular #NeverTrump-er who was relatively uncorrupted by power, to be part of the intraparty resistance to the new president’s ethos, tactics, and character traits. Surely he would have respect for the norms of the Constitution and engage his critics with reason, not mockery. This is, after all, a senator who gives encomia to the Constitution on Twitter and casually banters with his constituents and naysayers about politics and college football.

Sasse was at least critical of last week’s executive order. But this week, with the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch, he has showed how quickly the new executive’s behavior can be imitated.

Last night and this morning, Sasse gleefully mocked both protestors and Sen. Minority Leader Schumer.

So the idea is that Sasse should have been sympathetic to protesters and not to President Trump’s nominee for SCOTUS. A sitting senator is supposed to choose unhinged American citizens — and it’s not like we haven’t seen many of such moralists the past 6 years — over the leader of the free world (for now).

And for Mr. Peppard to act as if the protesters to Neil Gorsuch’s nomination are not risible but serious is almost as risible as the recent spate of convulsions over President Trump:

just as worrisome, the fact that he publicly mocked peaceful protestors — which he did again on radio this morning — is an eerie warning that he’s been Trumpified. The new president has shown that he loves to “punch down,” something the old Sen. Sasse would not have done. But executives have a way of modeling behavior that those seeking advancement find difficult not to emulate.

Mocking in juvenile manner (pussy parade anyone?) the duly elected executive of the federal government is not worrisome? And you wonder why Trump is POTUS.

Fundamentalist Controversy Redux

John Allen explains how Roman Catholicism has come along side Protestantism. The Left and Right aren’t even on the same page of what constitutes truth:

… at this point most defenders of Pope Francis haven’t accused critics of being dissenters, nor have they suggested that people who uphold contrary positions on the substantive positions associated with the pontiff, such as opening Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, are thereby committing heresy.

The implication seems to be that fans of the pope are more generous, less vicious, and less inclined to question people’s bona fides as Catholics. There is, in other words, often a presumption of moral superiority in the observation that “we don’t talk that way.”

Simply as a descriptive matter, that proposition seems a bit disingenuous. Many in the pro-Francis camp don’t invoke concepts such as “heresy” and “dissent,” because frankly, it’s not the worst insult they can think of with which to slur an opponent.

Instead, they use terms that Francis himself also regards as abhorrent, such as “rigid,” “inflexible,” “legalistic,” “clerical,” and, of course, worst of all, “anti-Vatican II.”

In effect, what’s on display here is one of the defining differences between the Catholic left and the Catholic right over the last fifty years.

For the right, “heresy” and “dissent” are about the worst things imaginable, so when they want to say “x is terrible,” that’s the language that comes naturally. For the left, the equivalent horror is “rolling back the clock” on the Second Vatican Council, so when they want to call something or someone awful, that tends to be the verbal packaging in which the complaint comes wrapped.

Someone trying to remain objective about today’s debates would probably have a hard time concluding that either side has a claim on the moral high ground, since both are charging the other with virtually the vilest crime in their respective vocabularies.

At the same time, gatekeepers like John Allen don’t see when modernism is part of the warp and woof of church life:

Despite challenges intolerance brings, Camilleri stressed that religion, Christianity included, has an endless capacity for good, not only for individuals and communities, but for society as a whole.

The Church, he said, “does not pretend…to substitute for politics. Nor does the Church claim to offer technical solutions to the world’s problems since the responsibility of doing that belongs elsewhere.”

What religion does, then, is offer specific guidelines to both the community of believers, and to society as a whole.

Religion by its nature “is open to a larger reality and thus it can lead people and institutions toward a more universal vision” and a “horizon of fraternity” capable of enriching humanity, Camilleri said.

The Holy See, then, “is convinced that for both individuals and communities the dimension of belief can foster respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights, support democracy and rule of law and contribute to the quest for truth and justice.”

Dialogue and partnerships between religions and with religions, he said, “are an important means to promote confidence, trust, reconciliation, mutual respect and understanding as well as to foster peace.”

If religion did all that, I’m sure President Obama would have gotten on board. Wait. He did:

Holy Father, your visit not only allows us, in some small way, to reciprocate the extraordinary hospitality that you extended to me at the Vatican last year. It also reveals how much all Americans, from every background and every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America. (Applause.) From my time working in impoverished neighborhoods with the Catholic Church in Chicago, to my travels as President, I’ve seen firsthand how, every single day, Catholic communities, priests, nuns, laity are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating our children, and fortifying the faith that sustains so many.

