March 5, 2024 Editor

Thoughts On: Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong?

Jesus told us to love our enemies. And yet so many have embraced hostile politics in the name of Christianity.

“We put God right at the center of the White House.” —Paula White, speaking at an Evangelicals for Trump event at Solid Solid Rock Church, Ohio, March 6, 2020

By Peter Wehner

March 3, 2024

Illustration above by Brian Reedy.

WN: Think of the illustration in conjunction with this hugely ironic quote, one that said far more about Christian Nationalist sentiment than the good reverend knew:

“We put God right at the center of the White House.” —Paula White, speaking at an Evangelicals for Trump event at Solid Rock Church, Ohio, March 6, 2020

At the end of the essay highlighted below, the author cites Thomas Merton:

A theology that ends in lovelessness cannot be Christian.–Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Now that’s a conversation stopper!

Please see too, March 2, 2024, by Alex Henderson, that interacts with the article mentioned below: How the ‘white evangelical movement’ has ‘fueled hatreds and grievances’: conservative. In it:

Trump has been more than happy to feed white evangelicals’ feelings of grievance and bitter tribalism — a tribalism that Never Trump conservative Peter Wehner examines in a scathing article published by The Atlantic on March 3.

READ MORE, by Alex Henderson, February 19, 2024: ‘Trump’s ‘bombastic rhetoric’ spreads ‘the language of evil’: Catholic author. In it:

One of Trump’s Catholic critics is author Phyllis Zagano. In an op-ed published by Religion News on February 16, Zagano calls out Trump’s “bombastic rhetoric” as “the language of evil” and laments that many fellow Republicans are going out of their way to sound like him.

Please also see the reflection, Archbishop García-Siller: Catholics voting in the 2024 election must ask, ‘Who is my neighbor?’, by Gustavo García-Siller, March 05, 2024. In it:

Pope Francis has said: “Jesus reverses the perspective. . . You can become neighbor to any needy person you meet, and you will know that you have compassion in your heart, that is, whether you have the capacity to suffer with the other.”

Love of God is made concrete through love of neighbor, and love of neighbor leads to love of God. The Lord’s law is very simple to understand but not easy to live by.

Love for our neighbor encompasses their limitations, as annoying as we may find them. God loves even the people we may find most displeasing. We cannot love God and hate his children. The Lord leaves no room for us to have enemies. This requires the strength that comes from a new perception, capable of seeing the good that exists in each person. This will lead us to remember that we are all created in God’s image.

Amen!

excerpts:

So-called affective polarization—in which citizens are more motivated by who they oppose than who they support—has increased more dramatically in America than in any other democracy. “Hatred—specifically, hatred of the other party—increasingly defines our politics,” Geoffrey Skelley and Holly Fuong have written at FiveThirtyEight. My colleague Ron Brownstein has argued that the nation is “confronting the greatest strain to its fundamental cohesion since the Civil War.”

One might reasonably expect that Christians, including white evangelicals, would be a unifying, healing force in American society. After all, the apostle Paul wrote that Jesus came to tear down “the dividing wall of hostility” between groups that held profoundly different beliefs. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God,” Jesus said. In that same sermon, Jesus also said, “I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Even if those goals have always been unattainable, they were seen as aspirational.

Yet in the main, the white evangelical movement has for decades exacerbated our divisions, fueled hatreds and grievances, and turned fellow citizens into enemies rather than friends. This isn’t true of all evangelicals, of course. The movement comprises tens of millions of Americans, many of them good and gracious people who seek to be peacemakers, including in the political realm. They are horrified by the political idolatry we’re witnessing and the antipathy and rage that emanate from it. But it is fair to say that this movement that was at one time defined by its theological commitments is now largely defined by its partisan ones.

Politics became drenched in grievances and demonization, almost always aimed at liberals and Democrats, especially Democratic presidents. Evangelical leaders set the tone.

In 1973, about 50 politically moderate-to-progressive evangelical leaders, including Henry, signed the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern.” It was meant to address what they perceived as the gap between Christian faith and a commitment to social justice. Marjorie Hyer of The Washington Post wrote at the time that the gathering “could well change the face of both religion and politics in America.”

What happened instead is that the 1970s saw the rise of the religious right. It was a response to what conservative Christians considered to be a whole series of rapid, disorienting changes in social and moral norms. The 1960s ushered in the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. There was Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, the birth of the National Organization of Women, and a wave of campus uprisings.

In the 1970s a whole series of issues—the Equal Rights Amendment, gay-rights ordinances, regulations on Christian schools, the IRS threatening to strip Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status because of its policy against interracial dating, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion—convinced many evangelicals and fundamentalists that their values were being subverted, their way of life assaulted. Political activism became a form of cultural resistance—and eventually, they hoped, a means to cultural victory.

For three and a half decades, apocalyptic thinking, frustration, and fury helped define the politics of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The intensity of the fear fluctuated, but it never fully waned.
In 1982, the theologian Francis Schaeffer, one of evangelicalism’s most important public intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century, gave a speech in which he warned that America “is close to being lost.” He warned about “the Humanist conspiracy” and said that if public schools didn’t teach creation as well as evolution, that amounted to “tyranny.” In A Christian Manifesto, the book that emerged from his speech, Schaeffer warned about an “elite authoritarianism” that would systematically destroy the Christian worldview. “It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in this struggle,” Schaeffer wrote.

And by loving our neighbors we take the most important first step. That is what Jesus calls his followers to do, and what citizenship in 21st-century America demands.

Year after year, decade after decade, the same themes were repeated. America was always on the brink of moral collapse. The secular, progressive barbarians were always at the gates. The threat was existential and unending. It was a zeitgeist of catastrophism.

Politics became drenched in grievances and demonization, almost always aimed at liberals and Democrats, especially Democratic presidents. Evangelical leaders set the tone.

..

And in 2016 Pastor Jeffress told NPR, “I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation. And so that’s why Trump’s tone doesn’t bother me.”
But once Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Bauer, like many influential evangelical figures—including Franklin Graham, son of the famed preacher Billy Graham; Jerry Falwell Jr., who was the president of Liberty University before he was ousted amid scandal; Robert Jeffress; Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, Family Research Council’s longest-serving president; and Wayne Grudem, a theologian and an author—fell into line behind Trump. . . character no longer counted.

The most meaningful emblem of Christianity is not the sword but the cross, which is the antithesis of world power. Jesus made clear time and again that his kingdom is not of this world. And the New Testament does not provide anything like a governing blueprint.

Kobes Du Mez’s [Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation] offers an account of 75 years of evangelical history, showing how the evangelical subculture worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.1

Political convictions that lead toward redemption and reconciliation are most likely headed in the right direction.Steve Hayner

Please click on: Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong?

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Footnotes:
  1. Today, far too many evangelical Christians—however admirable they may otherwise be and despite the many good works they may do—are tools of a dangerous movement and of a dangerous former president.

    John Fea‘s February 7, 2024 article, “What I Wish More People Knew About American Evangelicalism: For all the bad that’s come out of this movement, there are still countless stories of personal transformation leading people to live better lives,” offers a somewhat tepid challenge to Du Mez’ thesis, which, while certainly true as far as it goes, seemingly ignores the juggernaut of ‘the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity’. . . and [Du Mez amply demonstrates that] they condoned [and embraced Trump’s] “callous display of power.”[]

Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.