The Stumbling Blocks Whom You Should Read for Edification

Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania could do a better job of teaching the public about the significance of historical monuments, the reasons behind them, and how to sort through the defects and achievements of figures that past generations esteemed.

The church has a different and better tool kit. Unfortunately, First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, South Carolina, did not use it. The officers there have decided to remove the names of James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer, two southern Presbyterian theologians who defended slavery, from lecture series, walls, and publications. In the pastoral letter sent to congregation members, Dr. Derek Thomas wrote the following:

Some, seeing the wanton destruction meted out by mobs elsewhere in our society, may worry that we, too, are effacing our history. I do not think that is the case. There is much more to learn from Thornwell and Palmer in
their writings. Thornwell’s four-volume Collected Writings is still available in our church library and for purchase on the internet. His works on the nature of God, creation, the Scriptures, and justification will continue to be taught and read, whatever the names of our buildings may be. The same is true of Palmer’s works, in particular his superb The Life and Letters of James Henley Thornwell. In any case, I doubt very much whether either man would wish his name assigned to a church building. 

I have been an admirer of both James Henley Thornwell and Benjamin Morgan Palmer ever since I was introduced to their writings at seminary in mid-1970’s. To mention but one issue, Thornwell’s contribution to the understanding of the office of ruling elder shaped my direction into Presbyterian convictions (I was a Baptist) and continues to be important. Palmer’s The Broken Home and Theology of Prayer are two very fine works. I fully intend to read them again.

For years, I believed that we could honor the good while conceding to the bad. But their views on slavery and race were not just bad and wrong, they are fundamentally at odds with Scripture. I recall a black preacher, some forty years ago at a Banner of Truth conference in England, saying, “I love Thornwell on this issue, but he was horribly wrong on race and slavery.” That narrative does not work anymore. The names now are a “stumbling block” to our ability to witness to our African-American brothers and sisters. They are an impediment to enable us to witness on college campuses. And they are hurtful to our African-American members.

I can only imagine the pressure a congregation like this one senses in the current climate and do not intend to pile on from one side when they are likely receiving lots of pressure from the other. But I still have trouble understanding how you recommend Thornwell and Palmer as theologians while also declaring they are stumbling blocks. Who will pick up their works now? Even more, who is better situated to defend the value of their theology despite their objectionable political views and the doctrine they used to support them? If not officers and members at congregations at First Presbyterian Church, Columbia, don’t expect the folks at Redeemer New York City or Christ Presbyterian Nashville.

Another puzzle is the timing. The names of Thornwell and Palmer are objectionable now? They haven’t been since the Civil Rights’ movement? Or since 2016 when the ARP General Synod confessed “the sinful failings of our church in the past in regard to slavery and racism”? As in the case of Princeton and Penn, the action of removing a name or a statue does not make up for the years that your institution was content to live with those names and figures. Simply admitting your fault does not create a new institution with new officers and staff. It’s the same people today making apologies who yesterday were unmindful of anything wrong.

The thing is, the defense of good theologians who got social institutions wrong is not all tricky since it involves the very word of God. Christians who read their Old Testament, maybe not as large as they once were, know that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was not necessarily the man most fathers desire as a spouse for their daughters. He deceived his own father to acquire Esau’s birthright, and later deceived his father-in-law about livestock (for starters). He played favorites with his sons and should have exerted more control in the unseemly retribution for Shechem’s sexual infidelity with Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen. 34). The patriarch was no saint as some communions evaluate sanctity.

And yet, the Old Testament authors did not cancel Jacob. His name occurs over and over again throughout the Hebrew Scriptures — thirty-four times in the Psalter alone.

If any Old Testament figure qualified as a stumbling block, it was Jacob, not to mention that if you were looking for parts of the Bible over which to stumble, the Old Testament has to be considered.

All of which is to say that Christianity, even the very Word of God, has lots of challenging material for contemporary believers. In our time of safe spaces, certainly the likes of Thornwell and Palmer have little appeal. But if you start to jettison figures long regarded for their insights and contributions, how do you protect the Bible itself?

Transcending Partisan Politics is Sectarian

Evangelical Protestants suffer from a tic. It is an unwillingness to identify with a political party. Evangelical writers about politics can spot the defects of both the left and the right, though they don’t often calculate which side has the most flaws. They act as if Christians really are above politics. When believers follow the Bible, they will not have to settle for either what liberals or conservatives propose.

