Damage control from Evangelicals
Last, a widely-shared and well-read piece from Peter Wehner written for The Atlantic suggested that Evangelicalism was breaking apart, over political polarization, and losing sight of Jesus. Wehner’s point is common among Never-Trump Evangelicals, who like to point to the far-right populist wannabe president as an exception to their framework. But I wonder, and I argue, that seeing Trump as the singular force that is dividing Evangelicalism, or perhaps the sum of the rot in it, misses the root causes of such a problem. In other words, it treats a symptom, but not the disease.
Citing Evangelicals like Russell Moore and Tim Keller as defenders of the old guard in the face of Trumpist Evangelicals, Wehner too often sees the current political moment as temporary. He does well to cite Kristin Kobes Du Mez who wrote Jesus and John Wayne to demonstrate that Trumpism isn’t a new phenomenon, but rather one that was in the making for years. Wehner writes that Du Mez “argues that Trump represents the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of many of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values.” Du Mez’s well-researched book argues quite a different thesis than Wehner’s, however.
Wehner goes on to tell us that many pastors repulsed by Trump and his influence over their congregations are on the verge of burning out or quitting. So while Trump may be so uncouth he draws the ire of pastors and polarizes their congregations, Du Mez correctly argues that this was where the train was headed the whole time. The aforementioned Evangelicals, Keller and Moore, hold the same patriarchal views that Du Mez argues ultimately fostered Trump, their version is simply a more civilized patriarch.
Wehner argues that the matters that polarize congregations are not doctrinal, but rather political. He’ll go on to offer a laundry list of culture wars issues that inspire the current tensions, “the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and the January 6 insurrection; the murder of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement, and critical race theory; and matters related to the pandemic, such as masking, vaccinations, and restrictions on in-person worship.”
You can’t divorce politics or theology
The issue is these issues are deeply theological, not merely political. Wehner joins the long line of Evangelicals who don’t want to confront the above problems face on, but what to reduce them to secondary matters obstructing the proclamation of Jesus as Lord. If Evangelicalism remains an apolitical space where these ideas are allowed to be fostered, so long as they are not dividing up churches, very little progress will be made in the movement.
Again, it appears like decorum and politeness is the fundamental issue at play, and not the material, theological matters that led us to this moment. There is a tendency among Evangelicals to point out the worst examples of their theology, the worst fruits of it, and siphon that out, instead of dealing with the bigger issues that led to this moment.
We not only see this with Never-Trump commentary but also in the very popular Rise and Fall Of Mars Hill, we see the same thing. Here, the podcasters, who eloquently tell the story of Mark Driscoll and his toxic leadership, portray it largely as an exception to the rule. The most flagrant example is the recent hagiography of David Nicholas, the founder of the Acts 29 Church Planting Network. They idolize him as the anti-Mark Driscoll, but his church planting network spawned patriarchal leaders and church planters that were very much like Driscoll. Driscoll’s uncouth style may not be mimicked, but the same theology is there. What that tells us is they aren’t seriously interrogating the problems with Evangelicalism and rather offering it a defense with Driscoll as an exception to the rule. If Evangelicalism can interrogate Driscoll, and Trump, for example, then it can possibly sanitize itself from real criticism. It is very convenient for Evangelicals to think of these figures as merely leading a cult of personality instead of cleaning out the interior of their theology and movement.
We can’t just clean the outside of the cup
We need to do much more than removing polarizing figures to overcome what polarizes us, but rather show us what these figures tell us about who we are. They are symptomatic of the disease, so we need to consider what spawned these leaders, instead of assuming that they formed spontaneously. If we don’t address the root of the problem, more of these problematic leaders may emerge, but more than that, we may allow what is damaging about their theology to flourish under the guise of decency.
The work of Du Mez helps us see how systemic these issues are, how woven they are into the fabric of not just Evangelicalism, but also Christianity. We need to do the deep work of antiracism and antisexism if we want to rid our churches of their effects. Waiting until a Donald Trump or Mark Driscoll comes along to signal that the problem is too late, at that point the disease has become lethal. If we are serious about rehabilitating Christianity from its marriage with white supremacy and patriarchy, we’ll have to do much better than deal with the evil spawns it bore us.
It can be easy to point to the most flagrant examples of toxic Christianity and thinking ridding ourselves of them makes us pure. It can be easy to say that we are antiracists because we don’t court members of the Ku Klux Klan. But the sins of racism and patriarchy are more sinister than that, and we tolerate them when they don’t rear their ugly head. If a polite leader does not readily align themselves with the movement for black lives, for example, with the inclusion of queer folks, with the affirmation and empowerment of women, he is no better than a whitewashed tomb.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.—Matthew 23:23-38
Jesus said that concern with the appearance of holiness, without our insides being holy, was the height of hypocrisy. In fact, for Jesus, it would be better to appear dirty on the outside and clean on the inside, knowing that our interior cleanliness will clean the outside too. If all we do is clean the outside of our institutions, the insides stay just as toxic. If all we do is hide the toxicity through false peace and tolerance of bigotry, we build a house on a false foundation, and it will fall. We can expect division and loss if we follow Jesus and commit to him, and if that results in the Evangelical church breaking apart, that is a good thing. Here’s one more warning from Jesus for those who don’t hear his words.
“And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”—Matthew 7:26-27