Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age Part II: In which Evangelicals Lost By Winning

In Part I, I briefly detailed the history of American Evangelicalism, tracing its roots to the 2nd Great Awakening and the contemporary emergence of a post-Christian society.

Before delving further into our exploration of how Evangelicals might move forward in this post-Christian world, it is important to acknowledge their triumphs in the previous one. I mentioned earlier that the Evangelical movement was a movement for reform of society and of the men in it. It aimed for a transformation of impious, irreligious nominalism into a devout, serious minded faith. It aimed further for the culture itself to be ‘renewed’; for reform in labour laws, for the abolition of slavery, for a deep change in the understanding of marriage, for the raw mercantile capitalism of the day to be tamed, and on and on.

 Well the gocathedralod news is that it largely worked. Gradually, locally and then more systematically, the reforms of manners and customs that evangelicals championed were enacted. Within the US context for example, abolition of slavery was preceded by a change in the terms of argument employed by opponents of abolition; it had now to be justified as being more beneficial and humanitarian than the alternatives, whereas previously it was justified simply by its profitability. In hindsight it is an utterly unconvincing argument, but the fact that it was even put forth as an argument at all shows the power of the society wide change that was taking place under evangelical Christian influence. Eventually of course, slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Labour rights were secured. Public drunkenness, rampant gambling and other ‘vices’ became taboo in polite society. And finally, in what might eventually be seen as the last great flourish of the evangelically inspired reformist movement, legalised racial oppression was struck down.

Now some of these reforms were backed by liberals and others by conservatives and some were opposed by them, but they were all products of the Evangelical Revival and each were making their case on the terms of Christian commitment to a ‘Christian’ society that shared, at least theoretically, those same commitments.

What is all the more striking is that the soteriological framework of Evangelical thought, complete with its focus on crisis, awareness of guilt for sin, recognition of the need for external aid, emotional & spiritual responsiveness, etc., has become the framework by which Americans generally understand social or personal change. This obtains whether they are Christian or not, and indeed even if they are intentionally aggressively anti-Christian. The so-called new atheists (who are generally much less interesting than the old ones) describe their embrace of atheism in ways that would not be out of place in an old time fundamentalist revival meeting. The same is true for gays as well, with ‘coming out’ absorbing the abandoned space of testimony of salvation, except in this case it is usually a testimony of deliverance from the false life of lying to oneself and ones family before finally surrendering to the higher truth of their identity and finding hope and acceptance within a new LGBT community.

In other ways too Evangelicalism won. We take for granted the calm that stalks our city streets, the absence of widespread and open bribery of public officials, the assumptions of trustworthiness that lubricates our business and social interactions, the fact that children are not openly abused or sold into servitude. Yet none of these could have been taken for granted in the rough and tumble, money obsessed days just prior to the Great Awakening. Britain for example was awash in cheap gin, with the concomitant social problems that entailed. The American South, where slavery was common, was a veritable wasteland of irreligion and impiety with most people concerned about little more than profit taking and the enjoyment of life at whatever cost. New Englanders, steeped in a hypocrisy that belied their Puritan heritage, mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of trafficked slaves from whom they derived the vast profits that drove their mercantile enterprises. In other words, virtually all the ‘normalcy’ of American life that we now enjoy is light years away from what was normal at the nation’s founding and is largely the result of the long shadow of the evangelical movement.

The Evangelicals in some ways won much of the culture, but because they were a movement birthed in revolt against the institutional structures of ‘Christendom’, they tended to disregard the need to control or substantively reform the structures of society, seeing this as superfluous and perhaps even harmful to their project of societal transformation. What mattered was the heart and the Christendom model, wherein the institutional structures of society were under the control of the church, had mostly failed in their estimation to bring about real social and personal reform. Consequently the institutional structures of society, such as the arts, media, universities, and government among other things, which for a long time maintained their ‘Christian’ character as a hold-over of the Christendom ideal, eventually were taken captive by antichristian forces.

Over time Evangelicals, both of the liberal and conservative stripe, mostly ignored these institutions. The liberals did not generally see them as a threat and even applauded at times as they were subverted, seeing in their evolution away from ‘Christendom’ something to be celebrated; a further liberation from the old prejudices and inadequacies of the past. The conservatives mostly saw them as irredeemably corrupt and thus avoid entering them altogether, while occasionally using their declining social influence to rail against this or that excess. The commanding heights of the culture were thus secured by the non-Christian and anti-Christian heirs of the Enlightenment; it was only a matter of time before the rest of society would fall.

