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.

When Fundamentalists Do It, It’s not Sexy

It in this case is separatism. Back in grad school days the historiographical truism about evangelical Protestantism was that they were not separatists. Fundamentalists were. And so, evangelicals were good (broad minded) and fundamentalists were bad (intolerant). The dividing line was particularly the question of whether conservative Protestants could cooperate with the mainline (read liberal) Protestant denominations. When Billy Graham did reach out to mainline Protestants during his 1957 New York City Crusade (hee hee), fundamentalists like Bob Jones (harumph) broke with Graham’s evangelism. Thus you have separatism and the difference between an evangelical and a fundamentalist. The latter is an evangelical who is angry. Or, an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham (thank you George Marsden).

You wouldn’t know it, but separatism is rearing its poorly groomed head again and its not fundamentalists’ fault. Consider the following forms of separatism. First, the Benedict Option (as stated by Ken Myers):

The recovery of the culture of the people of God will make us look profoundly different from our neighbors. In a post-Christian society, all faithful people begin to look a little Amish. But we must remember that we are always against the world for the world.

Bob Jones didn’t withdrawal either. He didn’t even look Amish.

Then consider the academy’s moralism in the case of Yale professor, Thomas Pogge, allegedly guilty of sexually harassing female students:

To some students, responding means boycotting Pogge’s classes. A closed Facebook group called Students Against Pogge asks supporters to stand in solidarity with Lopez Aguilar “and the other foreign women of color targeted by [Pogge] by, at a minimum, not taking any of his classes in the fall.” The page notes that it’s also “a place to brainstorm other means of pressuring the university into making student voices heard and removing Pogge from the classroom,” according to the popular philosophy blog Daily Nous.

Other academics have said they won’t participate in conferences where Pogge is present. Most controversially, some professors have said that responding means eliminating Pogge from their syllabi.

James Sterba, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, for example, told The Huffington Post that he’s no longer including Pogge’s work in exams for graduate students. “You don’t need him,” Sterba said. “He carries too much baggage — he doesn’t have to be cited anymore. … He’s a negative image and we don’t need that. Maybe if he was Einstein we’d have to cite him, but he’s not.”

That sounds like shunning.

But fundamentalists still bear the burden of separatism:

Thus, by the mid to late 1950s, the heirs of anti-modernist “second phase” fundamentalism were divided. An organization such as the American Council of Churches and separatists such as Rice and Jones Sr. and Jr. understood themselves as continuing in the historic line of militant, anti-modernist fundamentalism with a new emphasis on ecclesiastical separation. On the other hand, more open-minded heirs of second-phase fundamentalists, who would lead the neo-evangelical surge, sought to return to the era associated with the nineteenth-century evangelical scholarship of The Fundamentals.

On the verge of the tumultuous sixties, the fundamentalist movement had become deeply divided. Those who affiliated with the positive agenda of the non-separatist faction took the name neo-evangelical (eventually simply evangelical) and the separatists militantly clung to the label fundamentalist. Neo-evangelicals often repudiated the term fundamentalist, and fundamentalists did the same with the neo-evangelical moniker.

What if separatism is basic to what all humans do? We identify with some things and reject others. None of us are tolerant all the way down. We are all fundamentalists.

BenOp There, Done That

Alan Jacobs explains why Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is unobjectionable:

The Benedict Option, as I understand it, is based on three premises.

1. The dominant media of our technological society are powerful forces for socializing people into modes of thought and action that are often inconsistent with, if not absolutely hostile to, Christian faith and practice.

2. In America today, churches and other Christian institutions (schools at all levels, parachurch organizations with various missions) are comparatively very weak at socializing people, if for no other reason than that they have access to comparatively little mindspace.

3. Healthy Christian communities are made up of people who have been thoroughly grounded in, thoroughly socialized into, the the historic practices and beliefs of the Christian church.

From these three premises proponents of the Benedict Option draw a conclusion: If we are to form strong Christians, people with robust commitment to and robust understanding of the Christian life, then we need to shift the balance of ideological power towards Christian formation, and that means investing more of our time and attention than we have been spending on strengthening our Christian institutions.

Jacobs doesn’t understand why anyone would dissent. I largely agree, though I have to admit I’m not willing to give up on HBO or Phil Hendrie just yet. At the same time, I understand that certain — ahem — television shows and Phil’s humor may not be appropriate for children.

The dissent is not with the specifics of Rod’s BenOp. The dissent is with Dreher’s (and Jacob’s) sense of discovery. Some Christians for a long time have thought about American society, the necessity of alternative institutions, and the problem of passing on the faith in ways that Dreher seems only now (after Obergefell) to have recognized. The dissent also includes some frustration over people like Rod ignoring those earlier forms of opting out of the cultural mainstream. For a long time, the mainline Protestant churches, which is where I believe Rod started his Christian journey, thought the fears of fundamentalists about the wider society were delusional, based on conspiratorial thinking or worse. Only once the good taste of mainline church life needed to reckon with homosexual clergy and marriage did conservatives in mainline churches begin to entertain the sort of thoughts that fundamentalists (and some ethnic Protestants) had sixty years (or more) earlier. Even at Jacobs’ former institution (Wheaton College) and probably at his current one (Baylor), fundamentalism is/was something to be avoided. Why? It was separatist, sometimes even — trigger warning — double separatist. But now, not separating is a bad thing? Hello. The train left the station.

Will naming such cultural segregation after a saint and linking it to a moral philosopher (Alasdair MacIntyre) make fundamentalism look more attractive? Probably. But I’d like Dreher to acknowledge those saints who came in between Monte Cassino and After Virtue. They were ahead of this time even if coming after Benedict.