And what is true in America is true around the world. From the busy streets of Buenos Aires to the remote villages in Kenya, Catholic organizations serve the poor, minister to prisoners, build schools, build homes, operate orphanages and hospitals. And just as the Church has stood with those struggling to break the chains of poverty, the Church so often has given voice and hope to those seeking to break the chains of violence and oppression.

And yet, I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as Pope, but to your unique qualities as a person. (Applause.) In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds. (Applause.)

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concerns. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, 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 — (applause) — 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. (Applause.)

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. And that means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart –- (applause) — from the refugee who flees war-torn lands to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. (Applause.) It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, to those who have suffered, and those who have caused suffering and seek redemption. You remind us of the costs of war, particularly on the powerless and defenseless, and urge us toward the imperative of peace. (Applause.)

Holy Father, we are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people — (applause) — which holds out the promise of better relations between our countries, greater cooperation across our hemisphere, and a better life for the Cuban people. We thank you for your passionate voice against the deadly conflicts that ravage the lives of so many men, women and children, and your call for nations to resist the sirens of war and resolve disputes through diplomacy.

You remind us that people are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely. (Applause.) Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. It was the basis for so much of what brought us together. And here in the United States, we cherish our religious liberty, but around the world, at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith. Believers are prevented from gathering at their places of worship. The faithful are imprisoned, and churches are destroyed. So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation. (Applause.)

And, Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet, God’s magnificent gift to us. (Applause.) We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to changing climate, and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations. (Applause.)

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, what we know to be 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.”

For that great gift of hope, Holy Father, we thank you, and welcome you, with joy and gratitude, to the United States of America. (Applause.)

If More Congregationalists Read Machen

They might understand the difference between a Baptist and Presbyterian. But to UCC pastor, Peter Laarman, Tony Campolo and Shane Claiborne’s proposal to re-brand evangelicalism (post-Trump) is a fool’s errand:

Campolo and Claiborne even get their history wrong. What they regard as the first successful re-branding of Bible-centered “orthodox” American Christianity in the early 20th century was in fact a complete failure, just as their proposed “Red Letter” re-branding will be this era.

They cite Carl F.H. Henry as the principal re-brander in the 1930s, but Carl Henry was not really a force to be reckoned with prior to the 1940s and 1950s. Moreover, Carl Henry’s beliefs were immediately understood to be contaminated by the same poisons that had fatally tainted Fundamentalism: i.e., a rigid view of biblical inerrancy (including a literalist view of the miracle stories), insistence that mere individual conversion fulfills God’s will, complete acceptance of the old patriarchal frame, etc.

It would be hard to find any daylight at all between the theological commitments of Carl Henry and those of J. Gresham Machen, who was heralded during the 1930s as the single brightest light among the Fundamentalists.

See what he did there? Machen signals fundamentalism (and Laarman didn’t even give Orthodox Presbyterians a trigger warning). Therefore, invoking Carl Henry is really to say you haven’t progressed beyond fundamentalism (yuck!), which makes Campolo and Claiborne even more clueless from a mainline Protestant perspective than even progressive evangelicals can fathom.

The problem is that you can see separation between Machen and Henry if you actually care more about theology, sacraments, and polity than about being in the American mainstream. Henry may have been a Calvinist on soteriology but his Reformedness didn’t go much beyond that (plus his high view of the Bible). Henry also refused to baptize babies, which puts Machen closer to Laarman than to Henry. And then Machen took Presbyterian polity seriously — hello, his church refused interdenominational cooperation in settings like the National Association of Evangelicals where Henry was an intellectual guru.

But that kind of Protestant fussiness only comes up fundamentalist for mainliners. Even though telling the difference between Congregationalists and mainline Presbyterians is impossible (and something you’re not supposed to do in polite Protestant ecumenical company), if you do did in your heels on denominational identity you are merely a separatist. You lack the good graces and tolerant bonhomie of mainstream, well-connected Protestantism. Never mind that after 135 years of ecumenical activism, the UCC and the PCUSA remain — get this — separate. And by all means don’t notice that Congregationalists and Presbyterians descend from the mother of all church separations — 1054, the year that the church Christ founded (as some put it) split up.

Lots of separations out there in church history, but the UCC puts “United” in church unity. As if.