A couple examples: the first on race.

The danger is that Christians who rightly reject the first (conservative) view as sub-biblical will merely pick up the second (progressive) view uncritically and use the terminology that it provides. But both are secular, reductionistic and simplistic. The Bible’s account of justice includes both individual and systemic dimensions—and more. We are not merely individual and social, but also soul and body. Indeed, the term “world” (kosmos) in the New Testament has not only a material reality (as in God loving the world of human beings, John 3:16), but also a spiritual reality, an inevitable tendency to make counterfeit gods out of good created things (1 John 2:15-16). “Doing justice” on the basis of the biblical view will include extraordinary prayer and evangelism along with everything else. The biblical view of justice gives full weight to both personal responsibility and social structures while based on a rich understanding of human life that goes well beyond the world’s reductionistic alternative views.

The second on communism.

Liberation theology, which puts a Christian face on Marxist social analysis, retains an enormous mystique on the Christian left. This isn’t because left-leaning Christians admire Stalin but because they are profoundly skeptical of the alternative to communism: economic systems built on property and contract rights protected by the rule of law. These systems produce economic growth, but as wealth has grown we’ve also seen a growing worldliness and materialism in our cultures. Christians on the left (most famously Gregory Paul) point to the radical economic community of the church in Acts 2–5 and ask if this doesn’t implicitly delegitimize market systems of price and exchange.

Right-leaning Christians, meanwhile, often seem indistinguishable from secular conservatives. They rail against communism, yet almost none of them seems to have read serious theological analysis of communism—not even from anti-communist Christians like Chambers. In almost every case, their top priority is to protect free markets and economic growth rather than oppose the atheistic inhumanity of the communist worldview. And their zeal to defend free markets often leads them to downplay, or even celebrate, the worldliness and crass materialism that have been associated with economic growth.

Why is the church haunted by communism, even though in Christ crucified we already possess the real answer to the world’s suffering and injustice? Because the church hasn’t put a Christian economic ethic into practice systematically. We need, but don’t know how to develop, an organized and operational Christian economic life.

Actually, the Amish have developed an economic system by some measures. But even their herculean efforts to retain Christian solidarity depends on the “English’s” society of property, currency, a legal system, and the political process that functions in, with, and around economic systems. Talk about systemic.

This does not mean that Christian academics should refrain from connecting dots between revelation (general and special) and politics or economics. What it does mean is that Christians trying to be Christian about everything, including politics and economics, separate themselves from the institutions most responsible for those areas of society. Christian w-w thinking is really a product of a ghetto that is isolated from bodies of learning and institutional structures in which political and economic decisions are made.

It is functionally Amish. Is that where New Calvinists want to be? Sectarians on the margins?

Memories (the way we were debating monuments three years ago)

Andrew Young on monuments, the Confederacy, racism, and Antifa (via):

“I think it’s too costly to refight the Civil War. We have paid too great a price in trying to bring people together… I personally feel that we made a mistake in fighting over the Confederate flag here in Georgia. Or that that was an answer to the problem of the death of nine people – to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.”

Specifically, Young was speaking of Gov. Roy Barnes’ decision to pull down the 1956 state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The move was a primary reason he lost his bid for re-election, split the state Democratic party, and ushered in the current season of Republican rule. Said Young:

“It cost us $14.9 billion and 70,000 jobs that would have gone with the Affordable Care Act – which we probably would have had if we hadn’t been fighting over a flag… It cost of us the health of our city because we were prepared to build a Northern Arc, 65 miles away from the center of the city of Atlanta – an outer perimeter that would have been up and running now, if we had not been fighting over the flag.

“I am always interested in substance over symbols. If the truth be known, we’ve had as much agony – but also glory, under the United States flag. That flew over segregated America. It flew over slavery….”

Young also had some advice for the “antifa” movement. Boiled down: If you haven’t seen Nazis and Klansmen in the streets before, perhaps it’s because you haven’t been paying attention. We’ve been here before. Said Young:

“I grew up in New Orleans, La., 50 yards from the headquarters of the Nazi party. Before I went to kindergarten, I was having to look in the window on Saturdays, and watch all these folks [shout] “Heil, Hitler!”
“In 1936.

