Selective 2k

Readers may remember an exchange between John Fea and me about religion and politics from last summer. In the course of that exchange, Fea quoted favorably from President Obama’s welcome to Pope Francis:

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

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

This is a blatant effort to use Christianity for political ends. Because Fea found it agreeable to his own understanding of government, he wrote that if such views made him a Christian nationalist, “then call me a Christian nationalist.”

But when Mike Horton wrote critically about the hobby horse of Fea, the so-called “court evangelicals,” Fea liked the kind of 2k that had originally led me to call him a Christian nationalist. According to Horton:

Liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant, have courted political power and happily allowed themselves to be used by it. This always happens when the church confuses the kingdom of Christ with the kingdoms of this present age. Jesus came not to jump-start the theocracy in Israel, much less to be the founding father of any other nation. Even during his ministry, two disciples—James and John—wanted to call down judgment on a village that rejected their message, but “Jesus turned to them and rebuked them” (Luke 9:54–55). He is not a mascot for a voting bloc but the savior of the world. He came to forgive sins and bring everlasting life, to die and rise again so that through faith in him we too can share in his new creation.

Sorry, but President Obama was confusing the kingdom of Christ with the United States when he welcomed the pope. John Fea apparently suffers from the same confusion when approving Obama and then approving Horton.

It’s hard keeping selectivity straight.

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Fear’s Double Standard

A prominent theme in John Fea’s book, Believe Me, is that fear drives evangelical politics. The word “white” should go before evangelical because Fea also contrasts white and black evangelicals’ politics. He writes:

Even the most cursory reading of the Old and New Testament reveals that, ultimately, Christians have nothing to fear. Scripture reminds us that we already have a strong protector in times of need. . . . In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father Good pleasure to give you the kingdoms.”

But of course, evangelicals did not believe this when the voted for Donald Trump:

While many of Trump’s evangelical opponents said that they could not tell their children or grandchildren that they voted for such a moral monster, other evangelicals were saying exactly the same thing about voting for Hillary Clinton. On Election Day, long-held fears or threats whose specter had been stoked for decades simply could not be overcome.

Recently, Mike Horton echoed Fea when he wrote under the title, “What Are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing?”:

In a Monday meeting with evangelical leaders at the White House, President Trump reportedly warned of violence against conservative Christians if the GOP loses in November. Evangelicals, he said, were “one election away from losing everything.”

As evangelicals, we would do well to correct the president on this point. If an election can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?

What I don’t understand is why the evangelical voters for Trump, why their fears are a sign of infidelity. We have heard a lot about how evangelicals fear the Trump administration’s immigrant policy, the Southern Baptist Convention’s pastors’ treatment of women and sexual abuse, and the racial bias of police and related shootings.

Someone could argue that these fears about the plight of immigrants, women, and African-Americans are legitimate fears while the socio-economic concerns that motivated evangelicals to vote for Trump were illegitimate.

That may be, but that would also undermine the point that Christians should not be afraid, unless it is that white Christians don’t need to fear but Christian people of color do. Either way, a Christian no matter what his or her race or ethnicity is supposed to trust a sovereign God. If Psalm 23 is true, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” then it is true for all people who trust God.

Isn’t This Like a Constitutional Amendment in Favor of Fast Food?

John Fea objects to the American Bible Society’s “Affirmation of Biblical Community” as a break with the institution’s past and an attempt to signal an evangelical brand (yuck):

There is nothing unusual with a religious organization making employees sign a statement of faith or requiring them to practice certain behavior that fits with the teachings of historic Christianity. Christian ministries and colleges, for example, do this as a matter of course.

But the fact that the ABS has decided to adopt such a statement after functioning for 202 years without one does make this development noteworthy. As the author of perhaps the only scholarly history of this storied Christian organization, I can attest that the “Affirmation of Biblical Community” represents a definitive break with the vision of its founders.

It also represents the culmination of a roughly 20-year transformation of the Society from a diverse Christian organization to a ministry with strong ties to American evangelicalism.

Fea is gaining a following, even to the point that Ruth McCambridge calls this a “hi-jacking”:

Here are some of the potentially break-worthy aspects of the Affirmation as reported at Christianity Today:

“I believe the Bible is inspired by God, an open invitation to all people, and, for me, provides authoritative guidance for my faith and conduct.”

“I will seek spiritual maturity through regular Bible engagement…”

“I will seek to refrain from sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant prescribed and exemplified in the Bible.”

