White Christian Nationalism for Urban Hipster Presbyterians?

Remember when some Presbyterians were quick to link a certain failed mass-shooter with theology in the OPC?

And remember also when critics of President Trump were quick to associate (in a fear-mongering way) the rhetoric of “the West” with white Christian nationalism?

Well, what do you do with someone who sits regularly under the ministry of a famous Presbyterian pastor in a major mega city and then writes this, for instance, about slavery?

the Times wants to reimagine the European version of America as founded on slavery and stained in every possible way by the continuing effects of slavery. This is a political project more than a historical one. Its unacknowledged goal is to taint all opposition to progressive political goals as rooted in the perpetuation of oppression, and perhaps to delegitimize America itself.

The 1619 Project overstates things a bit. Slavery does have lingering consequences, and the economic, cultural, and political history of the country does reflect the awful institution. But the 1619 Project also reduces the lives of African Americans to perpetual victimhood, and it ignores the glorious ideal of freedom in American history. It reverses the traditional conception of America as an exceptional land of liberty to conceive of it as an exceptional land of slavery and oppression.

Four centuries ago, almost every Englishman believed a piece of anti-Spanish propaganda called the “Black Legend.” It presented all Spaniards and all Catholics as uniquely, demonically evil, whose cruelty was proved not least by their barbaric treatment of the Indians. The 1619 Project creates a new kind of Black Legend, which casts America as uniquely, demonically evil.

The Times is calculating that Americans are already primed to believe this new Black Legend. They have been softened up by the pseudo-history of Howard Zinn, whose elaborately distorted vision in A People’s History of the United States has been swallowed whole by millions. (A nod of appreciation is due to Mary Grabar whose new book Debunking Howard Zinn is a long-overdue corrective to the Marxist storyteller.) Others are hoping the 1619 Project will flatten what is left of resistance to anti-American mythmaking in K-12 and college history courses. The new Black Legend is already comfortably ensconced in many of our high schools and colleges. The first book college students read very likely treats it as fact.

And what are we to make of the associations between preacher and worshiper when the latter writes this about Harvard University’s president’s failure to include western civilization as part of the institution’s academic mission?

What is completely absent is anything that connotes “civilization,” as in “western civilization” or “comparative civilizations.” Harvard once took this concept as central to its educational work. It has apparently fallen by the wayside, though it lingers in the names of some departments, as in “East Asian Languages and Civilizations” and “Archaeology and Ancient Civilization.”

There is food for thought in this observation. Why has civilization, especially Western civilization, slipped beneath the notice of Harvard’s current president? In considering the comings and goings of students across oceans and national borders, is “civilization” not a factor? Why do students from diverse parts of the “world” want to study in the West? In the United States? At Harvard? Might our civilization bear on their motives to travel so far and undertake the hardships of studying in a foreign culture?

Don’t be confused. I do not fault the author for these complaints about the direction of important institutions in the life of the United States. In fact, I believe he is right to raise these concerns.

What I do wonder about is why the #woke Presbyterians who think the United States is racist and Christian nationalist don’t take issue with the pastor and related congregation who would seem to be responsible for this conservative author’s sentiments? I mean, if you can connect the dots between the alt-right and Reformed Protestant covenant theology, can’t you also tie defenses of western civilization and the United States to urban hipster Presbyterianism?

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Is God Holding Back Urbanist Presbyterians?

For those social justicey pastors who labor for the city, what’s wrong with this picture?

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

“It’s something I never thought would happen,” she said of the bond she has forged with the church’s community, if not the tenets of its faith. She was drawn to the church, she said, by “something in the spirit of Rutgers and something in the spirit of the outside world.”

Katharine Butler, an artist, was lured into Rutgers when she walked by a sandwich board on the street advertising its environmental activism. Soon, she was involved in more traditional aspects of the church, too.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this, singing away and all the Jesus-y stuff,” she said. “It was wonderful to find a place larger than me, that’s involved in that and in the community and being of service. It’s nice to find a real community like that.”

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary. Instead, the community there has been cobbled together by a different code of convictions, pulled in by social justice efforts, activism against climate change, meal programs for the homeless and a task force to help refugee families.

Houses of worship — including Christian churches from a range of denominations, as well as synagogues — have positioned themselves as potent forces on progressive issues, promoting activism on social justice causes and inviting in the L.G.B.T.Q. community. But religious scholars said that Rutgers was reaching a new frontier where its social agenda in some ways overshadowed its religious one.

“Rutgers has periodically reinvented itself as the Upper West Side has gone through changes like this,” said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt University. “This isn’t the first reinvention. It is one of their more interesting ones.”

The approach at Rutgers reflects how spirituality has shifted in fundamental ways. Those who enter the unassuming brick-and-limestone sanctuary on West 73rd Street find a place for pancake breakfasts, fund-raisers, activism and developing ties to a neighborhood.

“People who otherwise feel marginalized or pushed out by regular congregations, more thoughtful people, say, or those who like to ask questions about faith, started to gather around our congregation,” said the Rev. Andrew Stehlik, the senior pastor at Rutgers.

“Not all of them are deeply interested in becoming yet another member of a denomination,” he added. “They are still coming and worshiping with us. We call them friends of the church. Often, they’re a substantial part of the worshiping community here.”

It seems that the worshiping community could use an injection of people. Mainline Protestant denominations like Presbyterianism have seen their followings diminish in recent years. (Leaders of the Presbyterian Church put out a news release in April announcing that fewer followers were leaving, declaring that they were “encouraged by the slowing trend downward.”)

To address shrinking congregations, some pastors are searching for new ways to use their churches and redefine what fellowship means. Churches have the space and the good will, after all, to commit to community works, social justice or arts and educational projects. And opening their doors in this way can bring in those looking for more than a Bible study class.