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Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral
An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

Further Reflections on a Historic Election

A week has passed since the presidential election and I have had some time to think more about what the election means and what is my personal response to it. I want to first clear the air about what might be the perception among some of my few readers, namely that I am a partisan of one or the other political parties or candidates: I am not. I am independent in thought and political persuasion and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As a Christian, my chief allegiance is to the kingdom of God, and so I “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” including my vote and my voice in the public square. All other things belong to God. I refuse to unquestionably support or unalterably demonize any candidate or party. I am committed to certain principles which I can never compromise no matter how compelling the candidate, or how high the stakes presumably are in any given election.

Having said that, the election of Sen. Obama to the presidency is a historic event and worthy of celebration as a milestone in our nations’ tortured racial history. Time and history will judge whether or not he is to be considered among the best or worst executives, but his election cannot be overlooked as insignificant in any event. A conversation with my father some weeks ago is instructive as he shared with me his own feelings as he recalled his time as a teenager, skipping school to protest segregation in downtown eateries. As he said, “we had to fight even to have the right to eat in a restaurant. And to think that a Black man could be president is simply amazing.” He’s right; it is amazing. Thinking about his journey and his response to this election is more moving to me than the election itself.

As for me, I am a child of the post-Civil Rights Era. I came of age in a time when institutionalized segregation and discrimination was a thing of the past. Certainly racism and the effects of racism were and are real components of my upbringing, but for the most part I have been free to explore elements of my identity apart from the overtly oppressive structures of race prejudice. Further, I have been privileged to develop a Black Christian identity that is open rather than closed to opportunities for learning and cross cultural interaction that those in my parent’s generation were exposed to.

My Christianity and my ethnic identity are the twin defining realities of my life and political engagement cannot be separated from these realities, and neither can they be for many (or I would argue) all Christians. It is evident from post-election analysis that the overwhelming majority of Black voters, many of whom are Christians and conservatives, cast their vote enthusiastically for the candidate that many of their White evangelical brothers and sisters rejected on the basis of their Christian commitment. This is not unusual, despite the amazement of the punditocracy; Black Americans have long cast their votes for Democratic candidates that White evangelicals reject. What changed in this election is that racial identity has been added to the mix, which heightened the emotional stakes in the election for everyone. For many evangelicals or otherwise conservative voters, the presence of a Black American on the ticket caused a degree of self reflection about their own racial attitudes. Given the media rhetoric and constant polling about racial attitudes in the country, many White evangelicals found themselves feeling somehow defensive and perhaps timid about their lack of support for Obama. The anticipated Monday morning quarterbacking of the campaign has not served to alleviate, but to exacerbate these questions and I believe could potentially set back the racial dialogue in this country if White evangelicals become timid or reactionary.

On the other hand, the Obama candidacy and presidency increased exponentially the level of interest and excitement of many Black Americans in the election. In large part Black people did not vote for Obama only because he was Black; they would likely have voted for whatever candidate had headed the Democratic Party ticket. However, it would be dishonest to say that Obama’s racial background had nothing at all to do with the enthusiasm of Black voters and even of some White liberals for whom the election of a Black person was a refreshing and even redeeming event. Many Black Christians, already estranged in some ways from White Christians, will find themselves operating even more in alternate political universe.

By illuminating this disparity in evangelical voting patterns between Black and White Christians, this election opens the door to profound questions about the intersection not only of our faith and our politics, but also our ethnicity. For many White American Christians, political engagement has not been overtly intertwined with ethnicity, though there have been clearly. As the dominant racial group in the country, Whites have had the luxury separating their theology from their ethic and political identity in a way that Black Americans never have. Being a Black in America has always been political, and our identity as a people has been in many ways formed theologically. It is well nigh impossible for Black people to separate their ethnic, theological and political realities. Arguably, the same is true for White people, but due to their majority status, it is not nearly as evident, at least not to most Whites.

Given how intertwined faith, ethnicity and politics have been and continue to be in American Christianity whether overtly as with Black Americans or covertly as with Whites, it seems to me exceedingly unlikely that one election, no matter how historic or significant will alter this dynamic. Many Whites wonder how their Black evangelical brothers could support a candidate who supports abortion rights and who has ties to less than savory individuals and institutions. Many Blacks understand the choice of White evangelicals to support Republican candidates based on issues of abortion and gay marriage, but also have a keen understanding of how White Evangelicals have often failed to advocate for issues of justice and social equity that often disproportionately affect Blacks. The election of Barack Obama does not change any of these dynamics and indeed may exacerbate them as the different groups retreat to their respective enclaves and avoid conversation with one another about these issues.