“And my daddy said, those are sick people. They’re white supremacists, and white supremacy is a sickness. You don’t get mad, you get smart. You never get angry with sick people, because you’ll catch their sickness. That’s what I worry about with our young people. Anger and this emotional militancy will give you ulcers, give you heart attacks.

“Don’t get mad, get smart. Your brain is the most important thing you have.”

Confrontation doesn’t change mind. Engagement does, Young said. During the press conference, Mitchell had said much the same thing:

“As a community, as a society, we’ve got to speak up and stand against racism, and bigotry, discrimination and oppression in any form, coming from anybody.

“With that being said, we’ve got to find a pathway to reconciliation.”

Afterwards, I approached Mitchell about the petition that had been presented to Mayor Kasim Reed, demanding the renaming of Confederate Avenue in the Grant Park neighborhood of Atlanta. Said Mitchell:

“It’s going to be a community conversation among people who live and own property on that street, and I’m willing to entertain that. I would just caution us, as a city – you can‘t replace an angry, evil mob with what we believe is a righteous mob.

“We have a complicated history as a country, in the South and certainly in Atlanta. There’s so much good and bad intertwined and tangled together. We need to be able to untangle the good and the bad, get rid of the bad, and make it part of the past.”

Acting as if Majorities are in the Minority

I keep scratching my head. For the last two weeks plus, I have read various cultural authorities on how evil racism is. At the same time, none of those condemnations of racism at mainstream and elite institutions count as evidence against the United States’ deep and abiding racism. Here is one example of the barrage of assertions that both condemn and apologize for racism:

Over the last few days, I have received numerous emails from institutions and organizations feeling compelled to issue statements on the George Floyd killing and the ongoing protests. I have an email from Strava, an app that tracks personal athletic endeavors, titled “we must do better, and we will” and stating that “we know our practices have bias because we haven’t designed them to make sure they don’t.” The Institute for Policy Integrity and NYU Law School declares: “[W]e stand with the Black community in the face of unconscionable racially motivated violence, [and] we understand that such violence is aggravated by retrograde, prejudiced policies.” The Tufts University Alumni Association says the protests “are the result of deep-seated racism and injustice that exists within our society.” Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy calls “for an end to the illegal measures taken to prevent people from gathering and protesting peacefully and to the police aggression that targets Black citizens rather than protect them.” The executive council of Lewis & Clark College, from which I am retired, declares that mere expressions of support for the protests “runs the risk of removing responsibility from the majority and requiring the work be done by communities of color.” Society, not the cop, is responsible.

I have also heard from Cape Eleuthera Island School, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, The Explorers Club, Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun, the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, the Oregon Historical Society, and American Bar Association president Judy Perry Martinez, all declaring that they must do better.

If this had been the reaction to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that featured Rosa Parks (1955-1956), the nation would not have had to wait roughly ten years for the Civil Rights Act to pass Congress. Heck, if the sentiments today of opposition to bigotry and white supremacy had been around in 1955, Rosa Parks could have sat wherever she darned well pleased.

The simultaneous condemnation of racism and insistence that the United States is a racist as Virginia was in 1619 is akin to evangelicals such as Francis Schaeffer lamenting the immorality and unbelief of the nation even as a born-again Protestant occupied the White House. Remember what Schaeffer argued at a time well before Monica Lewinski, Stormy Daniels, and Obergefell v. Hodges:

“People have presuppositions, and they will live more consistently on the basis of those presuppositions than even they themselves may realize,” Schaeffer wrote, and he was talking this way when most evangelicals were unaware of the storm of worldviews that was coming. He perceived the presuppositions of the looming humanistic and secular worldview as showing up first in art and high culture. He was right. While most evangelicals were watching Gunsmoke and taking their kids to the newly opened Walt Disney World, Schaeffer was listening and watching as a new worldview was taking hold of the larger culture.

Americans’ outlook may well have lacked the tools to defend standards of decency and good government, but to complain about a culture that celebrated the rule of law in western towns and family-friendly cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, as if that culture is producing Lena Dunham’s Girls or Tacoma FD, is a bit like saying silence is violence.

Of course, the difference between the discussions today about racism and Schaeffer’s complaints then about cultural decadence are that no one at the New Yorker, Harvard University, the San Diego Mayor’s office, or Spotify was issuing statements in support of evangelicals’ morality, nor were they producing reading lists about the Ten Commandments and sanctification.