Some progressive Reformed and evangelicals are wont to insist that you can’t have the gospel without social justice.

But at churches like Rutgers Presbyterian, you do have social justice without the gospel. And this is not the Democratic Party. It’s a church.

So, where do you draw the line? At what point do you have too much God to be effectively social justice in your church’s orientation? If Rutgers’ pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see unbelievers less inclined to participate in church activities. Or, when does social justice begin to impede God? If Rutgers’ pastors pastors came on with the Westminster Confession, they might see Presbyterians object to a broad church held together by left-wing activism.

Whatever the answer, a line exists. Or you can put churches on a spectrum. Either way, the gospel is not identical to social justice. Mainline Protestantism is example number one.

Hypocrites All

Has anyone wondered what Bible #woke Christians read?

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Phil 2)

It gets worse if you think that suffering is actually part and parcel of flourishing for Christians.

Imagine That, Church as Safe Space

Could the Pretty Good Awokening nurture the spirituality of the church? Some of the speakers at the recent evangelical summit on sexual abuse sure made it sound like the church needs to be a place of respite:

These are all scandals that emerged from within the church. But many speakers at the Wheaton summit focused on how to make the church a safe haven from the perils of the outside world, rather than on rooting out harm coming from its own ranks. Beth Moore, a Bible teacher who has become a prominent voice on misogyny and abuse within Christian circles, described her childhood church as a harbor that contrasted with her “unsafe” home. Still, she said, “I have often wondered what a difference it might have made if that safe harbor had not only been a place to hide but a place to heal. What if I’d heard my pastor or my teachers or any of my leaders address what I was going through, call it what it was, say that I wasn’t to blame and not to be ashamed? … What if I’d known I wasn’t alone? What if I’d known there was help?

A safe harbor was all that Machen asked for as a remedy from the abuse of politicized Christianity:

But meanwhile our souls are tried. We can only try to do our duty in humility and in sole reliance upon the Savior who bought us with His blood. . . . whatever solution there may be, one thing is clear. There must be somewhere groups of redeemed men and women who can gather together humbly in the name of Christ, to give thanks to Him for His unspeakable gift and to worship the Father through Him. Such groups alone can satisfy the needs of the soul. At the present time, there is one longing of the human heart which is often forgotten − it is the deep, pathetic longing of the Christian for fellowship with his brethren. One hears much, it is true, about Christian union and harmony and co-operation. But the union that is meant is often a union with the world against the Lord, or at best a forced union of machinery and tyrannical committees. How different is the true unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace! Sometimes, it is true, the longing for Christian fellowship is satisfied. There are congregations, even in the present age of conflict, that are really gathered around the table of the crucified Lord; there are pastors that are pastors indeed. But such congregations, in many cities, are difficult to find. Weary with the conflicts of the world, one goes into the Church to seek refreshment for the soul. And what does one find? Alas, too often, one finds only the turmoil of the world. The preacher comes forward, not out of a secret place of meditation and power, not with the authority of God’s Word permeating his message, not with human wisdom pushed far into the background by the glory of the Cross, but with human opinions about the social problems of the hour or easy solutions of the vast problem of sin. Such is the sermon. And then perhaps the service is closed by one of those hymns breathing out the angry passions of 1861, which are to be found in the back part of the hymnals. Thus the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God, and sad indeed is the heart of the man who has come seeking peace. (Christianity and Liberalism)

I hope for the sake of the abused that they find peace and solace in the church, so long as they remember that making the church #woke or prophetic is only to bring the “conflicts of the world” back into the place where souls are looking for comfort.

Why #Woke Christianity Won’t Last

If social psychologists are right about the need for friends, family, and colleagues to sustain a person’s beliefs, then the results from a new Pew survey might give the social justice Christians pause:

Politically conservative Americans are more likely than liberals to find meaning in religion, while liberals find more meaning in creativity and causes than do conservatives. Spirituality and faith are commonly mentioned by very conservative Americans as imbuing their lives with meaning and fulfillment; 38% cite it in response to the open-ended question, compared with just 8% of very liberal Americans – a difference that holds even when controlling for religious affiliation. By contrast, the closed-ended question finds that very liberal Americans are especially likely to derive “a great deal” of meaning from arts or crafts (34%) and social and political causes (30%), compared with rates of 20% and 12% among very conservative Americans.

In other words, the number of believers in the socially concerned world of MeToo, NeverTrump, and BlackLivesMatter is arguably small. It’s a free country and no one is saying that leftists and progressives have to be religious. But if you wind up finding meaning in those circles, you won’t find much encouragement for faith. What is likely the case is that you’ll encounter hostility to faith, especially of a conservative Protestant variety.

Maybe #woke evangelicals can console themselves that they are a niche market and will persevere as a special case of committed believers who are also on the left side of politics. Chances are, though, as other results from Pew suggest, that if these #woke believers remain religious it will not be as evangelical.

Many evangelicals find meaning in faith, while atheists often find it in activities and finances. Spirituality and religious faith are particularly meaningful for evangelical Protestants, 43% of whom mention religion-related topics in the open-ended question. Among members of the historically black Protestant tradition, 32% mention faith and spirituality, as do 18% of mainline Protestants and 16% of Catholics. Evangelical Protestants’ focus on religious faith also emerges in the closed-ended survey: 65% say it provides “a great deal” of meaning in their lives, compared with 36% for the full sample. At the other end of the spectrum, atheists are more likely than Christians to mention finances (37%), and activities and hobbies (32%), including travel (13%), as things that make their lives meaningful. Atheists tend to have relatively high levels of education and income, but these patterns hold even when controlling for socioeconomic status.