Political Philosophizing & abortion rights

Whilst perusing various blogs earlier in the day I ran across one that had a quite disturbing graphic depicting the steps undertaken by a physician performing an abortion procedure on a child at approximately 20 or so weeks. Though I have seen such graphics before, I was this time horribly disturbed in a way that I have not been previously.

If I am honest with myself I must admit that at least part of my reaction was likely due to the particularly sensitive state of my emotions following several weeks of intensive ministry, family and social obligations, all of which serve to make me more tender than I perhaps am in “normal” circumstances. Perhaps it is such tenderness that our Lord would desire me to always have.

Nevertheless and despite the cause, I was deeply moved and given the political season in which we are engaged, my thoughts turned quite readily to that arena. The political structure of our government and the evolution of political decision making alongside developments in the understanding of the role of the courts in refereeing political and social life in our nation make it certain that for many religious and otherwise socially conservative persons, the issue of judicial appointments to the federal bench is a salient issue in their minds as they weigh their voting responsibilities. It is fair to say that many, if perhaps not most of the so called evangelical vote that has been given consistently to Republican Party candidates over the last two decades has been heavily influenced by this political consideration.

The courts have become the most contested battleground in the long waging culture wars of American political life as evidenced by the recent California Supreme Court decision concerning homosexual marriage. It is also fair to say that many of these same conservatives have been likely disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of progress in overturning controversial decisions such as Roe vs. Wade and with the ongoing dissolution of what had been a large scale social consensus concerning such things as marriage and the family. The rabid unpopularity and arguably failed governance of the current president have left many evangelicals thoroughly disenchanted with these age old controversies and many, especially of the younger generation, are likely to see abortion and homosexuality in the same light as their secular non religious friends. It remains to be seen whether the California decision will serve to rally such “conservative” voters around a McCain candidacy that has received, at best, a lukewarm reception (something no doubt due in part to the tepidness of the candidate himself).

As an evangelical Christian it might perhaps surprise some that I have not always been “pro-life” as the terminology has it (though I know of no one who is publicly “pro-death”). In my youth I was quite settled in my opposition to efforts to limit the exercise of a woman’s freedom over her own body. It seemed to me at the time a potentially unjust imposition of state power and an unnecessary intrusion by the state into what was fundamentally a private matter of health and safety. At the time my greatest consternation with the issues was the exclusion of the father from the decision making process, as I believed (then as now) that the vagaries of our biology do not afford one parent greater rights of decision making vis a vis a child or potential child. Though the woman physically carries the child, he is no more or less responsible than she is in determining how best to proceed in such as case. Likewise I believed it to be reasonable that adult parents of under aged teens held primary responsibility for making the decision for or against abortion as it was a medical procedure and excluding them from the matter would be an uneven application of existing laws. As you might imagine, while it was simple to hold these positions from a political point of view, it became increasingly difficult to justify abortion theologically, though honestly in my youth, I never attempted to do so.

One of the fundamental problems with abortion and with other socially and politically challenging questions from a biblical perspective lies not simply in the application of seemingly arcane laws and mores from the Old and New Testament to a very different social context, but rather in an inherent contradiction between the social and political philosophy of the Bible and The Republic.

The political philosophy of the United States is the product of two distinct and important streams of thought that culminated in the production of the founding documents of the republic and which account for some of the tensions inherent therein.

The first is the tradition of English common law which stretched back several centuries and was influenced by its Norman, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon precursors and came about in a time of stark realism about the hardships of life. It was part of the feudal compact of European society that at core was conservative, agrarian, and individualistic and yet was cognizant also of the responsibilities of the common man to “do his bit” for his feudal master or, less frequently, the crown. This was all the government he wanted or needed.

The second is that of the French Enlightenment which was more recent, yet in some ways more potent. It was the product of educated elites who were, in the main, atheistic in their orientation if not in their actual belief. It was largely corporatist and viewed society as a series of “compacts” or agreements between groups, but most especially the “governed” and the government, which was the monarchy. It was also humanistic, anti-authoritarian (in the sense of its rejection of any authority deriving from sources external to the “people” i.e. divine right), and, like common law, rights oriented but in an idealistic sense. That is to say rights are common, rather than individual goods.

