Dueling Bubbles

Jim Wallis goes out on a limb by dumping on white evangelicals:

The issue here is not Christians voting differently from each other. That is normal and likely healthy given the independence that people of faith should show over partisan loyalties. This is about the moral hypocrisy of white American evangelical religious right leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr. causing a crisis in the church, dividing American Christians on racial lines, and astonishing the worldwide body of Christ — the international majority of evangelical Christians who are people of color — and whose leaders keep asking many of us what in the world is going on with white American evangelicals.

That number, 81 percent, has become an international symbol that tragically now represents what white American evangelicalism stands for. It dramatically and painfully symbolizes the white ethno-nationalism that Donald Trump appeals to and continues to draw support from among white American evangelicals. It is the most revealing and hurtful metric of what I will call the racial idolatry of white American evangelical Christianity, which clearly excludes American evangelicals of color and the global majority of evangelicals. The 81 percent number ultimately signifies a betrayal of the body of Christ — which is the most racially inclusive and diverse community in the world today.

But what are white evangelicals to do when the other side, the one that thought it was on the right side of history, looks at born-again Protestants the way that Jim Wallis does? Damon Linker explains how evangelicals, to be accepted, are supposed to agree with progressives, or else receive not policy papers but denigrating insults:

As I’ve argued on previous occasions, declaring opponents unacceptable, illegitimate, and out of bounds is a perennial temptation. That’s because politics always takes place on two distinct levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there’s also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set those rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

Far more than conservatives, liberals love to rule certain positions out of bounds in this second-order sense. They do this by appealing to the courts — the branch of government that reviews, alters, and overturns the rules of the political game. They also do it in the important institutions they control within civil society — such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry. When these institutions informally decide that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable, they render it beyond the pale. As I wrote in a previous column on the subject, “Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of ‘racism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘homophobia,’ ‘white supremacy,’ or ‘white nationalism,’ and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.”

So to keep this straight, evangelicals are hypocrites for caving on moral convictions. But liberals (and the evangelicals like Wallis who loves them) are hypocrites for caving on reasonableness. At least evangelicals are still relatively green in politics. What’s the left’s excuse?

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We're Closer to Turkey than You Think?

This may be the most important context for considering the controversy over Islam at Wheaton College, namely, that Americans themselves are not all that comfortable with secularity and Islam reveals where the lumps in the mattress are. Rod Dreher quoted a poignant part of Ross Douthat’s column on how the West views Islam, as either as conservatives believe “radically incompatible with Western liberal democracy, and can never be reconciled to it; or, as many liberals believe, it is capable of assimilating to become as tame and non-threatening as most forms of Christianity and Judaism in the West.” In the Protestant world, either Larycia Hawkins or Tim Bayly. According to Douthat:

The good news is that there is space between these two ideas. The bad news is that we in the West can’t seem to agree on what that space should be, or how Christianity and Judaism, let alone Islam, should fit into it.

Devout Muslims watching current Western debates, for instance, might notice that some of the same cosmopolitan liberals who think of themselves as Benevolent Foes of Islamophobia are also convinced that many conservative Christians are dangerous crypto-theocrats whose institutions and liberties must give way whenever they conflict with liberalism’s vision of enlightenment.

They also might notice that many of the same conservative Christians who fear that Islam is incompatible with democracy are wrestling with whether their own faith is compatible with the direction of modern liberalism, or whether Christianity needs to enter a kind of internal exile in the West.

It almost sounds like Turkey’s war between Islamic friendly politicians and secularists, from a piece quoted sometime back from Mustafa Akyol:

As you probably well know, Turkey has long been stressed by political tension between religious conservatives and secular nationalists, the latter also known as the Kemalists. However, that main fault line is somewhat passé these days given the emergence of a new kind of tension between the religious conservatives who had triumphed together in (OR: previous) tension from years gone by. This time, it is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the powerful Fethullah Gülen Movement that are at odds with each other. . . .

The term I translated here as “referee” (“hakem”) is a powerful word in Islam, referring to a neutral and fair judge who can settle disputes. And it is interesting that Ms. Eraslan, a pious, headscarf-wearing Muslim, thinks that this “referee” may be none other than secularism. Of course, this would not be the type of secularism that Turkey’s Kemalists have imposed for decades. That peculiar ideology, called “laiklik” (from the French laïcité), was based on the assumption that there was something wrong with religion and therefore it needed to be suppressed by the state.

What Ms. Eraslan probably implied, and what Turkey indeed needs, is a more American-like secularism. In other words, it should be based on the recognition that there is a problem not with religion, but with the concentration of political power.

Unlike Turkey, though, and the conflict between religion and laicite, could the struggle in the U.S. be the one that animated fundamentalists and modernists during the 1920s? The political left in the United States, like modernists, does not advocate the removal of religion from public life. They like religion (think Martin Luther King, Jr.). Jim Wallis is not a threat to them.