Songs for Crisis

Here are the ten most popular songs among Christians during COVID-19:

1. IT IS WELL WITH MY SOUL
It should come as no surprise that the classic hymn, written during a time of personal crisis, continues to encourage Christians to find comfort in Christ. Despite its enduring status, it grew even more popular, with a 68% jump in usage from February to the months of the coronavirus.

2. GREAT IS THY FAITHFULNESS
Another classic hymn became even more special to churches in recent months. Use of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” grew 64%.

3. NO LONGER SLAVES
The 2015 worship song grew in usage by 23% during the pandemic.

4. RAISE A HALLELUJAH
Released in 2019, “Raise a Hallelujah” brought comfort to churches and grew by 15%.

5. SEE A VICTORY
Another 2019 song that grew in 2020, “See a Victory” jumped 30%.

6. SOLID ROCK (MY HOPE IS BUILT ON NOTHING LESS)
Many churches have been turning to old truths contained in timeless hymns like this one, which grew in usage by 49%.

7. YOU NEVER LET GO
Matt Redmon’s 2006 worship song saw a 102% jump in popularity during the pandemic.

8. YES I WILL
The 2018 song from Vertical Worship grew in popularity by 21%.

9. CORNERSTONE
Hillsong’s 2012 song builds on the classic hymn already on the list, “Solid Rock,” and grew 11% in popularity.

10. HE WILL HOLD ME FAST
The modern hymn released by Keith and Kristyn Getty in 2016 saw a 46% jump in usage in recent months.

Here’s one that pairs well with both pandemic and protest, a metrical version of Psalm 17:

1Lord, hear my plea, attend my cry; unto my prayer give heed.
My righteous plea does not from false, deceitful lips proceed.

2Let vindication of my cause proceed, O Lord, from You;
Your eyes see what is right, so give my vindication due.

3Though You may probe my heart at night, or test me deep within;
You will find nothing, for I vowed my mouth would never sin.

4As for men’s deeds, I’ve kept myself from all their violent ways;
It’s by the word of Your own lips I’ve stayed within Your ways.

5My steps have held fast to Your path; I’ve walked within Your way;
And my feet have not slipped, for on Your path I vowed to stay.

6I call on You, and trust, O God, that You will answer me;
Give ear to me and hear my prayer, incline Your ear to me.

7Show me Your wondrous steadfast love: You save by Your right hand
all those who take refuge in You from foes that ’gainst them stand.

8Keep me as safe as You would keep the apple of Your eye;
And in the shadow of Your wings, allow me safe to hide,

9From wicked ones who trouble me, who do my soul surround,
From all my mortal enemies who compass me around.

10They close their callous hearts, and speak with arrogance profound;
11They track me down with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.

12They’re like a lion prowling ‘round, and hungry for his prey—
A lion who lies crouching under cover all the day.

13Rise up and come confront my foes, and bring them down, O Lord,
Come rescue me from wicked ones by power of Your sword.

14Stretch out Your hand to save me from such worldly ones, O Lord,
Who only in this present life do gather their reward.

You still the hunger of the ones You cherish, and provide
so they’ll not want; their children with great wealth will be supplied.

15But as for me, in righteousness, Your face I know I’ll see;
When I awake, Your likeness will be fullest joy to me.

Imagine that, a feisty song from the Bible, of all places.

Maybe President Obama was the Exception and Jeremiah Wright was the Rule

Matt Lewis thinks the Trump campaign is foolish to use Obamagate against Joe Biden and the previous administration since no one is more popular (especially among African-Americans) than President Obama. But if you read then Senator Obama’s Philadelphia speech about race (in response to inflammatory statements by his United Church of Christ pastor, Jeremiah Wright), the former president’s ideas have not aged well. You might even think he was living in a never-never land about race. Timelines are again important and the 1619 Project has swept away President Obama’s hopes for national unity:

I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

…The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know — what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

That was 2008. By almost the end of Obama’s second term as POTUS (2015), Jeremiah Wright was still making the rounds and his “static” view of the United States made sense:

Wright is a flawed messenger with a flawed message, but the message feels far more suited to the times in 2015 than it did to 2008. Back then, the prospect of an Obama election set off giddy daydreams of a post-racial America. Today, nearly three out of five Americans say that race relations in the United States are bad. Wright’s argument in those sermons more than a decade ago, that the United States was structurally racist and conceived in white supremacy, are now commonly voiced, by those like my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates, Black Lives Matters activists, and white liberals. Another cause he championed back then has come to draw adherents from across the political spectrum—the dangers of mass incarceration. Wright said in 2003:

The United States of America government, when it came to treating her citizens of Indian descent fairly, she failed. She put them on the reservations. When it came to treating her citizens of Japanese descent fairly, she failed. She put them in internment prison camps. When it came to treating the citizens of African descent fairly, America failed. She put them in chains. The government put them on slave quarters, put them on auction blocks, put them in cotton fields, put them in inferior schools, put them in substandard housing, put them in scientific experiments, put them in the lowest paying jobs, put them outside the equal protection of the law, kept them out of the racist bastions of higher education and locked them into positions of hopelessness and helplessness. The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing “God Bless America”

It could be that Obama didn’t really have a chance. The major media outlets and universities had not really agreed with his understanding of the United States. As David Graham added in his story about Wright:

much of it sounded very much like what you might hear from liberal professors in university classrooms across America: the emphasis on structural racism; skepticism of imperialism in many guises; sympathy for Palestinians and even antipathy toward Israel; praise for interdisciplinarity; the plea for multiculturalism and alternative viewpoints. Adding to the professorial vibe, Wright peppered his talk with repeated “assignments” for reading: the pioneering black historian Carter Woodson; C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow; A. Leon Higginbotham’s In the Matter of Color: The Colonial Period; academic monographs in various disciplines. (The parallels between Coates and Wright were amusing: an interest in the study of white supremacy; a deep immersion in academic literature; a reverence for Howard University as an intellectual Mecca.)

For confirmation that President Obama did not change the minds of many Democrats and progressives about race, (trigger warning) read Adam Serwer on the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project:

The most radical thread in the 1619 Project is not its contention that slavery’s legacy continues to shape American institutions; it’s the authors’ pessimism that a majority of white people will abandon racism and work with black Americans toward a more perfect union. Every essay tracing racial injustice from slavery to the present day speaks to the endurance of racial caste. And it is this profound pessimism about white America that many of the 1619 Project’s critics find most galling.

Not the hope of 2008 but the despair of 2019/1619 is prevailing.

When Congregationalists Were Woke (150 years ago)

Observations about the Boston Council of Congregationalists in 1865:

Even mild and bespectacled Alonzo Quint, who had just returned from service as a Union army chaplain, burst out in protest during a discussion of the civil rights of rebels, declaring them “uncommonly stupid and ignorant” and “unfit to come back and be trusted with a vote.” Quint let fly again at the delegation from Great Britain, who were present at the council. Still deeply angry over British support for the Confederacy, and egged on by hisses from other delegates, he denounced them as “always ready to follow the powerful, and always read to crush the weak,” “robbing in India [and] plundering in Ireland.”

Sometimes bitterness boiled over. A report on evangelization in the South prompted Samuel Pomeroy, who was both a Republican senator from Kansas and president of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, to declare that it would suit him better “if we spoke out a little more plainly about hanging somebody.” When the delegates responded with applause, Pomeroy pressed on: “I am very willing to mingle our justice with mercy to the common people of the South . . . but it does seem to me it is time somebody was hung.” Pausing for yet another round of applause, he further advised that “some wholesome hanging, I think, would have settled this question in the minds of the American people long ago; and I do not believe that a convention, even of this character, composed largely of clergymen, — men who love forgiveness and mercy, — would not be harmed if it adopted a little stiffer resolution on this question.” (Margaret Bendroth, The Last Puritans, 55)

This makes Thabiti Anyabwile look restrained.

There is Therefore Now Some Condemnation for Those who Are in Christ Jesus

Feel good moments are not part of the feng shui of Old School Presbyterianism. For that reason, I can empathize with some who viewed the video of Botham Jean’s expression of forgiveness to Amber Guyger as too sentimental and its viral circulation as sappily predictable.

Still, I am having trouble understanding Christians who have argued that Christianity is more than forgiveness because social (read racial) justice is still really important. According to Dorena Williamson:

Listening to the entire Jean family offers us a fuller picture of Christianity. In their words and posture towards Guyger and the criminal justice system, we hear calls for both forgiveness and justice. But if we elevate the words of one family member at the expense of another, we run the risk of distorting the gospel.