The joining of these two streams under the leadership of the elites who founded the country largely explains the tensions inherent in the American political system. It is a system wherein the corporate, utopian, group rights orientation derived from our Enlightenment roots are ever in conflict with the radically individualistic, dystopian and personal rights orientation of our English common law ancestry. Ironically, it is our Enlightenment legacy that, despite its anti-hierarchical bent, that lends itself more readily to domineering executive power utilized generally in the guaranteeing of perceived corporate “rights” and less frequently in the pursuit of utopian aims.

So then, how is the political philosophy of the United States fundamentally at odds with a biblical worldview and what does any of this have to do with abortion? Indeed there are some Christians who would argue against this characterization and point to many things within the intent of the framers original documents that have Christian antecedents, as well as pointing out that many of the framers were themselves Christians.

The Christianity of certain of the framers is not at issue here, nor is it particularly relevant in this argument. It is quite possible to hold and practice a solidly active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and still adhere to, support, and even endorse a political philosophy that is not especially Christian or even biblical. Likewise the presence of certain Christian presuppositions within the founding documents does not mean that the entirety of such documents reflect a Christian or biblical framework. Indeed it is more likely a reflection of the fact that the United States was birthed out of a culture that had been influenced by Christianity for several centuries and whose predominant philosophic impulse was Christian.

The answer to my question is rather simpler than my arguably inaccurate and unhelpful description of American political philosophy and is at least two fold (though I suppose I could dig out another fold if I were so inclined).

Firstly, the Bible specifically and Christian thinking more broadly has very little use for the concept of “rights” in either the Enlightenment or the English common law sense of that word. As a religion, Christianity is preoccupied with cultic questions of proper religious practice and with ethical questions of proper social relations. Political commentary, where given, is generally sparse, situational, and at times prophetic. There is little said about how the government as an institution ought to function in relation to its citizens / subjects since government was largely personal and arbitrary in nature. Subsequent years of Christianization provided abundant opportunity for discourse on how princes ought to conduct themselves towards their subjects, but such advice was given with the understanding that the rulers themselves would be Christian, in word if not in actual fact. Even so, the way in which we talk about rights is a concept alien to Christianity. Much more is written in scripture about the responsibility of Christians to one another, to unbelievers, to God and occasionally to the government. In all of these cases, the over arching thrust is towards the giving up of ones prerogatives both as a spiritual discipline, and as a practical matter leading towards peace.

Secondly, the principle of majority rule or more elegantly, “the consent of the governed,” is as alien to Christianity as my critique of it is likely to be to those who are democracy’s most ardent defenders. Rightful critique of “activist” jurists often falls back upon a philosophical position that it is the responsibility (or right) of the people to decide upon certain issues and that courts over overstep their boundaries and usurp this presumably sovereign right. A counter critique is then launched about the need to protect the rights of the minority opinion from the “tyranny of the majority.” In this case, both positions are right and both in error. To prevent what would likely be an even more tedious post to finish I will deal only with the error of the former as I have already discussed the fallacy of “rights” inherent in the counter critique. The notion that “the people” have a right to decide anything is a clearly unchristian concept when applied outside of a covenanted Christian community as was present in Acts, and flies in the face of our common depravity and deceivability. It was after all a majority position to select a king in 1 Samuel, and we know well how the democracy of the Tower of Babel worked out.

Thirdly and finally (I knew I’d find another ‘fold’ in there somewhere), the Bible and Christian history hold Christians, not government, to a high standard of interventionist responsibility on behalf of justice for those most unable to assist themselves. The testimony of scripture is that government exists to “reward good and punish evil.” In such circumstances that the government inverts its function and begins to reward evil and punish good, it is the responsibility of Christians to resist (and of course to bear the consequences). In a democratic system, Christians can work more actively towards that metric through the democratic process by electing officials who will act towards that end. In any government system Christians can work toward eliminating or ameliorating the most detrimental effects of injustice, oppression, brokenness or sin on “the least of these” as we did in the earliest days of our faith when Christians actively rescued abandoned babies who had been left to die.

What a Christian cannot do is work actively or passively towards the support or institutionalization of those governments or official which fail to adhere to the metric of scripture to “reward good and punish evil.” This is not to say that Christians ought to be single issue voters or should otherwise ignore the promises, characteristics, and commitments of any candidate for the sake of his or her position on an issue such as abortion or homosexual rights. It is rather to say that due consideration must be given always for those who have the least ability to defend themselves or their own inte