So too, the right also likes religion of the right sort (see what I did there?). It used to be Jerry Falwell and James Dobson. Now it’s Rick Santorum and Kim Davis.

The problem is that both left and right embrace a form of American exceptionalism that needs religion to endow the United States with a righteous or holy purpose.

In that case, if we are still living with the dynamics of the fundamentalist controversy, has the United States learned lessons it can pass on to the Muslim world?

What's the Difference between a Modernist and a Fundamentalist?

For those with stomachs to read, a revealing discussion is going on over at the Gospel Coalition and at Mere Orthodoxy about the debate between Al Mohler and Jim Wallis over social justice. What is striking in the original post which summarizes the debate, and in reactions from people who would appear to be evangelical, is how many born-again Protestants refer to social justice with a straight face. One reason someone might say “social justice” with a raised eyebrow is that critics of the Enlightenment, like Alisdair MacIntyre in Whose Justice, Which Rationality, suggested long ago that ideas like justice are a lot more complicated and owe a lot more to social settings like Enlightened Europe than the are abstract truths that everyone knows for sure and can readily implement.

An additional wrinkle in this discussion is how some evangelicals bend and twist in order to attach works to faith, sanctification to justification, word to deed, in order to add social justice to the proclamation of the gospel. Not to sound like Glenn Beck, but social justice is not only threatening the United States, but it’s also doing a number on evangelical Protestantism (and so many thought born-again Protestants were conservative; have I got a book for them?)

So to add a little clarity (as our mid-western correspondent reminded me this morning), I bring to mind the views of the modernist Harry Emerson Fosdick and the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan on the task of the church (and the problem of doctrinal divisions) in alleviating social problems. Important to see is that both sides want a relevant faith and castigate denominational or theological differences. I don’t know how born-again infatuation with social justice will work out any differently for evangelicals than it did for their grandparents in mainline Protestantism. Another bad ending to a religious story.

Fosdick, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” (1922)

The second element which is needed if we are to reach a happy solution of this problem is a clear insight into the main issues of modern Christianity and a sense of penitent shame that the Christian Church should be quarreling over little matters when the world is dying of great needs. If, during the war, when the nations were wrestling upon the very brink of hell and at times all seemed lost, you chanced to hear two men in an altercation about some minor matter of sectarian denominationalism, could you restrain your indignation? You said, “What can you do with folks like this who, in the face of colossal issues, play with the tiddledywinks and peccadillos of religion?” So, now, when from the terrific questions of this generation one is called away by the noise of this Fundamentalist controversy, he thinks it almost unforgivable that men should tithe mint and anise and cummin, and quarrel over them, when the world is perishing for the lack of the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy, and faith. . . .

The present world situation smells to heaven! And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration. What immeasurable folly!

William Jennings Bryan, “Freedom of Religion and the Ku Klux Klan” (1924)

The world is coming out of the war, the bloodiest ever known. Thirty millions of human lives were lost, three hundred billions of property was destroyed, and the debts of the world are more than six times as greate as they were when the first fun was fired.

My friends, how are you going to stop war? . . . There is only one thing that can bring peace to the world, and that is the Prince of Peace. That is, my friends, the One who, when He came upon the earth, the angels said, “On earth, good will toward men. . . . Is it possible that now, when Jesus is more needed, I say the hope of the world — is it possible that at this time, in this great land, we are to have a religious discussion and a religious warfare? Are you going my friends, to start a blaze that may cause you innumerable lives, sacrificed on the altar of religious liberty? I cannot believe it.

(P.S. Bryan’s speech was to the Democratic National Convention and in response to a report that proposed to exclude the KKK. The double irony is that the Democratic Party was a place where Christian appeals prevailed, and that such a faith as Bryan’s “conservative Presbyterianism” could embrace white supremacists for the sake of a civil religion that sought to apply Christ to social problems. In which case, it’s another proof of the errors both religious and secular that follow when you mix faith and politics — you get social gospel.)

Is This Where Neo-Calvinism Leads?

Our favorite PCA blogger (why? He’s more my age than Stellman) has adapted an older article from the Nicotine Theological Journal for his blog, calling it “Bye, Bye Kuyper.” Here is an excerpt:

Christians have come to believe that they worship God as much in their weekday jobs as they do on the Lord’s Day gathered with the congregation to pray, sing, read, and preach. In fact, Monday can be more important than Sunday. Sunday’s gathering is justified not by offering God acceptable worship and dispensing the means of grace, but only if it has some good effect on one’s work and leisure Monday through Saturday.

Ministers who lead in worship, preach the Word, and administer the sacraments are doing nothing more important than the politician or housewife (or husband) or professor of physics or laborer. In fact he may be doing something less important as he provides only the spiritual inspiration for those who really advance the kingdom. The Christian school is as important as the Church, perhaps more important if we want to prepare our young people to conquer the world for Christ.

