Sunday, June 29, 2008
THE STRANGE IRONY OF AMERICAN EVANGELICALISM
One of the tenets of Evangelicalism is that God’s word is final. Scripture is supposed to be our final arbiter of all that is true and good. One of these truths is that human beings in their current state are basically sinful. If that’s true, then that means that every human institution is therefore infected with this basic human malady.
Herein is the rub.
This is where political ideology and the Christian gospel immediately find themselves at odds. If you’re on the left, your immediate assumption is that the guilt lies within those who belong to the social class that owns the means of capital. In that case, leftist anthropology is thoroughly (yet, ironically only selectively) Augustinian. Yet when it comes to a government owned and operated “by the people” (properly administrated of course through the proper party officials), their view of the human condition becomes suddenly sanguine (to use another Christian term, Pelagian). This expression of power, as opposed to any other expression of power, has been expunged of any selfish motivations. Therefore these public servants can be trusted to provide a pure expression of unsullied motivations, all of which are for our common good.
Needless to say, this is not a consistent expression of the human condition, nor is it a consistent (or accurate) analysis of that human condition’s development into public policy.
I would like to say that this is not true of Evangelicalism as it is practiced.
However, American Evangelicalism seems to suffer from some (well, all) of the same maladies that have infected other political ideologies that have preceded it. Positively, American Evangelicalism, as in a mirror image of its nemesis, secular humanism, has presented a view of governmental ineptitude that is an exemplar of human failings. It has also illustrated the point that human self-will is constantly seeking to aggregate power to itself at any cost. Government, whether democratically elected or imposed from some powerful elite, seeks to increase its own power constantly through coercive means. In fact, the Constitutional founders understood this reality so much that they intentionally created a government that was divided into three parts in order to keep any one part from tyrannizing the public. It’s worth reading the Federalist Paper number 10 to understand more fully their Augustinian framework.
Yet this same assessment of the human condition seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to certain economic and corporate interests involved in the equation. The profit motive is seen as nearly sacrosanct. Meeting the bottom line is seen as being something close to our highest calling. The quarterly dividends are seen as being an expression of the loaves and the fishes. A 401K is merely casting our bread upon the waters.
Is this what Christ has called us to?
Much of American Evangelicalism would have us believe that we should elect certain political figures in order to bring about revival. In 2000 it was assumed that this meant George W. Bush. Right now, depending upon your political persuasion, it might mean John McCain or Barack Obama (or some other political savior).
NAVIGATING A DIFFICULT MIDDLE GROUND
As Christians, whether we’re American or not, we should be most concerned with enacting Christ’s Kingdom in our midst according to His word and His means. The temptation in the midst of this political campaign is to give ourselves over to a partisan spirit that says God is on one side over another. Are there issues in this campaign that are mentioned directly in Scripture? Yes, there sure are. Do some of those issues tend to favor one party over another, while other issues end up favoring the opposing party? Yes, this is also true. We can’t help but see some of those issues lived out in our midst as we decide which is the best course to take in the days and years to come.
Abortion, immigration, idolatry, sexual expression, stewardship, injustice, poverty, just to name a few.
Ultimately, we must decide whether our allegiance is to a party or ideology that would have us swear ourselves to some god that cannot deliver, some sorry deity that stands cold and lifeless before the Creator of the universe.
If we would call ourselves Christian, then we must be willing to stand against our own ideological and political foundations, and stand only and always on the one foundation that can actually save us.
One of the most pressing problems facing Christians in America is the sense of what it even means to be Christian in America.
To be an American Christian is to travel a road that navigates between the poles of nationalism, individualism, and ideological idolatry, the deifying of political ideologies, both left and right. To be an American Christian is really not that more difficult than being a Russian or British or Chinese or Egyptian Christian. Each of them has their own particular challenges. Each of them has to decide, in their particulars, what it means to be faithful to Christ’s gospel.
Every culture has its points of agreement and conflict with Christ’s demands.
Every culture has its own idolatries, every culture, even our own.