If Fea’s point is that ABS never codified its doctrines or morals, he has a technical point. But do technicalities add up to a “break” or “hi-jacking?” Americans love fast-food but don’t have a national affirmation in favor of double-cheeseburgers. If someone in Congress proposed an amendment to affirm McDonalds and Whataburger, would it constitute a break with American norms, or an unusual step in merging the nation’s politics and tastebuds?

Still, the way Fea and others comment on the Affirmation is to suggest the folks at ABS were indifferent to morality and doctrine, or that the Bible Society was never truly in the evangelical camp. I don’t like to do this but I did learn from John Fea that ABS was part of a 19th-century push by evangelical Protestants to form voluntary parachurch agencies and change the world. In his history of ABS, he writes:

At the start of the Civil War, close to half of the population of the United States were evangelical Christians, and most of these evangelicals were sympathetic to the work of benevolent societies. . . . Between 1789 and 1829 the nation’s thirteen largest benevolent socieites — most of them unaffiliated with a specific denomination — spent more than $2.8 million to promote a more Christian and moral nation. . . . Lyman Beecher, perhaps the most vocal champion of a Christian nation and a founder of the ABS, believed that such interdenominational society should supplement the churches as a “sort of disciplined moral militia.” (51-52)

Is it just I or does that sound like Beecher could well affirm the ABS’s recent Affirmation (and might even add a few more items like drinking, smoking, movies, novels, Sabbath desecration)?

Indeed, one of Beecher’s colleagues in founding ABS, Elias Boudinot, was according to Tommie Kidd “the most evangelical founding father” and no slouch in the moralizing business. Here is how Kidd described Boudinot:

Boudinot was a member and president of the Continental Congress, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the director of the U.S. Mint from 1795 to 1805. Boudinot became increasingly alarmed about the rise of Deism and the attacks on traditional Christianity by Thomas Paine and others. He helped found the American Bible Society in 1816, and became the president of the American Society for Evangelizing the Jews in 1820 (John Quincy Adams was a vice president of this organization). Boudinot wrote Christian treatises such as The Age of Revelation and The Second Advent, which used prophecies from the Bible to argue that America risked losing the blessings of God if it continued to pursue faithlessness and worldliness.

Kidd then included an excerpt from Boudinot’s book, The Second Advent:

But has not America greatly departed from her original principles, and left her first love? Has she not also many amongst her chief citizens, of every party, who have forsaken the God of their fathers, and to whom the spirit may justly be supposed to say, “ye hold doctrines which I hate, repent, or else I will come unto you quickly, and will fight against you with the sword of my mouth.”

America has been greatly favoured by God, in all her concerns, both civil and religious, and she has much to hope, and much to fear, according as she shall attentively improve her relative situation among the nations of the earth, for the glory of God, and the protection of his people—She has been raised up in the course of divine Providence, at a very important crisis, and for no very inconsiderable purposes. She stands on a pinnacle—She cannot act a trifling or undecided part—She must determine whom she will serve, God or mammon—She stands by faith, and has great reason to take heed lest she should fall, from a vain confidence in her own internal strength, forgetting “the rock from whence she has been hewed, and the hole of the pit, from whence she has been digged.” …

Hearken then, ye who are happily delivered from many of the evils and temptations to which the European nations are exposed. Your fathers fled from persecution: a glorious country was opened to them by the liberal hand of a kind Providence;—a land, literally, flowing with milk and honey;—they were miraculously delivered from the savages of the desert;—they were fed and nourished in a way they scarcely knew how. Alas! what have been the returns, their descendants, of late years, have made for the exuberant goodness of God to them? The eastern states, however greatly fallen from their former Christian professions, were settled by a people really fearing God. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do thy first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of its place, except thou repent,” that is, will deprive thee of those Gospel privileges with which thou hast been so greatly favoured.

Again, Boudinot sounds like the sort of fellow who would likely add to ABS’ recent enumeration of biblical convictions. Kidd adds, “Whatever you might think of Christians today who say we need to bring America ‘back to God,’ it is a concern that evangelicals like Boudinot were expressing from the beginning of the nation.”

So just how much is Affirmation of Biblical Community a “definitive break” with the founders of ABS? Fea could well be right that compared to later developments in the Society’s history, when it became more mainline and even “liberal” Protestant, the current statement is a “hi-jacking.” But not with ABS founders who may not have supported Donald Trump but would be as obnoxious now about marriage, sex, family life, and public morality as they were then.

When You Ignore the Context

You have lose your outrage over evangelical hypocrisy.