The whole thing has led to a denigration of the traditional mission of the church. Churches are embarrassed to say that they have no more to offer than the ordinary means of grace. Ministers feel they must apologize if they do no more than preach the Word, administer the sacraments, show lost sheep the way to the fold, and help make sure the gathered sheep have the provision and protection they need as they make their way to the heavenly sheepfold. The world, it is contended, will rightly condemn the church if it does not see the “practical effects” of its existence (hence the church must distribute voters’ guides to promote Christian political agendas, create faith-based ministries to provide cradle to grave welfare, put on get seminars so everybody can communicate and have good sex, and offer concert seasons and art shows to provide the congregants and community with cultural experiences).

I know that not all Kuyperians approve of the way Kuyperianism has been domesticated. But what I am still waiting for is an account of neo-Calvinism that avoids the unhinging of the church that The Christian Curmudgeon describes. It is one thing to say that voters’ guides are a problem. It is another, though, to say that voting is kingdom work. It seems to me that Kuyperians are so reluctant to give in to the spirituality of the church that they end up making the world safe for both Jim Skillen and Jim Wallis.

Why Evangelicals Aren't Conservative

Nothing like ending a good political argument by inserting divine wrath into the debate. Arizona’s new laws on illegal immigration are attracting attention on a variety of fronts. One of my favorite radio hosts, Phil Hendrie, who is by no means a conservative (and the funniest man on air), thinks the law is sane even while he thinks that Arizona is not the brightest bulb on the U.S. Christmas tree of states. He has commented specifically on the irony of liberals showing great distrust of the blue-collar, union-abiding workers also known as police, who will supposedly engage in racial profiling to enforce the law. Would liberals assume coal miners or truck drivers or automobile assemblers were as prone to misbehavior as cops? Phil doesn’t think so. And could this distrust of cops be the hangover from the days when liberals were young and radical and referred to police impolitely as pigs (which is not to say that police have not been without their thuggish moments).

And then along comes Jim Wallis (thanks to John Fea), doing his best impersonation of Charles Finney, with a press release calling the Arizona legislation immoral and wicked. (Wallis’ reaction is patently unloving, so much for a charitable read of his fellow citizens’ actions or motives.)

The law signed today by Arizona Gov. Brewer is a social and racial sin, and should be denounced as such by people of faith and conscience across the nation. It is not just about Arizona, but about all of us, and about what kind of country we want to be. It is not only mean-spirited – it will be ineffective and will only serve to further divide communities in Arizona, making everyone more fearful and less safe. This radical new measure, which crosses many moral and legal lines, is a clear demonstration of the fundamental mistake of separating enforcement from comprehensive immigration reform. Enforcement without reform of the system is merely cruel. Enforcement without compassion is immoral. Enforcement that breaks up families is unacceptable. This law will make it illegal to love your neighbor in Arizona, and will force us to disobey Jesus and his gospel. We will not comply.

I had thought that one of the hallmarks of political conservatism is respect for and promotion of the rule of law. This doesn’t mean that every law is good or that laws in the American form of government cannot be repealed or amended. But to say openly and without qualification that a duly constituted polity and its lawmakers need to be disobeyed is not very conservative or, for that matter, very biblical. Wallis seems to suffer the affliction of most evangelicals who, because they believe they know the contents of a higher law (or sense they are inhabited by the Holy Ghost, feathers and all), all lower laws can be disregarded. One wonders whether Wallis has ever considered telling illegal immigrants that living and working somewhere against the laws of that place is disobedient and sinful.

Don’t get me wrong. Evangelicals don’t have to be conservative (they certainly aren’t religiously). Being conservative politically is not the same thing as being Christian and if evangelicals prefer to be biblical rather than conservative, then God bless ‘em. But if they are going to be biblical, they might want to submit fully to God’s word when it says submit to the powers that be. And if they want to be conservative, then they better try a form of political argument that does not rush to inflict divine judgment. An appeal grounded in American law, both state and federal, would be good, for starters.

Update: Jon A. Shields, in his study of the democratic virtues of the Christian Right writes the following:

. . . the vast majority of Christian Right leaders have labored to inculcate deliberative norms in their rank-and-file activitists — especially the practice of civility and respect; the cultivation of real dialogue by listening and asking questions; the rejection of appeals to theology; and the practice of careful moral reasoning. Movement leaders teach theese norms because they have strong pragmatic incentives to do so. Public appeals, after all, are most persuasive when they are civil and reasonable. Movement leaders further ground these norms in scripture. For instance, activists are regularly instructed to practice civility because the Gospels command Christians to love their neighbors, and they are encouraged to be honest because God forbids believers from bearing false witness. (Shields, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right [2009], p. 2)

Shields makes this point to contrast the fundamentalist leaders of the Christian Right, like Falwell, from the rank-and-file evangelicals. I can’t imagine a better example of the difference between fundamentalism and evangelicalism than that between Falwell and Wallis. And yet when it comes to style and mixing theology and politics — not to mention the lack of charity for political foes — it’s hard to tell the difference.