What Happened to Evangelical Christianity
I’ve written before about the sad and dis-spiriting alliance of many evangelical Christians and their most prominent leaders with Donald Trump. It is, among other things, hugely perplexing that those who claim to care about morality can embrace such an awful human being. One is tempted to simply write such evangelicals off as “hypocrites.” But it’s more complex than that.
Michael Gerson, who worked in the Bush Administration and is an evangelical, has an excellent long piece in The Atlantic titled, “The Last Temptation.” Gerson tries to understand and explain (though not justify) this unholy alliance.
One sentence in Gerson’s piece particularly struck me. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” (Italics added)
That is a terrible devolution, from grace to resentment. Gerson does a good job of working through the history of evangelicalism. He describes how a movement that was once characterized by activism and optimism morphed into one marked by “festering resentment and status lost.”
He notes, accurately, that this tradition was for a time reformist on social issues, leading in the abolitionist and peace movements of earlier eras. However, battles over the Bible in the late 19th century gave rise to the liberal/ fundamentalist cleavage. Battles over evolution in the 1920’s resulted in an anti-science posture. The sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s pushed what had once been a confident and optimistic movement into the adversarial and reactive posture that eventually found a champion in Trump.
Gerson notes that evangelicalism came to be characterized by a prevailing and “off-putting apocalyptic tone.” “We are at the edge of the abyss.” “America is going to hell.” Hearing this for years from their leaders made evangelicals ripe for Trump’s narrative of decline and his promise of renewal by returning to an imagined past.
One of the best elements of Gerson’s piece is his critique of the way evangelicals have allowed themselves to become yet another “interest group” that is looking for benefits and protection. Here’s Gerson:
“It is difficult to see something you so deeply value discredited so comprehensively. Evangelical faith has shaped my life, as it has the lives of millions. Evangelical history has provided me with models of conscience. Evangelical institutions have given me gifts of learning and purpose. Evangelical friends have shared my joys and sorrows. And now the very word is brought into needless disrepute.
“This is the result when Christians become one interest group among many, scrambling for benefits at the expense of others rather than seeking the welfare of the whole. Christianity is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.”
If “rescuing their faith from its worst leaders” is their chief task, and I don’t disagree, I would say our brothers and sisters in Christ have their work cut out for them.
Non-evangelicals would, however, be unwise to take comfort in the sad plight of evangelicalism.
Rather, we can draw some lessons for ourselves from Gerson’s story. One such lesson would be to be careful about our own variety of “off-putting apocalyptic.” We too have our own ways of threatening, “The end is at hand” and “America is going, or has gone, to hell.” Narratives of decline told often enough become disempowering.
Another, though related, lesson would be to be cautious about replacing a mainline Protestant posture of hope and engagement with something characterized by “festering resentment of status lost” or simply resignation. We too have lost status — arguably far more than evangelicals. But the best part of our tradition has been world-affirming because we believe that this is God’s world, created by God, loved by God, inhabited by God.
But this last point regarding baseline hope applies not only to evangelical and liberal Christians, but really to America itself these days. Trump came to power by painting everything in dark and fearful tones of loss and decline. Let’s be realistic about our problems without surrendering the hopeful spirit that is part of our best DNA.
I close with a paragraph along these lines from my book, What’s Theology Got To Do with It? Convictions, Vitality and the Church:
“In important ways, our faith and its conviction that God is the creator is a very world-affirming, hopeful and bold one. When the church embraces despair or timidity, when we drink from the wells of world-denying dualisms, when we withdraw into our privileged or like-minded enclaves, we become ill.”