This is a difficult concept for many American Christians to accept. Part of the mythologizing of America’s supposed Christian foundations dovetails what it means to be Christian with what it means to be American. Therefore, if America, as a culture is guilty of a particular idolatry, such as racism, nationalism, rampant individualism, and so on, then this mythologized America has to be reconciled with an equally mythologized Christianity.
One tactic is to deny these idolatries in the first place in order to make America more Christian in its history. Many history books, whether produced by earlier generations of public schools, or more recent revisionist “Christian” histories produced through numerous home-school curricula, present a picture of American history that is half true at best, and in some cases is intentionally untrue.
Another tactic is to plunder the Christian Scriptures in order to ordain certain national and ideological prerogatives as God-given-from-on-high. Declaring slavery righteous by quoting obscure passages from Genesis, using other passages to “prove” that women are weaker and therefore should not have the right to vote or even hold property, or the ever popular America is the new Israel and all the inhabitants before it are beastly savages in need of conversion, or if need be, extermination, since they are the modern equivalent of the ancient Canaanites. There are, unfortunately, many other examples, but these should suffice.
As stated earlier, the secular left is no less guilty of this kind of manhandling and ham-fisted manipulation of Scriptural language. It’s just that, at least in more recent times, they haven’t been nearly as good at using religious lingo as the political right. The modern secular left, similarly to most modern journalism, just doesn’t “get religion”, and so they have ended up embarrassing themselves when they try to utilize religious language in order to win votes or influence public opinion.
In earlier years however, religious liberals and their secular, political counterparts were quite able to sway public opinion with religious rhetoric that invoked salvation language, even if it was robbed of any doctrinal content related to Christ on the cross. The Social Gospel of the turn of the century was a conscious attempt to wed Christian terminology and imagery with the dominant political and scientific ideologies prevalent at the time.
The seeds of the Social Gospel, just like the more recent Religious Right, were both born out of the Americanized Christianity of the mid-1800’s. This was a Christianity that emphasized an internal experience over any traditional practice or doctrinal control. This was also a Christianity that eschewed any oversight by ecclesiastical authorities that might restrain its more radical impulses. This was also a Christianity that fed at the intellectual trough of modern rationalism, informed most recently by the brilliant insights of an explorer son of a minister who revealed the deep truths of evolution.
Whether “evolution” as a scientific theory is true or not is less important than its impact upon American social thought. Darwin’s influence extended far beyond his merely scientific theories concerning how species came into their current form. His ideas were so radical (and convincing) that they were immediately appropriated by many others, far and wide, for purposes social, not to mention spiritual.
Here we see both the left and the right, politically using both the recent theory of evolution as well as Christian language, in order to advance their particular agendas. On the right evolution and certain Scriptural passages dovetailed nicely in order to once again “prove” that social and racial hierarchy was not only God-given, but naturally “ordained” as well.
The left, both religious and secular, on the other hand, was using the newly ordained scientific priesthood of evolutionary teaching to offer up a new millennial vision which would bring us into the new realm of human cooperation through international organizations such as the League of Nations, later to be called the United Nations. It should not be a surprise to anyone that a passage from the prophet Isaiah decorates the wall outside the U.N. headquarters in N.Y.C. declaring that nations shall turn their swords into plowshares.
Religious, transcendent language, it seems, is essential to getting the public to go along with uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous public policy.
It seems that governments and social movements, both minor and major, need religious and transcendent language in order to galvanize the public. Whether it’s a “crusade” or a “jihad” or a “czar”, it seems we need certain terminology to get the public, the masses, behind whatever policy is being propounded. Playing the public by tapping into its reservoir of interior anxieties works in the short term. But the long-term consequences are hell.
I guess my question to American evangelicals is this: What the hell are we doing unleashing these dark impulses for short-term political gains?
Where is the gospel?
Where is the self-sacrifice?
Where are the actual actions of Jesus?
Are we going and doing likewise?
If we did, might it make a difference in how we interact with both the Republican and Democratic parties?
Might we finally be able to speak with authority to those before us, as though they held political authority?
The gospel judges everyone.