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by James Bratt

I recently attended a conference at Notre Dame honoring the career of Mark Noll. As one of the most accomplished scholars of American religious history, as well as a person of deep faith, consummate integrity, and easy humor—with genuine humility to top it off—Mark is more than worthy of honor, and the participants made sure he received it, with remarks that were by turn analytic, humorous, and touching. Mark being Mark, however, the program was full of robust scholarship and featured rising younger scholars as well as the old lions.

The panelists attended to American religious history in its various eras as well as in the comparative global perspective at which Mark has been a notable pioneer. Things got most interesting for me in the concluding panel, which riffed off of what is probably Mark’s most famous book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (1994). The scandal, Mark famously opined back then, was that there wasn’t much of one—an evangelical mind, that is. The panelists weighed in on the extent to which that situation has since been corrected, but in the process veered off into attempts to define just what is, and what is not, “evangelical.”

To me that inevitable but tiresome digression cost us an opportunity to think about what might be the bombshell book equivalent to Mark’s Scandal for our own moment. I’d pick addressing the elephant in the room and asking—in the face of consistent polling that shows white “evangelicals” to be supporting Donald Trump at just about the 80% mark by which they favored him in the 2016 presidential election— what evangelicalism has come to in the United States. Or, more broadly yet fundamentally, what sort of religion white “evangelicalism” might actually be.

A number of the younger panelists raised this concern during the conference, and a host of commentators religious and secular have bruited the matter ever since Trump descended his hotel’s golden escalator onto the American political scene three years ago. Indeed, a group of high-profile evangelical leaders gathered at Wheaton College just last month to take up that question. Or rather, to circle around it very gingerly in hopes of coming out with a Statement of the sort that evangelical leaders favor as their own version of papal encyclicals. Apparently divisions among them were too acute to allow that to happen, and the whole business ended with not a bang but barely a whimper.

My historian’s suggestion would be to consult some history instead and consult some key texts from the evangelical past. First up should be the volume that helped define the present-day movement’s Fundamentalist parent in the eyes of its devotees and outside observers alike. I mean J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism (1923).

In that book Machen argued that the “orthodox” and “liberal” parties then warring for the future of American Protestantism were not, as the second party claimed, carrying on a family feud under the big tent of Christianity. Rather, he insisted, they represented two entirely different religions. The orthodox side held to the historic, apostolic faith; the liberals were parading a combination of philosophical naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism behind a cloak of Christian terminology. Their pose was dishonest and dishonorable, Machen continued, and the sooner they dropped it, the better for all concerned. At least then the real issues could be discussed more intelligently and profitably.

So, my modest proposal. Let the next bombshell book on the subject take a hint from Machen and be entitled Christianity and Evangelicalism. Its author could be more charitable than Machen (one could hardly be less) and treat white evangelicalism as not a totally different religion contrary to Christianity but as a deeply corrupted version of the faith whose name it claims. A totally depraved version, my Calvinist theology would put it: that is, tainted in every part and as a whole and unable to cleanse itself by its own power; rather, requiring a supernatural redemption via a miraculous intervention, registering as a conversion.

That depravity, in turn, opens the question of the original sin from which it arose. Is it misogyny, racism, militarism, imperialism, materialism, xenophobia, collective narcissism, arrogant entitlement, abject fear, self-righteousness, sacred nationalism? Or something deeper yet that unites all of the above? Certainly, these traits are manifest, proudly and without apology, in the Trumpian White House and policy initiatives. And just as certainly, the 80% of white evangelicals who hold fast to Donald Trump have signed on to them with little—well, sometimes, just a little—embarrassment. Just as certainly still, the list and the behavior of the figurehead who embodies them are all far, very far, from the kingdom of heaven. The results are toxic to the evangelical brand in particular and to the prospects of religion in public life in general.

