The evangelical civil war

Peter Wehner says “the evangelical church is breaking apart.” The primary culprit, he says, is Donald Trump.  In a feature-length piece in The Atlantic, Wehner acknowledges the historic tensions within the evangelical camp, but argues that the advent of Trump, accompanied by a frightening pandemic, changed the equation.

The dominance of political religion over professed religion is seen in how, for many, the loyalty to Trump became a blind allegiance. The result is that many Christian followers of Trump “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs, and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.”

It’s getting so bad, Wehner reports, that unprecedented numbers of evangelical pastors are resigning their churches or leaving pastoral ministry altogether. Scott Dudley of Bellevue Presbyterian Church told Wehner that several pastors in his personal circle are looking for a better way to make a living.  “They have concluded that their church has become a hostile work environment where at any moment they may be blasted, slandered, and demeaned in disrespectful and angry ways,” he said, “or have organized groups of people within the church demand that they be fired.”

Sociologist Michael Emerson, who has spent the past quarter century studying American evangelicalism, says things are worse now than anything he seen in the past.

Church historian, George Marsden told Wehner that “political loyalties can sometimes be so strong that they create a religious-like faith that overrides or even transforms a more traditional religious faith.” This was a limited and transitory phenomenon, Marsden says, until now. “When Trump was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers,’ it crossed a line. Tribal instincts seem to have become overwhelming.”

Many of the leading evangelicals Wehner interviewed for his feature-length piece believe that a lax commitment to discipleship (often called catechesis) is largely responsible for the problem.  

“What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure,” James Ernest, the vice president and editor in chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books, told me. “The evangelical Church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.”

“On the flip side,” Wehner says, “many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all. They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate”. 

That’s not a problem limited to the faithful on one side of the aisle. “This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” says Alan Jacobs, a humanities prof at Baylor University. “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”

The tidal wave of hate breaking on ecclesiastical shores, according to Jacob, is partly a function of the media driving religious networks these days, television, radio, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts.  “What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs observes. “They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the Church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.”

Scott Dudley, senior pastor at Bellevue Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, Washington, told Wehner that politics trumps religion in contemporary America.  Congregants leave churches, he says, because they don’t like the political message, explicit or implicit, they hear from the pulpit.  “The reality,” he says, “is that a lot of people, especially in this era, will leave a church if their political views are ever challenged, even around the edges.”  

Dudley draws a sharp line between political ideology and biblical teaching. “Many people are much more committed to their politics than to what the Bible actually says,” he told Wehner. “We have failed not only to teach people the whole of scripture, but we have also failed to help them think biblically. We have failed to teach them that sometimes scripture is most useful when it doesn’t say what we want it to say, because then it is correcting us.”   

Russell Moore, a defector from the Southern Baptist Convention (now working with Christianity Today) agrees with Dudley.  He blames the “pugilism of the Trump era, in which anything short of cruelty is seen as weakness.”

But not everyone is convinced that the internecine wars plaguing white American evangelical religion are of recent origin.  Fortunately, Wehner gives ample space to the work of Kristen Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne.  Du Mez

pointed out that even men who embrace a kinder, gentler version of masculinity— servant leadership, for example—may tip into a more rugged, ruthless version when they deem the situation sufficiently dire. And for more than half a century, she said, evangelical leaders have found reason to deem the situation sufficiently dire. They rallied their congregations against the threats of communism, secular humanism, feminism, gay rights, radical Islam, Democrats in the White House, demographic decline, and critical race theory, and in defense of religious liberty.

Conservative columnist David French points to another set of ancient roots, “the South’s shame/honor culture and its focus on group reputation and identity”. “What we’re watching right now in much of our nation’s Christian politics,” French has written, “is an explosion not of godly Christian passion, but rather of ancient southern shame/honor rage.”

Donald Trump, in other words, has given white evangelicals, particularly in the South, permission to express their worst selves. 

But if a civil war is tearing American white evangelicalism apart, we must ask why now?  Sure, Trump cannot be ignored, but could such a man have so successfully captured a major slice of American Christianity it any other era?  I don’t think he could.

Consider the massive changes white evangelicals have faced in the present century:

  • 9-11
  • The election of America’s first Black president
  • The legalization of gay marriage
  • The Black Lives Matter movement
  • The rise of antiracism and a radical reappraisal of American racial history
  • Public attention to non-binary sexual identity
  • A steadily widening wealth gap and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression
  • Two incredibly expensive wars America could not win
  • Growing public perplexity with the climate crisis
  • The most devastating pandemic in a hundred years

I could go on, but you get the message.  America’s white evangelicals (males in particular) see each of these developments as a catastrophe.  As a consequence, large portions of the evangelical subculture have quite literally gone mad.  They are no longer in touch with reality because, for decades now, reality has been defined by non-evangelical politicians, scientists, academics, and entertainers.  A large slice of the white evangelical pie no longer believes these people, but has nowhere else to turn. 

Wehner’s focus on the collapse of discipleship training and catechesis is entirely legitimate.  But can we draw a fine distinction between the Bible and political ideology.  We all read the Bible through an ideological lens.  Most of us, particularly evangelicals, ignore vast portions of biblical teaching because it doesn’t work for us.   Every text, biblical and otherwise, has ideological implications. 

What happens, then, when a church is equal parts Democrat and Republican (as most mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are in America)?  Priests and pastors who wish to keep the peace, will design training programs limited to personal piety and the life everlasting.  Any biblical teaching likely to expose the ideological faultline running through the congregation will be ignored or, if that isn’t possible, interpreted superficially.

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have cobbled together a brand of personal piety entirely lacking in social application.  We’re about saving souls, we have said, not changing society.  A religion nurtured in slave culture is bound to be like that.  Evangelicals, as a consequence, oppose practically every form of social change but have little in the way of a positive program.  We tell our people that the only practical application is evangelism.  “Go ye into all the world and make disciples” is our favorite passage.  We leave off the end of the sentence “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” 

We love Jesus.  But the kingdom Jesus proclaimed is strictly off limits.  Dispensational evangelicals even convinced themselves that the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t apply to the Church.  You can see why. That said, Peter Wehner’s in-depth report from the frontlines of the evangelical world is a treasure.  Highly recommended.

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