That way of putting makes you wonder if what social justice Christians really want is purgatory, a place where you go to burn off your temporal sins even though your spiritual ones are forgiven.

Williamson says people inspired by Botham need to listen to his mother. But what about the apostle Paul? He did write, after all:

31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Is it anachronistic to think that not even racism could separate someone who trusts in Christ from God and redemption through his son? Or is racism the unpardonable sin?

Of course, Paul also wrote about justice. Five chapters later, he made this point:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

What Paul does not say is that punishment by the governing authorities can separate Christians from the love of God.

Forgiveness trumps social justice, then. Even the Coen brothers understood this in O Brother, Where Art Thou:

…religion and politics, at least by the light of one strand of Christianity, have different standards and scope. The state’s purpose is justice and, according to any number of New Testament writers, the magistrate is well equipped with physical penalties to accomplish it. The church’s purpose is mercy and is similarly furnished with such means as preaching and the sacraments to pursue its redemptive tasks. To confuse the two is to misconstrue the bad cop (the state) and the good cop (the church). The difference is really not that hard to grasp, except perhaps for those believers who would like the church to have the trappings of the state and for citizens who would like politics to fill some spiritual void. Even run of the mill ex-cons, like Ulysses Everett McGill, the scheming ring-leader of the escaped prisoners in the movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” could see that his colleagues’ conversions would have no effect on their legal predicament as escaped convicts. When Pete and Delmar both appealed to their baptism in a muddy river as the basis for a general absolution, Everett responded, “That’s not the issue . . . .. Even if it did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi is more hardnosed.” (A Secular Faith, 123)

First Evangelicalism, Now W-w, but Still Hope for U.S.A.

Thabiti Anyabwile concludes his interaction with agitated Southern Baptists over social justice by making some odd concessions. If race relations started to unravel big eva in 2014, with a major goose from the 2016 election, it now looks like racism is making Neo-Calvinist w-w diagnosis look like nonsense.

How? Anyabwile faults Tom Ascol’s evidence for the influence of critical race theory (aka cultural Marxism) in evangelical circles as insufficient or anecdotal:

Sometimes people note a correlation or a suspicion and pronounce with certainty that a movement or an infiltration is there. I think that’s largely what’s happening when people claim a “movement” exists. Some look at the number of followers on Twitter or the number of returns on a search as “evidence.” But raw numbers tell us nothing about whether those Twitter followers agree with the one they follow or whether the followers were even purchased. Raw numbers of “hits” on searches tell us nothing about whether the content of the hits were for or against the subject searched.

The entire discussion is being built on an inadequate evidentiary approach. We have a low bar that actually breaks the rules of evidence in most every field, and it proves too much.

It used to be in New Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist circles that w-w was sufficient to spot a problem. You did not need to rise to the level of a movement to show that an idea or practice was sinful or destructive. Now, Anyabwile wants Ascol to show the institutional apparatus seemingly if he is going to prove that critical race theory is present in evangelicalism. Would that also mean that we need evidence of a movement to prove that sexual infidelity is making some gains in American society and the church?

Oddly, though, Anyabwile concedes that critical race theory is behind one of Truth Table’s hosts’ recent comments:

On the first point, consider Tom’s listing of Ekemini Uwan’s comments at the Sparrow Conference. He offers it as proof of secular social-justice ideologies infiltrating evangelical spaces. It’s true that Ekemini’s comments have much in common with the fields of whiteness studies and CRT. She uses “whiteness” not as a reference to skin color or even race but to a social ideology rooted in power and greed. But that’s a view at least as old as Frederick Douglass’s writing, well before CRT/IS, cultural Marxism, or today’s social-justice trends.

As long as Frederick Douglass argued that way, the ideas must be okay. So much for Abraham Kuyper.

But Anyabwile leaves room for hope. He argues that just because the founders of the SBC held slaves, we do not throw out their entire theology:

Tom leads an organization called “Founders Ministries.” It’s a reference to the theology and ministries of the founders of the SBC. Founders is dedicated to calling the convention back to the theological commitments (doctrines of grace) of those founders, among whom were men like Basil Manly Jr, who owned 40 slaves. Manley would not be the only early leader of the convention who owned slaves. In fact, the convention was formed following a split on the question of slave owning. You could say the SBC was the pro-slavery denomination. Its flagship seminary, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently issued a report documenting that institution’s history on the question of slavery and racism. The report indicates that the seminary’s founding faculty—James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams—all held slaves and, in some cases, actively defended the practice. Yet such men are cited in books and sermons as heroes of the convention and of evangelicalism.