Yet the picture is more mixed than this. To repeat, white evangelicalism in America counts as a profoundly corrupted Christianity but not simply, or not yet, a non- or anti-Christian religion as Machen characterized Protestant liberalism a century ago. White evangelicals can point to Jesus’ criteria (in Matthew 25) for deciding who are the sheep and who are the goats at the final assay and claim that they do indeed attend to the sick, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, etc. The contradiction, of course, is that these efforts via voluntary charities rub up against public policies that would abandon the sick, deprive the hungry of food, and throw more and more people—people of color especially—into prison. The current situation thus exposes more clearly than ever the fateful political ideology that white evangelicals have come more and more to follow over the 20th century. They have followed now it to the point of paying allegiance, seemingly unbreakable allegiance, to the most egregious goat ever to occupy the Oval Office.

The first task of Christianity and Evangelicalism would thus be to explain how and why the latter has come to be a noxious version of the former. A lot of the empirical work toward that end has been done. I suggest adding some historical comparison by way of another classic text, Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955). Besides appearing about halfway between Machen’s book and Noll’s, its analytic frame and treasury of polling data show a socio-cultural corruption of Christianity in the 1950s’ supposedly halcyon days of a great and pious America, only this time among Catholics and the Protestant “mainline” too. How else could a near majority of self-identified “Christians” not be able to name one of the four gospels? How else—this is my particular favorite—could American Christians, when asked to rate the most important event in world history, put Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in a tie for fourteenth place alongside the invention of the x-ray and the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk? Coming in at #1? Columbus’s discovery of America, of course! Herberg, Jewish himself, was profoundly worried about this gap between professed and operative religion. We ought to be no less perturbed, and can find in his portrait of the idols of the American tribe some likely candidates to explain the great gap of our own day.

The second, and harder, task of Christianity and Evangelicalism would be to suggest some steps by which American Evangelicalism could become Christian again. Here, ironically, the attempt by some of its white leaders to sanctify Donald Trump might work well if given a quarter turn: he is no Cyrus, a pagan ordained of God to restore Jews to Israel, but Nebuchadnezzar, the pagan invader of Israel ordained of God to punish them for their unfaithfulness, and banishing the best of them from the promised land in the bargain. As intriguing might be the possibility of seeing that pagan’s later fate play out again—that is, to see the proud trumpet of egotistical greatness reduced to crawling around like a beast in the field, eating grass and growing literal instead of just figurative claws (Daniel 4)—one’s relish at the prospect perhaps bespeaks an unsanctified longing of its own.

The better role might be to follow after a truly scandalous prophet, Ezekiel; to describe and survey the scattered dry bones of a once favored people; and to ask by what means they might possibly live again (Ezekiel 37). No mistake: this option entails death, exile, and damnation. Perhaps we’re left just there, and right with the founder of Christianity in the bargain. Perhaps this, and only this, is the path to resurrection and redemption.

 

A slightly different version of this originally appeared on The Anxious Bench, April 19, 2018

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. The title of his most recent book, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (Eerdmans, 2013), is eerily echoed in that of the volume he has edited and completed for the late John Woolverton, which will appear in 2019: “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

12 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    This is so powerful I don’t know what to say, except how powerful it is.

    • Jim Payton says:

      Agreed … much to ponder and lament here.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      (Poster’s note: this post contains attempted humor, bordering on snark. I apologize in advance)

      Professor Bratt,

      If you are correct, then it is long past time to get out the Keys to the Kingdom. You must admonish the Evangelicals in your local congregation in a brotherly manner. Then, come this fall, have them report their voting record. Anything short of straight Democratic ticket will result in withholding of the sacraments. If they continue to display deplorable behavior (MAGA hats, Pepe the Frog Instagram memes, etc.) you must expel the immoral brothers. This, of course, will further reduce the CRC by approximately 70%.

      This winnowing of the grain should not apply to Calvin College admissions, however. Just because their parents are incorrigible doesn’t mean their children can’t be re-educated.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Thank you, James. I, for one, would devote a chapter to the “power” (as in, one of the powers and principalities) of the loose affiliation of movements that claim “the great commission and the great commandment” as their North Star. Why this particular commission? (There are several in the NT) How different might a program guided by Luke 24:47 look? (a la NT Wright) How has the “making of disciples” become the end that justifies all means, no matter that those very means have divided the body of Christ? As Daniel said above – powerful. Very powerful.