John Fea argues that Damon Linker nails it when the latter writes:

No informed evangelical today seriously hopes for a reversal of same-sex marriage. (Even in the unlikely event that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision affirming a right to same-sex marriage were overturned, public opinion would by this point strongly support legalizing the institution through democratic means.) What they do hope for is protection from persecution for their religiously based views of sexual morality. That can be done most effectively by the appointment of judges who are friendly to religious freedom and the reining in of the power of executive branch bureaucracies to apply anti-discrimination law to every corner of American life. The Trump administration has been doing a lot of both. And evangelicals are understandably elated about it.

Those who loathe and fear the religious right should keep all of this in mind when they mock evangelicals for their cynical political maneuvering. The willingness of evangelicals to embrace Trump is a function not of their strength but of their weakness. It may not look that way from the outside, with an increasingly Trumpified Republican Party exercising so much control in Washington and in state houses around the country. Yet evangelicals are right to recognize that people like them have by now long since decisively lost the culture and the political support of the bulk of the American electorate.

The moral majority has shrunk to become a moral minority surrounded by a sea of secularism. For all the talk of the president serving as God’s instrument in the 2016 election, most evangelicals understand very well that he’s an emissary from the wider secular world. But that makes his willingness to serve as their strong man and protector all the more remarkable — and all the more an occasion for gratitude and loyalty.

But Linker’s point is not simply that evangelicals support Trump out of fear and weakness, thus adding to the woe of being hypocrites. His point is that evangelicals the alternative to Trump as even worse:

Like the residents of an urban neighborhood who gladly pay a local mob boss a share of their earnings in return for safety and security, evangelicals have made a transactional calculation. In return for obsequious, gushing, unconditional support, Trump will serve as their protector, surpassing all prior Republican presidents in his willingness to advance a religious right agenda for which he personally feels nothing but indifference.

The character of this arrangement shows just how much the situation for evangelicals has changed since the administration of their previous presidential champion, George W. Bush.

Bush spoke frequently and convincingly about his faith, and he backed it up by advocating for the passage of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and working to get anti-same-sex-marriage referendums on the ballots of numerous states in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. Trump, by contrast, expressed explicit support for LGBTQ rights in his acceptance speech at the 2016 Republican convention.

Meanwhile, in the intervening eight years, a Democratic president and just about every member of his party shifted from opposing gay marriage to supporting it while denouncing the remaining holdouts as bigots. Then, in the blink of an eye, progressives immediately began waging the next battle in the anti-discrimination wars: a defense of the rights of the transgendered, including an insistence that all public discussion and debate of the issue begin by affirming the absolute malleability of gender, a position radically incompatible with historic Christianity’s teachings on sexual morality.

This is the context in which the evangelical embrace of Trump needs to be understood.

John left that out of his post. He also leaves this context out of his apparent loathing for the so-called “court” evangelicals. His categories for evaluating Trump and evangelicals are chiefly moral. He leaves out the context of politics.

Normal for a fundamentalist or evangelical, odd for a historian.

John Fea Has Some ‘Splainin’ to Do

John may think that the 2k growing in Presbyterian gardens is something he has never heard before, but I’m not so sure. This is from an interview John did with Jacques Berlinerblau for the book, Secularism on the Edge:

Fea: I’m a little skeptical about this whole-term secularism catching on within Christian churches, espeically of the evangelical variety. The Christian Right has done such an outstanding job of demonizing this word that any kind of alternative vision of secularism is going to raise red flags. If you want to lead a revitalization of secularism among the evangelical community, you will have a lot of work to do.

When I told some of my friends about this conference they said, “What are you going to a conference on secularism for?” If you read my work at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and elsewhere (or at least my work when I am not writing generally detached history, you will see that I make no bones about my faith. I am an evangelical. I can affirm everything that Barack Obama said at the Easter Prayer breakfast we discussed earlier. I might say that I have some problems with the president using that languate in his official capacity as the president, but the theology and the doctrine about the Resurrection — I believe that.

Berlinerblau: But you don’t shove it down my throat. You don’t want me to believe it — well, maybe you do want me to believe it. Do you?

Fea: Of course, I do, Jacques. My faith as an evangelical requires me to try to win you to Christ. My desire would be to evangelize you and have you become a believer.

Berlinerblau: Me?

Fea: Yes, but I don’t believe that the state or the government should be trying to evangelize you. Rather, I would love the opportunity to talk about my faith with you, perhaps in a series of conversations over coffee. . . . Evangelicals should not see the practice of sharing their faith with others as a political issue. It is something that should be done locally and individually as a manifestation of the church’s work in the world. . .