Now, here’s the question: Are we to attribute all the beliefs and commitments of the founding leaders of the SBC and Southern Seminary to Tom as a leader of “Founders Ministries”? If a person expresses indebtedness to Boyce, Broadus, Manly, or Williams for their writing on some subject, are we to attribute to that person anything or everything we find repugnant in Boyce and company or their writings on that subject? I would answer an emphatic “No” to both questions.

By way of analogy, the same point applies to Americans who defend and memorialize the American Founding. Just because Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin owned slaves, we do not reject all that they did, especially the institutions and political rationales they left behind.

If Anyabwile is willing to entertain that sort of sifting of the American past, he needs to write a letter to the New York Times (and maybe send an email message to Jemar Tisby).

Still Confused about Christian Nationalism

The folks at The Witness used the anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville protests to re-publish the Charlottesville Declaration, an appeal to American churches to repent of and oppose racism. Here is an excerpt:

Now is the time for the Church to again be the moral compass for this nation. Now is the time for a prophetic, Spirit-led remnant to bear credible “word and deed” witness to the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As in the generation that preceded us, we especially call upon those born-again disciples who still cherish the authority of Scripture and the enablement of the Spirit. We declare that old time religion is still good enough for us in this new era, religion that provides us a full-orbed Gospel of evangelism and activism. May we be salt and light witnesses against the kingdom of darkness, knowing that we war not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12Open in Logos Bible Software (if available)).

To this end, we call upon white leaders and members of the Evangelical church to condemn in the strongest terms the white supremacist ideology that has long existed in the church and our society. Nothing less than a full-throated condemnation can lead to true reconciliation in the Lord’s body.

According to John Fea, Christian nationalism looks something like this:

The most extreme Christian nationalists create political platforms focused on restoring, renewing, and reclaiming America in such a way that privileges evangelical Christianity. Many of these extreme Christian nationalists may also be described as “dominionists” because they want to take “dominion” over government, culture, economic life, religion, the family, education, and the family. Christian nationalists of all varieties are marked by their unwillingness or failure to articulate a vision of American life defined by pluralism.

As a political movement, Christian nationalism is defined by a fear that America’s Christian identity is eroding, a belief that the pursuit of political power is the way to “win back” America, and a nostalgia for a Christian nation that probably never existed in the first place.

It looks like the Charlottesville Declaration insists that the United States conform to the gospel. Its drafters and signers also exhibit a fear that the nation’s Christian identity is, if not eroding, not sufficiently evident.

So why don’t those opposed to Christian nationalism also oppose The Witness’ Christian nationalism?

Imagine if this reporter read the Nashville Statement on gay marriage and wrote about a grassroots movement to preserve heteromarriage:

Article 1
WE AFFIRM that God has designed marriage to be a covenantal, sexual, procreative, lifelong union of one man and one woman, as husband and wife, and is meant to signify the covenant love between Christ and his bride the church.

WE DENY that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship. We also deny that marriage is a mere human contract rather than a covenant made before God.

Article 2
WE AFFIRM that God’s revealed will for all people is chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage.

WE DENY that any affections, desires, or commitments ever justify sexual intercourse before or outside marriage; nor do they justify any form of sexual immorality.

Article 3
WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.

WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity or worth.

On it goes for eleven more points.

What is worth noticing is that the Nasvhille Statement is not nationalist. It begins by talking about the West, never mentions the United States, and comes in French, Dutch, Japanese, and German versions.

But it is the sort of statement that some who oppose Christian nationalism refused to sign (as did I). Some evangelicals say the statement is “theology for the age of Trump,” others say it’s a “disaster.” But these same critics can’t see any indication of Christian nationalism in a statement that expects the United States to conform to Christian norms on race. I don’t suppose it has anything to do with calculating evangelicalism in relation to Trump. If so, that’s also a Christian version of nationalism since it lets political necessity shape Christian witness.

The lesson seems to be:

It is wrong to say America is a Christian nation when the nation is not Christian.

It is right to say America should be a Christian nation when the nation is not Christian.