  • mstair says:

    “ … the fateful political ideology that white evangelicals have come more and more to follow over the 20th century … “

    Christ saw it coming – in our society, Nazi Germany, The Antebellum South, The European Inquisitions, The Crusades, Warrior Popes.
    We “Kingdom People” were meant to maintain the separation between God’s and human’s ideologies – “to render unto each, their distinct things” (Mark, chapter 12) and, to join Him in continual prayer:  

    I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17: 15-17)

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    Jim
    I have been keeping track of the various ways people are trying to fit our current president into the biblical story.
    Maybe he is Cyrus, maybe King David, and as you suggest maybe King Nebuchadnezzar–the very latest in this vein is that our vice president is Daniel serving our president who is the arrogant Nebuchadnezzar. I suppose the possibilities are endless…King Eglon maybe …
    Shalom, Tom Boogaart

  • Michael Gerson in the Atlantic has suggested that the evangelical world supports Trump exactly because they see him as Nebuchadnezzar, with Mike Pence in the role of Daniel. I don’t buy it. I think they are so hungry for influence, and so attached to conservative economic ideology, that they will latch on to any Republican who comes along. I do not think there is any cure for this except to bring everybody back to a careful study of the Gospel.

  • John Kleinheksel Sr says:

    Jim and others, Fascinating subject, relevant to our era. Jim, why don’t YOU write the book you are asking for? Sounds like you have the length, depth, height and width of experience and sources to get it done. Best to you in the venture.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    “Is it misogyny, racism, militarism, imperialism, materialism, xenophobia, collective narcissism, arrogant entitlement, abject fear, self-righteousness, sacred nationalism? Or something deeper yet that unites all of the above? Certainly, these traits are manifest, proudly and without apology, in the Trumpian White House and policy initiatives.”

    In the last four general elections, Evangelicals have voted 80 (Trump), 78 (Romney), 74 (McCain), 78 (Bush). Trump is essentially irrelevant to those numbers. Likewise, the charges of misogyny, racism, etc are not new (four Nazi’s in a row!) and have very little to do with Trump. In other words, the “Scandal” idea is going nowhere as a book – better to stick with broken record.

  • Rodger Rice says:

    Jim,
    You must write this book.
    Rodg

  • Tom Sinke says:

    Or, maybe (if you would stop a moment to consider the possibility), Evangelical Christians as a group prefer a smaller, less intrusive federal government, so they’ll support the politician most closely aligned to that view, even if that politician has serious moral shortcomings. Just as those supporting a more progressive political agenda will (and have!) do the same. What puzzles me in all the condemnation of Christians who voted for Trump is the apparent unwillingness to honestly assess the ‘moral shortcomings’ of Hillary Clinton.

    Second, be careful about lumping people into large monolithic groups. It’s tempting to assume that if 80% of Evangelicals say they support Trump, that means they see him as a fine, upstanding, and honorable man – indeed, that seems to be what you believe. Shortly after the election, I saw an interesting analysis of the polling data – I believe it came out of Notre Dame: turns out that among people who label themselves “evangelical”, Trump’s support at election time was strongest among those who actually only attend church services less than once a month; and, as you moved along the scale toward those who are actively involved in their church, the level of support dropped. In fact, among those who regularly go to church, the vast majority supported other candidates throughout the Republican primaries and grudgingly fell in behind Trump only when it became clear that the only alternative was Hillary Clinton.

    That hardly describes an army of evangelical’s marching in lock-step with everything Trump; sounds more to me like people choosing the better of two unpleasant alternatives. Unless, of course, your starting assumption is that voting republican is in itself unchristian. If that’s the case, you may as well leave Trump out of it, because that’s not really the axe you’re grinding.

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