I think this is how evangelicals can embrace secularism. Evangelicals want to change the world; they want to be — as the Sermon on the Mount teaches — “salt and light.” They want to be a witness for what is good. They do not need politics to practice such a witness. We don’t need to have a Christian nation in order to live faithfully in the world. (pp. 31-32)

If this is how John looks at church-state, religion-politics relations, then why does he associate 2k with Robert Jeffress’ recent remarks but not see that he himself agrees with the Dallas pastor?

John’s agreement with Jeffress is evident when you consider, first, the way Mike Bergman critiqued Jeffress who compared the Baptist pastor’s views on immigration to those of a pro-choice advocate (a charitable construction – not):

The worldview of those who support abortion is flawed by utilitarianism. The difference between a fetus being something to be cherished or something to be destroyed is its usefulness to the woman carrying the child. Is the child wanted by the woman? Is the child not going to be an excessive burden upon the life of the woman? If the child is unwanted and/or deemed burdensome, then the child can be aborted upon demand.

It is ultimately the attitude: “You add no value to my life, and might even cost me more than I am willing to share, therefore I will not let you into my world.”

Rightly, conservative Christians in our culture have long said, “This is wrong! The child in the womb is valuable because it is a child. She deserves to be born into this world!”

Recently, President Trump referred to certain other countries using a far-from-flattering term when discussing immigration. Many have criticized his message, but some under the banner of “conservative Christianity” have supported it.

Bergman goes on to quote Jeffress:

“What a lot of people miss is, America is not a church where everyone should be welcomed regardless of race and background. I’m glad Trump understands the difference between a church and country. I support his views 100 percent, even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”

If I understand Jeffress and Fea, both distinguish the U.S.A. from the church of Christ. Both recognize that the state and the church have different standards and tools. Jeffress talks about the difference between church and country, Fea between politics and evangelism.

So why does John conclude he’s never encountered anything like this version of 2k?

What is remarkable is that more Protestants did not see the problem, and that contemporary Protestants who advocate religion in pubilc schools do not understand the way in which their religion is abused when used for only its ethical norms while neglecting the centrality of its redemptive message. One plausible explanation for the disparity is that the believers who desire a common morality for public institutions like schools are actually better republicans than they are Christians. For the impulse behind public school morality stems much more from republican ideology about restraining liberty with virtue than it does from Christian teaching about a religious standard for ethical conduct. In fact, in both the Old and New Testaments, the ethical instructions given to Jews and Christians were for the believing communities themselves, not blueprints for public morality among the Chaldeans, Philistines, Romans or Greeks. To follow either the law of Moses or the teaching of Christ, a person first had to affiliate with the Jews and Christians respectively, by worshiping their God and renouncing all others. That American Protestants thought their exclusive faith could provide the moral standard for a republic conceived in religiously neutrality is one of the more surprising twists in the history of biblical religion. Not only was the misunderstanding of religious liberty in the United States glaring, but the distortion of the Christian religion was enormous. (A Secular Faith, 93)

Those who believe they have a Christian duty to condemn the immorality of the President, assume implicitly that Christian morality is the standard for American public life. And that imports Christian norms into a secular society and government.

John Fea apparently wants to embrace secularism and keep evangelism distinct from politics. When Robert Jeffress tries to apply that distinction to President Trump, John acts like he’s never seen or heard of this kind of separation before.

Why? Has Donald Trump made everyone crazy?

Dissecting Signers (cont.)

I wonder why John Fea and other signers of the “Open Letter” about racism and Confederate Monuments did not feel the pinch of Matthew Lee Anderson’s criticism of the Nashville Statement. Anderson wrote again:

While forming God’s people is a thoroughly laudable aim, I wonder: why then the website, the press release, and the signatories? The means of communication are not neutral, after all. They deliberately invite attention not just from evangelicals, but the world. If the form of such statements is part of catechesis, then why were Bible verses left off? And why were reasons for each of the affirmations and denials not given, or definitions of terms not supplied? Such additions would dramatically expand the statement’s length. But what does that matter, if the purpose is catechism and not the culture war?

And why is there not more attention to the pastoral dynamics of how these affirmations and denials are to be worked out in the context of local communities? For a statement signed by a heavy concentration of Baptists, its form and substance have little to do with congregational life. It is a “statement” by an evangelicalism that has left ecclesial communities behind in favor of trans-denominational, parachurch partnerships.

That could equally be said of the Christian scholars who signed the letter opposing Neo-Nazis. What about the means of communication? Where are the biblical citations? Why isn’t the “Open Letter” taking a side in the culture wars? One answer could be that the sins are so obvious. So why isn’t it possible to see the self-evident character of the sins enumerated in the Nashville Statement? Only some evangelical scholars are allowed to pontificate, only the smart ones?

When Fea writes that Anderson is observing what evangelical historians are seeing — “Anderson and Gerhz seem to be in agreement that the Nashville Statement reflects what we (and now many others) have been calling ‘The Age of Trump'” — that avoids partisanship?

You could even argue that Anderson’s diagnosis of the subtext and optics of the Nashville Statement apply across the board, even to celebrity Christian intellectuals, like Rod Dreher who is excited about the release of the French translation of Benedict Option. If the means of communication and the publicity machines are not neutral, if they capitulate to the economic structures, inequalities of late modernity, and the desires of consumers, then why not apply that to individuals as much as statements?

But when it comes to Tim Keller, nothing to see (not even the publicity machine, fundraising, digital networks, and fame trafficking that has attended the New York City star):

it isn’t fair to assign blame to a teacher when students do not live up to his standard, particularly in a case like this one where the “teacher” had virtually no personal contact with most of the students and has instead simply attracted a crowd of admirers via publications.

Indeed, if anything I think we should commend Keller for his stewarding of his position at Redeemer. They were very selective in what sermons they made freely available online, he waited a long time to start writing books, and he has put a far greater emphasis on church planting in NYC rather than simply growing his brand as a celebrity pastor. Given what has happened to Mark Driscoll and now Darrin Patrick, we should be profoundly grateful for men like Keller (and John Piper) who manage to be in the spotlight for so long and to do so with relatively little scandal.

I thought Anderson said that publications, lack of personal contact, and crowds of followers were not “neutral.”

The lesson is that the means of production behind the Nashville Statement are flawed. But the means of production behind Keller — well, he arrived ex nihilo.

I Thought John Fea Is Evangelical

John linked to a report from Baylor on the outlook of Trump voters. Among those voters are these characteristics:

• are members of white Evangelical Protestant churches

• consider themselves “very religious”

• think of the United States as a Christian nation

• believe that God is actively engaged in world affairs

• fear Muslims and refugees from the Middle East

• believe that women are not suited for politics

• oppose LGBTQ rights

Here’s what’s odd about this finding. I’m betting John and I are on the same side of these bullet points.

He and I consider ourselves very religious.

He and I think the United States is not a Christian nation.

He and I believe likely that God is actively engaged in world affairs since we tend not to be deists.

He and I do not fear necessarily Muslims or refugees from the Middle East, though I bet if those Muslims or refugees had fought for ISIS John might be a little afraid as I would be.

He and I do not think that women are unsuited for politics, though John was far more congenial to Hillary Clinton than I was.

He and I likely overlap on rights for LBGTQ folks, though I also suspect that the extent of those rights might be qualified.

In which case, neither John nor I fit the profile of evangelicals who voted for Trump. And yet, John still self-identifies as evangelical. I do not and have not for at least 25 years.

In which another case, why does John object to Trump as strongly as he does? Is it because he identifies as evangelical even while the majority of evangelicals voted for Trump? That disconnect could make you wonder about the group to which you belong. I imagine if Bruce Springsteen came out in favor of Trump, John would have as much psychic discomfort as I would if Ethan Coen trashed J. Gresham Machen.

In which a third case, isn’t what matters here not someone’s religious w-w but his or her politics? I can belong to a communion that includes (or used to) Kevin Swanson and that’s okay because the OPC does not require fidelity on political or cultural matters. But if you are part of a religious group that includes a wide swath of Protestants and think that faith should inform a lot of what you do — not to mention that the group has been identified with a certain political trajectory for FORTY years, evangelical support for Trump might give you pause. In other words, if you think religion and politics need to be consistent, then you might assume that a self-identified Calvinist is also a political conservative (which Donald Trump is not). But doesn’t that also mean that if you are an evangelical, your politics should align in some way with the rest of the evangelical world? Being evangelical surely doesn’t make you a liberal (though evangelical professors seem to think otherwise). And oh by the way, some of the biggest opponents of Donald Trump like Russell Moore also oppose policies like gay marriage. In other words, you don’t need to oppose Trump and go over to the editorial page of The New Republic.

Even so, nothing on that list of Trump voters’ attributes is inherently Christian.

Regarding those qualities now as sub-Christian is going to take a little more work than simply finding Trump repugnant. Ever since Ronald Reagan, most Christians in either the Democrat and Republican parties would have agreed with those convictions.

In which a fourth case, Donald Trump justifies rewriting the rules governing yucky evangelicalism.

What Kind of Christian is John Fea?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John concludes by admitting:

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

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

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

Shooting Fish in a Barrel

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

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

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

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

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

Consider President Obama’s remarks while welcoming Pope Francis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow!

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

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

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

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?